At the outbreak of the War of 1812, America was at a decided disadvantage. The Royal Navy was 60 times the size of the fledgling U.S. Navy and had centuries of experience to fall back on. But these facts did not deter American captains from taking their ships to sea in defiance of such odds.
One such captain, Isaac Hull, had his frigate the USS Constitution off Cape Race, near Newfoundland, on the afternoon of 19 August 1812, when her lookouts sighted the British frigate HMS Guerriere. Although the Constitution mounted 30, 24-pound long guns and 24, 32-pound carronades to the Guerriere’s 30, 18-pounders, 2, 12-pounders, and 18, 32-pound carronades, the Guerriere’s captain, James R. Dacres, did not hesitate to offer battle. Perhaps he shared The Times of London’s assessment of the U.S. Navy as merely “a handful of fir-built frigates under a bit of striped bunting” or more likely he was aware that the Royal Navy had a long history of winning ship-to-ship encounters.
As Captain Hull bore down on his British counterpart, the Guerriere fired her starboard broadside, then came about and fired her portside guns. Hull held fire in the face of his adversary’s broadsides, yawing first one way, then the other to minimize his ship’s target angle. When he had closed to a perilously close distance, he at last gave the order to fire. “Now, boys, pour it into them!” he shouted. A line of flames erupted from the Constitution’s starboard side, and an iron hail swept across her opponent’s decks, smashing into her rigging and decimating her crew.
The two ships continued to sail alongside exchanging broadsides. At one point, someone reportedly saw a British shot literally bounce off the Constitution’s side, and shouted, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!”—and so was born the nickname that endures to this day: “Old Ironsides.”
Within 15 minutes, the Guerriere’s mizzenmast had been shot away. “We’ve made a brig out of her,” cried Hull. Dragging the wreckage of her fallen mast astern, the Guerriere’s maneuverability was severely reduced, allowing the Constitution to cross in front of her and deliver a devastating broadside that carried away her remaining two masts. With his opponent unable to move, Hull stood off for some quick repairs, then returned to place his ship across the Guerriere’s bow once again. By this time, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. The Guerriere wallowed helplessly amidst a great tangle of devastated rigging with most of her guns out of action. Facing the inevitable, the British captain struck his flag.
An American boarding party found their prize a shambles, with 23 of her crew dead and 56 wounded. In contrast, the Constitution’s “iron sides” had kept her casualties to only seven killed and seven wounded. Damaged beyond salvaging, the Guerriere was set afire.
The Constitution returned to Boston to a celebration made even more enthusiastic because her victory had come amidst a rising tide of disasters in the war on land. The conquest of Canada had gone awry as a result of poor planning and leadership. Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) had been captured by the Indians, who promptly proceeded to massacre the entire garrison. And, ironically, Isaac Hull’s uncle, General William Hull, had surrendered Detroit to the British, after only a token defense.
To the British, the loss of the Guerriere came as a profound shock. The Times reported that it “spread a degree of gloom through the town, which it was painful to observe.”