The naval history of Great Britain:
from the declaration of war by France in 1793 to the accession of George IV
On the 24th of May, 1813, the United States 44-gun frigate United-States, Commodore Stephen Decatur, 36-gun frigate Macedonian, Captain Jacob Jones, and 18-gun ship-sloop Hornet, Captain James Biddle,
Finding in his ship a disposition to hog, or fall at each extremity, Commodore Decatur had put on shore six of his carronades; thus reducing the force of the United States from 54 to 48 guns. It was asserted, but we cannot vouch for the fact, that the Commodore took on board eight long 32-pounders, and sent an equal number of 24's from his four midship ports on each side to the Macedonian; that, of the latter's eight long 18-pounders removed to make room for the 24's, two were mounted on board the Hornet in lieu of her twelve's, and that the Peacock received another pair.
all provisioned and stored for a cruise in the east Indies, quitted the harbour of new York through Long Island Sound, the Sandy Hook passage being blockaded by a British force. Just as the United-States, towards evening, arrived abreast of Hunt's point, he main mast was struck by lightning. The electric fluid tore away the Commodore's broad pendant and cast it upon the deck; it then passed down the after-hatchway, through the ward-room into the doctor's cabin, put out his candle, and tore up his bed, and, entering between the skin and ceiling of the ship, ripped off two or three sheets of copper just at the water's edge. No further trace of it could be discovered. The Macedonian, who was about 100 yards astern of the United-States, on seeing what had happened, hove all aback, to save herself from the justly dreaded explosion of the latter. Fortunately, not a man was hurt on the occasion. Commodore Decatur soon afterwards anchored under Fisher's island, near the entrance of the New-London river, to be ready for a start the first opportunity.
On the 1st of June, very early in the morning, the American squadron got under way and stood out to sea; but at nine o'clock, just as they were clearing the Sound, the ships were discovered by the British 74-gun ship Valiant, Captain Robert Oliver, and 40-gun frigate Acasta, Captain Alexander Kerr. The latter gave chase, and the former put back; both parties hauling to the wind under all sail. At about half past one the American squadron bore up for New-London; and the United-States and Hornet, being too deep for their trim, started their water and threw overboard a part of their provisions. At a quarter past two the Acasta, who was far ahead of the Valiant, having got within gun-shot of the United States, fired a bow-chaser at the latter, just as she was rounding New-London lighthouse. The United-States, returned the shot with one from her stern. Instead, however, of bringing-to and trying to cut off the British frigate from her consort, as many of the spectators on shore expected to be done, Commodore Decatur anchored with his squadron in the river.
For several weeks previous to this event, the New York and Boston papers had been filled with panegyrics on their "naval heroes", whose valour they had depicted as impetuous, amounting almost to rashness. Some of the papers, as if a little ashamed of what they said, added "a rasee" to the two British ships, and gave that as a reason why the commodore suffered his squadron to be chased into new London- James's Naval Occurrences, p. 326.
Had boarding been resorted to, the parties would have been nearly equal; thus:
|HMS Valiant||590||USS United-States||475|
|HMS Acasta||350||HMS Macedonian||400|
The Acasta, thus left to herself, hauled to the wind and tacked, and soon afterwards, along with the Valiant, anchored of Gardner's Island, distant about twelve miles from New-London. having no persons onboard acquainted with the navigation of the sound, the British ships, particularly the 74, chased with much less effect than they otherwise would. It was not, of course, known to Captain Oliver, that he might even have followed the American squadron into New-London; and that, had the United-States and her companions ascended the river beyond his reach, he might, with little or no risk, have placed the Valiant and Acasta against the town, and blown the houses about the ears of the inhabitants, if they refused to give up the ships.
After having blockaded the American squadron for upwards of six months, the Valiant and Acasta were relieved by the 74-gun ship Ramillies, Captain Thomas Hardy, 40-gun frigate Endymion, Captain Henry Hope, and 38-gun frigate Statira, Captain Hassard Stackpoole. "Tired out at length with his confinement, and the force now before New-London happily excusing him, in the opinion of all, from venturing to cut his way out, Commodore Decatur resolved to put in practice an epistolary stratagem; one that, even in its failure, should rebound to his advantage, by wiping off the impression of lukewarmness, which so many months of forbearance had in some degree attached to his character."
