“By Heaven, That Ship Is Ours!”

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July 16, 1812: The United States of America had been at war with Great Britain for twenty-eight days. The American frigate Constitution, 44 guns, was at sea, on a passage from Washington, where she had refitted, to New York. There she was to join the squadron of Commodore John Rodgers, to cruise against British commerce.

At 2 P.M. the Constitution was at latitude 38°18′ north (oil Egg Harbor, New jersey), out of sight of land and in soundings of twenty-two fathoms, when her lookouts made out four sail to the north-northwest, inshore. It seemed likely that these were the ships of Commodore Rodgers’ squadron, and the Constitution made all sail to tome up with them, the wind being very light. At 4 P.M. another ship appeared in the northeast. She stood toward the Constitution on a favorable wind until sundown, when the wind shifted to the south. All the ships were still out of signalling distance, so at 6:45 the Constitution wore and stood for the single ship, hoping to approach near enough to make a signal. At 7:30 the crew were summoned to their battle stations. Some or all of the strange ships might be enemy.

 

At 10:30 P.M. , when within six or eight miles of the single ship, the Constitution made the private signal of the day. But, although the lanterns were kept aloft for forty-five minutes, the strange ship made no answer. At 11:15 the signal was hauled down, and the Constitution turned on her heel, making sail to the southeast on the starboard tack. The single ship tacked in chase, signalling to the ships inshore, but they made no reply.

The Constitution stood southeast during the night, with a light wind from the southwest. Officers and crew slept at their quarters. Captain Isaac Hull paced the quarter-deck, pondering the situation. He was four days out of port with a store-laden ship and a green crew. Some of the officers had recently joined the ship, most of the crew were new recruits, and many had never before sailed in a ship of war. Some had come on board less than a week earlier. Could this crew man the great guns against a seasoned English frigate?

It seemed certain that the single ship astern was an enemy, since she had not answered the Constitution’s signal. If the squadron was Rodgers’, the Constitution could turn and engage the single ship in daylight —much easier for the men than a night engagement. It, on the other hand, the squadron was also British, the Constitution could hope for nothing better than escape.

Surely, Hull reasoned, the inshore ships must be American, for they had made no answer to the signals hoisted by the single ship in the northeast. Her captain, too, was uncertain; at 4 A.M. , just as dawn began to break, he threw a signal rocket and fired two guns, tacked as if to flee, then wore around again in chase of the Constitution . The two frigates had been nearly within gunshot, but this maneuver occupied about ten minutes, and gave the Constitution a few precious yards—vital yards, for as the sun rose, American hearts sank. There were now seven ships in view. They had been favored during the night with a fine breeze, and they seemed to fill the horizon—two frigates off the lee quarter (northeast); two frigates, a ship of the line, a brig, and a schooner, astern.∗ All seven had English colors hoisted, and were still gaining fast, with a mod- erate breeze, while the Constitution was nearly becalmed.

∗ The frigates were H.M.S.’s Belvidera, 36; Guerrière , 38 (the single ship in the northeast); Shannon, 38; and Aeolus, 32. The liner was the Africa , 64, and the brig was the former U.S.S. Nautilus, captured by the Shannon the day before. The schooner was also a prize. Incidentally, the dates given in this article for the encounter between the Constitution and the British squadron (July 16, 17, and 18, 1812) are reckoned according to civil time. By the nautical calendar, which runs twelve hours earlier, the dates are July 17, 18, and 19.