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The Last War Cruise Of Old Ironsides
From her chaplain’s diary comes this graphic story of the final sea battle of America’s famous frigate
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Several years ago the Indiana University family voted to collect fines from professors who parked overtime on the campus. The money raised was turned over to the University library to buy additions to its special collections. Among the first purchases made, for the University’s War of 1812 Collection, was the manuscript journal which served as the basis for the story which is printed here.
Mr. A. Y. Humphreys, chaplain of the U.S.S. Constitution , stood by the rail of his ship in the clear starlight as Old Ironsides cut briskly past Boston light. A fresh northwest breeze filled the sails above his head as if the very winds conspired to get the ship to sea again after her long confinement in the dockyard. It was the night of December 17, 1814, and unknown to Mr. Humphreys, the Constitution was making her last hostile cruise against England.
The War of 1812 was about to come to an end. Bonaparte was plotting his futile escape from Elba; the titanic convulsion which had agitated the civilized world for more than a generation was about to give way to a century of comparative peace.
None of this, however, was apparent to Mr. Humphreys. In his mind the war had assumed a permanent and sinister character. Armies of British veterans had invaded the United States on three sides; the long Atlantic coast was gripped by an inexorable blockade; and New England seemed on the point of committing treason. Even the prospect of encountering the British frigates of the blockading squadron was preferable to another week spent in land-locked idleness.
But Chaplain Humphreys and his shipmates were lucky. The blockading vessels had temporarily withdrawn, and the veteran warship had gained the freedom of the broad Atlantic to become the only American frigate carrying the Stars and Stripes on the high seas. There was an exhilaration and a deep sense of adventure in this thought. ”We felt that the eyes of the country were upon us and that everything within, the bounds of possibility was expected from us . . .” recalled the estimable chaplain.
The elation of having escaped the blockading squadron was soon dissipated by the monotony of an uneventful voyage in bad weather and on short rations. The clear night skies became overcast before noon of the first day and the Constitution found herself plowing through heavy seas, shipping water in her leaky gun deck and soaking bed rolls, clothing, and human dispositions in a universal dampness. To add to all the other discomfort, the last joint of fresh beef was picked clean, the last remnants of tea and sugar swallowed.
At this juncture, on the morning of December 24, late brought a decided change of luck in clearing weather and the Lord Nelson , a British schooner bound from Newfoundland to Bermuda. This schooner was a “perfect slop shop and grocery store, very opportunely sent to furnish a good rig and bountiful cheer for Christmas.” There were tongues, corned beef, smoked salmon, dried beef, codfish, pineapple cheeses, barrels of loaf sugar, pipes of the best brandy, gin, and port wine, chests of imperial and gunpowder tea, barrels of flour, and hams “inferior not even to Smithfield Virginia.” Before the sun had set on Christmas Day, the Lord Nelson had been relieved of crew and cargo and sent below the waxes to “rest with its godfather.”
This was the last piece of luck to come Mr. Humphreys’ way for many a day. The western Atlantic was searched in vain. Captain Charles Stewart decided to sail on to Madeira, hoping to intercept a homeward-bound “Brazil man.” The only thing he intercepted was another gale which deluged the gun deck with tons of salt water.
The Constitution then made for the Bay of Biscay, and soon the majestic bulk of Cape Finisterre arose from the waves. But even in these favorite hunting grounds, the eager Americans could find nothing but stormy weather. So rudely did the wind sweep in from across the wide Atlantic that the lookouts aloft took shelter in the lee of the mastheads and permitted at least one English brig to get away to a safe distance before she was discovered by the man at the wheel. A round do/en stripes, “not very well laid on” in the opinion of the chaplain, were applied to sharpen the lookouts’ appetites for facing the wind.
Two days later the Constitution was off the mouth of the Tagus and likely to see more action than she wanted, for the approaches to Lisbon were crowded with English ships, including H.M.S. Elizabeth , who, with her 74 guns, would have been a formidable antagonist indeed for the 44-gun American frigate. Captain Stewart was prudently flying an English flag, a practice not at all uncommon in those days of gay deception—and not even considered unsporting. The frigate hove to and lay in wait for a British schooner approaching from the west, and at 4 P.M. the Susan , bound from Buenos Aires to Liverpool, found that she had sailed into an American trap.