On the 17th of January, 1814, he actually sent to Captain Hardy a written proposition for a contest between the United-States and Endymion, and the Macedonian and Statira. Instead of sending back the "proposition", as one to which the commanding officer of a British squadron could not with propriety listen, Captain Hardy consented that the Statira should meet the Macedonian, as they were sister ships, but, quite the contary, as may be supposed, to the wishes of Captain Hope, refused to permit the Endymion to meet the United-States, because the latter was the much superior force.
Commodore Decatur having, through the medium of Captain Biddle, the bearer of his proposition, consented that the crews of the Endymion and Statira should be made up from the Ramillies and Boxer, we think it very likely that Sir Thomas Hardy meant to include himself among the volunteers from the Ramillies to serve on board the Statira. That would give a very different complexion to his acceptance of the challenge.
As the object was for both of the American frigates to get to sea, ( for the sole purpose, we believe, of pursuing their voyage to the East Indies,) Commodore Decatur declined a meeting between the Macedonian and Statira, from the alleged apprehension, that the latter might be over manned; thus tacitly admitting, what went rather against the previous claims of himself and his brother conquerors, that three men were better than two.
His excuse about the Statira, alone, availing herself of his "concession", can best be answered by the following question: Was not the Constitution, with 475 men on board, lying in Boston, when Captain Broke challenged Captain Lawrence; and did the former make any stipulation to prevent the latter, if he chose, from taking on board the Chesapeake, in addition to her regular complement, the whole crew of the Constitution? - James Naval Occurrences, P. 329.
"Thus ended this vapouring affair. It afforded materials for many swaggering paragraphs. Captain Jones, it is asserted, actually harangued his men upon the occasion, pretending to lament the loss of so fine a ship, which, he assured them, would have been their prize in a very short time. He had likewise the hardihood to tell them, that it was all owing to the refusal of the British, who were afraid to contend with Americans upon equal terms"-James Naval Occurrences , page 330
"After this business was broken off, a verbal challenge passed between the commanders of the Hornet and Loup-Cervier, [afterwards named the Peacock] late American Wasp. The latter vessel soon afterwards foundered at sea, and every soul on board perished: nothing respecting this challenge has therefore been made public on our side. The American "Portfolio", for November, 1815, in which the "life of Captain James Biddle" is given, contains some account of it. Its there stated, that "Captain Mends, of the Loup-Cervier, said that, if Captain Biddle would inform him of the number of souls he commanded, Captain Mends pledged his honour to limit his number to the same;" but that "Commodore Decatur would not permit Captain Biddle to acquaint Captain Mends with the number of his crew, and meet him on the terms stated; because it was understood that, in that case, the Loup-Cervier would have a picked crew from the British squadron, - What do we gather from this? - Why, that the Americans, with all "picked men" on their side, were afraid to meet an equal number of British, because they might have "picked men" on theirs. Commodore Decatur's amended proposition was: "The Hornet shall meet the Loup-Cervier, under a mutual and satisfactory pledge. that neither ship shall receive any additional officers or men, but shall go into action with their original crews respectively." Was this fair, or not? - The Hornet's "original crew" was 170, including about three boys; the Loup-Cervier's "original crew" 121, including eighteen boys. So that, deducting the boys, the numbers would stand: Americans 167, British 103; an "overwhelming" superiority in earnest!"
The blockade of the American ships in new London having continued until the season was passed, in which Commodore Decatur could hope to effect his escape, the United-States and Macedonian were moved up river, to the head of navigation for heavy vessels, and there dismantled: and while Captain Jones and the late crew of the Macedonian proceeded to reinforce the squadron under Commodore Chauncey on Lake Ontario, Commodore Decatur and his ship's company passed into the President, then at anchor in New York, her late commander and crew having been transferred to the new 44-gun frigate Guerrière, [armed with long or columbiad ( as sort of medium) 32-pounders on the main deck.] fitting for sea at Philadelphia. The American government being still determined upon an expedition to the East Indies, a squadron, consisting of the President, Peacock, and Hornet, along with the Macedonian and Tom-Bowline brigs, laden with stores for their use, was ordered to proceed to the Bay of Bengal. On the night of 18th November the Hornet, which had been left at New London as a guard-ship, succeeded in eluding the blockading force, and reached new York.
