The outbreak of the War of 1812 in June of that year pitted a U.S. Navy of fewer than two dozen ships of all sizes against the elephantine Royal Navy, which had almost that many ships of 100 guns or more. Furthermore, the officers and men manning that fleet had had nearly two decades of real-world combat experience. Among our fledgling officer corps of that day, only one senior seagoing officer had experienced a ship duel (and, ironically, he never managed to gain the glory of another during the new conflict). The frigate Constitution, one of the largest American warships, had three captains and two crews between 1812 and 1815, virtually none of whom had any combat experience—and yet they managed to amass an unbroken string of victories. These were those leaders.
A Captain’s Luck, a Legendary Battle
A Connecticut Yankee, son of a Revolutionary brigadier general, short, rotund Isaac Hull went to sea at an early age at his father’s urging and already had qualified as a ship’s master by 1798, at age 25. He accepted a proffered commission as a lieutenant in the then?forming U.S. Navy in March of that year and, having had little formal education, hired a tutor to improve his penmanship and letter-writing ability. He was assigned to the Constitution, and during nearly four years in the frigate, he rose from fourth to first lieutenant, serving in her throughout the 1798–1801 Quasi?War with France.
Detached from the Constitution in April 1802, Hull next became first lieutenant of the light frigate John Adams, but soon was ordered to command of the schooner Enterprize. He sailed her to the Mediterranean then exchanged commands with Stephen Decatur, taking over the brig Argus. Promoted to master commandant in May 1804, he was one of Commodore Edward Preble’s “boys”—that generation of young officers destined to shape the legacy of the Old Navy. In early 1805 Hull provided the naval-command component in the successful taking of Derne, Tripoli, by General William Eaton and a force of U.S. Marines and Arabs. Ordered home later that year, after peace had been gained, Hull was promoted to captain in April 1806.
With the coming of the Madison administration and increased activity for the Navy, Hull was given command of the frigates Chesapeake and later President, but in June 1810 he exchanged commands with Commodore John Rodgers when his senior indicated he preferred the President to the Constitution. Hull took his new command to northern Europe on a diplomatic voyage in 1811 and returned in time to get his ship a brief overhaul just before the war broke out.
Under orders to join Rodgers’ squadron at New York, Hull sailed from Chesapeake Bay early in July and in the middle of the month found himself pursued by a British squadron off the New Jersey coast. Exhibiting imaginative seamanship, he outwitted and finally outdistanced his pursuers in a chase that lasted nearly three days. With the British between him and New York, he headed for Boston, where he expected to replace jettisoned water and to find orders awaiting him.
Boston provided Hull with more supplies, but no orders. Deciding to get to sea before the British could bottle him up in port, early in August he headed for Canadian waters. He stirred up a hornet’s nest off the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, destroying enemy merchant ships not yet aware war had been declared. Then he decided to head for the Bermuda area, on the track of British ships homeward bound from the West Indies.
On 19 August 1812 Hull met the frigate HMS Guerriere off the Grand Banks. In a brawling battle, he managed to beat his foe to pieces, though one must say it was a rather clumsily fought engagement in which the inexperienced Hull had all the luck. The captain himself seems to have realized this, for his brief published action report glossed over much, including two collisions, and made it appear he had won what he himself called “a brilliant victory” in about half an hour. The public was thrilled, Hull was lionized, and Congress awarded him a gold medal and all hands prize money. For the remainder of the war, he was content, as a new husband, to command Navy yards.
In the postwar years, like most of his contemporaries, Hull remained largely ashore, either at a Navy yard or on the Board of Naval Commissioners. In 1824, Commodore William Bainbridge accused him of corruption in his administration of the Boston Navy Yard, a charge not sustained by a subsequent court of inquiry. Later, Hull commanded the Pacific Squadron off the west coast of South America for three years, and in the late 1830s, the Mediterranean Squadron for another three. He returned home in poor health, fatter than ever and going blind. He died ashore at Philadelphia in 1843.
