Skip to main content

“By Heaven, That Ship Is Ours!”

July 2024
21min read

So roared Captain Isaac Hull as Old Ironsides closed in mortal combat with the British frigate Guerrière. On the accuracy of his prediction hung all of America’s naval prestige in 1812

July 16, 1812: The United States of America had been at war with Great Britain for twenty-eight days. The American frigate Constitution, 44 guns, was at sea, on a passage from Washington, where she had refitted, to New York. There she was to join the squadron of Commodore John Rodgers, to cruise against British commerce.

At 2 P.M. the Constitution was at latitude 38°18′ north (oil Egg Harbor, New jersey), out of sight of land and in soundings of twenty-two fathoms, when her lookouts made out four sail to the north-northwest, inshore. It seemed likely that these were the ships of Commodore Rodgers’ squadron, and the Constitution made all sail to tome up with them, the wind being very light. At 4 P.M. another ship appeared in the northeast. She stood toward the Constitution on a favorable wind until sundown, when the wind shifted to the south. All the ships were still out of signalling distance, so at 6:45 the Constitution wore and stood for the single ship, hoping to approach near enough to make a signal. At 7:30 the crew were summoned to their battle stations. Some or all of the strange ships might be enemy.

At 10:30 P.M. , when within six or eight miles of the single ship, the Constitution made the private signal of the day. But, although the lanterns were kept aloft for forty-five minutes, the strange ship made no answer. At 11:15 the signal was hauled down, and the Constitution turned on her heel, making sail to the southeast on the starboard tack. The single ship tacked in chase, signalling to the ships inshore, but they made no reply.

The Constitution stood southeast during the night, with a light wind from the southwest. Officers and crew slept at their quarters. Captain Isaac Hull paced the quarter-deck, pondering the situation. He was four days out of port with a store-laden ship and a green crew. Some of the officers had recently joined the ship, most of the crew were new recruits, and many had never before sailed in a ship of war. Some had come on board less than a week earlier. Could this crew man the great guns against a seasoned English frigate?

It seemed certain that the single ship astern was an enemy, since she had not answered the Constitution’s signal. If the squadron was Rodgers’, the Constitution could turn and engage the single ship in daylight —much easier for the men than a night engagement. It, on the other hand, the squadron was also British, the Constitution could hope for nothing better than escape.

Surely, Hull reasoned, the inshore ships must be American, for they had made no answer to the signals hoisted by the single ship in the northeast. Her captain, too, was uncertain; at 4 A.M. , just as dawn began to break, he threw a signal rocket and fired two guns, tacked as if to flee, then wore around again in chase of the Constitution . The two frigates had been nearly within gunshot, but this maneuver occupied about ten minutes, and gave the Constitution a few precious yards—vital yards, for as the sun rose, American hearts sank. There were now seven ships in view. They had been favored during the night with a fine breeze, and they seemed to fill the horizon—two frigates off the lee quarter (northeast); two frigates, a ship of the line, a brig, and a schooner, astern.∗ All seven had English colors hoisted, and were still gaining fast, with a mod- erate breeze, while the Constitution was nearly becalmed.

∗ The frigates were H.M.S.’s Belvidera, 36; Guerrière , 38 (the single ship in the northeast); Shannon, 38; and Aeolus, 32. The liner was the Africa , 64, and the brig was the former U.S.S. Nautilus, captured by the Shannon the day before. The schooner was also a prize. Incidentally, the dates given in this article for the encounter between the Constitution and the British squadron (July 16, 17, and 18, 1812) are reckoned according to civil time. By the nautical calendar, which runs twelve hours earlier, the dates are July 17, 18, and 19.

At 5:15 A.M. one of the frigates astern had approached within five or six miles, the ships on the lee quarter were two or three miles distant, and the remainder were about ten miles astern. Suddenly, to the Americans’ dismay, the wind died altogether. The Constitution would not answer her rudder, and her head began to fall around toward the pursuing ships, which retained a light breeze and continued to gain on the Constitution . The nearer frigates began firing their bow guns, and shot spla.hed into the water around and even beyond the American frigate. The distance was too great for accuracy, however, and no shot struck the ship.

The Constitution rapidly hoisted out her boats, and half an hour’s hard rowing brought the ship’s head around to the south again. The enemy ships also got out their boats to tow, and with a light air favoring them, came up rapidly. At 6 A.M. the Constitution set all her light canvas. A gang of men trundled the long 18-pounder aft from the forecastle, and another gang swayed up a long 24 from the gun deck. Part of the taffrail was cut away to run these guns out the stern, and two more long 24’s were directed out the cabin windows.

At 7 A.M. Captain Hull ordered one of the stern guns fired at the nearest ship, but the shot fell short. One advantage remained to the Americans—the enemy ships could not tow within gunshot, for if they did their boats could be sunk by the Constitution’s stern chasers. Still, if they could get near enough to disable one of her masts by a lucky shot, she must certainly be captured. One of the smaller frigates was using long sweeps, like a row galley. “It now appeared that we must be taken,” Captain Hull later reported, “and that our escape was impossible, lour heavy ships nearly within gunshot, and coming up last, and not the least hope of a breeze, to give us a chance ol getting oil by outsailing them.”

At this juncture (about 7 A.M. ), First Lieutenant Charles Morris had an idea. 11 the water was shallow enough, why not try kedging? The lead was thrown- twenty-lour fathoms. Rather deep, but still it might be possible. All the rope in the ship’s lockers was spliced into two cables, each about half a mile long: one was attached to a spare anchor, rowed out ahead of the ship, and dropped. When the anchor was caught, the men on deck seized the hawser and walked alt, thus pulling the ship toward the anchor. Slowly at first, then faster and faster, the Constitution gathered way. At 7:30 she set her ensign and fired a shot at her pursuers, who for the moment could not understand how she was gaining on them. Meanwhile, the other hawser was attached to another spare anchor, and soon the Constitution had two kedges working, one being rowed out while the men hauled up the other. With each kedgc she gained some six hundred yards.

It was not long before enemy spyglasses discovered the Constitution’s secret, and the English quickly got out kedge anchors of their own. The boats from the Africa were sent to tow and kedge the nearest frigate. By 9 A.M. this ship was gaining rapidly and began to fire at the Constitution , but the shot fell short. The Americans returned the fire, and thought they saw a few shot go on board the Englishman. But the Constitution’s stern had so much rake that the muzzles of the guns in the cabin were discharging directly beneath the taffrail. The force of the explosions was so great that every shot lifted the deck and threatened to blow oft the stern. Captain Hull ordered the guns to cease firing.

At nine minutes past nine a breeze sprang up from the southward. James Fenimore Cooper says in his History of the Navy of the United States , “The beautiful manner in which this advantage was improved, excited admiration even in the enemy.” The Constitution braced round to the southwest on the larboard tack, her boats ran alongside and were hoisted clear of the water, and not a foot of advantage was lost. The boats that belonged to the davits were run tip, while the longboat and others were lifted just out of the water by purchases on the spare outboard spars, ready to be used again at a moment’s notice. This maneuver brought the Guerrière nearly on the lee beam, and she came around, firing her broadside. Shot splashed into the water just short of the men in the dangling boats; they responded with jeers and raucous laughter.

By 10 A.M. the wind had died away, and the boats and kedges were sent ahead once more. The Constitution pumped out 2,335 gallons of her precious water to lighten the ship. More and moru of the enemy’s boats were sent to tow the foremost ship, and more and more steadily she gained. Throughout the day the terrible duel continued. When it was calm, the boats toiled on the glassy sea, and the Englishmen gained. When a light breeze or even a tew cat’s-paws were felt, up went the boats, and the Constitution drew ahead. For several years she had been a dull sailer, but her recent scraping at Washington had transformed her, and she outsailed all her pursuers, to the surprise and delight of her officers.

Nothing that might be of the slightest benefit was neglected. The hammocks were removed from the nettings to keep them from deflecting the slightest wind, the sails were kept wet to close the texture of the canvas, and the towing and kedging went on endlessly. At 11 P.M. the wind was steady enough for the boats to be hoisted up, and although it died away again at midnight, none of the ships put out their boats, and the weary crews slept undisturbed at their stations.

If the chase on the seventeenth was a towing contest, that of the eighteenth was a sailing contest. By 6 A.M. that day the wind had steadied, and it did not again become necessary to tow or kedge. The emphasis throughout the day was on tactics. At daylight, six sail were still in sight from the Constitution’s deck, seven from the masthead—one frigate on the lee beam and three on the lee quarter, two to three miles distant, and the liner, brig, and schooner several miles farther to leeward. Shortly after 4 A.M. the Guerrière , forging ahead to a position on the lee bow, tacked to come down across the Constitution’s course and bring her within gunshot. If the Constitution also tacked, she would pass within range of the Aeolus , now on her lee quarter; if not, she must fall in with the Guerrière . Captain Hull chose to tack to the east, about 4:20; at 5 the Constitution passed to windward of the Aeolus within long gunshot, but the English frigate did not fire; she and the other frigates tacked in the Constitution’s wake. The Aeolus was a small frigate, mounting 12-pounders (as opposed to Constitution’s 24’s), and some have thought her captain did not fire because he feared the Constitution’s superior strength. Captain Hull thought it might be for fear of becalming himself, the wind having continued light. Whatever the reason, the Aeolus did not fire the shots that might have disabled the American frigate.

The Constitution now stood to the east under all sail, all her pursuers astern. The wind from the southeast gradually freshened; at 6 A.M. it was possible to run up the last of the boats. The launch and the first cutter ran alongside and hooked on as the frigate gathered way; Captain Hull personally directed the operation, and it was accomplished with so little hesitation or change of sails that the pursuing squadron could not imagine what had become of the boats. At 9 A.M. skysails were set, and at about the same time another ship appeared in the southeast, apparently a merchantman. The English ships set American colors to lure her down; the Constitution immediately set English colors, and the stranger hauled off without further investigation.

By 11 A.M. the breeze was fresh enough for the skysails to be struck. Slowly but steadily the Constitution drew away from the enemy. By noon she was doing ten knots; every man remained at his post, wetting the sails and trimming them to catch every gust. By this time the nearest frigate was three and a half miles distant, the others were four or five miles astern, and the battleship was hull down. At 2 P.M. the Constitution was bowling along at twelve and a half knots, and as Lieutenant Morris wrote later, “Our hopes began to overcome apprehension, and cheerfulness was more apparent among us.”

Throughout the afternoon the Constitution gained; at 4 P.M. her nearest pursuer was six miles astern. At about 6:30 P.M. a squall was seen approaching from the southeast, and Captain Hull prepared to turn it to his advantage. He stationed the topmen on the yards, others at the rigging, and kept all fast till the last minute; then as the squall struck the ship the order was given to strike the light sails. Within minutes the ship was brought under short canvas. The English, observing this, supposed the squall must be a heavy one, and immediately began to shorten sail and alter course to meet the force of the wind. But the Constitution, as soon as the rain hid her from the enemy, sheeted home, hoisted topgallant sails, and went flying away at eleven knots. When the clouds passed, about 7:30, the nearest enemy ship was more than seven miles astern.

Doggedly the Englishmen kept up the chase; officers and crew spent another night at quarters. At dawn of the nineteenth the Constitution altered her course to southeast by south; only four ships were now in sight, all hull down to the northwest. Again the sails were wet down and every effort was put forth to lose the enemy; by 8 A.M. the topsails of the nearest frigate began to dip below the horizon, and at 8:30 all the pursuing ships hauled to the northeast and were out of sight within a few minutes.

For sixty-six hours the Constitution had been in sight of the British squadron, and for most of that time had been actively chased by them. She had pumped out some water, but otherwise had lost nothing—not a gun, not a boat, not a man. Officers and crew had displayed skill and ingenuity in devising means of escape, as well as great courage and steadiness in the face of almost certain capture. Captain Hull, especially, had secured his already considerable reputation as a seaman and tactician. Morris, deviser of the kedging scheme (and customarily referred to in Hull’s letters as “that valuable officer Lieutenant Morris"), best summed up the significance of the escape: “The result may be remembered as an evidence of the advantages to be expected from perseverance under the most discouraging circumstances, so long as any chance for success may remain.”