The British squadron that, towards the close of the year 1814, cruised of the port of New York, consisted, besides the Majestic and Endymion, each of whose force has already been described, of the 38-gun frigate Pomone, Captain John Lumley. On the 13th January, 1815, Captain Hayes was joined by the 38-gun frigate Tenedos, Captain Hyde Parker. Although at that time close off the Hook and in sight of the American squadron at anchor near Staten-siland, the British ships were the same evening blown off the coast by a violent snow-storm. On the Next day, the 14th, the weather became more moderate; but, the wind blowing fresh from the west-north-west, the squadron could not get in with the Hook. Having no doubt that Commodore Decatur would take advantage, as well of the favourableness of the wind as the absence of the British squadron, Captain Hayes, in preference to closing the land to the southward, stood away to the northward and eastward, with the view of taking a station in the supposed track of the American squadron on its way out; and, singular enough, at the very instant of arriving at that point, about an hour before daylight of the 15th, Sandy-Hook bearing west-north-west fifteen leagues, the principal object of search to all the British captains made his appearance very near them.
Considering the chance of escape greater, by taking a separate departure with the ships of his squadron, Commodore Decatur, on the afternoon of the 14th, weighed and put to sea with the President and brig Macedonian, having left directions with Captain Warrington, to join him at Tristan D'Acunha, with the Peacock, Hornet, and Tom-Bowline. Owing partly to a mistake in the pilots and partly to the ship's increased draught of water from the quantity of stores on board of her, the President, at about half past eight at night, struck on the bar, and did not get off for an hour and a half. Having, besides some trifling damages to her rudder, shifted her ballast and got herself out of trim, the President would have put back, but the strong westerly wind prevented her. Accompanied by the brig, the American frigate now shaped her course along the shore of Long Island for fifty miles, then steered south-east-by-south, until at five o'clock, she encountered the Majestic and her companions, three of the ships right ahead. hauling-up, the President passed about two miles to the northward of these, and at daylight found herself chased, as Commodore Decatur says, by "four" ships; the Majestic about five miles astern of her, the Endymion a little further in the same direction, the Pomone six or eight miles on the larboard, and the Tenedos barely, if at all, in sight on the starboard quarter. The Tenedos, indeed having parted from her squadron the preceding evening, was taken for a second enemy's ship, and Captain Hayes ordered the Pomone, by signal, to bear away in chase of her: consequently the President, at first, was pursued by the Majestic and Ednymion only.
These and the American frigate were soon under all sail, steering about east-by-north, with the wind now at north-west-by-north. At half past six the majestic fired three shots at the President, but, owing to the distance, without effect; nor, for the same reason probably, were they returned. Towards noon the wind decreased; and the Endymion, in consequence, began to leave the Majestic and gain upon the President. At about a quarter past one the latter commenced lightening herself, by starting the water, cutting away the anchors, throwing overboard provisions, spare spars, boats, and every article of the sort that could be got at; she also kept her sails constantly wet from the royals down. At two o'clock the President opened a fire from her stern guns at the Endymion; which the latter, at half past two, returned with her bow-chasers. In nine minutes afterwards a shot from the President came through the head of the larboard fore-lower-studding-sail, the foot of the main sail, and the stern of the barge on the booms, and, going through the quarter-deck, lodged on the main deck, without doing any other damage. Towards five o'clock, owing to the advance of the Endymion on her starboard quarter, the President luffed occasionally, to bring her stern guns to bear, and was evidently much galled; whereas the greater part of her shots passed over the Endymion.
