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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
Now the Constitution forged ahead even faster, and at 6:20 she put her helm to port and crossed the Guerrière’s bow, pouring in a deadly raking fire at close range. Her guns, fired as the ship rolled downward in the water, were sweeping the Guerrière’s decks and battering her hull even below the water line. The Guerrière , firing on the up roll, was causing some less important damage in the Constitution’s top-hamper. Now, as she luffed round the Guerrière’s bow, the damage was felt—she shot too far into the wind, as her men could not brace the yards properly; she was caught aback, and now it seemed that the Guerrière would cross her stern and return the raking fire with interest.
Up went the helm, and slowly, slowly, the Constitution swung back to her original course. Too slowly—as she came before the wind again, the Guerrière’s bow crashed into her larboard quarter, splintering the taffrail and crushing the stern boat. The British frigate then dropped into the Constitution’s wake, her bowsprit foul of the American frigate’s mizzen rigging and resting on the larboard boat davit. Boarders were called on both ships, although the British hoped only to repel the Constitution’s attack, for the Guerrière was short-handed. Sharpshooters swept the decks, wreaking greater havoc among the crews than the big guns had done. On the Constitution , Lieutenant Morris was shot through the abdomen while attempting to lash the Guerrière’s bowsprit to the Constitution’s mizzenmast, but he remained on deck until the end of the action. Lieutenant William S. Bush of the Marines leapt to the taffrail as Morris fell, ready to lead the Constitution’s boarders, and was shot through the head. On board the Guerrière the slaughter was terrible. The Constitution , with her greater complement, had more than three times as many sharpshooters in the tops. The Guerrière’s second lieutenant, Henry Ready, was killed, Captain Dacres was wounded in the back, and Sailing Master Robert Scott received a shot through the knee. First Lieutenant Bartholomew Kent and Master’s Mate William J. Snow had already been wounded by flying splinters, and the seamen who gathered on deck to repel boarders were decimated by rifle fire. Most of the injuries on both ships occurred while they were thus locked together.
It was probably at this point in the fighting that a stray bullet cut the flag halyard on the Constitution’s mainmast. As the ensign floated toward the deck, a young sailor named Hogan snatched it up and, scaling the rigging amid a shower of bullets, lashed the flag to the masthead.
The Guerrière meanwhile had run her starboard bow gun nearly into the Constitution’s starboard cabin window, so close that the flaming wads set the cabin afire. Fire fighters were called. It was clear, now that the ships had been entangled for some ten minutes, that their wild plunging in the heavy seas would make boarding impossible. The Constitution could bring no guns to bear on the Guerrière , and could not extinguish the cabin fire while the Guerrière’s bow gun remained in action. Captain Hull therefore ordered the Constitution’s sails filled for a run ahead. As the ships parted, the Constitution’s spanker boom and gaff were ripped off by the Guerrière’s bowsprit. That spar, loosed from the Constitution’s rigging, snapped upward, slackening the Guerrière’s foremast stays; the mast, weakened by a hit from a double-headed shot, reeled and fell across the main brace, and fore and main masts tumbled into the sea, leaving the Guerrière completely a wreck. Her crew tried desperately to clear the wreckage and bring her under control of a spritsail, but that too carried away, and she fell into the trough of the sea, rolling the muzzles of the main-deck guns under. Several of the great guns broke loose from their tackles and charged wildly back and forth across the heaving decks. Shot and shot boxes slithered over the quarterdeck.