One of the great things about America, which is at once both lamentable and comforting, is that there are so many obscure or even forgotten people in her history who achieved extraordinary things in the great cause of liberty.
On this day, August 19th, in 1812, one such person secured his place in Liberty’s pantheon. His name is Captain Isaac Hull.
The War of 1812 has been described by many as America’s second war for independence. Even though nearly three decades had passed since the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, bringing an end to the Revolutionary War, Great Britain still had designs on controlling her former colony.
The island people continued to try to impose their will on the budding nation and had pushed and prodded until their former kin had had enough. Unlike the first war, which was largely fought on land, the second would be waged on the deep blue sea.
The war began when the American people, with James Madison as their president, grew tired of the British practice of impressment. Impressment, by its sounding, is a seemingly innocuous word, having as its root, “impress” (sounds impressive) but in fact, it is quite sinister.
It is a high-sounding synonym for the word kidnap.
Royal Navy captains, owing to the deplorable treatment of their sailors, were always wanting of crew for their ships. As such they had developed the wide-spread, and up to then, the unanswerable habit of stopping American merchant ships under the pretense of recovering their own deserters, and then by force, impressing the sailors into service of the Royal Navy. One had only to “look” British to be impressed (kidnapped), even when one could prove American citizenship.
Though the small American Navy had proven itself in the Barbary War engagements of the previous decade, the powers that be still regarded the British Navy as far superior (with good reason) and as such, endeavored not to risk an entanglement which could destroy its tiny fleet.
Great Britain had ruled the oceans for centuries and was well-practiced in the art of war at sea. Only a scant few believed the American’s were the equal of their British counterparts.
Fortunately for us, the scant few were on board the American ships.
Captain Isaac Hull of the U.S.S. Constitution was perhaps the biggest believer of all. Alone off the east coast, Captain Hull and his ship had been pursued rabidly by a British war squadron led by the redoubtable Commodore Philip Broke.
Hull expertly alluded the larger force using timely and well executed maneuvers, all-the-while evoking both the ire and admiration of Commodore Broke and his British sailors.
When Hull reached Boston, the home port of his ship, shortly thereafter, the city was overjoyed as the American press had mistakenly reported that Broke had taken him prisoner. This sentiment, no doubt, was born of the misplaced high regard for the British Navy.
The town, though home to many highly partisan anti-war, anti-Madison Federalists, was elated. They gave Hull and his crew a hero’s homecoming but the captain had other things on his mind.
He quickly refitted his proud frigate and a week later set out to the open sea toward Newfoundland where he hoped to find a British warship. It was disappointing at first. He came upon and captured a few smaller vessels, burning them after transferring their crews.
On the evening of August 18th a lookout spotted a brig in the distance and Hull gave chase, catching her an hour and a half later. As it turned out, it was an American privateer under the command of Captain William Nicholls.
Unfortunately, in trying to outrun Hull, Nicholls, desperate to lighten his load to evade capture by the unknown pursuer, threw twelve valuable cannon overboard.
Nicholls came aboard the Constitution and immediately warned Captain Hull of a large British Man O’ War just to the south. Hull, enthused at the prospect, politely informed Captain Nicholls of his intent to hunt the ship down. Nicholls disembarked and Hull and his crew made sail southward in search of the British ship of war.
At 2:00 in the afternoon the following day, August 19th, a lookout spotted a sail in the distance. The wind out of the northwest was ideal as Hull set a course for the far away ship. An hour later the two ships were in plain sight of one another. Now would be the time to choose — fight or flight. Fight it was.
By 3:30 the warships were close enough that Hull could determined the ship was the Guerriere, one of the frigates of Commodore Broke’s squadron which had attempted to capture him weeks earlier.
The Guerriere had been dispatched by Broke to Halifax for a refit. Her Captain, twenty-eight-year-old James Dacres, who, despite his young age, was an experienced sailor and part of a family of distinguished mariners. His father and uncle were both admirals in his majesty’s Royal Navy.
