- Historic Sites
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
In the light of such uncharitable sentiments, it is easy to understand why Chaplain Humphreys cheerfully complied with an order from Captain Stewart to transfer to the Levant as her purser. “A reprieve to any condemned malefactor was never hailed with sincerer gratulation,” he declared. The Levant was a new and commodious vessel, abounding in creature comforts which the U.S. Navy did not see fit to bestow upon her tars in those rugged times. Sanitary arrangements on the Constitution , for example, had been overlooked in favor of increased armament—on the Levant they were in the very latest mode. The elegant Captain Falcon had perforce noted this unhappy deficiency on the Constitution and had made it the occasion for typically British criticism of American manners. Lieutenant Ballard had replied pointedly that when his country’s reputation was at stake, his fellow citizens were inclined to be indifferent to such small matters “provided our guns tell well, and you can be a competent judge of how far that end has been obtained.”
Purser Humphreys’ rancor against the British followed him to the decks of the Levant where he found the British purser willing to cheat his king, the young Irish doctor inexperienced and selfish, and all the English officers inferior in education and knowledge of the world to Americans of the same rank. Indeed, Mr. Humphreys adopted a very lofty and critical attitude toward the British Navy.
“The sun of Britain’s naval glory has set,” he declared somewhat prematurely, “unless measures are taken to prevent influence and sordid interests from rising paramount to merit and ability, and plebeian worth from being obscured by the rubbish of lordly impudence and ignorance.”
By March, the Constitution and her two prizes were cruising in the vicinity of the Cape Verde Islands where sailors unfamiliar with the tropics were enraptured by the smooth seas, the schools of flying fish, the fleets of the chambered nautilus, and the patriarchal simplicity of life among the Portuguese colonists. After narrowly escaping running aground while standing in for the land, the little fleet anchored in the harbor of Port Praya.
Mr. Humphreys and his companions possessed a desperate kind of courage, or bravado. They fought against tremendous odds, conscious always of the fact that the enemy might be able to bring his overpowering force to bear against them, and that their continued success—in fact, their very preservation—depended as much upon luck as upon their own skill and daring. A brilliant victory, such as the Constitution had just won against the Cyane and Levant , could easily be followed by the deadliest peril and defeat. With England’s entire navy roaming the seas on the lookout for the Constitution , it was a mathematical certainty that the Americans could not enjoy their fortunate immunity forever. They had, in fact, been betrayed into overconfidence by their long streak of luck. The law of averages caught up with them in the harbor of Port Praya.
As soon as the escape of the Constitution from Boston harbor became known, the blockaders, H.M.S. Newcastle , 50 guns, and Acasta , 40, set sail in pursuit, and were soon joined by the Leander , 50, as well. At the same time, every British ship on the Atlantic, whether warship or merchant vessel, was ordered to keep a lookout for the American and to report her movements. It was a miracle that the Constitution had been able to evade this network as long as she had. She was actually betrayed, however, not by an English ship, but by a Russian who had penetrated her disguise on the day before she had fought Cyane and Levant . Sailing westward from that encounter, the Muscovite had on the following day met the British pursuing squadron and given it full information of the whereabouts of its quarry.
The little American squadron had sailed into the harbor of Port Praya at ten o’clock on the morning of March 10. On a bluff which overlooked and commanded the harbor stood the shabby Portuguese town, the residence of the governor, and a few fortifications. Anchored beneath the cliff they found an English brig. Captain Stewart assured the Englishman that the neutrality of the port fully protected him and received equally polite assurances from the Portuguese governor that all the accommodations of the country would l)e freely extended to his American friends. Stewart took advantage of this hospitality to begin landing his prisoners, and the British officers, with his permission, arranged with the captain of the merchant brig to carry them to Barbados under a flag of truce.