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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
The Susan proved to be a good prize. The most exotic item in her cargo was a pair of “tiger” cubs (probably jaguars) which became very popular pets. The Susan ’s human complement, suffering from scurvy, was sent ashore on the first passing neutral, while a prize crew took over the ship herself and set forth with her across the Atlantic.
The Constitution was now sailing in the waters between Madeira and the !Mediterranean. At ten minutes after one on the afternoon of February 20, she descried a ship on the weather bow and began the chase under full sail. Soon another vessel appeared; by 2:30 it was clear that both were British warships and that they intended to fight. Nothing loath, the Constitution crowded on all sail; the main royal yard broke and had to be replaced during the chase. This accident permitted the enemy vessels to draw together and to form in line for battle. At 6:10 the action began at the short range of 200 yards.
Mr. Humphreys did not see fit to record his own experiences during the famous fight which then followed, but he must have been in an excellent position to observe for he gives a minutely detailed account of the battle. The chaplain fully appreciated the brilliant tactics of Captain Stewart, which subjected both enemy vessels to repeated raking broadsides without once similarly exposing the Constitution , and included at one time the extraordinary maneuver of moving a sailing ship directly backwards.
The English vessels fought well, hulling Old Iron- sides more often than she had ever been hit before and sending one shot crashing through the boat where the two “tiger” cubs had been chained. Nevertheless, within half an hour, the Constitution had driven one of her opponents, badly crippled, from the scene of battle and ten minutes later compelled the other to surrender. A boat crew then took possession of H.M.S. Cyane , 34 guns, and sent Captain Gordon Falcon and his officers as prisoners to the Constitution .
In the pale moonlight and the pall of smoke which had settled over the calm sea, the British ship presented a spectacle of grim destruction, with five feet of water in her hold and her masts almost ready to go over the side. Leaving her to follow as best she could, Captain Stewart sailed immediately after the other enemy vessel and found her courageously returning to the scene of action. Two broadsides put her to flight again, and the chase was soon over. The Americans then boarded the Levant , 20 guns, and added Captain Douglass and his crew to the prisoners on the Constitution .
So terribly had the American fire swept the decks of this vessel that her men had twice fled to shelter below and been driven by their officers back to battle stations. Forty men had been killed in the British vessels and nearly twice that number wounded. Their decks were slaughter houses; six days later Mr. Humphreys was to find mangled limbs entangled with a shattered sail which had been thrown into the hold of the Levant when the littered decks were cleared.
The American officers, sailors, carpenters, and physicians now displayed their traditional skill in dealing with the difficult physical problems that faced them. In no time at all they had repaired the battered British ships and bandaged the bruised British bodies. But they were baffled by the arrogant British mind. Captains Falcon and Douglass made very intractable prisoners—in fact, they took the attitude that their capture was a simply incredible and therefore unacceptable accident which they attributed not to superior American gunnery but to each other’s mistakes. The ward room rang with trenchant recriminations.
This British civil war impressed Mr. Humphreys so unfavorably that he ultimately described it in one of the most complex sentences ever to have been flung together outside a German grammar.
“One exception, however,” he began, “to this general character of the prisoners I am in duty bound to record, not only from a sense of the liberality of feeling with which I was treated by him when fortune had turned the tables in his favor, but from his uniform gentlemanly deportment, which was so conspicuous that it extorted the esteem of even those whom the conduct of his fellow prisoners had compelled to forget that any attention or respect was due to them, in fact, had the conduct of the Commanding Officers of the two vessels corresponded in the least with that of Lieutenant Jellicoe and of the Cyane , that respect which we had all been taught to believe attached itself to the character of a British naval officer would have been heightened, but the contrary with a solitary exception has been the result and in so great a degree have they compromitted themselves that I question whether any Officer at that time on board the Constitution will be hereafter disposed to treat one of that nation with the least respect until he shall have proved himself deserving of it.”