Isaac Hull has been characterized as a popular captain, as would be attested to by his receipt of a model of the ship from his victorious crew when he was detached. His popularity, however, was not universal, as is demonstrated by the fact that the Navy Department had to transfer more than a hundred sailors from other ships when he failed to recruit a crew for the 1811 voyage to Europe, as well as by the terrible relationship he had with his flagship’s officers on his final sea tour.
Isaac and Anna Hull were childless. Five ships in the U. S. Navy have been named for Commodore Hull.
Hard-Fought Victory Amid a Checkered Career
Born to Tory parents living in New Jersey during the Revolution, William Bainbridge endured early years defined by flights from his parents’ vengeful foes and fights with taunting peers. He first went to sea in 1789, but little is known of his merchant service until he became a ship’s master in 1793, at the tender age of 18. In March 1797 he married Susan Heyliger at St. Eustasius; she was the granddaughter of a former governor?general of the island.
Bainbridge was in Philadelphia during the spring and summer of 1798 when the U.S. Navy was being formed. He was offered and accepted a commission as a lieutenant in August and was immediately ordered to command of the schooner Retaliation. In November, while impetuously investigating two contacts off Antigua, he found himself under the guns of a superior French force and had to surrender his ship—the first officer of the U.S. Navy to do so.
Promoted to master commandant in 1799 and captain in 1800, Bainbridge continued to exhibit an impetuous nature. Commanding the light frigate George Washington in 1800, he ended up under the guns of the Bey of Algiers and was forced to make a trip to Constantinople flying the bey’s flag and bearing gifts to his Ottoman master. In October 1803, then in command of the frigate Philadelphia, Bainbridge was on blockade duty off Tripoli when he eagerly pursued a smaller craft into reef-strewn inshore waters. Too late, he realized his error, and the frigate ran aground while attempting to clear offshore. Bainbridge was forced to surrender his ship to the Tripolines and spent the next 19 months as a prisoner of war. On each of these occasions, he was held blameless, and thanks to his political acumen and powerful friends in the government, he actually had been promoted ahead of those previously senior to him.
The outbreak of the War of 1812 found Bainbridge taking command of the Boston Navy Yard. When the Constitution returned there from her victory over HMS Guerriere and Captain Hull wished relief to attend to a distressing family matter, Bainbridge gained the command of a ship whose crew openly disapproved of him. On 29 December 1812, off Brazil, he defeated HMS Java, a faster ship commanded by one of Britain’s most experienced frigate captains, during a hard?fought battle in which Bainbridge was twice wounded. He returned to resume command of the Boston Navy Yard for the remainder of the war. Like Hull, his victory netted him a gold medal and the crew prize money.
Following a brief voyage to the Mediterranean at war’s end expecting to gain glory in a campaign against a resurgent Bey of Algiers, but denied it by even swifter action by Stephen Decatur, Bainbridge devoted himself to regaining command of the Boston Navy Yard. But he also devoted himself to pursuing vendettas against his contemporaries who had achieved fame in the Barbary War while he was a prisoner. His attempts to have Captains Charles Stewart and Isaac Hull court-martialed failed, but his eminence grise’s machinations led to the duel between James Barron and Decatur and the latter’s death. Except for one more cruise to the Mediterranean, Bainbridge spent the rest of his career commanding one of the Navy yards or as a member of the Board of Naval Commissioners, serving for a time as its president. He died of a complication of illnesses at Philadelphia on 27 July 1833. The Bainbridges had no children.
The tall, dour Bainbridge was a man embittered by his largely disastrous service record. He was ever defending himself from real and imagined detractors, and is not known to have engendered any feelings of comradeship with either his fellow officers or sailors in his crews. His final act on his deathbed was to order his wife to destroy all his papers, both official and personal.
Four ships in the U. S. Navy have been named for Commodore Bainbridge.
Divide and Conquer
Charles Stewart, his Irish ancestry betrayed by his reddish hair, was born in Philadelphia, went to sea at 13, and had qualified as master before accepting a lieutenant’s commission in the new U.S. Navy in March 1798. Serving first in the frigate United States and then the schooner Enterprize, in 1800 he became commander of the schooner Experiment. All of these ships saw Caribbean service in the Quasi-War with France. During that time, victorious encounters with three privateers give evidence of Stewart’s tactical skills and the accuracy of his gunners.