At half past five, the Endymion having for the last twenty minutes maintained a position within half point-blank shot on the quarter of the President, the latter brailed up her spanker and bore-away south, to bring her antagonist upon her beam and endeavour to effect her escape to-leeward. Putting her helm hard a-weather, the Endymion met the manoeuvre; and the two frigates came to close action in a parallel line of sailing. At four minutes past six the President commenced with musketry from her tops, and the Endymion returned the fire with her marines. The latter hauled-up occasionally to close her antagonist, without losing the bearing of her ½her rigging and sails considerably cut, and the President with the principal part of her damage in the hull, as betrayed by the slackened rate of her fire.
At forty minutes past six the President hauled up, apparently to avoid her opponent's fire. The Endymion, profiting by this, poured in two raking broadsides; then hauled up also, and again placed herself on the President's starboard quarter. At a quarter past seven the President shot away the Endymion's boat from her larboard quater, also her lower and main top-gallant studding-sails. From eighteen to twenty-five minutes past seven the President did not return a shot to the vigorous fire still kept up by the Endymion. Recommencing, then, the former shot away the latter's main topmast studding-sail and main brace, and at thirty-two minutes past seven hauled suddenly to the wind, as if to try the strength of her antagonist's masts. Having no fear for these, the Endymion trimmed sails, and hauling-up, bestowed another raking fire; to which the President, now evidently much shattered, replied with a discharge from one stern gun. In ten minutes the American frigate kept more away, firing but at intervals, and at fifty-eight minutes past seven ceased altogether and shewed a light. Conceiving that the President had struck,
We are, upon the whole, inclined to think that the Endymion was mistaken as to the hoisting of the light; especially, as the president, in the relative condition of the two ships aloft, had it in her power to escape from the Endymion, and, by persevering in her efforts, might even hope to escape from the remainder of the squadron.
the Endymion also ceased firing, and began to bend new sails, her present ones having been cut into ribands by the President's bar and chain shot; one of which had torn away twelve or fourteen cloths of her fore-sail, stripping it almost from the yard.
While the Edymion was thus compelled to drop astern, the president continued her course to the eastward, under a crowd of sail, much relieved, no doubt, by the absence of the former. At a quarter past eleven the Pomone gained a position upon her starboard quarter, and, luffing-up, fired her starboard broadside, but without effect. The President immediately shortened sail and luffed-up also, as if to pour a return broadside into the Pomone. Instead of that, however, the American frigate hailed that she had surrendered, and hoisted a light in her mizen-rigging. Not hearing the hail, and mistaking the object of the light, the Pomone fired a second broadside, acknowledged to have been as ineffectual as the first. On this, the President luffed-up still more, as if to lay the Pomone on board, and instantly hauled down her light, again hailing that she had surrendered.
The deposition of the late schoolmaster of the President, Mr. Bowie, taken before the surrogate at Bermuda confirms this: he says: "When the Endymion dropped astern, we were confident of escaping. Shortly after, discovered two ships coming up; (Pomone and Tenedos;) when Commodore Decatur ordered all hands below to take care of their bags. One of the ships commenced firing; Commodore Decatur called out, "We have surrendered," and gave this deponent the trumpet to hail, and say, they had surrendered. The Pomones's fire did damage to the rigging, but neither killed nor wounded any person. The President did not return the Pomone's fire, but hoisted a light in the mizen-rigging, as a sign of submission." Again: "When the two ships were coming up, a light was hoisted in the mizen-rigging of the President, as this deponent conceived at the time, as an ensign or flag, but, as he afterwards had reason to believe, as a sign that they had surrendered; for this deponent observed to the Commodore, that, as long as the light was hoisted, the ships would fir: upon which the Commodore Decatur ordered it to be taken down." To counteract the mischievous tendency, as it respected the Endymion's part in the action, of Mr. Bowie's averment about the harmless fire of the Pomone, Commodore Decatur wrote from New York a supplementary letter, commencing: "I omitted to state, that a considerable number of my killed and wounded was from the fire of the Pomone". See James's Naval Occurrences, Appendix No. 104.
The one shot that entered on the starboard side might, to be sure, have killed and wounded a few men; but then, says Mr. Bowie, they were all, just then down below "taking care of their bags." Oh! Mr. Bowie, Mr. Bowie! you were but half an American.
At this time the Tenedos, who had been hailed by the Endymion and informed that the only two boats she had on board were destroyed, [The remainder had been taken or sunk in an unsuccessful attack upon the Prince of Neufchatel American privateer.] ranged up on the President's starboard side, and, hailing, was answered: "The American frigate President: we have surrendered." Captain Parker immediately sent his boat and took possession; as did also, nearly at the same time, Captain Lumley of the Pomone. The Endymion having in the short pace of fifty-four minutes, besides repairing her running rigging, bent new courses, main topsail, jib, fore-topmast stay-sail, and spanker, and trimmed them to the wind, went again in chase at a few minutes before nine o'clock, as fresh as when she began the action. At three quarters past nine the Endymion was hailed, as just mentioned, by the Tenedos, and was not very far behind her at half past eleven, when the President struck.
The principal damages sustained by the Endymion have already been detailed. Her fore-topmast was struck badly, but none of her other masts in any serious degree. Out of her 319 men and twenty-seven boys,
Total 346. The killed in action with the American privateer [Prince of Neufchatel], and the badly wounded, amounted to sixty. The latter were subsequently transferred to the 56-gun ship Saturn, to be taken to the hospital at Halifax; and Captain Nash sent on board the Edymion, to replace her severe loss, a lieutenant, four midshipmen, and fifty-three men. The "addition" of the Saturn's men was too good a thing to be omitted in Commodore Decatur's supplementary letter; but not a word is mentioned about the vacancy they were intended to fill up.
the Endymion had ten seamen and one sergeant of marines killed. and twelve seamen and two private marines wounded.
How easy it was for the commodore, if he discredited this statement, to add: "I think her loss was greater." "Instead of which, he set his countrymen calculating, how many dead men could be thrown overboard in the course of "thirty-six hours";" how many cubic feet there were in the space "between the cabin bulkhead and the main mast of a large frigate; and how many "badly wounded" could there be stowed . Captain Hope, much to his honour, chose to give his late gallant shipmates Christian burial; and the season of the year justified him in deferring the ceremony till the crew were at leisure. -James's Naval Occurrences page 441
If the high firing of the President displayed its effects in the disordered state of the rigging and sails of the Endymion, the low firing of the Endymion was equally conspicuous in the shattered condition of the hull and the lower masts of the President. The starboard side of the ship was riddled from end to end. Almost every port-sill and port-timber, both on the main and the quarter deck, exhibited marks of shot. Three shots had entered the buttock, one of which had passed into the after magazine. Several shots had entered between wind and water, and some under water, which had cut the knees and timbers much. A great many shots had also passed through the ship, between the main and quarter decks and in the waist; but, as a proof of the slight effect of the Pomone's fire one shot only had entered on the larboard side: it passed through at the tenth port, and carried away the upper sills, clamp, and diagonal knees. with so many shot holes in the hull, it will not be surprising that the ship, when she surrendered, had six feet of water in the hold. Five or six of her guns were completely disabled. Out of her 465 men and four boys, (many British among the former, and, altogether, as fine a ship's company as ever was seen,) the president, had three lieutenants, and thirty-two petty officers, seamen, and marines killed, her commander, (in the nose,) master, two midshipmen, and sixty-six seamen and marines wounded; total, thirty-five killed and seventy wounded.
