What It Was Like To Be Shot Up By ‘old Ironsides’

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THE AMERICAN frigate Constitution is preserved in Boston, where she was built and where she was launched in October 1797. She was one of a series of six splendid frigates built to defend American shipping on the high seas, and her adventurous life included some of the most dramatic actions of the war between Britain and America. The British claimed the right to stop and search American ships for deserters, and the United States resented this claim to act as a sort of universal policeman. War was declared against Britain on June 18, 1812. The Constitution , captained by Isaac Hull, went to sea in the July and in August fought and defeated the British frigate Guerrière, which the British had themselves taken from the French. While the Constitution ’s cannonballs found their mark, the British ones seemed to bounce off the hard timbers of the American ship, and she won her nickname of Old Ironsides in that action.

In 1813, with the British blockading the Eastern American ports, Capt. Charles Stewart was transferred to the Constitution and managed to sneak her out of Boston on December 31, 1813. She was back in Boston for a refit at the end of 1814 and went to sea again in December of that year. The Constitution headed for Madeira and encountered two British warships, the frigate Cyane and the sloop Levant . She managed to defeat the Cyane and then the Levant; later a British squadron tried to intercept but only managed to recapture the Levant. The Constitution , with the Cyane in tow, made it back to the States—and to news of the end of the war.

In the course of unrelated research I am doing for a book about the county of Cork in Ireland, I was given access to the papers of Richard Roberts of the Royal Navy, born in Cork in 1803 and best known as captain of the Sirius , which, in 1838, was among the first steam vessels to cross the Atlantic. In looking through Roberts’s papers, I came on three very tattered foolscap pages written in a hand other than Roberts’s and much older than any of the other material, which runs from the late 1820s on. I do not know how Roberts came to have them, though if he went to sea at the age of twelve or thirteen, he might just have been starting his naval career then. A glance at the old document showed that it was a log of a ship named Cyane and that it ended with an account of a naval battle. Today, when sailing ships have engines to get them out of trouble, a firsthand account of fighting a ship powered by sail alone must have a special fascination. I put paper into my typewriter and began to read and summarize and transcribe. The story thus unfolded to me just as it had to the unfortunate Cyane , and the ending came as an equal surprise. Cyane did not mean anything to me, but Constitution did, and I had the thrill of almost seeing Old Ironsides in action.

 

The first date in the Cyane’s log is Monday, February 13,1815. It was fine with a light breeze, and the ship was in Gibralter Bay. The crew was painting and readying her, getting bread on board from the Victualling Office, finally weighing anchor and sailing on Thursday the fifteenth. On the seventeenth the sailors stood in to the land and anchored in Tangier Bay for a few hours, during which time they took on fresh vegetables and four bullocks. On Saturday the eighteenth they sailed in company with the Levant , saw a sail and gave chase, lost sight of land, mustered the men at Quarters, and scaled the guns. Guns then were still massive iron cannons, muzzleloaders all of them. On the nineteenth, while still placidly sailing along with the Levant , the captain “mustered ship’s company by Divisions and read the Articles of War.” The frigate’s midday position was Lat. 34° 11′,Long. 9° 21òW. The crew test-fired the great guns and small arms and, though the winds are described as moderate and the weather fine, had the fore topmast sailyard carried away and replaced; they also lost the fore topmast studdingsail boom.

The next day, Monday, February twentieth, was squally with a fresh breeze. They replaced the lost boom. Then, in the afternoon—and now I copy the Cyane’s log word for word: