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“By Heaven, That Ship Is Ours!”
So roared Captain Isaac Hull as Old Ironsides closed in mortal combat with the British frigate Guerrière. On the accuracy of his prediction hung all of America’s naval prestige in 1812
December 1964 | Volume 16, Issue 1
Throughout the afternoon the Constitution gained; at 4 P.M. her nearest pursuer was six miles astern. At about 6:30 P.M. a squall was seen approaching from the southeast, and Captain Hull prepared to turn it to his advantage. He stationed the topmen on the yards, others at the rigging, and kept all fast till the last minute; then as the squall struck the ship the order was given to strike the light sails. Within minutes the ship was brought under short canvas. The English, observing this, supposed the squall must be a heavy one, and immediately began to shorten sail and alter course to meet the force of the wind. But the Constitution, as soon as the rain hid her from the enemy, sheeted home, hoisted topgallant sails, and went flying away at eleven knots. When the clouds passed, about 7:30, the nearest enemy ship was more than seven miles astern.
Doggedly the Englishmen kept up the chase; officers and crew spent another night at quarters. At dawn of the nineteenth the Constitution altered her course to southeast by south; only four ships were now in sight, all hull down to the northwest. Again the sails were wet down and every effort was put forth to lose the enemy; by 8 A.M. the topsails of the nearest frigate began to dip below the horizon, and at 8:30 all the pursuing ships hauled to the northeast and were out of sight within a few minutes.
For sixty-six hours the Constitution had been in sight of the British squadron, and for most of that time had been actively chased by them. She had pumped out some water, but otherwise had lost nothing—not a gun, not a boat, not a man. Officers and crew had displayed skill and ingenuity in devising means of escape, as well as great courage and steadiness in the face of almost certain capture. Captain Hull, especially, had secured his already considerable reputation as a seaman and tactician. Morris, deviser of the kedging scheme (and customarily referred to in Hull’s letters as “that valuable officer Lieutenant Morris"), best summed up the significance of the escape: “The result may be remembered as an evidence of the advantages to be expected from perseverance under the most discouraging circumstances, so long as any chance for success may remain.”
Nothing daunted by these adventures, the Constitution continued her cruise. As the British abandoned the chase, she altered course southward to speak two American merchantmen and warn them away from the squadron. She then bore away to the east and in the afternoon spoke the ship Diana from Lisbon. At 6 P.M. Hull mustered the crew at quarters, as he did every evening.
Captain Hull had determined to run for Boston rather than New York; on Tuesday the twenty-first he spoke a Spanish ship from the latter port which gave him newspapers indicating that Rodgers had already sailed in pursuit of a large convoy from Jamaica. Besides, the British squadron might still be lurking somewhere off New York; on the twenty-second the Constitution was just south of the latitude of New York Harbor when five sail were espied in the northwest. She had no desire to investigate closely this time, but hauled by the wind and soon lost them. Holding course, she rounded Cape Cod and beat up to Boston, anchoring on Monday, July 27.
The city of Boston was wild with joy and relief. A rumor had been circulated by the newspapers that the Constitution had left Annapolis without powder or shot, and the firing heard a few days later off the New Jersey coast confirmed the popular belief that the supposedly defenseless frigate had been captured. Ship’s surgeon Amos Evans noted in his journal that the citizens “with whom the Constitution and her Commander are both favorites … cheered Captain Hull as he passed up State Street about 12 o’clock.” Hull went straight to the Exchange Coffee House, gathering place of Boston merchants, and posted a card disclaiming personal credit for the escape and bestowing it on his officers and crew. The papers published a poem, supposedly written by one of the Constitution’s men: