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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
Under its usual cover of haze, the harbor had become, by midmorning, a scene of bustling activity. Boatloads of prisoners were making for the shore, and empty boats returning to the ships. Prize crews were swarming over Cyane and Levant , painting and scraping, with bits of canvas and newly-painted gear spread in every direction. Suddenly, in the midst of this hubbub, three large sail were discovered standing in for the harbor. They were soon made out as enemy ships, far too large for anything like an even battle.
Stewart immediately signaled his prizes to cut their cables and follow him out to sea. Leaving prisoners, boats, and seventeen of their own men behind, the Americans gained the open sea and turned to the eastward, almost within gunshot of the leading British warship.
There now ensued, before Humphreys’ fascinated gaze, one of the most remarkable chases in the history of naval warfare. The British ships had all the advantages of surprise, of superior armament, and of speed, unhampered by damaged masts or canvas. By every rule of the game, they should have captured the Constitution and regained their own vessels. They were momentarily confused, however, by their intended victim’s bold dash for the sea. Before they could change course and turn in pursuit, the three American vessels had sailed well beyond cannon range, with the Constitution in the lead and Levant bringing up the rear. Two hours later Levant had passed Cyane and was about five miles behind the Constitution , with the Cyane three miles in the rear and constantly dropping farther behind. Captain Stewart accordingly signaled Cyane to change tack toward the northwest, and this maneuver saved her from capture. As she pulled away from the line, the pursuing vessels unaccountably ignored her, and with a sense of triumph, Humphreys watched her sail safely beyond the horizon.
In the meantime, however, the British warships had gained so rapidly on Levant that they were now opening with their bow guns. All three British ships surprisingly abandoned the pursuit of the Constitution in order to tack after the Levant .
Three British warships, with a total firepowcr of more than 150 guns, abandoned an excellent chance to even their score with the American frigate which, more than any other, had humiliated them throughout the war, in favor of concentrating their strength against a sloop of 20 guns. It was a blunder which British historians have never tired of berating.
Lieutenant Ballard, commanding’ the prize crew on the Levant , was left no choice by the position of his pursuers but to return to the island of St. Jago from which he had so recently fled. With British shot tearing through her rigging, the Levant rounded the eastern headland at the harbor’s mouth and anchored under the guns of the Portuguese fort with her jib boom over the beach.
Neither Lieutenant Ballard nor Purser Humphreys really expected the neutral Portuguese waters to provide effective sanctuary. They were not surprised to see all three British warships follow them into harbor, anchor at a convenient distance, and proceed to open with their guns upon the defenseless vessel. But Mr. Humphreys felt that insult was added to injury when the Portuguese gunners joined in the attack from above. Although caught between two fires, the Levant suffered remarkably little damage, for the Portuguese apparently couldn’t hit anything, while the British marksmen aimed so high that their shot went entirely over, or through the rigging of the Levant , entered the governor’s palace, damaged the village church, drove the garrison from the tort, and did horrible execution to the gravel bank below.
Since it was obvious that overwhelming force was to replace international law, and that the Portuguese authorities had no intention of appealing from the one to the other, Lieutenant Ballard had no choice but to surrender his vessel. He struck his flag, but the target practice went merrily on for fifteen minutes before his surrender was accepted.
As soon as the cannonade ceased, a boat was perceived pushing off from the Acasta . Presently, First Lieutenant Davis of His Majesty’s Royal Navy clambered briskly over the gangway and laced Ballard.
“I am commanded to take possession of this ship in the name of His Majesty,” he announced.
Lieutenant Davis, assuming that he dealt with a junior officer in command of a small American warship, had not thus far condescended to ask Ballard’s identity. At this point, however, his attitude underwent a sudden transformation. A noise in the forecastle arrested his attention; he sprang forward to investigate and discovered members of his boat’s crew exchanging noisy greetings with old shipmates among the prisoners on board. Thereupon Lieutenant Davis jumped to a conclusion no less erroneous than his original one, and returned Lieutenant Ballard’s pistols with marks of increased respect, saying: