April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
From her chaplain’s diary comes this graphic story of the final sea battle of America’s famous frigate
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 The blockading vessels had temporarily withdrawn, and the veteran warship had gained the freedom of the broad Atlantic to become the only American frigate carrying the Stars and Stripes on the high seas.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.
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.”
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.
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:
“Captain Biddle, I beg your pardon, I have no authority to receive your arms, they will be sur- rendered to the Commodore. I presume this is the United States ship Hornet ?”
The English lieutenant’s increased politeness was now understandable. The Hornet had stung the British Navy into a very high estimate of her prowess. Lieutenant Davis was obviously congratulating himself upon the capture of this troublesome pest when Ballard rudely disillusioned him.
“There is some presumption in that, Sir; No Sir, this is His Britannic Majesty’s late ship Levant .”
“And that ship which escaped to the westward?” inquired the astonished Englishman.
“Is, Sir, His Majesty’s ship Cyane .”
“And what was the ship of which we gave up the chase?” he continued, with growing apprehension.
“That was the United States frigate Constitution , and the Cyane and Levant are her prizes.”
The British had captured some eighty Americans: the 63 men who made up the prize crew on the Levant , and the seventeen sailors left behind by the Constitution . The prisoners were distributed among the four British vessels with not more than two do/en in any one ship and not more than two officers to a wardroom. Fortune, however, smiled again upon Mr. Humphreys. Together with the ship’s doctor, he was allowed to remain on the Levant where he received courteous treatment from Lieutenant Jellicoe.
After the prisoners had been suitably distributed, Commodore Collier spent the night in the harbor of Port Praya and the following morning made leisurely preparations for departure. At eleven o’clock the loin-vessels, all once more flying the British ensign, set sail. So cautious was their pursuit of the Constitution and the Cyane , that the lour warships remained for eight days within signaling distance of each other. During this interval, both the Constitution and the Cyane made good their escape.
Mr. Humphreys only shared the opinion of nearly all authorities on naval warfare that “had they conducted themselves as their duty to their country required,” the British warships should have captured both of the fleeing vessels.
Mr. Humphreys improved his leisure moments by rewriting, from memory, the narrative of events originally recorded in the journal which he had sacrificed in Port Praya. He subsequently returned to Baltimore and resumed a naval career which he pursued until shortly before his death in 1826. It is certain, however, that never again did he participate in such a strange experience as this voyage of the Constitution .