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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
Meanwhile, seeing her opponent helpless, the Constitution withdrew a short distance to windward, extinguished the fire in her cabin, and replaced what rigging had been shot away. Within forty-five minutes she was again in fighting trim; she wore and stood for the Guerrière once more. The Englishmen had succeeded in cutting away the wreckage of the masts, but their situation was hopeless. As the Constitution rounded to on the larboard bow at long gunshot (about a mile distant), the Guerrière fired a gun to leeward in token of submission, and hauled the jack from the stump of the mizzen.
Third Lieutenant George C. Read boarded the Guerrière in the gathering dusk, and at 8 P.M. the boat brought Captain Dacres to the Constitution . Hull, seeing that his young opponent was wounded, hurried to the gangway to help him up the side. Dacres proffered his sword in the traditional ceremony of surrender; Hull declined to accept it from so gallant a foe.
The Guerrière had fifteen killed and sixty-three wounded; Hull dispatched a surgeon’s mate to assist in caring for them. The Constitution had only seven killed and seven wounded, and these had already been attended. It was now quite dark, and the ships lay near one another through the night while the boats shuttled back and forth, transferring prisoners. An American midshipman who was a member of the boarding party described the scene on the Guerrière : I was on board the whole night after the action … pieces of skulls, brains, legs, arms and blood lay in every direction and the groans of the wounded were enough almost to make me curse the war … So confident were they of capturing us that they were allowed by their Captain to have us in tow in thirty minutes; they had a hogshead of molasses ready to make switchel [a common shipboard drink compounded of molasses and water] for the Yankees but our shot soon emptied it.
Surgeon Evans of the Constitution and Surgeon Irvine of the Guerrière worked all night in the Constitution’s cramped cockpit, dressing wounded as they came on board. About 2 A.M. a large sail appeared on the horizon, and the Constitution cleared for another action, but the stranger stood off again and the boats resumed their work. By morning it was evident that the Guerrière could not be towed into port. She had thirty shot in her hull and seven feet of water in the well; the sea was gaining on the pumps about a foot every two hours. Six feet of the plank near the water line had been torn away. Captain Hull therefore determined to destroy his prize.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon the boats worked, removing the remaining prisoners and their belongings. Great care was taken, as Captain Dacres wrote, “to prevent our men losing the smallest trifle”—including a Bible given Dacres by his mother, which Captain Hull took special pains to recover at the request of his former foe. Hull also secured a few souvenirs of the conquered ship, including the only flag remaining on board—an ensign which was found stuffed under the heel of the bowsprit.
By 3 P.M. the last boat but one had left the Guerrière ; Lieutenant Read and his crew set her on fire, and in fifteen minutes she blew up. “No painter,” wrote Surgeon Evans, “no poet or historian could give on canvas or paper any description that could do justice to the scene.” Nor can the historian do justice to the events, for he cannot evoke the response of the nation which followed. Captain Hull wrote in his famous report: ”… from the smallest boy in the ship to the oldest seaman not a look of fear was seen.” In the wild rejoicing that followed the Constitution’s victory, the look of fear on the face of the young nation was changed to one of confident hope.