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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
The furor in Boston was typical of the national situation. After long and loudly demanding war with England, the Americans found themselves suddenly at war, and quite unprepared. The administration had advocated a limited war of naval reprisals, like that conducted against the French in 1798-1800, since America’s grievances against Britain (impressment, illegal search and seizure) were chiefly maritime. But the War Hawks in Congress insisted on full-scale war so that the western states might retaliate against British-inspired Indian depredations on the frontier. So the nation declared war, and a hastily assembled collection of volunteer militia went marching off to conquer Canada. Meanwhile, the national defense was even less well prepared than the national offense, and panic and confusion were general.
The only organized, disciplined military service on which the United States could depend was her little navy—fifteen ships in active service, five in dock for extensive repairs, none of them mounting more than sixty guns. With these she opposed a navy of more than a thousand ships, many mounting over one hundred guns. A few months after the declaration of war, an Englishman wrote of the Royal Navy that “nothing was left for it to conquer … it had driven from the ocean every ship of every foe, and rode triumphant and alone.” The American challenge seemed like the blindest folly, and would have been if England had not been very much occupied with Napoleon at the moment. Even so, the Constitution had not been a week out of port before she had encountered a squadron equal to half the American Navy. If the enemy had been a single English warship, few on either side of the Atlantic, except the American naval officers, would have expected the outcome to be anything but American disaster. The people of Boston were delighted to see their favorite frigate arrive in port unscathed; and they were inclined to think the best thing for her to do was stay in port. She would be safe there, and her crew could help to man the local defenses in case of enemy attack.
Isaac Hull didn’t think that way. He had been forced to go into port by the loss of his water and the fact that, expecting to put into New York, he had taken on only eight weeks’ provisions. So he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy on the very day of his arrival in Boston, asking for further instructions. He also sent to New York for whatever orders Rodgers might have left there for him. But as he explained to the Secretary, Hull was apprehensive of being blockaded by the English squadron, which, having failed to contain Rodgers in New York, might now split up and send two frigates to wait off Boston. So he determined to stay there only until the ship was provisioned and he had word from New York. By the second of August the ship was filled and the wind fair; Rodgers had left no word at New York, and although the Secretary had written on the twenty-ninth of July, “Remain at Boston until further orders,” the letter had not yet reached Hull. So he took the responsibility on himself, and in one of the most fateful command decisions in history, determined to put to sea without orders rather than face the possibility of being trapped in Boston.
At sunrise on Sunday, August 2, 1812, the Constitution passed Boston Light, just three weeks after she had rounded Cape Henry on her first cruise. There are indications that officers and crew were a bit jittery after their narrow escape—at 1 A.M. on the first night out the men were called to quarters by the officer of the watch, who mistook the light of the rising moon for signals. The ship cruised northeastward, taking and burning a few small prizes; she was nearly a victim of fire herself on the fourteenth when one of the surgeon’s mates left a candle burning in his locked stateroom. The same day a sailor fell overboard, but unlike most sailors he could swim, and so was rescued.
On Saturday, August 15, the Constitution fell in with five ships—a fast British sloop of war, which escaped after burning one of her prizes; another prize brig, which the Constitution recaptured; and an American privateer schooner and her prize, saved by the Constitution’s appearance from capture by the sloop. Midshipman Madison and a prize crew were put into the recaptured brig Adeline. Captain Hull, learning from his prisoners that half a dozen frigates were on the Grand Banks (including his four old enemies from the New Jersey shore), turned southward in the afternoon after sighting Cape Race. Late in the night of August 17-18, the Constitution chased a brig which she brought to after an hour and a half. She was the privateer Decatur, of Salem, Captain Nichols. That gentleman came on board the Constitution to borrow some leg irons, having thrown all his own overboard during the chase, as well as twelve of his fourteen guns. He reported having been chased by a large warship the previous day, somewhere to the southward. The Constitution made sail in the direction indicated; the Decatur followed her until dawn, then stood in for Cape Race to take ships by boarding.