Exploit At Fayal

If there had been no battle of Fayal … there would have been no battle of New Orleans.

—Andrew Jackson

When Andrew Jackson and his triumphant army rode through the streets of New Orleans after crushing Sir Edward Pakenham’s veteran troops on January 8, 1815, neither Old Hickory nor his men realized how narrow their margin of victory had been.

Jackson had arrived in New Orleans on December 2 to rally the city’s defenses. A few days later, the British under Pakenham and Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane landed on the Mississippi delta and advanced on the city. What Jackson didn’t know was that the British were nearly two weeks behind their invasion schedule.

The doughty Cochrane, fresh from victories in the Chesapeake and the burning of Washington, D.C., had been delayed in assembling his command at Jamaica, British West Indies. The cause for that delay was a train of events set in motion more than two months earlier by one of the most brilliant episodes in American naval history, a sea fight that took place 3,000 miles from the humid Louisiana battlefield.

Few accounts of the New Orleans victory dwell on this crucial ten-day disruption in British invasion plans. Indeed it is a rare student of military history who recalls the inadvertent role of an American privateer in Jackson’s triumph.

The drama was played out in the port of Fayal, in the Azores, on the night of September 26, 1814. An American armed brig, the seven-gun, 246-ton General Armstrong out of New York, had put in earlier that clay at the neutral Portuguese harbor to refill its water casks before harassing English merchantmen along the west coast of Africa.

Aboard the brig was a crew of ninety under the command of Samuel Chester Reid, a young United States Navy officer who had wearied of service on blockaded frigates. Now on its fifth cruise, the Armstrong was one of the fastest ships afloat. Among New York’s hundred-odd privateers, her record of 24 prizes was second only to the Scourge, with 27. On this, her last cruise, she had departed Sandy Hook on September 9 and arrived at Fayal Roads seventeen days later with only one incident—a minor brush with blockading enemy men-of-war.

Her commander, just past thirty, had already been at sea for twenty years, beginning as an eleven-year-old powder boy on an American frigate. His first move after arrival at Fayal was to make a courtesy call on United States consul John B. Dabney, who assured him of the port’s neutrality. But ominous news awaited his return to the Armstrong.

Three British men-of-war had appeared in his absence and sealed off the port entrance. The first, the 18-gun sloop Carnation, sailed into Fayal and dropped anchor a pistol shot away from the American brig. The other two, which Reid recognized as the 74-gun ship-of-the-line razee Plantagenet and the 38-gun frigate Rota, anchored about a mile away. Thus the British were on the favorable end of exceedingly long odds: to Reid's 7 guns and 90 men they had 130 guns and some 2,000 men.

Word came from Dabney that the squadron was commanded by Captain Robert Lloyd and was en route to the British West Indies—to join up, though Dabney didn’t know it, with Cochrane for the assault on New Orleans. Lloyd was a hard-bitten sea dog who only three weeks earlier, in a Fayal café, had boasted that he had boats designed expressly for cutting out American privateers, which he would destroy wherever he found them.

Upon the consul’s advice, Reid and his crew warped their ship in under the guns of Fayal’s fort and began preparing for the worst. The Armstrong’s light draft allowed them to pull within a stone’s throw of the shore in waters so shallow that the heavier British ships couldn't come alongside for boarding.

Nevertheless, heavy nets to repel boarders were rigged about the decks. The planking was sanded for sure footing. From the armory below, small arms were brought up and laid out. Buckets of grapeshot were placed by the long nines and the swivel-mounted Long Tom.

As the crew readied the Armstrong, they could observe many signal flags being run up on British yardarms and several small boats scurrying about among the three enemy ships.

Shortly after sunset, four armed long boats carrying about 100 men appeared from beyond the Carnation and swept toward the American ship. Reid immediately called his men to quarters. Battle lanterns were rigged and gun lamps glowed along the hushed decks.