It came about that the Dey of Tripoli got the idea into his head that we were not paying him as much as we did his neighbors. In his impatience, he decided to give us a lesson as badly needed as it was in the case of France, to which I have alluded. So he declared war against the United States. It would be interesting to know what ideas the Dey had of the Republic on the other side of the Atlantic.
One good thing resulted from our flurry with France. A number of good ships had been added to our navy. Better still, many young officers, brave, skilful and glowing with patriotic ardor, were serving on those ships. They eagerly welcomed the chance of winning glory. To them the war with Tripoli offered the very opportunity for which they longed.
Among these was William Bainbridge, who was born in 1774 and died in 1833. He began life as a sailor at the age of fifteen, and was in several engagements before he was appointed to the navy in 1798, during our war with France.
Another was Stephen Decatur, born in Maryland in 1779 and killed in a duel with Commodore Barron in 1820. His father was a gallant officer in the Revolution, and his two sons were among the bravest officers who ever trod the quarter deck. Both entered the service in 1798, and Stephen is generally regarded as the best type of the young American naval officer during the early years of the present century.
Still another was Charles Stewart, born in Philadelphia in 1778, and, like those whom I have named, he entered the navy as lieutenant in 1798. It will always be one of my pleasantest recollections that I was well acquainted with Stewart, and spent many hours talking with him about the stirring scenes in which he took part. He lived to be more than ninety years of age, dying in 1869, and for a good many years occupied a modest little home, just below Bordentown, New Jersey. When eighty-eight years old he was as active as a man of half his years. I came upon him one wintry day, when he was of that age, and found him in the barn, shoveling corn into a hopper, of which a sturdy Irishman was turning the crank. The old admiral kept his hired man busy and enjoyed his own work. He was of small figure, always wore an old-fashioned blue swallow-tail with brass buttons, took snuff, and would laugh and shake until his weatherbeaten face was purple over some of his reminiscences of the early days of the Republic.
Think of it! He remembered seeing Benedict Arnold burned in effigy in Philadelphia in 1781; he recalled Paul Jones, and had drunk wine and talked with Washington.
Stewart and Decatur were of about the same age, and attended the old Academy in Philadelphia. They were bosom friends from boyhood. Stewart told me that Decatur was a good student, but there was hardly a boy in the school, anywhere near his own age, with whom he did not have a fight. He would "rather fight than eat," but he was not a bully, and never imposed upon any one younger or weaker than himself.
A great many of my talks with old Admiral Stewart related to the war with Tripoli, which began in 1801 and lasted nearly four years. As you will learn, Stewart had a great deal to do with that war, and most of the incidents that follow were told to me by him, a fact which insures their truthfulness and interest.
Among others to whom I shall refer was Commodore Richard Dale, who was born in 1756, and died in 1826. He was older, as you will notice, than the three whom I have mentioned. As to his bravery, it is enough to say that he was first lieutenant on the Bonhomme Richard during her terrible fight under Paul Jones with the Serapis, and served with that wonderful naval hero on the Alliance and the Ariel. Had he not been made of the right stuff he never could have held such a position when a very young man.
Another hero was Commodore Edward Preble, born in 1761 and died in 1807. When only sixteen years old he joined a privateer, and at eighteen was active in the attacks of the Protector on the British privateer Admiral Duff. He was on the Winthrop, and fought bravely in the battle which resulted in the capture of a British armed brig. He was commissioned lieutenant in 1798, and the year following commanded the Essex.
From what I have told you, it will be seen that it was a gallant band that our Government sent into the Mediterranean in 1801 to chastise the barbarians and compel them to respect the Stars and Stripes.
The First Serious Engagement—Loss of the Philadelphia—The Scheme of Captain Bainbridge—Exploit of Lieutenant Decatur.
Andrew Sterrett was executive officer of the Constellation, which captured the French frigate L'Insurgente, in 1799, and La Vengeance, in 1800. It fell to his lot, while in command of the Enterprise, a vessel of 12 guns, to have the first serious fight in the war with Tripoli. When off Malta, he met a Tripolitan vessel of 14 guns, and they fought furiously for two hours, at the end of which time the enemy hauled down his flag. The Americans left their guns and broke into cheers, whereupon the Tripolitan fired a broadside. Nothing loath, Lieutenant Sterrett resumed the battle. The Tripolitans ran in close and attempted to board, but were repulsed, and, under the fierce fire of the Enterprise, they again hauled down their flag.
"I guess they mean it this time," remarked Lieutenant Sterrett, but the words were hardly spoken when the enemy let fly with another broadside.
As may be supposed, this exhausted the patience of the American commander. He ordered his men to their guns, and mentally resolved to finish the job without fail. Circling round his antagonist, he raked her from stem to stern, shot away the mizzen mast, made a sieve of the hull and killed and wounded fifty men. He was still at it, when, through the smoke, he caught sight of the swarthy captain, leaping up and down on the deck, swinging his arms and shrieking in broken English that he had surrendered. To show he was in earnest, he flung his colors overboard.
"Now throw your guns and powder after your flag," shouted Sterrett.
He was promptly obeyed; and, resolved to take no chances, Sterrett then compelled him to cut away his masts, after which he was permitted to rig a jury mast and a single sail.
"Now go home to your Dey," said his conqueror, "and give him my compliments."
Not a man was killed on board the Enterprise, though, as has been shown, the loss of the enemy was severe.
The American squadron in that part of the world was increased, and a number of engagements took place, with the advantage invariably on the side of our countrymen. By the opening of 1803 there were nine of our ships, carrying two hundred and fourteen guns, in the Mediterranean waters. The fine frigate Philadelphia captured a Moorish cruiser upon which were found papers signed by the Governor of Tangier authorizing the commander to destroy American commerce. Commodore Preble sailed into the harbor and demanded an explanation of the emperor. He denied having given any such authority to his subordinate, and in making his denial undoubtedly told a falsehood. Nevertheless, he was so scared that he signed anew the treaty of 1786, deprived the governor of his commission and confiscated his estates.
Captain William Bainbridge was in command of the Philadelphia, and was detailed to help in blockading Tripoli. His companion vessel was sent in pursuit of a corsair, so that the Philadelphia was left alone to perform blockade duty. On the last day of October, 1803, Captain Bainbridge observed a Tripolitan vessel trying to make port. He gave chase, but the coast was dangerous, abounding with shoals and reefs, with which the fugitive vessel was familiar, while Captain Bainbridge had to keep sounding and regulating his speed in accordance with the degree of danger.
In the midst of the pursuit, and while every precaution was taken, the crew, to their dismay, heard a dull, grating sound, whose meaning they well knew; the bow of the frigate rose six feet out of the water, and the stoppage was so sudden that nearly every one was thrown off his feet.
A hurried examination showed that the Philadelphia was inextricably fast, and could not be freed until the tide rose. Meanwhile the corsairs would issue from the harbor near at hand, and, choosing their own position, batter the frigate to pieces and kill or make prisoners of the crew.
Every possible effort was made to release the ship, but she was too firmly spiked on the jagged reef to be budged, and the dreaded peril speedily appeared. The Tripolitans soon discovered the plight of the American, and nine gunboats hurried out from the harbor. Fire was opened on both sides, but neither was effective, the position of the frigate preventing an effective aim. The sea drove her higher upon the rocks, and she careened so much that all the guns became useless. The Tripolitans, seeing her helplessness, now came closer and increased their fire.
There was no help for Captain Bainbridge. Unable to deliver an effective shot, the enemy could kill every one of his men. He therefore flooded his magazine, blocked the pumps, bored holes through the bottom of the ship in order to sink her if his enemies succeeded in releasing her, and then struck his flag. Distrustful at first, though they ceased firing, the Tripolitans finally came aboard, plundered the officers and men of their personal property, and then took them—three hundred and fifteen in all—to the city, where they were lodged in prison.
Some days later a powerful northerly wind partly lifted the Philadelphia off the rocks, and by united efforts her captors succeeded in getting her into deep water. The holes in the bottom were plugged, and the guns and anchors that had been thrown overboard in the shallow water were easily recovered and replaced on the ship. Thus the Bashaw secured a most valuable prize.
The disaster gave a serious aspect to the war, for it not only added material strength to the enemy, but increased their courage and insured a more determined resistance on their part. While the loss was a severe one to the American navy, it was not difficult to replace it.
One day a letter reached Commodore Preble. Apparently it was nothing but a blank sheet of paper, but knowing that lemon juice had been employed for ink, the Commodore held it before a flame and brought out the following, in the handwriting of Bainbridge:
"Charter a small merchant schooner, fill her with men and have her commanded by fearless and determined officers. Let the vessel enter the harbor at night with her men secreted below deck; steer her directly on board the frigate, and then let the men and officers board, sword in hand, and there is no doubt of their success. It will be necessary to take several good rowboats in order to facilitate the retreat after the enterprise has been accomplished. The frigate in her present condition is a powerful auxiliary battery for the defence of the harbor. Though it will be impossible to remove her from her anchorage and thus restore this beautiful vessel to our navy, yet, as she may and no doubt will be repaired, an important end will be gained by her destruction."
Captain Bainbridge had sent several similar letters to Preble, his good friend, the Swedish consul, being the man who secured their delivery. The plan suggested by Bainbridge was a good one, for, since it was impossible to add the Philadelphia to our navy, the next best thing was to prevent her remaining with that of Tripoli. It may as well be stated here that the court martial which investigated the particulars of the loss of the Philadelphia acquitted Captain Bainbridge of all blame and declared that he had done everything possible under the circumstances.
Fortunately, the American squadron succeeded about this time in capturing a Tripolitan gunboat, which would serve admirably to disguise the purpose of the Americans. Preble then told Lieutenant Decatur of the suggestion made by Bainbridge. No sooner was the young lieutenant acquainted with the plan than he volunteered to lead in the perilous enterprise. Nothing could have suited the daring fellow better.
Lieutenant Charles Stewart, who arrived a short time before in the Siren, not knowing of the scheme that had been formed, proposed with the Siren's men to cut out the Philadelphia. Preble informed him the honor had been given to Decatur. Stewart was disappointed, but expressed his honest pleasure that the management of the affair was entrusted to such worthy hands.
"He is the best man that could have been selected," he said heartily, "and there isn't a shadow of doubt that he will succeed."
Every one in the fleet was eager to volunteer, but Decatur selected sixty-two men, to which were added six officers from the Enterprise and six from the Constitution, with a native pilot. Knowing the daring nature of Decatur, he was given strict orders not to attempt to cut out the Philadelphia, but to destroy her.
Late in the day, February 9, 1804, the ketch left Syracuse for Tripoli, accompanied by the Siren, Lieutenant Stewart, to cover the retreat. The weather became so bad that the attempt had to be postponed, since the ketch was sure to be dashed to pieces on the rocks. The impatient crew was compelled to withdraw and wait for a week before the weather moderated. On the 15th, everything being favorable, the crew of the ketch bade good-by to their friends and set out on their perilous mission.
The night was clear and starlit, and at nine o'clock the ketch was in full view of the city and its twinkling lights, with the dark shores crowded with batteries, while far ahead, under the guns of the Bashaw's castle, lay the Philadelphia. The wind fell and the little craft crept slowly through the water, seemingly into the very jaws of death, until the outlines of the silent frigate loomed to sight through the gloom. Following Decatur's guarded orders, the men lay flat on the deck, all concealing themselves as best they could, while five or six, dressed as Maltese sailors, lounged about in plain sight.
The quartermaster at the wheel, obeying the directions of Decatur, steered so as to foul the Philadelphia, from which there suddenly came a hail. Lieutenant Decatur whispered to the pilot to say they had just arrived from Malta, and, having lost their anchor, wished to make fast to the Philadelphia's cables until another could be got from shore. A brief conversation followed, during which the ketch edged closer, but the Tripolitans soon discovered the men in the stargleam, and the alarm was sounded; but with great coolness and haste the ketch was worked into position and Decatur gave the order to board.
The eager Americans, with cutlass and boarding pike in hand, dashed through the gun ports and over the bulwarks. In a twinkling the quarter deck was cleared and all the Tripolitans on the forecastle were rushed overboard. The noise brought up a number of Turks from below, but the moment they saw what was going on they either leaped into the sea or hid themselves in the hold. They were pursued, and within ten minutes the frigate was captured, without a shot having been fired or an outcry made.
An abundance of combustibles had been brought, and they were now distributed and fired so effectively that nothing could save the fine vessel. Then the Americans scrambled back to the ketch, Lieutenant Decatur being the last to leave the doomed frigate, from which the dazzling glare lit up the harbor and revealed the smaller boat straining to get away. The batteries on shore opened fire, but, in their excitement, they aimed wildly, and no harm was done. Every American safely reached the Siren, waiting anxiously outside. The two made sail for Syracuse, where Captain Preble was vastly relieved to hear the news. The ketch was renamed the Intrepid, and Decatur, for his daring exploit, was promoted to the rank of captain and presented with a sword by Congress.
The Philadelphia was totally destroyed, and its remains still lie at the bottom of the harbor of Tripoli. In referring to this exploit, the great English naval commander, Lord Nelson, said it was "the most bold and daring act of the age."
Bombardment of Tripoli—Treacherous Act of a Turkish Captain—A Quick Retribution at the Hands of Captain Decatur.
The Bashaw of Tripoli was not yet subdued. He treated his American prisoners with greater harshness and refused to believe their nation was strong enough to bring him to terms.
On August 3, Commodore (as the senior officer of every squadron was then called) Preble sailed into the harbor of Tripoli with his fleet and opened the bombardment of the city. At the same time, several of his gunboats engaged those of the enemy. Lieutenant James Decatur, brother of Stephen, made chase of a Tripolitan vessel, reserving his fire until the two almost touched, when he poured in such a destructive discharge of musketry and grape that the terrified enemy surrendered. Lieutenant Decatur sprang aboard of his prize, when, at that instant, the Turkish commander, a man of massive strength and build, fired his pistol in the American officer's face and killed him. In the confusion caused by this treacherous act the enemy's boat got away and started for the city.
Meanwhile, Captain Decatur had been doing characteristic work. With three gunboats he attacked a force three times as numerous as his own. Impetuously boarding the first craft, after a discharge from his long boat, he engaged the numerous crew in a furious hand-to-hand struggle, in which all were made prisoners or forced to leap into the sea to save themselves. Then Decatur began towing away his prize, when he was told of the murder of his brother.
The grief-stricken and enraged captain instantly cast his prize adrift and started after the "unspeakable Turk." The boat was easily recognized, and, delivering a destructive fire, the pursuer ran alongside and the Americans rushed aboard, with Decatur in the lead. The enormous size and gorgeous uniform of the Turkish captain made him so conspicuous that Decatur knew him at once, and, rushing forward, lunged at him with his boarding pike. The Turk must have felt contempt for the American who dared thus to assail him, for his assailant was but a boy in size compared to him. He speedily proved his physical superiority over Decatur, for he not only parried the lunge of the pike, but wrenched it from his hand. He in turn drove his pike at Decatur's breast, but his blow was also parried, though its violence broke off the American's sword at the hilt. The active Turk came again, and his second blow was only partly turned aside, the point of the pike tearing through Decatur's coat and inflicting a bad wound in his chest.
Before the Turk could strike a third time, Decatur ran in, and the two instantly engaged in a fierce wrestling bout. The American was the most skilful, but by sheer strength his enormous antagonist threw him to the deck, and, gripping him by the throat with one hand, he reached down to draw a small curved knife, known as a yataghan. It was behind the sash in his waist and directly in front. Decatur threw both legs over the back of the Turk and pressed him so close that he could not force his hand between their bodies to reach his weapon. Decatur's pistol was at his hip. He was able to withdraw it, and he then did the only thing that could possibly save his life, though the chances were that the act would hasten his death.
Reaching over the back of the Turk, he pointed the weapon downward toward his own breast and pulled the trigger. In most cases the bullet would have passed through both bodies, but, fortunately, the ball encountered some obstruction and did not reach the imperiled American. He shoved off the bulky form, which rolled over on its back, dead.
It must not be supposed that while this furious hand-to-hand encounter was under way the respective crews were idle. They, too, were fighting fiercely, and, closing about the struggling commanders, each side endeavored to help its own. The crowd surged back and forth and became mixed in inextricable confusion. One of the Turks saw a chance to help his captain and made a vicious blow at his opponent with his scimiter. Reuben James, a sailor, who was so wounded in his arms that he could not use them, thrust his head forward and received the stroke upon his skull. The wound was a frightful one, but, beyond dispute, it saved the life of Decatur, who never forgot the man that had done him this inestimable service.
Reuben James was one of the volunteers who helped Decatur destroy the Philadelphia. He recovered from his terrible wound and did excellent service in the war of 1812. In one battle he was three times wounded before he would allow his comrades to carry him below. He lived fully twenty years after the death of his beloved commander, dying at a good old age, though he was scarred with sabre cuts, wounded times innumerable by bullets, and compelled to suffer the amputation of a leg.
The bombardment of Tripoli was less successful than expected. The shells were of such poor quality that no impression was made on the defences. All naval operations have proven that, as a rule, ships are comparatively powerless for aggressive work against forts and batteries on shore.
An investigation into the cause of the failure of so many shells sent into Tripoli brought out several interesting facts. Captain Bainbridge, who carefully noted the results of the bombardment while a prisoner in the city, stated that out of forty-eight thrown on one day only one exploded. It was found that the fuses in many of the bombs had been choked by lead that was poured into them. This was probably done by French agents in Sicily.
At the beginning of hostilities, the Tripolitans placed great reliance upon their ability to fight at close quarters. Undeniably, they did better in such position than in handling their ships. They had all the viciousness of wild cats, and it has been shown how fiercely they fought in hand-to-hand encounters; but their experience with the Americans taught them that they were to be dreaded in any situation where their anger was aroused, and, as a consequence, the Turks became less eager for tests of individual strength, skill and bravery.
The Bomb Ketch—A Terrible Missile—Frightful Catastrophe—Diplomacy in Place of War—Peace.
Whenever a war is under way a number of persons on each side are certain to come forward with ingenious schemes for injuring their opponents, through improvements upon the accepted methods of conducting hostilities. So it came about, after the slight success attained in bombarding Tripoli, that a plan was formulated for creating consternation in the blockaded city and bringing the defiant Bashaw to his senses.
The new scheme was to fix up the Intrepid as a bomb ketch, send her into the harbor at night and there explode her. While a few had no faith in the plan, others believed it would cause great destruction and spread dismay among the Tripolitans.
In the forward hold were stowed one hundred barrels of gunpowder, and on the deck above were piled one hundred and fifty shells and a lot of shot and scrap iron. The plan was to give this floating volcano the appearance of a blockade-runner. Two small boats were taken along, to be used by the crews after setting off the fuse that was to blow the ketch into a million atoms. It will be seen that the task was of the most dangerous nature conceivable, and yet when Captain Preble called for volunteers it seemed as if every one was eager to go.
The command was given to Master-Commandant Richard Somers, who was of the same age as Decatur and Stewart, and had established a reputation for coolness and intrepidity in the operations of the fleet. Midshipman Henry Wadsworth, an uncle of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, was the second in command. They were accompanied by another midshipman named Israel, who begged so hard to be allowed to go that he could not be refused, and ten of the best seamen.
After waiting for several days, the night of September 4 was found to be just what was desired. A fog lay like a blanket on the sea, but it was so clear overhead that the stars shone with brilliant splendor. Before the start was made, Decatur, Stewart and Somers, all the most intimate of friends, had a long talk in the cabin of the ketch, no one else being present. Each felt the gravity of the situation. Somers, though cool and composed, seemed to feel a presentiment that he would not return. He took a ring off his finger, and breaking it apart, gave one portion to Decatur, one to Stewart, and kept the other for himself. He told his friends what he wished done in case of his death, and they assured him that every wish should be respected.
During that last impressive interview Stewart asked Somers what he would do if discovered and attacked by the enemy.
"Blow us all up together!" was the instant response; "I shall never be taken prisoner."
I may remark here that no writer has recorded this expression of the gallant Somers, and I give it because Admiral Stewart assured me of its truth. His recollection of the incident, more than sixty years afterward, was as vivid as on the succeeding day. Indeed, Stewart, as is often the case with aged persons, remarked that his memory of occurrences a half century old was unerring, while of quite recent incidents it was unreliable.
It was comparatively early in the evening when the ketch got under way with a favoring breeze. Stewart, with the Siren, by order of Preble, stood toward the northern passage, through which the ketch was to pass. His purpose was to remain in as close as was safe, and hold himself ready to pick up the men as they returned in their boats. Stewart turned his night glass toward the Intrepid and watched her slowly fading from sight, until she melted into the gloom and not the slightest trace of her outlines was discernible.
Nothing could be more trying than the waiting of the craft outside, for Somers' own vessel and two small ones were near at hand. The stillness was so profound that men heard the suppressed breathing of their comrades. If one moved, he did so on tiptoe. Few words were spoken, and all in guarded undertones. The rippling of the water against the prows and cables was an annoyance, and on more than one forehead great drops of cold perspiration gathered.
Slowly and painfully the long minutes wore away, until it seemed as if several hours had passed, when in reality the interval was but a small part of that period. Every nerve was in this tense state, when suddenly the boom of a cannon came rolling through the fog from the direction of the city, followed soon by the rapid firing of artillery. The approach of the Intrepid had been discovered, and it seemed as if all the enemy's batteries were blazing away at her. But what of the ketch itself?
Stewart, like all the rest, was peering into the black mist, when he saw a star-like point of light, moving with an up and down motion, in a horizontal line, showing that it was a lantern carried by a man running along the deck of a ship. Then it dropped out of sight, as if the bearer had leaped down a hatchway. For a moment all was profound darkness, and then an immense fan-like expanse of flame shot far up into the sky, as if from the crater of a volcano, and was crossed by the curving streaks of fire made by shells in their eccentric flight. Across the water came the crashing roar of the prodigious explosion, followed a few moments later by the sounds of wreckage and bodies as they dropped into the sea. Then again impenetrable gloom and profound stillness succeeded. The batteries on shore were awed into silence by the awful sight, and the waiting friends on the ships held their breath.
The hope was that Lieutenant Somers and his companions had fired the fuse and then rowed away in their boats, but as minute followed minute without the sound of muffled oars from the hollow night reaching the straining ears, suspense gave way to sickening dread. The vessels moved to and fro about the entrance, as if the inanimate things shared in the anxiety that would not allow them to remain still. At intervals a gun was fired or a rocket sent up to guide the missing ones, but none appeared. Every man had been killed by the explosion of the ketch.
Investigations made afterward seemed to establish that Somers was attacked by three gunboats, and, finding escape impossible, it was he who ran along the deck, lighted lantern in hand, and deliberately blew up the Intrepid, destroying not only himself and companions, but many of the enemy. The mangled remains of several bodies were found some days later and given burial on shore, but not one could be recognized. Captain Bainbridge and some of his brother officers, who were prisoners in Tripoli, were allowed to view them. He said: "From the whole of them being so disfigured, it was impossible to recognize any feature known to us, or even to distinguish an officer from a seaman."
In November, Commodore Samuel Barron arrived, and succeeded Captain Preble in command of the American squadron. He brought with him the President and Constellation, thereby increasing the force to ten vessels, carrying two hundred and sixty-four guns.
Having failed to bring the Bashaw to terms by force of arms, the Americans now resorted to what may be termed diplomacy. The reigning Bashaw of Tripoli was a usurper, having displaced his elder brother, who had fled to Upper Egypt. He had a good many friends, who, if they dared, would have been glad to replace him on his throne. The American consul, who understood all the particulars, proposed to our government to use the deposed ruler as an instrument to compel the usurper to make terms. The Government authorized the consul to go ahead.
Accordingly, he made his way to Alexandria, sought out the banished ruler, proposed his plan, and it was eagerly accepted. He furnished the consul with a cavalry escort, enlisted a number of Greek soldiers, the party marched a thousand miles across the flaming Barcan desert, and in April appeared before Derne, one of the seaports of the reigning monarch, who was also advancing upon the place. With the help of the American fleet, the town was captured, and, for the first time in its history, the Stars and Stripes were given to the breeze above a fortification on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
By the enlistment of the mongrel population of the neighborhood, the American consul gathered a formidable force, with which the enemy were again defeated. Then they boldly set out for Tripoli.
Meanwhile the usurper was shivering with fear, and was more than ready to make a treaty of peace with the terrible barbarians from the other side of the ocean. The treaty was signed on June 2, 1805. The Bashaw, who had demanded a princely sum for the release of his American prisoners, was now glad to set them free for $60,000. It was agreed, furthermore, that no more tribute should be paid, and thus ended all our troubles with Tripoli.
These proceedings left the rightful ruler in the lurch. He had been promised that he should be restored to his throne on condition of helping the Americans, and he had given the most valuable sort of aid, but the treaty declared that no assistance should be given him. It was a gross injustice on the part of our Government, which did no special credit to itself, when, after the deposed ruler had made a pitiful appeal to Congress, that body presented him with a beggarly pittance of $2,400.
THE WAR OF 1812.
Cause of the War of 1812—Discreditable Work of the Land Forces—Brilliant Record of the Navy—The Constitution—Captain Isaac Hull—Battle Between the Constitution and Guerriere—Winning a Wager.
Probably no hostilities in which the United States was ever engaged so abound with stirring, romantic and remarkable exploits as those upon the ocean in the War of 1812.
Now, as to the cause of the war between England and our country: Great Britain was engaged in a tremendous conflict with France, at the head of which was the greatest military leader of the world, Napoleon Bonaparte. England needed every soldier and sailor she could get. Some of them deserted to our ships, so her officers began the practice of stopping such vessels on the ocean, searching them for deserters, and if found they were taken away. Sometimes she took Americans, because she knew they were good seamen, and, to excuse her action, she declared they were deserters from the British navy.
This action was against the law of nations. She had no more right to molest an American vessel than she had to land a force on our coast, march inland and search the house of a private family. We protested, but she paid no attention. It happened more than once that when our vessels refused to be searched the English fired into them and killed and wounded some of the American crews. If any nation acted that way toward England to-day she would declare war at once, and so would any other nation.
