A lonely, gallant battle fought by the designer of our flag set the stage for Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans.
If there had been no battle of Fayal … there would have been no battle of New Orleans.
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.
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.
The slaughter in the boats was appalling. Between the brig and the shore, the harbor waters were dotted with the wreckage of boats and the heads of swimming men. An eyewitness on the shore observed that “some of the boats were left without a single man to row them, others with three or four … Several boats floated ashore full of dead bodies. For three days after the battle, we were employed in burying the dead that had washed ashore in the surf.”
For his reckless attack, Lloyd paid dearly with the lives of his best officers and bravest seamen. Reid estimated that in the forty minutes from the first American broadside until the last Britisher dove over the side of the Armstrong, nearly two-thirds of the assault party were casualties, 120 dead and over 130 wounded. The British captain himself took part in the unhappy affair and suffered a severe leg wound.
Reid’s summation of his own situation—in his report of October 4, 1814, to the owners of the Armstrong — was a small gem of understatement: “Our deck was now found in much confusion, our Long Tom dismounted, and several of the carriages broken; many of our crew having left the vessel and others disabled.” His losses, however, were relatively minor: two killed, seven wounded—all of whom later recovered.
When the Portuguese governor again pleaded for a cessation of hostilities, the raging Lloyd had little patience with formalities. He bluntly stated that he was now determined to have that privateer at the risk of knocking down the entire town.
Throughout the early morning hours, the Americans worked feverishly, remounting their guns and cutting out new positions for them. Useless gear was thrown overboard. At daybreak, the Carnation got under way again. Cruising as close to the shallow waters as her commander, Captain George Bentham, dared, the sloop let loose with several broadsides. The privateer replied with its lighter armament.
Many of the Carnation’s balls passed over the low-lying American brig, but the more accurate fire of the Armstrong’s gunners paid off. Her hull holed, the Carnation hauled off to repair the damage and to replace cut-up rigging and a toppled foretopmast. But her broadsides had had their effect. With most of his topside in complete ruin and several guns out of commission, Reid saw that further resistance was useless. So he had a gun upended and drove a ball through the bottom of the brig. As the Armstrong settled in the shallow water, Reid and the surviving crew members swam ashore. British boarding parties took possession of the scuttled brig, and after ascertaining that the task ol raising her would take too long, set her afire.
Reid and his new took refuge in an old convent outside ol Fayal. But Lloyd was not content to leave them alone. Chagrined by the fierce resistance and his own heavy losses, he claimed that two of the crew were deserters from the British Navy. British marines, with the reluctant assistance of the Portuguese, rounded up all the privateersmen and marched them down to the town square for interrogation by Lloyd’s officers. Even this proved fruitless for the Englishman: he was unable to prove that any of Reid’s men were British deserters, and he had to release them all.
The British lingered at Fayal caring for the wounded and retraining men to replace those lost. Three days after the fight, the sloops of war Thais and Calypso sailed in and were dispatched to carry the more seriously injured back to England. Their captains were cautioned not to release any details of the battle—an indication of Lloyd’s worry over his costly victory.
While Lloyd’s fleet was thus detained, Cochrane chafed in Jamaica. Lloyd’s scheduled arrival date came and passed. He and his 2,000 reinforcements didn’t arrive until November, putting off the sailing of the invasion fleet until the twenty-sixth of that month. By the time the British arrived before New Orleans in December, Jackson had had enough time to rally his men.
SIDEBAR: HOW VITAL WAS REID'S VICTORY?
One can only speculate as to what Jackson’s political future might have been had Cochrane made his landing in the latter part ol November as planned. The military significance ol a British victory and occupation of New Orleans would have been minor, as the War of 1812 was already being settled at the peace tables in Europe. But the effect on the reputation of Andrew Jackson as a military leader would have been considerable.
Sam Reid and his men returned to the United States after the war and were widely acclaimed. Reid was feted at a state banquet in Richmond, Virginia, and was awarded a sword of honor by New York City. Then, his brief moment in history past, he turned to the more prosaic task of rearing a family.
But there was one more service to his country for which Reid deserves lasting recognition. Since 1795 and all through the War of 1812, American armies and ships had flown a flag of fifteen stars and fifteen stripes. Several states had joined the Union since that time, and now clamored for recognition.
Reid had long felt that the flag wasn’t truly representative, and when his advice was sought by a congressional committee investigating new designs—its chairman was a personal friend—Reid was ready. He suggested that the fifteen stripes be reduced to thirteen as a permanent honor to the original thirteen colonies, and that a star be added to the existing fifteen for each new state admitted to the Union. His recommendations were accepted, and a bill embodying them was signed by President James Monroe on April 9, 1818. In honor of her husband’s assistance, Mrs. Reid was given the privilege of fashioning the first flag ol the new design; it flew for the first time over the Capitol on April 13.
Reid later served as New York’s first harbor master and instituted such improvements as the Sandy Hook lightship and a ship-to-shore telegraph system for reporting arrivals. He ended his career in 1855—as a 72-year-old sailing master in the Navy—and died in 1861, at the beginning of the Civil War. But his greatest service to his country had been rendered in a much earlier war—on that September night in 1814 when, against terrific odds, he stood his ground and made his place in history—at a distant port called Fayal.