Nothing daunted by these adventures, the Constitution continued her cruise. As the British abandoned the chase, she altered course southward to speak two American merchantmen and warn them away from the squadron. She then bore away to the east and in the afternoon spoke the ship Diana from Lisbon. At 6 P.M. Hull mustered the crew at quarters, as he did every evening.

Captain Hull had determined to run for Boston rather than New York; on Tuesday the twenty-first he spoke a Spanish ship from the latter port which gave him newspapers indicating that Rodgers had already sailed in pursuit of a large convoy from Jamaica. Besides, the British squadron might still be lurking somewhere off New York; on the twenty-second the Constitution was just south of the latitude of New York Harbor when five sail were espied in the northwest. She had no desire to investigate closely this time, but hauled by the wind and soon lost them. Holding course, she rounded Cape Cod and beat up to Boston, anchoring on Monday, July 27.

The city of Boston was wild with joy and relief. A rumor had been circulated by the newspapers that the Constitution had left Annapolis without powder or shot, and the firing heard a few days later off the New Jersey coast confirmed the popular belief that the supposedly defenseless frigate had been captured. Ship’s surgeon Amos Evans noted in his journal that the citizens “with whom the Constitution and her Commander are both favorites … cheered Captain Hull as he passed up State Street about 12 o’clock.” Hull went straight to the Exchange Coffee House, gathering place of Boston merchants, and posted a card disclaiming personal credit for the escape and bestowing it on his officers and crew. The papers published a poem, supposedly written by one of the Constitution’s men:

‘Neath Hull’s command, with a tough band, And naught beside to back her, Upon a day, as log-books say, A fleet bore down to thwack her. A fleet, you know, is odds or so, Against a single ship, sirs; So ‘cross the tide her legs she tried. And gave the rogues the slip, sirs.

The furor in Boston was typical of the national situation. After long and loudly demanding war with England, the Americans found themselves suddenly at war, and quite unprepared. The administration had advocated a limited war of naval reprisals, like that conducted against the French in 1798-1800, since America’s grievances against Britain (impressment, illegal search and seizure) were chiefly maritime. But the War Hawks in Congress insisted on full-scale war so that the western states might retaliate against British-inspired Indian depredations on the frontier. So the nation declared war, and a hastily assembled collection of volunteer militia went marching off to conquer Canada. Meanwhile, the national defense was even less well prepared than the national offense, and panic and confusion were general.

The only organized, disciplined military service on which the United States could depend was her little navy—fifteen ships in active service, five in dock for extensive repairs, none of them mounting more than sixty guns. With these she opposed a navy of more than a thousand ships, many mounting over one hundred guns. A few months after the declaration of war, an Englishman wrote of the Royal Navy that “nothing was left for it to conquer … it had driven from the ocean every ship of every foe, and rode triumphant and alone.” The American challenge seemed like the blindest folly, and would have been if England had not been very much occupied with Napoleon at the moment. Even so, the Constitution had not been a week out of port before she had encountered a squadron equal to half the American Navy. If the enemy had been a single English warship, few on either side of the Atlantic, except the American naval officers, would have expected the outcome to be anything but American disaster. The people of Boston were delighted to see their favorite frigate arrive in port unscathed; and they were inclined to think the best thing for her to do was stay in port. She would be safe there, and her crew could help to man the local defenses in case of enemy attack.

Isaac Hull didn’t think that way. He had been forced to go into port by the loss of his water and the fact that, expecting to put into New York, he had taken on only eight weeks’ provisions. So he wrote to the Secretary of the Navy on the very day of his arrival in Boston, asking for further instructions. He also sent to New York for whatever orders Rodgers might have left there for him. But as he explained to the Secretary, Hull was apprehensive of being blockaded by the English squadron, which, having failed to contain Rodgers in New York, might now split up and send two frigates to wait off Boston. So he determined to stay there only until the ship was provisioned and he had word from New York. By the second of August the ship was filled and the wind fair; Rodgers had left no word at New York, and although the Secretary had written on the twenty-ninth of July, “Remain at Boston until further orders,” the letter had not yet reached Hull. So he took the responsibility on himself, and in one of the most fateful command decisions in history, determined to put to sea without orders rather than face the possibility of being trapped in Boston.