Finding there was no peaceable way of stopping the unbearable conduct of Great Britain, our country, in the month of June, 1812, declared war against her, and it lasted until the early part of 1815.
There was one feature of that war which it is not pleasant for Americans to recall. It opened with a cowardly surrender by General William Hull of Detroit to the English army, and for two years our land forces did very little to their credit. They set out to invade Canada several times, but in every instance were beaten. The leading generals were "poor sticks," quarreled among themselves, and for a time failed to gain any advantage. The trouble was not with the soldiers. They were among the best in the world, but their leaders were of no account. By and by, however, the poor officers were weeded out and good ones took their places. Then something was accomplished in which we all could feel pride.
It was just the other way on the ocean. From the very start our naval vessels and privateers won the most brilliant of victories. This was the more remarkable when several facts are kept in mind. Great Britain had been at war so long that she had the most powerful navy by far in the world. It numbered one thousand and thirty-six vessels, of which two hundred and fifty-four were ships-of-the-line, not one of which carried less than seventy guns of large calibre. This prodigious navy was manned by one hundred and forty-four thousand sailors, and eighty-five of her war vessels were on the American coast, equipped and ready for action.
In amazing contrast to all this, we had only twenty large war vessels and a number of gunboats that were of little account. The disparity was so great that our Government, after looking at the situation and discussing the matter, decided that it would be folly to fight England on the ocean, and it was decided not to do so. When Captains Stewart and Bainbridge learned of this decision, they went to President Madison and his advisers and insisted that the American navy, weak as it was, should be given a chance of showing what it could do. Consent was finally given, and then opened the wonderful career of our cruisers and privateers.
Among the frigates that had been built during our war with France was the Constitution, which carried 44 guns. She earned the name of being one of the luckiest ships in the navy, and because of her astonishing record was named "Old Ironsides." The old hulk of this historical ship is still carefully preserved in remembrance of her brilliant record, which in some respects has never been equalled.
Sailors are superstitious, and the good name which the Constitution gained made it easy to get all the seamen needed. When you come to look into the matter you will find that the Constitution was a lucky ship, because it was always officered by the best men we had, and they were wise enough to choose the finest crews.
The captain of the Constitution, when the war broke out, was Isaac Hull, a nephew of General William Hull, who made the cowardly surrender of Detroit. He was born in Connecticut in 1773, and died in 1843. He was one of the brilliant young officers who received his commission in 1798, and was commander of the Argus during the war with Tripoli. He was made a captain in 1806, and the following year was given command of the Constitution.
Upon learning that the war had broken out, Captain Hull left the Chesapeake, with orders to join the squadron under the command of Captain Rodgers at New York. When off Barnegat, New Jersey, he was sighted by the blockading squadron of Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, which gave chase. The ingenuity and skill displayed by Captain Hull in escaping from the enemy, when all escape seemed hopeless, is still referred to as one of the most remarkable exploits in the history of the American navy. The chase lasted for more than two days and three nights, and it is safe to say that very few commanders placed in the situation of Captain Hull would have been able to save themselves from capture.
Captain Hull sailed on a cruise from Boston on August 21, just in time to dodge an order from Washington to remain in port until further orders. On the afternoon of August 19, when several hundred miles to the eastward of Halifax, he sighted the British frigate Guerriere. Her commander, Captain James E. Dacres, was an old acquaintance of Hull, and the two had made a wager of a hat during peace that if they ever met in battle the other would run.
The British officer was as anxious as Hull for a fight, and they drew near each other, both confident of winning the wager made half in jest a brief time before.
Great interest attaches to this naval battle, for it was the first of its kind and a fair test of the respective prowess of ships of and crews of that nature. The Constitution was somewhat the superior, carrying 55 guns and four hundred and sixty-eight men, while the Guerriere had 49 guns and two hundred and sixty-three men, but all of the latter were under fine discipline, while most of the Americans were green hands. Captain Dacres was confident of his superiority, and had no doubt that when the two frigates met the Constitution would be compelled speedily to strike her colors. He waited for the American to come up, each having cleared for action.
A little after four o'clock the two exchanged broadsides, but they were so far apart that no damage was done. Dacres manoeuvred for a raking position, but Hull would not permit it, nor could he obtain one for himself. There was much wearing and manoeuvring, which prevented the firing on either side from being effective. Each was wary of the other and took the utmost pains to prevent his securing any advantage.
When it became certain that the battle was to be one at close range, Hull ordered the firing to cease, in order that the fullest preparation could be made for the next broadside. He knew the skill of his men in marksmanship, and determined to hold his fire until the most advantageous position was reached. As he drew near his enemy, the latter continued firing, and some of her shots were so effective that the crews cheered. The Americans, most of them barefooted and stripped to the waist, were standing beside their guns eager and impatient for the order to fire, but Hull, when appealed to, shook his head. It was a proof of the fine discipline of the American crew that when they saw two of their comrades killed by the fire of the enemy, they silently waited without murmur for the order whose delay they could not comprehend.
Not until about a hundred feet distant and in the exact position desired did Captain Hull give the order to fire as the guns bore. To quote Maclay: "In an instant the frigate belched forth a storm of iron hail that carried death and destruction into the opposing ship. The effect of this carefully aimed broadside at short range was terrific. The splinters were seen to fly over the British frigate like a cloud, some of them reaching as high as the mizzen top, while the cheers of her men abruptly ceased and the shrieks and groans of the wounded were heard. The Americans had struck their first earnest blow, and it was a staggering one. The Englishman felt its full weight, and perhaps for the first time realized that this was no child's play."
The Americans displayed remarkable skill in their gunnery, as it may be said they have always done. The main yard of the enemy was shot away in the slings, and hull, rigging and sails were badly mangled. A shot passing through the mizzenmast close to the deck, added to the stress from the sails, caused it to break in two and fall over the quarter. One curious effect of this dragging in the water was to make the wreckage act like a rudder, bringing her up to the wind in spite of the opposition of the helm. While the damage on the Constitution was less, it clogged her action, but she secured a position from which she delivered two raking broadsides. Then as the vessel see-sawed, the jibboom of the Guerriere crossed the Constitution's quarter deck. Both crews made ready to board, but each found the other so fully prepared that neither attempted it. Meanwhile the riflemen in the rigging were working with destructive energy. In each of the Constitution's tops were seven marines, six loading for the seventh, who was the best marksman. A good many officers were wounded and killed on both sides.
Although the vessels had been lashed together, their lurching broke them apart, and the Englishman gained a chance to use his broadsides. A fire broke out on the Constitution, but it was quickly extinguished, and the shot of the American soon made a complete wreck of the enemy. When it became clear that the Guerriere could make no further resistance, Captain Hull drew off to repair the damages to his own ship. Another English frigate was likely to appear at any moment, and she would make short work of the Constitution in her crippled condition. It took but a short time to complete the work, when she returned to her former position beside the wallowing Guerriere. A lieutenant was sent on board to receive the surrender, which Dacres gave with painful reluctance. When brought to the side of the Constitution, Hull assisted him up the rope ladder. Dacres extended his sword.
"No" replied Hull, "I will not take it from one who knows so well how to use it, but I must trouble you to pay me that hat I have won."
Jacob Jones—The Wasp and the Frolic—James Biddle—The Hornet and the Penguin—A Narrow Escape.
I must now tell you something about another gallant young officer who entered the American navy at the close of the century, when he was hardly thirty years old. He was Jacob Jones, who lived until 1850. He was a lieutenant on the Philadelphia for two years, and was with that frigate when she ran on the rocks in the harbor of Tripoli. He was given command of the 18-gun sloop of war Wasp, which sailed from the Delaware in October, 1812, and headed eastward, with the intention of intercepting some of the enemy's merchantmen plying between Great Britain and the West Indies.
About a week after sailing he sighted five merchantmen, several of which were well armed, while all were convoyed by a brig of war. Jones stood toward them, when the brig signalled to her companions to make all sail before the wind, while she dropped back to attend to the stranger. The American came up quite close, and hailing, demanded the name of the other. For a reply, the brig lowered the Spanish colors, ran up the British flag, and let fly with a broadside and volley of musketry.
The Wasp was expecting something of that nature and returned the compliment, the vessels working nearer each other and firing as rapidly as possible. The action had hardly begun when the Wasp lost her main topmast, and a few minutes later the mizzen topgallant mast and the gaff were shot away. These mishaps so crippled her that she became almost unmanageable. The Frolic, as the enemy was named, was also damaged, but not so badly as the Wasp, but, unfortunately for the Frolic, the heavy sea and the twisting about of the hull threw her into position to be raked by the Wasp, and Captain Jones was quick to seize the advantage, the vessels being so close that the ramrods were pushed against each other's sides while the gunners were loading. The sea was so heavy that the guns of the Wasp frequently dipped under water.
The intention of the Americans was to board, and Lieutenant James Biddle held himself and men ready to take instant advantage of the moment the roll of the sea brought them near enough to do so.
Captain Jones did not believe himself warranted in boarding, since he held the advantage of position, and he issued orders for the men to wait, but their ardor could not be checked. Among his sailors was one who had been impressed into the British service, where he was brutally treated. Springing upon his gun, he grasped the bowsprit of the brig, swung himself upon the spar and ran as nimbly as a monkey to the deck of the enemy. Imitating his enthusiasm, Lieutenant Biddle and his boarders took advantage of a favorable lurch at that moment and sprang upon the deck of the Frolic. There, every man stopped and repressed the cheer that rose to his lips, for the scene was one of the most dreadful that imagination can picture.
The quartermaster stood grimly clutching the wheel, a lieutenant, bleeding from several wounds, was leaning against the companionway, unable to stand without its support, while all along the deck were strewn the dead and dying. Silently the victors stepped over the prostrate forms to the quarter deck, where the officer weakly dropped his sword to signify his surrender. Lieutenant Biddle walked to where the colors were still fluttering and pulled them down. A few minutes later the mainmast and foremast fell.
Maclay gives the strength of the two vessels as follows: Wasp, 18 guns, Frolic, 22; crew of the Wasp, 138, of the Frolic, 110. On the Wasp 5 were killed and 5 wounded; on the Frolic 15 were killed and 47 wounded, the latter being completely riddled. The cause of this frightful difference in results was brought about by the Americans discharging their broadsides when their ship was on the downward roll, the shot landing in the hull of the enemy, while the latter fired on the rise, her broadsides mainly passing into and through the rigging.
As soon as Captain Jones learned of the fearful plight of the Frolic he sent his surgeon on board, and everything possible was done to assist the sorely smitten enemy.
The Wasp was so badly injured that Captain Jones gave his attention to repairing her, and was thus engaged when a sail appeared. It proved to be the British 74-gun ship of the line Poictiers, which, surmising what had taken place, bore down, took possession of both ships and carried them to Bermuda.
This battle, one of the most fiercely contested of the war, naturally caused much rejoicing throughout the United States. Congress voted $25,000 to the officers and crew of the Wasp as prize money, and gave a gold medal to Master-Commandant Jones and a silver one to each of his officers, while the Legislature of Pennsylvania presented a sword to Lieutenant James Biddle.
This gallant young officer is entitled to more notice than has been given him. He was born in Philadelphia in 1783, and died in 1848. After his exchange, he was appointed to the command of the Hornet, and sailed from New York in the month of January, 1815, in company with the Peacock and Tom Bowline, but the three became separated, each making for Tristan d'Acunha, which had been named as the rendezvous of the squadron under the command of Stephen Decatur.
This was on the last day of February, and Captain Biddle was about to drop anchor when a sail appeared, and the Hornet went out to reconnoitre. The stranger approached as if anxious to fight him, and, when within musket range, ran up the English flag and fired a shot, to which the Hornet replied with a broadside. The vessels continued firing as they drew near each other. The superior aim of the American speedily crippled the rigging of the other, and, coming together, the Penguin, as the British vessel proved to be, in preparing to board, succeeded in passing her bowsprit between the main and mizzen rigging of the Hornet on the starboard quarter. This gave the enemy the opportunity he seemed to be seeking, but his boarders did not appear.
The American sailors begged permission of Captain Biddle to board, but he would not consent, since he wished to hold the advantage already gained. Just then the heaving sea broke the vessels apart, the Penguin receiving considerable damage from the forcible rupture. The Hornet wore round to bring her broadside to bear, and was on the point of opening fire, when the surviving officer of the Penguin called out that they surrendered. His condition was so hopeless that no choice was left to him.
Captain Biddle ordered his men to stop firing, and, stepping to the taffrail, asked his enemy if they had struck. The answer was two musket shots, one aimed at the man at the wheel and the other at Biddle. The latter was hit on the chin and badly, though not dangerously, wounded, while the man at the wheel was not struck. The men who fired the treacherous shots were seen by two American marines, who shot them dead.
No doubt the action of the Englishmen was unauthorized, and probably was due to a misunderstanding; but the Americans were so incensed that it was difficult to restrain them from continuing the firing. The enemy hailed a second time and called out they had surrendered.
The strength of the Hornet was 20 guns and 132 men; of the Penguin, 19 guns and 128 men. The Hornet had 1 man killed and 11 wounded; the Penguin, 10 killed and 28 wounded. She was so badly shattered that, after taking out her stores, her captors scuttled her.
In order to complete our history of the gallant Captain James Biddle it is necessary to carry the record in advance of some of the incidents that follow.
As has been stated, the Peacock and the Hornet had gone to Tristan d'Acunha in obedience to the orders of Commodore Decatur, to wait for him and the President, but the latter never arrived, for the good reason that she had been captured by the enemy. Growing tired of waiting, Biddle and Captain Warrington, of the Peacock, started on an extended cruise, April 13, for the East Indies.
Doubling the Cape of Good Hope, they met with no incident of note until the latter part of April, when they sighted a large sail, which they believed to be a heavily laden East India merchantman. A chase immediately began. It continued a long time, and the Peacock was within a few miles, when she made the discovery that the stranger, instead of being a merchantman, was a ship of the line. Captain Warrington signalled the startling fact to Biddle, and the two turned to escape. Since the formidable vessel could not pursue both when they took different directions, she selected the Hornet for her prize.
All that Biddle could now hope to do was to out-sail his pursuer. He put forth every effort known to the most skilful seamanship. When night closed in, however, the pursuer had perceptibly gained. Since the weather was perfectly clear and the two were in plain sight of each other, the enemy could keep up the chase all night. Captain Biddle threw overboard some of his heavy spars, cut away the sheet anchor and flung several tons of kentledge into the sea.
This helped matters somewhat, but the stranger continued slowly to gain, and secured such a position that Captain Biddle was obliged to go about. Still he could not shake off the bulldog at his heels, and at daylight he was near enough to begin barking with the bow guns. Although the shot did not strike the Hornet, Captain Biddle dropped his remaining anchors into the sea, including six guns, launch, cables, and everything not absolutely necessary.
The lightening was so considerable that for the first time the Hornet began drawing away from her persistent pursuer. At the end of a few hours, however, he began creeping up again, and Captain Biddle tumbled overboard all his guns except one, most of his shot, his extra spars, cutlasses, muskets, forge and bell, and indeed everything of which he could free himself. Not only that, but the men lay down on the quarter deck to help trim the ship.
All in vain. The shot and shell whistled about the Hornet, the enemy came closer, and every American prepared to submit as gracefully as possible to the inevitable. Captain Biddle addressed his men feelingly, telling them to show the same restraint in misfortune that they had in victory, and then the gallant officer coolly awaited the moment when he should be obliged to haul down his flag to save the lives of his brave crew.
But lo! the wind changed to a quarter favorable to the Hornet, and it lasted throughout the night and the next day. The Hornet drew steadily away from the British ship of the line Cornwallis, as she proved to be, and made her way at a leisurely speed to the United States.
Captains Carden and Decatur—Cruise of the Macedonian—Battle with the Frigate United States—Decatur's Chivalry.
Before the war broke out between England and the United States the naval officers naturally were on the best of terms with one another. They exchanged visits, had dinners together and talked in the most friendly terms over the relations of their respective countries. Brave men always feel thus, and no matter how fiercely they have been fighting, they become friends again as soon as peace is declared.
You have already been told considerable about Stephen Decatur, one of the bravest and most chivalrous men that ever drew a sword. At the breaking out of the War of 1812 he was given command of the frigate United States, of 44 guns, built in 1798, and one of the finest in the American navy. While lying at Norfolk, some months before war was declared, the British frigate Macedonian, of about the same strength, was in port, and the officers and crews became well acquainted.
The commander of the Macedonian was Captain John Surman Carden, one of the finest officers in the British service. He and Decatur became fond of each other and often discussed the probable results of the impending naval contests, for it was apparent to both that their countries were on the brink of war. Captain Carden conceded the bravery and skill of the American officers and seamen, but insisted that they would be at a disadvantage, because they had not met with the experience of the Englishmen, who had been engaged in so many wars with European nations.
The Macedonian was made of oak and was without a superior in the British navy. In the latter part of September, 1812, she left Portsmouth, England. She was just off the docks and her crew, 297 in number, were such as the best officer would have been proud to command. The discipline was as near perfection as possible, Captain Carden being one of the severest of disciplinarians. His business was to look out for French merchantmen and warships, though as it was known that war had been declared with the United States, it was deemed probable that Captain Carden would have a chance of testing the mettle of her naval officers and crews.
There were two American vessels that Captain Carden was specially anxious to meet. One was the Essex, which was playing havoc among the English shipping (and of which I shall tell you something later on), and the other that of Captain Stephen Decatur, the courteous but brave naval officer who had displayed so much intrepidity in the war with Tripoli and had insisted to Carden that the American sailors were the match of the English anywhere.
While at Madeira Captain Carden learned that the Essex had sailed from the Delaware and was expected to cruise in the neighborhood of the Canary Islands. The Englishman turned southward and was within a few days' sail of the islands when, on the 25th of October, the man at the masthead reported a sail. As it approached it was carefully scrutinized and found to be a frigate bearing down on the Macedonian.
Convinced that she was an enemy, Captain Carden at once issued the command to clear for action. The most thorough preparations were made and officers were stationed with orders to shoot down the first man who flinched from his duty. On board the ship were a number of American seamen, who began speculating among themselves as to whether the approaching frigate was a Frenchman or belonged to their own country. They were in a trying position, for they were patriotic and would have given anything in the world to escape firing upon their countrymen, but there was no help for it. Such a rigid disciplinarian as Captain Carden would listen to no protests from them, and, should the stranger prove to be an American, it would be a choice between helping to fight her or being shot down by their own officers.
The approaching frigate went through a number of evolutions of such a rapid and brilliant nature that the Englishmen murmured their admiration. Through their glasses the officers could see groups of men on the quarter deck scanning them closely, while glimpses of sailors were caught as they moved about the deck and of the gun crews standing quietly at their stations. Then, when there was a change of direction, parties of marines were observed in her tops, muskets in hand, coolly awaiting the time when the ships would engage at close quarters.
While Captain Carden and his officers were in doubt whether the ship was a French one she gave her colors to the breeze. They were the Stars and Stripes of the American Republic. One of the finest of its frigates had thrown down the gage of battle to as superb a frigate as belonged to the British navy.
Since all doubt of her nationality was dispelled, one of the American seamen walked resolutely to Captain Carden, saluted and told him that he and his companions had no wish to fight the flag of their country. In reply the officer ordered him back to his station and with notice that if the request was repeated he would be shot. Sad to say, the sailor who made his wish known was one of the first killed in battle.
The two ships now began exchanging shots, but the distance was too great for any damage on either side. A little after 9 o'clock on that bright sunshiny Sunday morning they were close enough for the wonderful marksmanship of the American to display itself. The first shot that found the Macedonian entered through the starboard bulwark and killed the sergeant of marines. A minute later the mizzen topmast was sundered, and, cluttered with sails, yards and rigging, it fell into the maintop, where it hung suspended, liable to fall at any moment and crush those beneath.
The fire of the American became frightfully destructive. It seemed as if every shot splintered some part of the rigging or hull and killed and wounded men right and left. The exasperating feature of this awful business was that neither Captain Carden nor his aids, who were directing operations from the quarter deck, could discover any corresponding damage on the American ship. Her mizzen topgallant mast had been carried away, but it looked as if all the other shots sent in her direction sped past without harm. She was wrapped in an immense volume of smoke made by her own broadsides, and through it constantly shot tongues of crimson flame, while the roar of the rapidly discharged guns was incessant.
Now and then a rift appeared in the billows of vapor, through which the Stars and Stripes were seen fluttering, while the men worked as coolly at their guns as if going through manoeuvres in time of peace. Finally the smoke became so dense that the Americans were unable to see through it. Ceasing firing for a few minutes, the frigate moved far enough forward to pass from under the impenetrable blanket of vapor and then renewed the battle with more terrific effect than before. Her firing was so rapid that several times Captain Carden believed the incessant flame indicated she was on fire. The report was spread among his men to encourage them, but no such good fortune came to the Englishmen.
One of the men on board the Macedonian gave the following graphic account of his experience:
"Our men kept cheering with all their might. I cheered with them, though I confess I scarcely knew what for. Certainly there was nothing very inspiriting in the aspect of things. Grape shot and canister were pouring through our portholes like leaden hail. The large shot came against the ship's side, shaking her to the very keel, and passing through her timbers and scattering terrific splinters, which did more appalling work than the shot itself. A constant stream of wounded men were being hurried to the cockpit from all quarters of the ship. My feelings were pretty much as I suppose every one else felt at such a time. That men are without thought when they stand among the dying and dead is too absurd an idea to be entertained. We all appeared cheerful, but I know that many a serious thought ran through my mind. Still, what could we do but keep up a semblance at least of animation? To run from our quarters would have been certain death from the hands of our own officers; to give way to gloom or show fear would do no good and might brand us with the name of cowards and insure certain defeat."
In the desperate hope of warding off defeat, Captain Garden now ordered his helm aport and directed that boarders be called. The response was prompt, for the British sailor fights with unsurpassable heroism, but at the critical moment the forebrace was carried away, the ship was thrown into the wind and exposed to a raking fire. The American instantly seized the advantage and swept the decks with murderous destructiveness. In a brief time the Macedonian was completely disabled. Her rigging was in tatters and splinters and her hull had been pierced by more than a hundred shot, many of which struck between wind and water.
Finally the American ceased firing and drew off to make the few repairs that were necessary. During the lull Captain Carden called his surviving officers around him for council. There was indeed but one thing to do, and it was agreed to surrender. As the American was returning, therefore, to resume her appalling work the English colors were hauled down. The victor lay to and lowered a boat, under charge of a lieutenant, who, as he climbed aboard, gave his name and that of the American 44-gun frigate as the United States, Captain Stephen Decatur. The United States, whose crew numbered 478, had 5 killed and 7 wounded, while the 297 of the Macedonian lost 36 killed and 68 wounded.
So it was that the old friends settled the question over which they had argued many times. When the English officer came aboard of the United States and offered his sword to Decatur the latter said: "I cannot receive the sword of a man who has defended his ship with such bravery."
The chivalrous nature of Decatur was shown in a private letter in which he wrote: "One-half of the satisfaction arising from this victory is destroyed in seeing the mortification of poor Carden, who deserved success as much as we did who had the good fortune to obtain it." Everything possible was done to alleviate the sufferings of the prisoners. The private property of the officers and seamen was returned or its equivalent in money. In a letter from Captain Carden to Captain Decatur he expressed his feelings and added: "I have much gratitude to express to you, my dear sir, for all your kindnesses, and all my officers feel it equally with myself. If ever we should turn the tables we will endeavor, if possible, to improve on your unusual goodness."
Occasional American Defeats as Well as Victories—Captain Decatur's Misfortune—The Chesapeake and Shannon.
You would gain a wrong impression if my account of the leading naval events in the War of 1812 were made up wholly of American victories. It was inevitable that our gallant officers and men should meet with some defeats. In order, therefore, to give as true an idea as possible of those times I shall devote this chapter to telling about some events which went the wrong way.
Enough has been related concerning Stephen Decatur to show that he was the most prominent of our naval leaders in our last war with Great Britain. He entered into the work with the same dauntless enthusiasm he showed whenever it was his privilege to serve his country, and his capture of the Macedonian was one of the most brilliant exploits of the many that took place during those memorable years.
In order to understand my use of the words "captain" and "commodore," it is necessary to explain that at the time to which I now refer the latter rank was different from what it is to-day. The commodore of a squadron was the highest ranking officer and he might be lower than a captain. Thus "Commodore" Perry, who won the remarkable victory on Lake Erie, was promoted from that rank to "captain."
Another interesting fact may be named. The Stars and Stripes used in that war was slightly different in pattern from the present, for, instead of containing thirteen stripes, as it did at the close of the Revolution and as it does to-day, it had fifteen. The first law of Congress bearing on this point was to add a stripe for every new State admitted to the Union, but after two had come in and others were making ready it became evident that before long the pattern of the beautiful emblem would be spoiled if the rule were followed. So the increase in the number of stripes stopped and remained fifteen for a few years after the close of the war, even though new States had been admitted. Then the law was changed so as to provide that the increase of States should be shown by the stars in the blue field, while the stripes should always remain thirteen in number, typical of the original colonies of the Revolution.
It was decided early in the war to send a squadron consisting of the President, Captain Stephen Decatur, and the sloops of war Peacock, Captain Warrington, and Hornet, Lieutenant Biddle, and the storeship Tom Bowline on a cruise in the Indian Ocean. This squadron was to rendezvous at Tristan d'Acunha, but failed to do so, for a reason that has been stated in the account of the exploits of the Hornet and Peacock.
Captain Decatur lay in the harbor of New York with his vessels and found himself so closely blockaded by the British squadron that it was impossible for the Americans to sail in company. He sent out the two ships named, and, on the night of January 14, 1815, when the blockading squadron had been driven to the south by a gale, he sailed down the Narrows, hoping to get to sea before it returned. There was good reason to expect success, but misfortune speedily came. The beacon lights had been removed and early in the evening the pilot ran the ship aground just before reaching Sandy Hook. It required two hours of the hardest kind of work to get her off. The President was not very seaworthy at the start, and the efforts to reach deep water so injured her that it was necessary to return to the city for repairs, but the strong contrary wind prevented and she was driven over the bar.
