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Exploit At Fayal
A lonely, gallant battle fought by the designer of our flag set the stage for Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans.
June 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 4
As the British boats drew within calling distance, Reid challenged them. There was no answer. He could see the British seamen bend strongly on their oars for more speed. Again he warned them to keep their distance.
Still there was no reply. At a wave of Reid’s hand, his gunners took careful aim and opened fire with the nine-pounders. Clusters of grape flailed through the boats at close quarters.
The enemy replied immediately. A fusillade of musketry and balls from the light cannon aboard the British long boats beat against the Armstrong’s sides. One American seaman crumpled, shot through the heart. Reid’s first officer sagged under a musket wound.
Another torrent of grape from the privateer’s cannons and the enemy boats were drifting aimlessly under the bow of the Armstrong, the slim barrels of a score or more rules poised above them.
The attackers sued for quarter and the American captain granted it, ordering the British to return to the Carnation. He estimated that there were at least twenty dead and wounded among the four boats. What had started out to be a bold cutting-out had turned into a quick repulse for Lloyd, who apparently had hoped to catch the Americans off guard and overawed by the vastly superior force of his squadron.
The British commander ignored the protests of the Portuguese governor of the Azores, Elias Jose Ribeiro, at this breach of neutrality, blandly informing the Governor that his men had been on a peaceful reconnoiter. He went on to state curtly that “one of the boats of his Britannic Majesty’s ship under my command was, without the slightest provocation, fired upon. … I am determined to take possession of that vessel and hope that you will order your forts to protect the force employed for that purpose.”
When informed by Dabney of the exchange of notes, Reid asked the consul’s aid in freeing and adding to the Armstrong’s crew 32 American seamen interned in Fayal by the Portuguese. The distraught Ribeiro turned down this request and sent fresh appeals to Lloyd.
The moon rose in a clear sky, and residents ol Fayal drawn by the earlier firing came down to the shore to watch as the British launched a second attack.
At 9 P.M., the Carnation got under way and was observed towing a long line of boats crammed to the gunwales with men. The boats, Reid later reported, “took their stations in three divisions under the covert of a small reef of rocks within about musketshot of us.”
Tension mounted on the Armstrong as the privateersmen watched the methodical preparations of the large assault force. It was midnight before the British emerged from the protection of the reef. Oars flashed in the bright moonlight as they swept toward the brig. Reid counted at least twelve boats and reckoned the force at about 400 men.
As the strong enemy armada spread out across the harbor, the American sailors waited tensely on the Armstrong’s decks. They were a typical cross section of the New York dockside of that day, welded together by the common goal of prize money from a successful cruise. And yet, though they were no heroes to each other, they were to conduct themselves like heroes in the action that lay ahead.
Soon the watchers on the brig could hear the thin cries of the British helmsmen urging on the crews as they came nearer. All eyes aboard the Armstrong were on the tall captain pacing the quarter-deck. At last Reid judged that the range was close enough.
“Fire!” he roared. The ninc-pounders slammed back against the gun tackles. A storm of grape tore through the packed boats. The screams of the wounded rang out, soon drowned in the crash of the enemy’s answering volleys of musket fire and cannon.
From aloft in the brig’s rigging, sharp-shooting riflemen took full advantage of the clear night and poured down a murderous fire on the exposed attackers. At close quarters, they picked off enemy officers and helmsmen.
Still the British, with dogged courage, came on. Soon boats were bumping along the sides of the Armstrong and under the cannon. Rushing to the sides, the gunners flung cannon balls into the boats, seeking to stave in the bottoms.
A swarm of British seamen poured over the bow and hacked at the boarding nets. In a few moments, the defenders there found themselves engulfed by English cutlasses. Reid, heading the after division, led his yelling men forward as a handful of attackers managed to gain the forecastle.
For several anxious moments, the fighting raged across the narrow decks. Then the British gave way, the survivors plunging over the side to escape theflailing blades of Reid’s men.