Dacres was not going to turn and run from an American Frigate. Like his fellow sailors and indeed the whole of England, he did not hold the American Navy in high regard. Besides, his frigate was one of the finest in the British fleet and he intended to demonstrate that to his American foe in short order.
Captain Dacres was so confident of victory that he allowed the ten impressed American sailors, who had refused to fight against their countrymen, to wait out the battle below decks.
While Captain Dacres ruminated over his anticipated victory, Captain Hull cleared his ship deck for action. The marine drummer called all hands on deck and to their battle stations as Hull calmly directed his crew to make straight away for the enemy frigate.
By 5:00 the two ships were in firing range and the Guerriere would fire first but the cannonballs fell short, splashing into the water. Captain Dacres ordered a second broadside. Two of the cannonballs hit there mark but bounced harmlessly off the Constitution’s hull in a thud that surely must have caused the British sailors a moment of confusion.
It was at that moment that the U.S.S. Constitution earned its nickname “Old Ironsides.” The Constitution’s thick hull was made of nearly impenetrable ancient Live Oak from St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia.
Hull largely held his fire until he felt he had the upper hand. After a series of maneuvers by both captains, Hull had positioned his ship within ten yards of the Guerriere’s beam and fired away. The barrage of cannon and grape shot was devastating.
After fifteen minutes of withering fire one of Dacres masts tumbled over the starboard quarter. The hull and his sails had been pummeled to pieces as well. The Royal Navy frigate was in tatters.
Captain Hull maneuvered his ship hard to port, positioning it across the enemies bow. He fired another barrage and then repeated the maneuver again while his topmast sharpshooters sent a deluge of musket balls raining down on the enemy frigate’s deck.
Captain Dacres, try as he might, could no longer control his ship. With its rigging mangled, it suddenly became entangled with the American frigate. As his ship was now destroyed, Dacres only hope of victory was hand to hand combat.
He ordered the assembly of boarding parties (a strange word, party, as it is anything but a festive gathering).
A sailor high atop the Constitution saw what the British were doing and alerted Captain Hull. The sound of a trumpet soon burst into the air, the signal for the Americans to prepare to board the enemy ship.
An enterprising Lieutenant, seeing the opportunity that existed, began to tie the two ships together so that they would not come loose during the boarding. Before he was able to complete his task he was shot and knock off his perch. The loosely tethered ships soon separated, making a boarding out of the question.
Hull, seeing this, quickly ordered his men back to battle stations wherein they resumed the relentless barrage of cannon fire as before. In the next few minutes the Guerriere lost its foremast and mainmast rendering it a ghost ship controlled only by whim of the waves.
Captain Dacres, recognizing the hopelessness of his situation, but having no colors aloft to strike, fired a cannon to the leeward, the signal of surrender in such a case.
Meanwhile, Captain Hull had turned away to prepare for another pass if need be, but thinking the Guerriere was sinking he sent a sailor in a boat under a flag of truce to confirmed that the leeward shot was indeed a call to surrender.
It was. Though badly injured by one of the Constitution’s sharpshooters, Captain Dacres made the trip back with the sailor to offer his sword. Hull, in great admiration of the young captain, refused to take it and escorted him to his cabin to rest.
Captain Hull and his crew spent all night and the better part of the next day tending to the wounded and transporting the British crew to the Constitution.
Captain Dacres would later say, “I feel it is my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his officers to our men has been that of a brave enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our men losing the smallest trifle.”
When news of Hull’s victory reached the mainland, the nation was beside itself with jubilance. The triumph confirmed what the men of the American Navy already knew — that they were every bit the equal of the Royal Navy.
The British people in contrast were struck dumb by the defeat. The papers were full of lamentations for the obvious loss of naval superiority. The American Navy would distinguish itself again and again during the war, sending the message loud and clear that though they had but a few ships, each was hazardous to engage.
America would go one to win the War of 1812, casting out the British for the last time at the Battle of New Orleans.
Both the USS Constitution and its namesake, the US Constitution, exist to this very day. It is so in large part due to hardy men like Captain Isaac Hull.
Lest we forget.