1812 One Hundred And Seventy-five Years Ago

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In the bright afternoon of December 29 off the coast of Brazil, the U.S. frigate Constitution closed in on HMS Java . Five months earlier the Constitution had earned the nickname Old Ironsides in her devastating victory against HMS Guerrière , and she was to prove as invincible in this engagement. At two o’clock Capt. William Bainbridge ordered his men to fire the first shot of the battle, and during the next forty minutes the two frigates struggled to outmaneuver each other. The Java had greater speed but was unsuccessful in attempting to rake the Constitution . Even when Old Ironsides’ wheel was shot off, superior ship handling and firepower made up for it; within two hours the lethally accurate American gunners had smashed the Java . Twenty-two of her crew were dead and another 102 were wounded; only 12 Americans had been killed, and 22 wounded. The Java , hopelessly wrecked, was sent to the ocean floor, and Old Ironsides returned to a jubilant reception in America. Her victories and several others at the outset of the conflict elated Americans, but they had little effect on the course of the war.