But the depredations of the enemies of American commerce at last reached such a point that Congress could no longer overlook the necessity for an American navy. In March, 1794, Congress, after listening to a message from the President detailing the depredations of the Algerines, passed an Act authorizing the construction or purchase of six frigates, or an equivalent naval force. This was the beginning of the present United States navy; for some of the frigates built under that law are still afloat, although no longer exposed to the rude shocks of battle or the still more violent onslaughts of the mighty ocean.
In accordance with the law, the frames of six frigates were quickly laid upon the stocks at six different shipyards; and even while the ribs were yet uncovered, commanders were selected for the unbuilt ships. The names of ships and officers alike are famous in American annals, and may well be mentioned here. The "Constitution," "President," "United States," "Chesapeake," "Constellation," and "Congress" were the vessels begun at this time; and the rolls of no navy of the world ever bore six more famous names. The captains chosen were John Barry, Samuel Nicholson, Silas Talbot, Joshua Barney, Richard Dale, and Thomas Truxton. Of these, all save Truxton had served the Colonies in the Revolution. Barney narrowly escaped being totally disowned by his country, because while holding a commission in the French navy he had once accidentally hoisted the American flag upside down. A cry went up from his enemies, that it was an intentional insult to the country; but his friends, with justice, pleaded that the flag had been wet, and a sailor, running it up to dry, had thus carelessly inverted it.
In the mean time the building of the ships went merrily on, until, when they were nearly finished, a disgraceful treaty was made with Algiers, and work on the new navy was neglected, and three of the unfinished ships sold. But in 1797 the French depredations became so unbearable that work was hastened; and cities and towns, not satisfied with the three frigates provided for, began collecting subscriptions for the purchase of ships, to be presented to the Government. The first of the frigates building by the Government to reach the water was the "United States." As the first vessel built by the United States under the Constitution, her launch was an event to be celebrated. At noon on the bright May afternoon chosen, the streets of Philadelphia leading to the ship-yard, where the hull of the great frigate lay upon the stocks, were thronged with holiday-making people. The sun had hardly risen, when anxious spectators began to seize upon the best points of observation about the ship-yard. The hour of the launch was set at one P.M.; and for hours before the crowd of watchers sung patriotic songs, cheered for Congress and the new navy, and anxiously debated the chances of a successful launch. The river was covered with pleasure-craft, decked with flags, and bright with the gay dresses of ladies. The great frigate, too, was a mass of bunting from stem to stern. At one precisely, the blows of many hammers were heard knocking out the blocks; and, after a moment's trembling pause, the first United States frigate glided swiftly into the water, and, after a graceful dip, rode buoyantly on the placid surface of the Delaware.
While the ships were building, the war-feeling against France was steadily growing, and the enthusiasm of the people over the infant navy knew no bounds. Toasts to the "wooden walls of Columbia," and the "rising navy of America," were drunk with cheers at stately public banquets, and by bands of jolly roisterers at tap-houses. The patriotic song writer invaded the columns of the newspapers; and, as these could not afford space for all the poetic effusions, they were printed on broadsides, and hawked about the streets. At Harvard College the students made the chapel walls ring with the ode written by Joseph Story:—
"Shall Gallia's clan our coast invade, With hellish outrage scourge the main, Insult our nation's neutral trade, And we not dare our rights maintain? Rise, united Harvard's band, Rise, the bulwark of our land."
Admirable as may be the patriotism of this ode, the poetry is not above criticism; but it is classic in comparison with many others. The following stanza and chorus will show the character of one of the most popular street-songs of the day:—
"Americans, then fly to arms, And learn the way to use 'em. If each man fights to 'fend his rights, The French can't long abuse 'em.
Yankee Doodle (mind the tune), Yankee Doodle Dandy; For the French there's trouble brewin': We'll spank 'em, hand and handy."
From Maine to Georgia the mania for writing such doggerel spread with a rapidity only equalled by the avidity with which the people seized upon the songs, and sung them. A complete collection of these remarkable efforts of poetic art would form an amusing volume, and from it alone a history of political movements in the United States might be written. That even such wretched doggerel had its effect upon popular sentiment, cannot be doubted; for has it not been said, "I care not who makes the laws of a nation, let me but write its songs"?
But the manifestation of the growing ill-feeling towards France was not confined to poor but harmless poetizing. The first open rupture took place at Savannah. In the port of that city were lying two long, rakish schooners flying the French tricolor. Their decks were crowded with men, whose rough actions and brutal countenances showed them to be no respecters of law or order. It did not need the rows of cannon protruding from the ports, nor the carefully covered "long Toms" amidships, to indicate to the good people of Savannah that their harbor sheltered two French privateers. Among the seafaring people of the city, the sight of these two vessels aroused the greatest anger. Were they not representatives of the nation whose ships were seizing and burning American vessels in the West Indies almost daily? Perhaps these very vessels were then fresh from an action with some American ship. Who could tell that the holds of the privateers did not at that very minute contain the best part of the cargo of some captured American vessel? Probably the last shot fired from that "long Tom" had crashed into the side of some little brig flying the stars and stripes, and perhaps ended the career of many an American sailor. From suspicions and conjectures, positive statements soon grew. It was whispered about that the two privateers had recently plundered and burned a Yankee ship returning from the West Indies with a goodly store of specie in exchange for her cargo. Those cut-throat-looking Frenchmen were even then stained with the blood of true Americans. The money they threw on the bars of water-side dram-shops, in exchange for the vile rum which was the worst enemy of too many a good jack-tar, was looked upon with suspicion. "What Yankee's pockets did Johnny Crapaud pick to get all that money?" growled the American sailors.
The Frenchmen were not slow in discovering the dislike manifested by the people of Savannah; and like true soldiers of fortune, as they were, they did nothing to make friends of their enemies. They came ashore in troops instead of singly. Cutlasses hung at their sides. Their tight leather belts held many a knife or clumsy pistol. Their walk on the street was a reckless swagger; and a listener who could understand French could catch in their loud conversation many a scornful sneer or braggart defiance of the Americans.
Such a state of affairs could not long continue. Each party was ready and waiting to fight, and it was not hard to find an excuse. How the fighting began, no one ever knew; but one night the streets of the little city resounded with cries of rage and groans of agony. Soon crowds began to gather; and sailors rushed up and down the streets, crying that the French desperadoes had killed three Americans. The rage of the populace, and particularly of the seafaring community, had no bounds. "Arm! arm! and take bloody vengeance upon the murderers," was the cry in all quarters. The mob blocked all the roadways leading to the water-front. With cutlasses and guns they attacked the sailors on "L'Agile," which lay at a wharf, and drove them overboard. Once in possession of the ship, the enraged rioters vented their fury by cutting away the masts and rigging, tearing to pieces the woodwork of the cabin, and finally putting the torch to the battered bulk, and sending her drifting helplessly down the river. This summary vengeance did not satisfy their anger. They looked about them for the other vessel, "La Vengeance," and discovered that she had been towed away from the shore, and was being warped up stream to a place of safety. Boats were secured, and the irresistible mob set out in mad pursuit. A militia company, hastily sent to the scene of action by the authorities of the town, failed to check the riot; and, after a futile struggle on the part of her crew, "La Vengeance" shared the fate of her consort. Sympathy for France was well rooted out of Savannah then, and the cry of the city was for war.
Before the news of the uprising at Savannah was known in New England, the navy had struck the first blow against French oppression, and the victory had rested with the sailors of the United States. Congress had at last been aroused to a sense of the situation, and had issued orders to captains of American war-vessels, directing them to capture French cruisers wherever found. A number of large merchant-vessels and Indiamen had been armed hastily, and sent out; and at last the country had a navy on the seas. One of the first vessels to get away was the "Delaware," a twenty-gun ship, commanded by Stephen Decatur the elder. Decatur had been out but a few days when a merchantman, the "Alexander Hamilton," was sighted, from the halliards of which a flag of distress was flying. The "Delaware" ran toward the vessel, and sent a boat aboard, which returned, bringing the captain of the distressed craft. To Decatur the captain related the old story of French aggression, which had become so hateful. Only the day before, he said, his ship had been boarded by boats'-crews from a French privateer of twenty guns. The assailants, once on board, had eaten his provisions, and plundered his cargo without scruple. He gave careful directions as to the course of the privateer after leaving the "Alexander Hamilton," and returned to his ship happy in the thought, that, though he could not regain his plundered property, the thieves at least would be punished.
