William Bainbridge ranks among the very greatest of the early American naval commanders. Born in Princeton, New Jersey in 1774 to a father who was a prominent physician, he was apprenticed to the sea at the ripe age of fifteen. Even as a teenager, his actions and deportment marked him as fated for great things.
On his fourth voyage, he was made first mate on a commercial ship bound for Holland; a mutiny broke out during the cruise, and Bainbridge helped put it down, even though he was outnumbered by seven men. In recognition of this bravery, he was awarded command of the same vessel at the age of nineteen. Other anecdotes from his early years highlight his bravery and willingness to take decisive action. Once in 1796, when in command of a small ship named Hope, which possessed four guns and eleven men, he ignored an English captain’s signal to stop and greet him. The British schooner, having eight guns and thirty men, unwisely fired on him; and Bainbridge, his pugnacity aroused, responded with a well-aimed broadside that crippled the schooner. To Bainbridge’s surprise, the Englishman surrendered. But at that time the United States and Britain were not at war. When the British captain asked Bainbridge what he proposed to do with them, he responded:
I have no use for you. Go about your business, and report to your masters that if they want my ship, they must either send a greater force or a more skillful commander.
Another noteworthy event took place a few days after this incident. The Hope was stopped on the high seas by the British frigate Indefatigable. This was an era, we should remember, when it was not unusual for the British and American navies to impress each other’s sailors into service. Both countries indulged in the practice, although it was arguably more common in the Royal Navy, which was larger, stronger, and had greater manpower needs. When the Hope was stopped, a man was removed from her crew, on the pretext that he was from Scotland; Bainbridge protested, but to no avail. Undeterred, Bainbridge himself stopped an English vessel a few days later and impressed one of the Englishmen aboard into service on the Hope. He left the following note with the crew:
Captain ——- may report that Captain William Bainbridge has taken one of His Majesty’s subjects in retaliation for a seaman taken from the American ship Hope by Lieutenant Norton of the Indefatigable razee commanded by Sir Edward Pellew.
We are told that the impressed Englishman was well-paid and promptly released when the Hope reached port. These anecdotes reveal Bainbridge to be an aggressive and resourceful leader, exactly the type of man suited for commanding a warship in combat. In 1798 he was given his first U.S. Navy command, taking charge of the Retaliation, which had been captured by Decatur during the Quasi-War with France. In 1800 he was placed in command of the George Washington as captain, which was then the highest available naval rank. He was only twenty-six years old. Thereafter he enjoyed extensive adventures in the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars, but we need not linger here on these side-shows.
When war was declared against Great Britain in 1812, Bainbridge was in command of the navy-yard at Charlestown in Boston. Desperate to get into the action, he applied for command of a frigate; and when the captaincy of the Constitution fortuitously became available, Bainbridge got the job. In December 1812, Bainbridge and his experienced crew found themselves in southern waters, cruising off the coast of Brazil and looking for prizes. The ports of Brazil at that time were frequent stops for British vessels on their way to Africa or India; and the Portuguese authorities, while not exactly allied with the British, certainly looked upon the brash Yankees to the north as upstarts.
Bainbridge would soon taste action against the Royal Navy. When the Constitution was about ten leagues from the coast of Brazil—her log records her location as 13 degrees S latitude and 38 degrees W longitude—her lookouts noticed unfamiliar sails on the horizon at around 9:00 a.m. on December 29, 1812. When the two ships came within sight of each other, Bainbridge signaled, but received no response. At noon the ship—a well-armed British frigate named the Java—hoisted her ensign, and the Constitution did the same. The fight was now on, and it would be waged by both sides with great skill and intensity. The firing began when the Java was about a half-mile from the Constitution.
The British commander must have quickly sensed Bainbridge’s abilities in maneuver and seamanship, for he was careful not to allow the Constitution to get too close. Both ships then spent a great deal of time attempting to get into a position where they might be able to pour raking fire on the other. The Constitution’s difficulties were compounded by the fact that her steering-wheel was shot away in an early exchange, but her skilled crew somehow managed to pilot the ship competently. Bainbridge’s gunners managed to maintain a continuous volume of long range fire. By three-o’clock, it was clear that the Java’s bowsprit and jib-boom had been shot away; soon after this, her mainmast became inoperable. At around quarter to five, the Java’s captain prudently surrendered, once he saw Bainbridge moving into position to deliver what would have been a terrible broadside.