With the outbreak of the Barbary War in 1801, Stewart went to the Mediterranean as first lieutenant of the frigate Constellation in 1802, then was given command of the new brig Syren. During his second Mediterranean tour, May 1803–September 1805, he was involved in the close blockade of Tripoli by Commodore Preble, often running the operation in the commodore’s absence, and was commander of the operation that saw Decatur burn the captured American frigate Philadelphia in that harbor in February 1804. Stewart was promoted to master commandant later that year and captain a few months after his return to the United States in 1806.
After a short period overseeing the construction of Jeffersonian gunboats and then making profitable mercantile voyages, Stewart shuttled among several ship commands (three in 1812 alone) before settling in the Constellation at Norfolk in September 1812. The British blockade prevented him from getting to sea, and in the late spring of 1813 he was transferred to the Constitution at Boston. British blockaders again stymied him until December, when he got to sea on a cruise shortened by the failure of one of his masts.
Stewart returned to Boston in April 1814 and was again blockaded, until December. In May Commodore Bainbridge was critical of the fact that Stewart’s war cruise had been curtailed and urged Secretary of the Navy William Jones to order a court of inquiry—chaired by Bainbridge. When the evidence tended to absolve Stewart of any shortcoming and, indeed, was critical of the pre-voyage repairs done in the yard commanded by the commodore, Bainbridge closed the proceedings down with no recommendation for court-martial.
In November Stewart married Delia Tudor after a short engagement and began his second war cruise the following month. On 20 February 1815, at sea again for two months, some 180 miles from Madeira, he met the British light frigate Cyane and corvette Levant together in a sunset and evening fight that saw him divide and conquer his enemies in a stunning display of shiphandling and shooting. The Levant subsequently was recaptured by the British, but the Cyane was sailed back to the United States and taken into naval service. As was customary, Congress awarded Stewart a gold medal and his crew prize money.
Stewart’s subsequent service was punctuated by long periods “awaiting orders.” He commanded the Mediterranean Squadron shortly after war’s end and the Pacific Squadron in the 1820s. From 1830 to 1833 he was on the Board of Naval Commissioners and later that decade commanded the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The first captain of the Pennsylvania, a 120-gun ship of the line, he commanded her on her one sea voyage. He was briefly considered as a presidential candidate in 1840 and again in 1844, but was not interested on either occasion. In the 1840s, he was first commander of the Home Squadron (1841–3), and beginning in January 1846 again commanded the Philadelphia Navy Yard for three years. That yard also was his to command from 1853 to 1860.
The rank of senior flag officer was created especially for Stewart in 1859. He retired in 1861 and was made the senior rear admiral on the Reserve List when it was created in July 1862. The following month he christened the ironclad steamer New Ironsides, the penultimate man to perform a christening for the U.S. Navy. Occasionally consulted by national leaders on naval matters during the Civil War, Stewart died in 1869, a victim of cancer, perhaps the longest-serving officer ever in the U.S. Navy.
The admiral and Delia Stewart had two children. (A grandson was the Irish nationalist Charles Stewart Parnell.) Two U.S. warships have borne Stewart’s name.
Claude G. Berube and John A. Rodgaard, A Call To The Sea: Captain Charles Stewart of the Constitution (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005).
William B. Cogar, Dictionary of Admirals of the U.S. Navy, vol. 1, 1862–1900 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989).
Henry A. S. Dearborn, The Life of William Bainbridge, Esq., of the United States Navy, ed. James Barnes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1931).
C. S. Forester, The Age of Fighting Sail (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956).
William M. Fowler Jr., Jack Tars & Commodores (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984).
Leonard F. Guttridge and Jay D. Smith, The Commodores (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
Thomas Harris, The Life and Services of Commodore William Bainbridge, United States Navy (Philadelphia: Carey, Lea & Blanchard, 1837).
David F. Long, Ready To Hazard (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1981).
Linda M. Maloney, The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986).
Tyrone G. Martin, A Most Fortunate Ship: A Narrative History of Old Ironsides, revised edition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1997).
Tyrone G. Martin, “Isaac Hull’s Victory Revisited,” The American Neptune 47 (Winter 1987): 14–21.