Comparative force of combatants
||HMS Endymion||USS President|
Here we have a view of the "equal force" which Commodore Decatur told his countrymen he had "completely beaten". The ample details already given, in which the relative condition of the two ships after the action is particularly described, have shewn, beyond a doubt, which was the beaten ship. "It is worthy of remark, that Commodore Decatur's letter announcing the President's capture, was written on board the very ship, which he once expressed himself so anxious to meet, in the frigate United-States; and it bears date precisely a year and a day after his "very rash" letter of challenge. To complete this, as it may be termed, retributive act, the identical ship's companies, which were parties to the challenge, met and fought upon the present occasion. No wonder, then, that the action of the Endymion and the President should have caused, among the sticklers for "superior prowess" in the United States, emotions so powerful; especially, after it became known, beyond dispute, that the British was inferior in force to the American vessel, by nearly a fourth. "It would be an injustice to Captain Hope, not to notice the peculiar modesty of his official letter. he speaks of the cool and determined bravery of his officers and the ship's company on the "fortunate occasion;" says truly, that, "where every individual had so conspicuously done his duty, it would be an injustice to particularise;" and, in proof of the exertions and abilities of his men, appeals to " the loss and damages sustained by the enemy's frigate." Captain Hayes, in his letter, does ample justice to the Endymion; confirms every statement in her log-extract; and emphatically adds: "when the effect produced by her well-directed fire upon the President is witnessed, it cannot be doubted, that Captain Hope would have succeeded either in capturing or sinking her, had none of the squadron been in sight." Although, by a sort of endemical tact at telling his story, the commodore may have raised himself in the esteem of Americans, the manner in which he yielded up the President, coupled with the shifts and quirks, the misrepresentations and meanness' to which he afterwards resorted, have sunk the name of Decatur, in the opinion of every well-informed European, quite as low as that of Rodgers, Bainbridge, or Porter. The case of the Endymion and President has been compared with that of the Eurotas and Clorinde. Both the French and the American frigates, it is true, were equally battered in hull; but there was this difference in the conduct of their commanders: Captain Denis-Lagarde, when he surrendered, had only his fore-mast standing; whereas Commodore Decatur had all his three royal-masts an-end, and even the sails set upon them.
Among the ships that captured him, he names, the "despatch brig". The fact is that the 18-gun brig-sloop Despatch, Captain James Galloway, had come into the squadron about noon; but between six and seven in the evening Captain Hayes sent her to Rear-Admiral the honourable Sir Henry Hotham off New-London, with the intelligence of what was likely to ensue; so that, by eleven at night, the Despatch must have been at least fifty miles from the spot where the President surrendered.
We shall abstain from any further investigation of the conduct of Commodore Decatur in this action; and, if we have been, or shall again be, a little more severe upon the Americans, generally, than accords with the impartial character of these pages, they have themselves to thank. Have they not been trying to persuade the rest of the world, that their naval officers and seamen surpass all others; that they are, in short "invincible"? Who has ever heard an American acknowledge, that any ship of his was taken by an equal force? Where can an American be found, who will not insist on declaring, that an equal force captured the Guerrière, Macedonian, and Java, the Frolic, Peacock, and their sister brigs? One fact is remarkable. Where the Americans have met a decidedly superior force, or an equal force that routed them in an unexpected manner, they have invariably dropped their crests, and lost the respect of their conquerors by the tameness of their surrender.
On the 17th of January, in a violent storm from the eastward, the Endymion lost her bowsprit and her fore and main masts; the latter chiefly from the shrouds giving way where they had been knotted after the action: she was also obliged to throw overboard the whole of her quarter-deck and forecastle guns. The same gale carried away all three masts of the President. Several of her guns were also thrown overboard; and, in the battered state of her hull by the Endymion's fire, it was a mercy that she did not founder. On the 25th the two ships arrived at Bermuda.
The number of prisoners delivered to the agent at Bermuda was 434. Add to these, besides the thirty-five killed, (as acknowledged by the President's officers,) six or seven too badly wounded to be removed, and we have 475 as the President's compliment; six more than are stated in the text, and two less than were stated in her "watch bill". Yet Commodore Decatur and two of his officers swore before the surrogate, that the President had "about 450, but certainly not 460 men when the action commenced". The consequence of this oath, this American oath was, that the captors got head-money for 450 men only; when there was proof positive that 469, and every probability that 477 men were in the ship at the time stated.
On the 8th of March, after having undergone a tolerable repair, the President, accompanied by the Endymion, sailed for England; and on the 28th both ships arrived at Spithead. The President was, of course, added to the British navy; but her serious damages in the action, coupled with the length of time she had been in service, prevented her from being of any greater utility, than that of affording Englishmen (many of whom, till then, had been the dupes of their transatlantic "brethren") ocular demonstration of the "equal force" by which their frigates had been captured.