At sunrise on Sunday, August 2, 1812, the Constitution passed Boston Light, just three weeks after she had rounded Cape Henry on her first cruise. There are indications that officers and crew were a bit jittery after their narrow escape—at 1 A.M. on the first night out the men were called to quarters by the officer of the watch, who mistook the light of the rising moon for signals. The ship cruised northeastward, taking and burning a few small prizes; she was nearly a victim of fire herself on the fourteenth when one of the surgeon’s mates left a candle burning in his locked stateroom. The same day a sailor fell overboard, but unlike most sailors he could swim, and so was rescued.

On Saturday, August 15, the Constitution fell in with five ships—a fast British sloop of war, which escaped after burning one of her prizes; another prize brig, which the Constitution recaptured; and an American privateer schooner and her prize, saved by the Constitution’s appearance from capture by the sloop. Midshipman Madison and a prize crew were put into the recaptured brig Adeline. Captain Hull, learning from his prisoners that half a dozen frigates were on the Grand Banks (including his four old enemies from the New Jersey shore), turned southward in the afternoon after sighting Cape Race. Late in the night of August 17-18, the Constitution chased a brig which she brought to after an hour and a half. She was the privateer Decatur, of Salem, Captain Nichols. That gentleman came on board the Constitution to borrow some leg irons, having thrown all his own overboard during the chase, as well as twelve of his fourteen guns. He reported having been chased by a large warship the previous day, somewhere to the southward. The Constitution made sail in the direction indicated; the Decatur followed her until dawn, then stood in for Cape Race to take ships by boarding.

Wednesday, August 19, dawned cool and foggy. By afternoon the mist had cleared, but the sky was filled with towering white clouds and there was a fresh northwest breeze and a heavy sea. At 2 P.M. the Constitution was in latitude 41°42′ north, longitude 55°48′ west, when a large sail was seen bearing east-southeast. All sail was made in chase, and by 3:30 she was seen to be a frigate, close-hauled on the starboard tack. At 3:45 the stranger backed her main topsail and waited for the Constitution .

The ship was H.M.S. Guerrière, 38 guns, Captain James Richard Dacres; she was one of the frigates that had chased the Constitution off New York. All the officers in her squadron regarded her as one of the finest frigates in the British Navy, and despite a decayed foremast, she was eager to fight and, of course, capture a Yankee. Captain William B. Orne of the brig Betsey, a prisoner on board the Guerrière, reported Dacres’ pre-battle confidence: ”… he thought [the Constitution] came down too boldly for an American, but soon after added: ‘The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him.’ ” He then ordered the prisoners, and some American seamen in the crew who declined to fight, into the cockpit as the Guerrière cleared for action.

Running down within three miles of his adversary, Captain Hull paused and took in light sails, hauled up courses, reefed topsails, and cleared for action. Then the Constitution again bore away for the Guerrière . The crew gave three cheers and asked to be laid close alongside the enemy; Captain Hull replied that that was his intention. But as the Constitution approached within gunshot, at 5:05 P.M. , the enemy frigate bore up, hoisted an ensign at each masthead, and fired first a single shot, then a broadside at the Constitution . All the shot flew over the ship. The Guerrière wore and fired her larboard battery. Again most of the shot flew over the Constitution , but a few struck the ship, bounding off the “iron sides” which during this war became so celebrated. The Constitution now hoisted her colors and fired a few shot from her bow guns.

For nearly an hour the Guerrière maneuvered in the classic English manner—wearing and firing broadsides in an attempt to rake her opponent. The Constitution declined to play at long bowls. She yawed at each successive broadside to avoid being raked, fired a few shot, then came doggedly on. At last Dacres saw he could neither rake the Constitution nor gain the windward position, so he bore up, steering free, and waited for the Constitution to come down. Hull set the main topgallant sail and ran down, also before the wind.

The Guerrière continued to fire such guns as could be brought to bear, but the Constitution’s guns were silent as she ranged up on the Guerrière’s larboard quarter. Captain Hull stood on an arms chest, peering over the high rail at the enemy ship. Two or three times Lieutenant Morris asked permission to open fire; Hull, bending all his attention on the approach, replied, “Not yet, sir, not yet”; and to the repeated request: “Mr. Morris, I’ll tell you when to fire, so stand ready and see that not a shot is thrown away!”

Slowly, inexorably, the distance closed—at last, at five minutes past six, the Constitution’s bow began to draw alongside the Guerrière , and she opened fire with the first division of guns. “The next, sir!” cried Hull. “Pour in the whole broadside!” The Guerrière reeled and trembled as the double-shotted guns poured in round and grape at the range of half a pistol shot. Splinters, deadlier than shot, rose in a cloud as high as the mizzentop. “By heaven, that ship is ours!” roared Hull, bouncing up and down on the arms chest, oblivious of the fact that his furious activity had split his white breeches from waist to knee.

The Constitution , under her greater press of sail, continued to draw abreast of the Guerriàre , and the latter’s stern took the most punishment. Fifteen minutes of such broadsides snapped her mizzenmast six feet above the deck. As it swayed over the side in a tangle of sails and cordage, the Constitution’s sailors gave three cheers, and Hull cheered with them: “Huzza, my boys, we’ve made a brig of her!”

Now the Constitution forged ahead even faster, and at 6:20 she put her helm to port and crossed the Guerrière’s bow, pouring in a deadly raking fire at close range. Her guns, fired as the ship rolled downward in the water, were sweeping the Guerrière’s decks and battering her hull even below the water line. The Guerrière , firing on the up roll, was causing some less important damage in the Constitution’s top-hamper. Now, as she luffed round the Guerrière’s bow, the damage was felt—she shot too far into the wind, as her men could not brace the yards properly; she was caught aback, and now it seemed that the Guerrière would cross her stern and return the raking fire with interest.

Up went the helm, and slowly, slowly, the Constitution swung back to her original course. Too slowly—as she came before the wind again, the Guerrière’s bow crashed into her larboard quarter, splintering the taffrail and crushing the stern boat. The British frigate then dropped into the Constitution’s wake, her bowsprit foul of the American frigate’s mizzen rigging and resting on the larboard boat davit. Boarders were called on both ships, although the British hoped only to repel the Constitution’s attack, for the Guerrière was short-handed. Sharpshooters swept the decks, wreaking greater havoc among the crews than the big guns had done. On the Constitution , Lieutenant Morris was shot through the abdomen while attempting to lash the Guerrière’s bowsprit to the Constitution’s mizzenmast, but he remained on deck until the end of the action. Lieutenant William S. Bush of the Marines leapt to the taffrail as Morris fell, ready to lead the Constitution’s boarders, and was shot through the head. On board the Guerrière the slaughter was terrible. The Constitution , with her greater complement, had more than three times as many sharpshooters in the tops. The Guerrière’s second lieutenant, Henry Ready, was killed, Captain Dacres was wounded in the back, and Sailing Master Robert Scott received a shot through the knee. First Lieutenant Bartholomew Kent and Master’s Mate William J. Snow had already been wounded by flying splinters, and the seamen who gathered on deck to repel boarders were decimated by rifle fire. Most of the injuries on both ships occurred while they were thus locked together.


It was probably at this point in the fighting that a stray bullet cut the flag halyard on the Constitution’s mainmast. As the ensign floated toward the deck, a young sailor named Hogan snatched it up and, scaling the rigging amid a shower of bullets, lashed the flag to the masthead.

The Guerrière meanwhile had run her starboard bow gun nearly into the Constitution’s starboard cabin window, so close that the flaming wads set the cabin afire. Fire fighters were called. It was clear, now that the ships had been entangled for some ten minutes, that their wild plunging in the heavy seas would make boarding impossible. The Constitution could bring no guns to bear on the Guerrière , and could not extinguish the cabin fire while the Guerrière’s bow gun remained in action. Captain Hull therefore ordered the Constitution’s sails filled for a run ahead. As the ships parted, the Constitution’s spanker boom and gaff were ripped off by the Guerrière’s bowsprit. That spar, loosed from the Constitution’s rigging, snapped upward, slackening the Guerrière’s foremast stays; the mast, weakened by a hit from a double-headed shot, reeled and fell across the main brace, and fore and main masts tumbled into the sea, leaving the Guerrière completely a wreck. Her crew tried desperately to clear the wreckage and bring her under control of a spritsail, but that too carried away, and she fell into the trough of the sea, rolling the muzzles of the main-deck guns under. Several of the great guns broke loose from their tackles and charged wildly back and forth across the heaving decks. Shot and shot boxes slithered over the quarterdeck.

Meanwhile, seeing her opponent helpless, the Constitution withdrew a short distance to windward, extinguished the fire in her cabin, and replaced what rigging had been shot away. Within forty-five minutes she was again in fighting trim; she wore and stood for the Guerrière once more. The Englishmen had succeeded in cutting away the wreckage of the masts, but their situation was hopeless. As the Constitution rounded to on the larboard bow at long gunshot (about a mile distant), the Guerrière fired a gun to leeward in token of submission, and hauled the jack from the stump of the mizzen.

Third Lieutenant George C. Read boarded the Guerrière in the gathering dusk, and at 8 P.M. the boat brought Captain Dacres to the Constitution . Hull, seeing that his young opponent was wounded, hurried to the gangway to help him up the side. Dacres proffered his sword in the traditional ceremony of surrender; Hull declined to accept it from so gallant a foe.

The Guerrière had fifteen killed and sixty-three wounded; Hull dispatched a surgeon’s mate to assist in caring for them. The Constitution had only seven killed and seven wounded, and these had already been attended. It was now quite dark, and the ships lay near one another through the night while the boats shuttled back and forth, transferring prisoners. An American midshipman who was a member of the boarding party described the scene on the Guerrière : I was on board the whole night after the action … pieces of skulls, brains, legs, arms and blood lay in every direction and the groans of the wounded were enough almost to make me curse the war … So confident were they of capturing us that they were allowed by their Captain to have us in tow in thirty minutes; they had a hogshead of molasses ready to make switchel [a common shipboard drink compounded of molasses and water] for the Yankees but our shot soon emptied it.


Surgeon Evans of the Constitution and Surgeon Irvine of the Guerrière worked all night in the Constitution’s cramped cockpit, dressing wounded as they came on board. About 2 A.M. a large sail appeared on the horizon, and the Constitution cleared for another action, but the stranger stood off again and the boats resumed their work. By morning it was evident that the Guerrière could not be towed into port. She had thirty shot in her hull and seven feet of water in the well; the sea was gaining on the pumps about a foot every two hours. Six feet of the plank near the water line had been torn away. Captain Hull therefore determined to destroy his prize.

Throughout the morning and early afternoon the boats worked, removing the remaining prisoners and their belongings. Great care was taken, as Captain Dacres wrote, “to prevent our men losing the smallest trifle”—including a Bible given Dacres by his mother, which Captain Hull took special pains to recover at the request of his former foe. Hull also secured a few souvenirs of the conquered ship, including the only flag remaining on board—an ensign which was found stuffed under the heel of the bowsprit.

By 3 P.M. the last boat but one had left the Guerrière ; Lieutenant Read and his crew set her on fire, and in fifteen minutes she blew up. “No painter,” wrote Surgeon Evans, “no poet or historian could give on canvas or paper any description that could do justice to the scene.” Nor can the historian do justice to the events, for he cannot evoke the response of the nation which followed. Captain Hull wrote in his famous report: ”… from the smallest boy in the ship to the oldest seaman not a look of fear was seen.” In the wild rejoicing that followed the Constitution’s victory, the look of fear on the face of the young nation was changed to one of confident hope.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.