The Constitution's Great Escape

By Louis Arthur Norton

As he could not have known, this was the British 38-gun frigate Guerriere , commanded by Captain James Dacres, under orders to rendezvous with a British squadron after completing repairs and taking on provisions in Halifax. Dacres, however, suspected that the assembly he sighted might be American. Meanwhile Hull, uncertain about the Guerriere ’s identity, headed to investigate. The other ships were four in number: the British 64-gun ship-of-the-line Africa under Captain John Bastard, and three frigates—the 38-gun Shannon with squadron commodore Philip Broke, the 36-gun Belvidera commanded by Richard Byron, and the 32-gun Aeolus under Captain James Townsend. The parties met at some distance, becalmed, in confusion, and—initially—at cross-purposes.

The Constitution was cleared for action at 1930, and around 2200 Hull began displaying private signals. There was no reply. His crew was new to the vessel and imperfectly prepared, so he hauled off until daybreak. The next morning, the Constitution and Guerriere found themselves within cannon range of each other. Dacres fired one rocket and two blank shots as a British action signal. This likewise went unanswered, so Dacres moved away to escape from what he thought was Rodgers’ squadron. Meanwhile the British squadron, about two miles away and in haze, assumed both the Guerriere and Constitution were American frigates making signals to each other in preparation for action. They decided to keep their distance and not induce the enemy to make sail for them until they were ready.

Slow-Motion Escape

By this time Hull was no longer in doubt about the nationality of the five ships in whose midst he found himself. Outnumbered and outgunned, he had to get away. But there was little or no wind: The sea resembled a huge unblemished mirror. The Constitution drifted aimlessly, becalmed and unmanageable, her sails flapping feebly. At dawn the British ships ran up their colors, opened their gunports for action, and prepared to give chase. Meanwhile, two unidentified sails, which turned out to be British frigates, appeared under the American frigate’s lee, making it seven sea-hounds chasing a lone sea-fox. What breeze there was proved favorable, and they started to gain on their quarry. But the wind soon left the Constitution , whose bow began drifting to lee. Hull quickly ordered two cutters hoisted out, which after getting the ship turned in the right direction began towing her.

After an hour, when the British thought they were in range, the two lead frigates began firing. Their shots passed over without striking the Constitution , of which a 24-pounder and an 18-pounder gun were moved to the stern and mounted for firing directly aft over the cutaway taffrail. Two 24-pounders from the gun deck were run out of the stern cabin windows. Because of the rake of the stern decking, the returned fire was ineffective. Efforts to increase the ship’s speed were also made. Hammocks were removed from the netting and the cloths that covered them rolled up. The sails were wet down to close the texture of the canvas. This would allow the sails to better hold any slight puffs of wind. Later, several thousand gallons of freshwater were pumped out of the ship to lighten her.

By 0800 Hull realized that four of the pursuing warships were nearly within gunshot range. Six to eight boats with oars plying the still ocean were ahead of some of the ships, pulling the larger vessels. The British would eventually concentrate the boats on towing just one ship, the Shannon .

As the ships approached, Lieutenant Morris had an idea. Morris’ former captain, George Cox, routinely warped the frigate President in or out of harbors using a kedge anchor. Morris suggested they might employ the same method to pull the Constitution out of harm’s way. By dropping an anchor far ahead of the frigate and then having men on deck haul in the anchor cable, they would gradually draw the ship forward.

To see if this was feasible, they sounded the depth and found it to be only 26 fathoms (156 feet). Kedging would be difficult, but worth a try. Long cables were attached to two anchors. A cutter was sent ahead with one of the anchors, which was then dropped into the sea.

Once it had solidly found the seabed, sailors on board the Constitution used a capstan to haul in the cable, gradually drawing the ship forward until the anchor was raised. A second cutter with the other anchor meanwhile had been rowed ahead. The whole laborious process was repeated hour after hour. In this way, as well as by the boats that continued to tow the frigate, the Constitution kept a safe distance from her pursuers. Once the vessel was moving forward, making headway became easier. Although she was large and ungainly, Newton’s law that a body in motion tends to stay in motion made the task possible.