Bainbridge sent one of his lieutenants, a man named Parker, to board the Java and formally receive her surrender. She was a formidable ship, carrying forty-nine guns and was manned by four hundred men. Parker observed that the Java was both on fire and leaking; her brave captain, Henry Lambert, had been severely wounded during the battle. He would die of his wounds seven days later. Fortunately the Constitution was still in relatively good shape, and was able to receive the captured prisoners. We know from a letter written later by one of the Java’s officers that she lost 60 men killed and 170 wounded. The Constitution, by contrast, lost only 9 men killed and 25 wounded. Bainbridge himself was wounded twice during the fight.
Only then did the Americans discover that the Java was a somewhat important ship. She had been bound for the East Indies, as her name suggests, and she carried the governor of Bombay, Lt. Gen. Hislop, as well as his staff. Because the captured vessel was in no condition to be brought to a Brazilian port, Bainbridge ordered her to be burned. He paroled his prisoners by setting them ashore in San Salvador. They comprised the following: thirteen officers, several surgeons and specialists, and 323 seamen and marines, for a grand total of 361 men, as well as around nine impressed Portuguese seamen. All of them were deposited in Brazil without incident. Commodore Bainbridge’s official account to the Secretary of the Navy reads as follows:
I have the honor to inform you that on the 29th of December, at 2 P.M., in south latitude 130 6′, west longitude 38., and about ten leagues distant from the coast of Brazil, I fell in with, and captured, His Britannic Majesty’s frigate Java, of 49 guns, and upwards of four hundred men, commanded by Captain Lambert, a very distinguished officer.
The action lasted one hour and fifty -five minutes, in which time the enemy was completely dismantled, not having a spar of any kind standing. The loss on board the Constitution was 9 killed and 25 wounded. The enemy had 60 killed and 101 wounded [among the latter, Captain Lambert, mortally], but, by the enclosed letter, written on board this ship by one of the officers of the Java, and accidentally found, it is evident that the enemy’s wounded must have been much greater than as above stated, and who must have died of their wounds previous to their being removed. [The letter stated 60 killed and 170 wounded]…
Should I attempt to do justice, by representation, to the brave and good conduct of my officers and crew, I should fail in the attempt; therefore, suffice it to say that the whole of their conduct was such as to meet my highest encomiums. I beg leave to recommend the officers, particularly, to the notice of the government, as, also, the unfortunate seamen who were wounded, and the families of those brave men who fell in action…
The great distance from our own coast, and the perfect wreck we made of the enemy’s frigate, forbade every idea of attempting to take her to the United States. I had, therefore, no alternative but burning her, which I did on the 31st, after receiving all the prisoners and their baggage, which was very hard work, only having two boats left out of eight, and not one left on board the Java. On blowing up the frigate Java I proceeded to St. Salvador, where I landed all the prisoners on their parole, to return to England, and there remain until regularly exchanged, and not to serve in their professional capacities in any place or in any manner whatsoever against the United States of America until their exchange shall be effected.
Congress ordered a gold medal struck for Bainbridge and his crew, and awarded them a bonus of $50,000. And here I cannot refrain from mentioning one of those poignant and magnificent incidents that sometimes occur during wartime between honorable, and mutually respectful, belligerents. As the brave and mortally wounded British commander, Captain Lambert, was quietly and stoically waiting to be carried off the Constitution in San Salvador, he was approached by Commodore Bainbridge who, as stated earlier, had also been wounded in the fight. Bainbridge had to be physically supported by two of his officers as he made his way to his former adversary, who was now lying on the Constitution’s deck in intense pain.
With considerable difficulty, Bainbridge bent down to speak to Captain Lambert. His voice was quiet, but audible to those present; and they strained their ears to listen to this incredible drama playing out before their eyes. Bainbridge told him that the sword of so brave a man as he, should never, and would never, be taken from him. He then pressed his hand into Captain Lambert’s palm. And then the dying captain firmly closed his hand upon Bainbridge’s. The resplendent dignity of their mutual respect had transcended death itself.
Read more about feats of valor in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: