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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
Wednesday, August 19, dawned cool and foggy. By afternoon the mist had cleared, but the sky was filled with towering white clouds and there was a fresh northwest breeze and a heavy sea. At 2 P.M. the Constitution was in latitude 41°42′ north, longitude 55°48′ west, when a large sail was seen bearing east-southeast. All sail was made in chase, and by 3:30 she was seen to be a frigate, close-hauled on the starboard tack. At 3:45 the stranger backed her main topsail and waited for the Constitution .
The ship was H.M.S. Guerrière, 38 guns, Captain James Richard Dacres; she was one of the frigates that had chased the Constitution off New York. All the officers in her squadron regarded her as one of the finest frigates in the British Navy, and despite a decayed foremast, she was eager to fight and, of course, capture a Yankee. Captain William B. Orne of the brig Betsey, a prisoner on board the Guerrière, reported Dacres’ pre-battle confidence: ”… he thought [the Constitution] came down too boldly for an American, but soon after added: ‘The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him.’ ” He then ordered the prisoners, and some American seamen in the crew who declined to fight, into the cockpit as the Guerrière cleared for action.
Running down within three miles of his adversary, Captain Hull paused and took in light sails, hauled up courses, reefed topsails, and cleared for action. Then the Constitution again bore away for the Guerrière . The crew gave three cheers and asked to be laid close alongside the enemy; Captain Hull replied that that was his intention. But as the Constitution approached within gunshot, at 5:05 P.M. , the enemy frigate bore up, hoisted an ensign at each masthead, and fired first a single shot, then a broadside at the Constitution . All the shot flew over the ship. The Guerrière wore and fired her larboard battery. Again most of the shot flew over the Constitution , but a few struck the ship, bounding off the “iron sides” which during this war became so celebrated. The Constitution now hoisted her colors and fired a few shot from her bow guns.
For nearly an hour the Guerrière maneuvered in the classic English manner—wearing and firing broadsides in an attempt to rake her opponent. The Constitution declined to play at long bowls. She yawed at each successive broadside to avoid being raked, fired a few shot, then came doggedly on. At last Dacres saw he could neither rake the Constitution nor gain the windward position, so he bore up, steering free, and waited for the Constitution to come down. Hull set the main topgallant sail and ran down, also before the wind.
The Guerrière continued to fire such guns as could be brought to bear, but the Constitution’s guns were silent as she ranged up on the Guerrière’s larboard quarter. Captain Hull stood on an arms chest, peering over the high rail at the enemy ship. Two or three times Lieutenant Morris asked permission to open fire; Hull, bending all his attention on the approach, replied, “Not yet, sir, not yet”; and to the repeated request: “Mr. Morris, I’ll tell you when to fire, so stand ready and see that not a shot is thrown away!”
Slowly, inexorably, the distance closed—at last, at five minutes past six, the Constitution’s bow began to draw alongside the Guerrière , and she opened fire with the first division of guns. “The next, sir!” cried Hull. “Pour in the whole broadside!” The Guerrière reeled and trembled as the double-shotted guns poured in round and grape at the range of half a pistol shot. Splinters, deadlier than shot, rose in a cloud as high as the mizzentop. “By heaven, that ship is ours!” roared Hull, bouncing up and down on the arms chest, oblivious of the fact that his furious activity had split his white breeches from waist to knee.
The Constitution , under her greater press of sail, continued to draw abreast of the Guerriàre , and the latter’s stern took the most punishment. Fifteen minutes of such broadsides snapped her mizzenmast six feet above the deck. As it swayed over the side in a tangle of sails and cordage, the Constitution’s sailors gave three cheers, and Hull cheered with them: “Huzza, my boys, we’ve made a brig of her!”