Only the faint squeaking of multiple oars rubbing against oarlocks, the muffled slap of oar blades rhythmically plunging into glass-like waters, and an occasional groan from exhausted seamen broke the silence. The spread white sails of the nearly stationary square-rigged vessel to the Constitution ’s stern resembled a giant swan drying its wings. Yet this seemingly tranquil scene was a historic life-or-death race that would decide the fate of a future American icon.

At one point during the morning, the Guerriere reached a position abeam of the Constitution . Dacres ordered a broadside fired from the frigate’s port guns. The shot fell harmlessly short of its target. Captain Byron of the Belvidera decided to imitate the Constitution ’s kedging. But he made the kedge anchors fast to each end of a hawser passed through two hawse ports.

The Constitution ’s crew did not relax their efforts, systematically kedging and towing during the day and night except when the wind produced enough speed for the sails to take over. The boats were then run up, suspended from spars in the chains by temporary tackles, but their crews remained in them, ready to resume rowing at a moment’s notice. No officer or man slept in his bunk. The relief watch rested on deck, while the gun crews slept by their guns to be ready for action.

Surrounded—And Away Again

At daylight on 18 July, one frigate was just out of range of the Constitution on her bow, two frigates on her beam, and one on her quarter, all to leeward. The wind was blowing light and steady from the south. The other ships were also on the lee quarter, but a greater distance off. The frigate on the lee bow tacked, expecting to get within gunshot. But Hull, realizing that the Constitution was vulnerable, decided to match the tack. He was willing to take the risk of passing close to the smaller Aeolus that lay on his lee quarter. This maneuver was quickly accomplished.

The Constitution headed eastward, passing within cannon range of the Aeolus . But the move evidently surprised Captain Townsend, who missed the opportunity of firing a shot. Just before noon, the Shannon tacked and gained a position close astern of the Constitution .

An American merchantman was sighted to windward. Seeing what looked like easy prey, the nearest English ship hoisted American colors as a ruse de guerre . Hull saw this and immediately sent up British colors, and the merchantman abruptly changed course. Suddenly the wind freshened, a few whitecaps appeared on the sea, and the American frigate again drew ahead. Her officers and crew, not fully aware of her sailing qualities, had considered the Constitution a dull sailer. But by 1400 that afternoon, she reached 12½ knots. With all the boats hoisted aboard, the American vessel started to go through the water at considerable speed. The anxiety of the past 36 hours was now assuaged. The crew was obviously relieved, but kept on the alert.

At 1800 a squall struck, and the Constitution crew temporarily took in the ship’s light sails. By the time the sky cleared, Hull had added another mile to the Constitution ’s advantage.

During the night, the officers and men remained on deck. But at daylight of 19 July, the pursuers were so far behind that all danger was considered at an end. The crew took their first good rest in more than 60 apprehension-filled hours. The last British frigate, the Belvidera , lay about 12 miles astern and gave up the chase. The other ships also accepted defeat and drew away, sailing toward the northeast. The British had cut adrift many of their cutters to keep up with the chase, but now that it had ended, they had to spend several days picking them up—making further pursuit impossible. Captain Hull headed north for Boston.

When the Constitution safely anchored in President Roads, the deep-water entrance to Boston Harbor, her captain and crew were hailed for their remarkable escape. Hull had met a challenge from seven British captains, two of whom, Broke and Byron, were among the most renowned in the Royal Navy. The Constitution ’s escape during the three-day chase was a victory of daring and extraordinary seamanship. It also gave the Americans something to celebrate amid sharp political divisions within the nascent nation.



Sources:

Gardner W. Allen, ed., Papers of Isaac Hull: Commodore United States Navy (Boston: Boston Athenæum, 1929).

Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965).

James Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States of America (Philadelphia: Thomas, Cowperthwaite, 1845).

William S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812: Documentary History , vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1985 and 1992).

David S. and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds., Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2004).

Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).

Ira N. Hollis, The Frigate Constitution (Cambridge, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1901).

Isaac Hull to Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, 21 July 1812, National Archives, Record Group 45, Captain’s Letters, 1812, vol. 2, no. 127.

Tyrone G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of “Old Ironsides” (Chester, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 1980).

Charles Morris, The Autobiography of Commodore Charles Morris, United States Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002).

Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1882).

 

 
 

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