The premise of John Carpenter’s 1980 horror film The Fog is an intriguing one. In the 1800s, we are told, a Captain Blake and his crew were lured to their deaths by townspeople who had set up a false beacon near some coastal rocks. The ship was dashed against the rocks at night; Blake and all hands were lost. But many generations later, the spirits of the murdered captain and his crew would wreak a brutal vengeance from beyond their watery graves.
I do not know what—if any—legend inspired Carpenter’s film. But I have recently learned that there was, in fact, a ship that mysteriously vanished without a single trace during the War of 1812: and this vessel, the Wasp, was captained by one Captain Johnston Blakely. There were a number of notable naval engagements during the War of 1812, and the cruise of the Wasp in 1814 was a remarkable one. During a period of four months, the Wasp captured no less than thirteen British merchant vessels; even more impressively, she engaged and defeated formidably armed warships that possessed greater capabilities than her own.
In May of 1814 the 18-gun Wasp departed from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, with a crew of one hundred and seventy-three young men. Action came very quickly. On June 28, she spotted and engaged the British sloop-of-war Reindeer, a ship carrying nineteen guns and one hundred and eighteen men. Captain Blakely was a skilled tactician; he was able to outmaneuver his opponent repeatedly, each time delivering crippling volleys of fire. After a short battle that lasted about twenty minutes, the Reindeer was shot to pieces and dismasted. The British captain, William Manners, was a gallant man who died in the battle, along with twenty-three of his officers and men.
Manners had several times attempted to board the Wasp, but each attempt was repulsed by the defenders. The Wasp’s casualties were five killed and twenty-one wounded. The Reindeer was too unserviceable to be towed back to New England, so Blakely transferred the prisoners to the Wasp and set the remains of the Reindeer afire. Not wanting to be burdened with prisoners, the resourceful Blakely located an abandoned Portuguese brig; he deposited the captured crewmen on it and told them to sail back to England.
Blakely had in interesting background. He was born in Ireland in County Down in the town of Seaford, but was taken by his father to America as an infant. He was sent to New York in 1790 for an education in the law, but found it dull and tedious; when his father died, he abandoned the bar for the sea. He must have been a charismatic commander, for morale on the Wasp started out high and stayed that way. One of her officers said these words about Blakely in a private correspondence: “Our officers and crew are young and ambitious. They fight with more cheerfulness than they do any other duty. Captain Blakeley is a brave and discreet officer, as cool and collected in action as at table.” Miracles can be performed in such circumstances.
In August the Wasp captured two British brigs in rapid succession, the Lettice and the Bon Accord. On September 1, Blakely attacked and captured the brig Mary, which had been guarded by a huge but relatively slow-moving ship-of-the-line, the H.M.S. Armada. A week later the Wasp became embroiled in another fierce engagement with a brig named Avon. The Wasp’s hull was hit four times, each time by thirty-two pound shot, but she prevailed; her loss of life was two killed and one wounded, while the Avon suffered losses (according to British figures) of nine killed and thirty-three wounded. On September 21, near the Madeira Islands, Blakely captured the brig Atalanta. He had accumulated an impressive string of victories, and his skill as a naval commander and seaman were not in doubt.
Soon after this, however, the Wasp became the victim of one of the most mysterious disappearances in U.S. naval history. She was last heard of on October 9, 1814. The ship never returned to any port, and no further communication was heard from her. What had happened? There are, of course, competing theories. Some British commentators maintain that the Wasp sank some time later as a result of the damage it had received in the engagement; this seems unlikely, however, as her damages were hardly crippling. Even if this were the case, the men would have had time to launch lifeboats and make for land. The most likely explanation is that the Wasp was the victim of a sudden squall that caught Blakely off-guard, and sent his ship to the bottom of the sea with no survivors. Another possibility is that the Wasp went down fighting in a separate engagement.
Around the time of the Wasp’s disappearance, a battered British frigate entering Lisbon reported that it had endured a night-time duel with an aggressive opponent that they thought might have been an American warship. It was reported that the ship had “disappeared” during the engagement. With regard to the Wasp’s fate, we know nothing more than this. What is known is that not a trace of her, the crew, or Captain Blakely was ever found. The incident weighed heavily even on the famous polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes. He wrote these words in his 1891 work Autocrat of the Breakfast Table:
The firing of the great guns at the Navy-yard is easily heard at the place where I was born and lived. “There is a ship of war come in,” they used to say, when they heard them. Of course, I supposed that such vessels came in unexpectedly, after indefinite years of absence, suddenly as falling stones; and that the great guns roared in their astonishment and delight at the sight of the old war-ship splitting the bay with her cutwater. Now, the sloop-of-war the Wasp, Captain Blakely, after gloriously capturing the Reindeer and the Avon, had disappeared from the face of the ocean, and was supposed to be lost. But there was no proof of it, and, of course, for a time, hopes were entertained that she might be heard from.
Long after the last real chance had utterly vanished, I pleased myself with the fond illusion that somewhere on the waste of waters she was still floating, and there were years during which I never heard the sound of the great gun booming inland from the Navy-yard without saying to myself, “The Wasp has come!” and almost thinking I could see her, as she rolled in, crumpling the water before her, weather-beaten, barnacled, with shattered spars and threadbare canvas, welcomed by the shouts and tears of thousands. This was one of those dreams that I nursed and never told. Let me make a clean breast of it now, and say, that, so late as to have outgrown childhood, perhaps to have got far on towards manhood, when the roar of the cannon has struck suddenly on my ear, I have started with a thrill of vague expectation and tremulous delight, and the long-unspoken words have articulated themselves in the mind’s dumb whisper, The Wasp has come!
May Captain Blakely and his brave crew rise again from the deep.
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