The Defense Of The “General Armstrong”

Samuel Chester Reid was born in 1783 and first went to sea at the age of eleven.  Various adventures, including time as a captured prisoner of the French at Basse-terre in the Carribbean, honed his resourceful instincts; and privateering seemed a logical choice of career.  Upon the outbreak of the War of 1812, Reid assumed command of the brig General Armstrong.  She sailed from New York with a crew of about ninety men, composed of the expected assortment of adventurers, rogues, and merchant sailors. 

The General Armstrong was armed with three nine-pound cannon on either side, as well as a powerful forty-two-pound gun nicknamed “Long Tom.” The cannon had an interesting and circuitous history. Cast in France in 1786, it was captured by the British from a French frigate and then sold to the Americans; the United States later sold it to Haiti for use during its war against France, but it eventually found its way back into American hands. By 1814, it was a formidable fixture aboard the General Armstrong.

Her task was to cruise the Atlantic, looking for prizes.  On September 26, 1814, Reid brought his vessel to anchor at the port of Fayal in the Portuguese Azores; Portugal was a neutral in the conflict between America and Great Britain, and Reid expected both the Portuguese administration and British captains to honor this legal status.  He would soon get a lesson in the realities of war’s ruthlessness.  At sunset, three British warships entered the harbor and evidently spotted Reid’s craft;  the ships were the Carnation, the Rota, and the Plantagenet.  Reid, through his spyglass, could see furious preparations being made by the three vessels.  He thought it prudent, for this reason, to move his own ship closer to shore and beside the guns of the Portuguese fort that commanded the shallow waters.  These measures, he was sure, would drive home the point that he was under the protection of a neutral power.

Yet he still ordered his men to prepare a defense of the ship.  Cannon were packed with shot, and men with small arms and cutlasses made ready.  At around eight o’clock, Reid spotted four British rowboats coming towards him; he warned them off repeatedly, but they ignored him.  As they neared the American privateer, the rowers picked up speed; it was now clear that they intended to board the General Armstrong and take possession of her.  Reid ordered his men to open fire, and a furious fight then ensued, with the open boats catching the worst of it.  Grapeshot smashed into the rowboats, decimating the crews and producing many casualties. 

The British returned fire to some effect, but open boats cannot contend with the advantages conferred by the height of a brig’s deck above the waterline.  As the moon rose over Fayal, crowds of Portuguese civilians began to collect on shore to witness the terrific battle.  The local governor sent a message to Robert Lloyd—captain of the Plantagenet and the man in overall command of the operation—begging him to respect Fayal’s neutrality; Lloyd’s response was that the Americans had violated this neutrality first by opening fire on his men.    

The British boats returned to their ships for reinforcements of men and weapons, specifically carronades, swivels, and small arms.  They then returned in eleven boats to engage Reid’s men at around midnight.  But the wily Yankee was ready for them.  Holding his fire until the British came within range of small arms, Reid pounded the attacking boats with volley after volley.  The British, it must be said, fought with extreme bravery under a significant disadvantage.  “Long Tom,” the forty-two-pounder that was located amidships on the General Armstrong, inflicted fearsome casualties on the attackers.  The British seamen were now close enough to attempt boarding of the privateer.  For forty minutes, hand-to-hand fighting took place on the ship’s decks and sides; finally the attack was repulsed, but the carnage had been great.  British casualties were no less than thirty-six dead and ninety-three wounded; one historian has claimed that this engagement was the bloodiest that ever took place between British and American naval combatants.    

The duel eventually broke off, and the next day the British buried their dead ashore.  American losses were unbelievably light—only two killed and seven wounded.  Yet all of Reid’s junior officers were incapacitated.  During this new day, the wind in the harbor picked up, and enabled the three British ships to maneuver into a position where they surrounded the General Armstrong.  Reid, after weighing his chances, chose to scuttle his ship and bring his crew ashore, where he might seek the protection of the Portuguese.  He opened a hole in the ship’s hull, destroyed his weapons, and brought his men ashore in open boats.  The British boarded the sinking privateer and set fire to her.  John C. Dabney, the American consul in Fayal, angrily protested the local governor’s inaction.  Why, he asked his Portuguese counterpart, had not Robert Lloyd (the British commander) been told to halt his operation and respect the neutrality of Fayal?  The indignant Dabney’s letter to his Secretary of State tells the story:

At nine o’clock in the evening (soon after the first attack ) I called on the Governor, requesting his Excellency to protect the privateer [General Armstrong], either by force or by such remonstrance to the commander of the squadron as would cause him to desist from any further attempt.  The Governor, indignant at what had passed, but feeling himself totally unable, with the slender means he possessed, to resist such a force, took the part of remonstrating, which he did in forcible but respectful terms.  His letter to Captain Lloyd had no other effect than to produce a menacing reply, insulting in the highest degree.  Nothing can exceed the indignation of the public authorities, as well as of all ranks and descriptions of persons here, at this unprovoked enormity.  Such was the rage of the British to destroy this vessel that no regard was paid to the safety of the town.  Some of the inhabitants were wounded, and a number of houses were much damaged.  

Capt. Samuel C. Reid

But this was not all.  Captain Lloyd, incensed by the heavy losses he had incurred and thirsting for revenge, now intended to arrest Reid’s crew.  Using the pretext that there were Englishmen among the crew of the General Armstrong, he sent men ashore to communicate this message to the Azorean governor.  The American crewmen fled into the countryside around Fayal, and prepared to fight a guerilla action—on foreign soil!—against the British.  It seems at this point that the Portuguese sided with the British against the Americans; the governor sent an armed detachment to find and capture the Americans.  This they did; Reid’s crew were brought back to Fayal and questioned by Lloyd’s men.  There events came to a close.

The engagement had been a testament to the power of Reid’s Yankee guile and canniness, as well as his crew’s ferocious fighting prowess. Theodore Roosevelt, in his Naval War of 1812, claims that the fight for the General Armstrong indirectly helped Andrew Jackson in his defense of New Orleans, by delaying Lloyd’s three warships in the Azores and preventing them from participating in the attack against that city:

The British squadron was bound for New Orleans, and on account of the delay and loss that it suffered, it was late in arriving, so that this action may be said to have helped in saving the Crescent City.  Few regular commanders could have done as well as Captain Reid.

An investigation into the battle conducted later by the British Admiralty determined that Captain Lloyd had acted imprudently by provoking the engagement.  Captain Reid attempted to pursue legal claims against the government of Portugal for its toothless response to Lloyd’s actions.  These claims went nowhere; Louis Napoleon, who was appointed to mediate them, dismissed them as meritless.  In 1891, the Portuguese government returned the ancient “Long Tom” cannon to the United States–it had until then been housed at a fort in the Azores–and it made an appearance in the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. In 1895, it was relocated to the museum at the Washington Navy Yard. In a final postscript to history, Reid achieved further notoriety by designing in 1818 a new version of the American flag, in which the individual stars are arranged to form one large pentagram.     



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