The “Constitution” Escapes Certain Capture

The fabled USS Constitution is still the oldest commissioned vessel in the US Navy.  Just the sight of her in Charlestown drydock is enough to quicken the pulse of any man entranced by feats of heroism and valor.  A relic from an era when warships circled each other at sea like snarling dogs, she tallied an extraordinary list of accomplishments during her active service life.  We will here relate the tale of her escape from almost certain capture by a squadron of British ships during the War of 1812.    

Captain Isaac Hull was given command of the Constitution in 1810.  Hull, like many American naval officers of his day, had begun his association with the sea at a very early age.  Born in 1773, he had seen service in the First Barbary War and the Quasi-War with France; before the Constitution, he had commanded both the Chesapeake and the President.   In July 1812 he busied himself with preparations in Annapolis, Maryland to take the Constitution out to sea.  We must remember that the US Navy at that time had a small corps of experienced, brave officers who often commanded surprisingly inexperienced crews.  In a famous letter to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton in early July, Hull stated frankly:

By Sunday next, the Ship will be in tolerable order for Sea but the crew you will readily conceive must yet be unacquainted with a Ship of War, as many of them have lately joined us and never were in an armed Ship before. We are doing all that we can to make them acquainted with their duties, and in a few days, we shall have nothing to fear from any single deck Ship; indeed; unacquainted as we now are, we should I hope give a good account of any Frigate the enemy have.

Yet daring, good leadership, and robust morale proved to be more than enough for the intrepid Yankees.  Five days after setting out for the open ocean, Hull and his men would find themselves involved in one of the greatest naval chases ever recorded.  One historian characterized it as “a test of seamanship and sailing powers, the like of which has no equal in history for prolonged excitement.”  It was not long before Hull’s men spotted the masts and sails of three British warships on the horizon, warily following him.  Night intervened; the next morning, Hull had additional pursuers. 

Captain Isaac Hull [PD: US]

Before dawn, one of the vessels, the H.M.S. Guerriere approached the Constitution’s stern and fired three rockets at her.  This was quickly followed by two cannon blasts.  By nine o’clock, Captain Hull became aware of his predicament.  He was facing no less than seven enemy combatants:  two large frigates, a ship of the line, two smaller frigates, a brig, and a schooner.  It was a squadron commanded by Capt. Sir Philip Vere Broke, and Broke meant to teach the upstart Yankees what naval combat truly meant.  But numbers were not Hull’s only problem.  The Atlantic winds had died down, making rapid movement extremely difficult.  As Hull and his inexperienced crew surveyed the waters around themselves, they realized that the British were encircling them.      

The waters became so calm that the only option for forward movement was towing.  This was a maneuver whereby rowboats would proceed ahead of the ship and actually tow it along.  One of the British frigates, the Shannon, fired on the Constitution, but the shots fell short.  Even if the cannonballs had impacted, it is likely that the Constitution’s legendary hull (“Old Ironsides”) would have mitigated any damage.  It was at this time that one of Captain Hull’s junior officers—a lieutenant Charles Morris—came up with a brilliant idea to escape the British trap:  a nautical maneuver known as kedging.  Kedging (or warping) is a method of moving large ships in situations where normal means are unavailable.  In practice, groups of men in rowboats would move one of the ship’s smaller anchors in a certain direction.  The anchor is then dropped; the men would then return to the vessel and pull the ship to the dropped anchor.  The maneuver sounds simple, but like everything else at sea, it is not; it takes coordination, strength, and skilled seamanship.  To attempt it while an enemy is preparing to shoot at you adds another dimension of difficulty.  For the Constitution’s kedging maneuver, Hull had his men splice together a cable that was nearly a mile long.  

But the British saw what Hull was doing, and began to kedge themselves.  Thus was the contest reduced to the brutal labor of back and arm muscles.  For hour after hour, Hull and his men pulled for their lives; shifts would be able to catch a few hours of sleep on the decks, but were then ordered back into action.  By now the British were gaining on them; after a day the Guerriere was visibly closing in.  One of Hull’s worries was that when the waters became too deep, kedging would not work.  Slowly, one of the opposing vessels, the Belvidera, attempted to block the Constitution’s escape; Hull deftly tacked to counter this move.  At one point, Hull could see eleven enemy sails arrayed before him.

The wind had now begun to pick up, but it was still feeble.  Captain Hull ordered his men aloft to splash bucket after bucket of water on the sails, under the theory that wet sails retained more wind than dry ones.  Slowly they began to pull ahead of Captain Broke’s flotilla.  It was now that Hull deployed another brilliant maneuver.  A squall blew in, and Hull used the opportunity to display his masterful seamanship.  By furling and reefing some sails (feigning a concern for safety in the high winds) he tricked Broke’s squadron into doing the same.  But when the winds of the squall hit him, he took immediate action.  As the storm enveloped the Constitution, Hall rapidly deployed his fore and main topgallant-sails; this caused his ship to shoot across the waves at a speed of eleven knots.  The crafty Yankees rapidly opened up the distance between themselves and their pursuers.

A Congressional medal awarded to Captain Isaac Hull

Captain Hull and his men were utterly exhausted.  The chase had lasted sixty hours, during which time Hull had slept little, if at all.  The only weight that Hull had ordered thrown overboard was twenty-four hundred gallons of drinking water; he had kept everything else.  It was superior guile and seamanship that had saved the day.  A lieutenant named Crane who had been aboard one of Hull’s chasers (the Nautilus) later related that the British officers had been astonished at Captain Hull’s skills.  They had expected him to throw his cannon and anchors into the sea to lighten himself, but he never did.  Crane also related that Captain Broke was so certain of victory that he had assigned a special crew to sail his anticipated prize to Halifax in Nova Scotia.  But it was not to be.  The Shannon’s log entry of July 18 records the incident with brevity but acute disappointment:

At dawn an American frigate within four miles of the squadron.  Had a most fatiguing and anxious chase; both towing and kedging, as opportunity offered.  American exchanged a few shots with Belvidera—carried near enemy by partial breeze.  Cut our boats adrift, but all in vain; the Constitution sailed well and escaped.

When Captain Hull eventually sailed into Boston in triumph, he enjoyed his moment of notoriety.  But like any good leader, he was careful to give credit to his subordinates for their brave and exemplary conduct during the chase.  He had the following note posted publicly at the Exchange Coffee-House:

Captain Hull, finding that his friends in Boston are correctly informed of his situation when chased by the British squadron off New York, and that they are good enough to give him more credit for having escaped it than he ought to claim, takes this opportunity of requesting them to transfer their good wishes to Lieutenant Morris and the other brave officers, and the crew under his command, for their very great exertions and prompt attention to his orders while the enemy were in chase.  Captain Hull has great pleasure in saying that, notwithstanding the length of the chase, and the officers and crew being deprived of sleep, and allowed but little refreshment during the time, not a murmur was heard to escape them.

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