Meanwhile the blockading squadron had come back and, early the next morning, Decatur had four of them in full pursuit. He put on every stitch of canvas, threw overboard everything that could be spared and wet his sails, but the President was so badly crippled from having run aground that, despite all that was done, she steadily lost ground. The Endymion led the pursuers and soon drew up within range, her position such that Decatur could not reply to the shots which began to injure his ship and kill and wound his crew.
He formed a desperate scheme that was characteristic of him. The Endymion was so far in advance of the other pursuers that there was a possibility of turning about and capturing her. Then, by transferring the American crew to her, the worthless President could be abandoned and swift flight be made in the Endymion, which had already demonstrated her superior speed.
The great risk in this attempt (for no one among the Americans doubted their ability to overcome the other crew) was that before the capture could be accomplished the other vessels would come up and Decatur be assailed by an overwhelming force, but he did not hesitate. He explained his plan to his men and they responded with cheers. No commander was ever more beloved by his crew than Decatur, and they were ready to follow him to the death, for he was always their leader and the foremost in personal danger.
Since every minute was valuable, Decatur put about and made for the Endymion with the intention of engaging her at close quarters. But the British vessel suspected his purpose, for she also turned, and, being much the superior sailer, was able to hold a safe distance between the two. It was an exasperating disappointment, but Decatur opened with a heavy fire, hoping to disable his antagonist before the arrival of the others.
A furious engagement followed, in which Decatur lost several of his most valuable officers and was himself painfully wounded by flying splinters. But the American guns were served with perfect precision and the Endymion was so broken and shattered by the fire that after two and a half hours she was incapable of further resistance. She would have surrendered had the time been sufficient for Decatur to enforce the demand, but the other blockaders were hurrying up and placed the American again in grave danger. He crowded on all sail once more, but the scurrying clouds which gave him a chance of escaping were swept from the sky and the bright moon revealed him so plainly to his pursuers that they rapidly overtook the President. A running fight followed, but the President was overmatched in every respect. In his official report Decatur said: "Two fresh ships of the enemy, the 38-gun frigates Pomone and Tenedos, had come up. The Pomone had opened fire on the port bow, within musket shot, the other, about two cables' length astern, taking a raking position on our quarter, and the rest, with the exception of the Endymion, within gunshot. Thus situated, with about one-fifth of my crew killed and wounded, my ship crippled and a more than fourfold force opposed to me, without a chance of escape, I deemed it my duty to surrender."
The British senior officer of the squadron to whom Decatur offered his sword showed his appreciation of the American's gallantry and of his chivalrous treatment of Captain Carden, when the situations were reversed, by handing the weapon back to Decatur with the remark that he was proud to return the sword of an officer who had defended his ship so nobly.
Shortly after this misfortune news reached this country of the signing of a treaty of peace, though several encounters took place on the ocean before the tidings could reach the various ships.
Turning back to the earlier part of the war, mention must be made of another American hero, James Lawrence, who was born in Burlington, N.J., in 1781 and was active in the war with Tripoli. He was commander of the Hornet when she captured the Peacock in an engagement which lasted only fifteen minutes, with the loss of one American killed and two wounded. He was given the command of the frigate Chesapeake, which was repairing in Boston harbor. The ship had gained the reputation of being unlucky, and, having already passed through several accidents, Lawrence assumed command with extreme reluctance.
Among the blockading vessels of the enemy outside of Boston was the Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke. She was one of the most efficient ships in the British navy, carried 38 guns and had a crew of 330 men, all well disciplined and skilled in firing guns and in fighting, while Broke himself probably had no superior as an officer. That he was brave was proven not only by his sending a challenge to Lawrence, inviting him to come out and fight him, but by his conduct during the battle.
Captain Lawrence sailed out of Boston harbor before Broke's challenge reached him. He had learned that a single frigate had presumed to blockade the port, and, having been ordered to sail as soon as possible, he made unwise haste in venturing to give the Shannon battle, even though one cause was the wish to leave the port before other blockaders appeared.
The crew of the Chesapeake was inferior in every respect to that of the enemy, except that it contained ten more men. The majority had been newly enlisted and contained many foreigners, landsmen, and objectionable sailors. They were not only unaccustomed to the ship—though they knew of its reputation as an unlucky one—but were unacquainted with one another and nearly all were strangers to the officers. The best of these were absent from illness and other causes. Worse than all, many were in a maudlin state of drunkenness when the Chesapeake started out with flags flying to engage the well-manned Shannon.
On the way down the bay some of the Chesapeake's crew impudently notified Lawrence that they would not fight unless they received the prize money earned a short time before. It was a humiliating situation for the young commander, but he was virtually in the face of the enemy and he issued prize checks to the malcontents. Well aware of the character of the foe he was about to encounter, he must have looked upon the meeting with foreboding. Maclay uses these impressive words:
"The calm deliberation with which the American and English commanders went out to seek each other's life and the earnestness with which they urged their officers and men to steep their hands in the blood of their fellow beings form one of the sombre pictures of naval history. Lawrence was the youngest son of John Lawrence, Esquire, counselor-at-law at Burlington, N.J., and was the second in command at the celebrated capture of the Philadelphia in the harbor of Tripoli. Broke was the descendant of an ancient family which had lived in Broke Hall, England, over three hundred and fifty years and for four hundred years at Leighton. Both were men in the prime of manhood, Lawrence in his thirty-second year and Broke in his thirty-seventh. Both were models of chivalry and manly grace; both were held in the highest estimation in their profession. Lawrence had just taken an affectionate farewell of his two sons and an hour later was urging his men to "Peacock them! Peacock them!" Broke a short time before had committed his wife to God's mercy and soon afterward was urging his crew to 'Kill the men! kill the men!' Both were men of the kindliest feelings and most tender affections; both acknowledged the justice of the cause for which the Americans were contending, yet with steady determination they went out at the head of their ships' companies to take each other's life. A few hours afterward, when Captain Broke fell on the Chesapeake's decks fainting and covered with his own blood, his lieutenants, on loosening his clothes, found a small blue silk case suspended around his neck. It contained a lock of his wife's hair."
Lawrence, in accordance with his chivalrous nature, disdained to seek any unfair advantage, his purpose being to engage in what is called a fair yardarm and yardarm fight. It was toward the close of the first day of summer, with thousands crowding the hills and points of advantage and peering at the ships through glasses, that the battle opened by the fire of the Shannon. Great damage was inflicted and much execution done by the return broadside of the Chesapeake. The first fire severely wounded Lawrence in the leg, but he refused to go below. Then the firing became so close and rapid that half the American officers were killed or wounded. The most frightful confusion that can be imagined followed. When Lawrence formed his men to board after the two vessels had fouled the bugler could not be found, whereupon Captain Broke led his own men upon the deck of the Chesapeake.
It was at this critical moment that Lawrence was fatally wounded and carried below. He kept calling out his commands while in the cockpit to fight harder and to keep the guns going. His last words, often repeated in his delirium, were "Don't give up the ship!" and they formed the motto of the American navy for many years afterward.
In the wild, savage fighting, where everything was so mixed that an American lieutenant joined the British boarders under the impression that they were his own men, Captain Broke was fearfully wounded, though he afterward recovered. The Chesapeake, with a loss of 47 killed and 99 wounded to 24 killed and 59 wounded of the enemy, became the prize of the Shannon.
David Porter—A Clever Feat—Numerous Captures by the Essex—Her Remarkable Cruise in the Pacific—Her Final Capture.
David Porter was born in 1780 and died in 1842. He came from a seafaring family, and, entering the navy at an early age, did gallant service in the war with France and Tripoli. He was the father of David Dixon Porter, who, on account of his brilliant record in the war for the Union, was made vice-admiral in 1866 and admiral in 1870.
The elder Porter was appointed captain of the Essex at the beginning of the War of 1812, and, leaving New York, started on a cruise after the British 36-gun Thetis, which was on her way to South America with a large amount of specie aboard. She took several unimportant prizes, and, failing to meet the Thetis, turned northward and on the night of July 10, 1812, sighted a fleet of merchantmen.
The night was cloudy and dark and Porter with a great deal of cleverness pushed his way among the vessels without his identity being suspected. He had drawn in his guns, hidden most of his men and done all he could to give the Essex the appearance of being an inoffensive merchantman. His object was to learn whether the escort was too powerful to be attacked. He opened conversation with the captain of one of the vessels, who, unsuspicious of his identity, informed him that the fleet was carrying a thousand soldiers from Barbados to Quebec, and that the convoying vessel was the Minerva, a 32-gun frigate. In addition, several of the merchantmen were heavily armed.
Captain Porter's next act was still more audacious. He glided forward among the fleet and hailed the captain of a second vessel, but the latter became suspicious, and was on the point of signalling to the escort the appearance of a stranger among them, when Porter thrust out the muzzles of twenty cannon and warned him that if he failed to keep perfect silence and follow in his wake he would blow him out of the water. The English captain obeyed, and Porter extricated his prize with such astonishing skill that not a vessel took the alarm. When a safe point was reached, Porter found that his prize was a brig with about two hundred British soldiers on board.
Having succeeded so well, Porter again returned to the fleet for another capture. But by this time day was breaking and the character of his vessel was discovered. It being useless to attempt further disguise, he cleared for action and offered the Minerva battle. The captain, however, deemed it his duty to remain with his convoy, and continued his course to Quebec, while Porter headed southward, afterward restoring his prize to its owners for a liberal ransom.
Captain Porter had become so clever in disguising his vessel as a merchantman that some days later he lured the British 16-gun ship-sloop Alert to attack him. In the space of eight minutes the Alert was so helplessly crippled that her captain surrendered. The Essex did not suffer the slightest injury and no men were killed on either vessel.
The Essex had now five hundred prisoners aboard, and they formed an element of serious danger, for they began plotting among themselves to capture the ship from the Americans and turn her over to the enemy. Captain Porter was a severe disciplinarian, and one of his practices was to have the alarm of fire sounded at all hours of the day or night, that his crew might be taught the successful way of fighting the ever-present danger. To make such training perfect, he occasionally started a fire in the hatches.
The leader in the conspiracy to seize the ship fixed upon a night to make the attempt, and his friends were on the alert to join him the moment he gave the signal. In one of the hammocks was sleeping a midshipmite only eleven years old, but, young as he was, he was a hero. Pistol in hand, the plotter tiptoed up beside the hammock to learn whether the boy was asleep. The little fellow was never wider awake in his life; but he kept his eyes closed and breathed regularly, so as to deceive the scoundrel, who slipped away to lead his companions in their murderous uprising.
The instant the man disappeared the boy midshipman sprang out of his hammock, crept to the cabin and told Captain Porter what he had seen. That officer ran into the berth deck and loudly shouted "Fire!" The finely disciplined crew promptly answered the call, and going to the main hatch, were speedily armed and received their orders from Captain Porter. The plotters were overawed and the rebellion nipped in the bud.
Thus the Essex was saved by the wits of a boy only eleven years old. The name of that boy was David Glasgow Farragut, and he became the greatest naval officer of the American navy. Of course I shall have more to tell you about him later on.
Determined to rid himself of the dangerous prisoners, Captain Porter placed them on board the Alert and sent them to Nova Scotia on parole. In a cruise of sixty days he made nine captures, recaptured five privateers and merchantmen, and arrived in the Delaware early in September.
He sailed again in the latter part of October with the smallest frigate in the navy, but with a full complement of officers and men. Among the former, it need hardly be said, was young Midshipman Farragut. The first port at which he stopped was Port Praya, where the Portuguese governor showed them much courtesy. In December the Essex crossed the equator, and soon after overhauled a British brig of war, which strained every effort to escape. The two manoeuvred for position, but the Essex proved her superiority, and, after a volley of musketry, which killed one man, the Nocton, as she proved to be, hauled down her flag. She carried only 10 guns and 31 men, but had $50,000 in specie on board. Captain Porter placed an officer and crew in charge of the prize, with instructions to make the nearest American port. While striving to do so he was captured by the British frigate Belvidera.
Captain Porter's instructions were to meet the Constitution and Hornet, which were cruising in that part of the world. He made continued efforts to do so, and frequently got on their track, but finally had to give it up. Then Captain Porter formed the bold plan of doubling Cape Horn and entering the Pacific ocean.
This venture was more dangerous than would be supposed, for all the South American countries on that side of the continent were dominated by Great Britain, and in entering the vast expanse the American knew he would meet plenty of enemies and not a solitary friend. Like an army when it invades a country, however, he determined to live off the enemy. He knew that scores of English vessels were in the Pacific, and all Porter had to do was to capture them. He had had sufficient experience at that sort of work to give him confidence, and he liked the business.
Unfortunately, it was the most dangerous season of the year for doubling the Horn, which is always attended with peril. The Essex was caught in a tempest that lasted for three days, and was so terrific that the stoutest hearted sailors quailed. The escape of the gallant little ship could not have been narrower, and she suffered great damage, but finally the dreaded extremity of South America was weathered, and in the beginning of March, 1813, the Essex sailed into the calmer water of the Pacific, where no armed American vessel had ever before penetrated.
The first halt was made off the island of Mocha, where a hunting party secured a number of hogs, which were salted down for future use. Captain Porter wished to keep secret his presence in that part of the world until after he had secured a number of prizes, but the condition of his vessel compelled him to put into Valparaiso, where he learned that Chili had begun her war of independence against Spain.
A sail which was sighted displayed the Spanish colors, and, believing her to be one of the vessels that had been preying upon American commerce in the Pacific, Captain Porter hoisted the British flag. The stranger approached and sent an armed boat to the Essex. It was immediately sent back with orders for the Peruvian cruiser to come under the lee of the Essex. This was done, and she was compelled to strike. Upon the demand of Porter, her captain gave a list of all the vessels, so far as he could remember, that were cruising in the Pacific. Then the arms, ammunition and spars of the captive were thrown overboard and she was allowed to go.
From that time forward the captures made by the Essex were so numerous that the full story would be monotonous. The swiftest and best of the captured cruisers were fitted out with crews and added to the American vessel, until Captain Porter had under his command seven ships, carrying 80 guns and 340 men, in addition to nearly a hundred prisoners. Still more were added, and the cruise of the Essex and her companions in that part of the world became very much like a picnic.
A number of powerful British frigates were searching for the Essex, which had wrought such prodigious mischief. Porter sailed for the Marquesas Islands, reaching them in the latter part of October. There he landed, built a fort and made the repairs of which his vessel stood in sore need.
The work accomplished by Captain Porter was almost beyond computation. He literally destroyed English commerce in the Pacific, for none of the vessels not captured dared leave port, and the American merchant ships were protected. The play being over, he craved more serious business. He therefore set out to hunt up some of the British cruisers that were trying to hunt him up.
In February, 1814, the Essex and the Essex Junior, as one of the newly manned prizes had been christened, entered Valparaiso, where they learned that the 36-gun frigate Phoebe was in the neighborhood searching for them. Captain Porter gave a reception to the officials of Valparaiso, and the next morning, while half of the crew were ashore, the Essex Junior signalled from the offing that two British frigates were in sight. They came into port, the captain of the Phoebe exchanging, compliments with Porter, they being old acquaintances; but, all the same, each was distrustful of the other, and both maintained what may be termed a position of armed neutrality.
For six weeks the two frigates blockaded Porter. Learning then that other ships were expected, Porter determined to get to sea. In the attempt, his vessel was completely disabled by a storm. Despite the neutrality of the port, the two British frigates attacked him, keeping beyond range of the Essex's short guns and thus rendering her perfectly powerless to help herself. The Essex was pounded at long range until 58 of her men were killed and 66 wounded, when, to save her officers and crew from annihilation, she surrendered.
Oliver Hazard Perry—Prompt and Effective Work—"We Have Met the Enemy and They Are Ours"—Death of Perry.
Oliver Hazard Perry was born in Rhode Island in 1785, and entered the American navy as midshipman when fourteen years old, under his father, Captain Christopher Raymond Perry, who commanded the 28-gun ship General Greene, which did good service in the war against France. The son also served on the Constellation in the Tripolitan war, and afterward gave his attention to ordnance.
The surrender of Detroit by General William Hull at the opening of the war gave the British control of the Territory of Michigan and Lake Erie. They had formed the formidable plan of extending the Dominion of Canada along the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the Gulf of Mexico, thus inserting an immense wedge between the United States and the great West, which has since become so important a part of our country. The only way of blocking this far-reaching and dangerous scheme was for the Americans to regain control of Lake Erie, and to young Perry was assigned the seemingly almost impossible task.
At the little town of Erie, Perry began the construction of his fleet, and pushed it with such vigor, in the face of every sort of obstacle, that early in July, 1813, he had ten vessels ready for sea, but only enough men to man one of them. The end of the month made the total three hundred, but he determined to get to sea on the first opportunity. Outside was a powerful blockading squadron, and the water in the lake was so low that it was not until the 4th of August that he was able to get all his vessels over the bar. They comprised the Scorpion, Ariel, Lawrence (flagship), Caledonia, Niagara, Somers, Porcupine, Tigress and Trippe. The total guns carried were 54, with a force of 490 men.
The British squadron consisted of six vessels, with an aggregate of 63 guns and 502 men. They were under the command of Commander Robert H. Barclay, who had fought under Nelson at Trafalgar, and in another battle lost an arm. It was less than three months before that the dying Lawrence had uttered the appeal, "Don't give up the ship!" and Perry hoisted a flag with the words displayed in large letters. As it floated in the breeze from his vessel it was received with enthusiastic cheers.