Decatur crowded on all sail, and set off in pursuit of the oppressor. Four hours later, the lookout forward reported four schooners in sight off the bow. For a moment the captain was puzzled, as he had no means of knowing which was the guilty privateer; but, after brief deliberation, he determined to adopt strategy. The rigging of his vessel was slackened, the yards slewed round, and every attempt made to transform the trim man-o'-war into a shiftless merchantman. Then the helmsman was instructed to carefully avoid running near the suspected schooners. The ruse succeeded admirably. The lookouts in the tops of the schooners reported an American merchantman in sight, but making attempts to escape. The cupidity of the Frenchmen was aroused. In the "Delaware" they saw only a defenceless ship, from which, by virtue of their strength, they could take whatever plunder they desired. From the decks of the "Delaware," the sailors could see the Frenchmen shaking out sail after sail; and soon one schooner, a perfect cloud of canvas, took the lead, and left her consorts far in the rear. It was the privateer they were after. The jackies of the "Delaware" clambered into the rigging, and set all sail, with the clumsiness of merchant-sailors; but, though the ship spread a large expanse of canvas, she was making but little progress, for two long cables dragged in the water astern, holding her back. The Frenchman came up gallantly, but suddenly discovered the ports along the side of the "Delaware," and concluded he had caught a Tartar. It was too late to escape then; for the "Delaware," coming about, had the schooner directly under her guns, and the Frenchman had no course left but to surrender. The privateer proved to be "Le Croyable," of fourteen guns and seventy men. Her captain was vastly astounded to hear that the United States had at last sent out cruisers against the French, who had come to look upon Americans as their legitimate prey. Keeping "Le Croyable" alongside, Decatur ran for Philadelphia, where he was received with unbounded enthusiasm. The captured ship was taken into the United States navy, under the name of the "Retaliation," and sent, under command of Lieut. Bainbridge, to cruise in search of other privateers.
But the career of the "Retaliation" under the American flag was neither long nor glorious. Ill luck seemed to attend the vessel in all her cruises, and Bainbridge wandered up and down the high seas without getting within range of a French cruiser or privateer. In November, 1798, the "Retaliation" was cruising, with two other men-of-war, in the West Indies, not far from Guadaloupe. One day three sails were made out to the eastward, and two more to the westward. Bainbridge thought that at last his opportunity had arrived; and the "Retaliation" set off to reconnoitre the strangers on the eastward, while the two other American ships made after the three sails in the opposite direction. As Bainbridge gained upon his chase, he concluded from their appearance that they were two English ships, and accordingly threw aside all caution, and sailed boldly alongside. Unluckily, they proved to be hostile French cruisers; and, when the discovery was made, the "Retaliation" was well within range. Every sail was set, and the ship put before the wind, to escape from the enemy, but too late. The leading ship of the enemy was a fine frigate; and she rushed through the water after the fugitive, like a dolphin after a flying-fish. Soon a heavy shot from one of the frigate's bow-chasers came whizzing by the "Retaliation," unpleasantly reminding the Americans that they were still within range, and their adversaries carried heavy metal. The second frigate soon opened fire, and the position of the "Retaliation" became hopeless. Her flag was unwillingly hauled down, and the vessel became again the property of its original owners. It is a strange coincidence, that this ship should have thus been the first prize of both Americans and French in the war.
The Frenchmen were not content with their success in capturing the "Retaliation:" so, while one frigate stopped to secure the prize, the other passed on in hot chase after "The Retaliation's" two former consorts, the "Montezuma" and "Norfolk." Bainbridge was taken aboard the French frigate "Volontaire," which then continued her course in the wake of her consort, the "Insurgente." For the captured American captain on the deck of the "Volontaire," the chase was one of great excitement. He well knew that the two stately French frigates were much more than a match for the flying Americans; and, should they overhaul the chase, the "Montezuma" and the "Norfolk" would join the "Retaliation" in French captivity. Racked with anxiety he paced the deck, trying in vain not to perceive that the pursuers were steadily gaining, and chafing under the position of helplessness in which he found himself. But an opportunity to help did unexpectedly present itself. The French captain, after a long look through his marine-glasses at the flying craft, turned to Bainbridge, and inquired,—
"What may be the force of your consorts, captain?"
Without a moment's hesitation, Bainbridge responded,—
"The ship carries twenty-eight twelve-pounders, and the brig twenty nines."
The Frenchman was astounded, as well he might be; for Bainbridge's answer was a most preposterous falsehood, nearly doubling the actual armament of the two vessels. An eager consultation was immediately held by the officers on the quarter-deck. Bainbridge looked on anxiously, and was delighted with the success of his ruse, when he heard orders for the hoisting of a signal which should call back the frigate leading in the chase. The signal was hoisted; and the "Insurgente," obeying, abandoned the chase, and returned. Her captain was indignant at his recall, and curious to know the cause of it. When told of Bainbridge's statement, he was furious; for his ship had been close enough to the chase to see that the Americans were small craft, utterly unable to cope with the two pursuing frigates. For his falsehood, Bainbridge was roundly abused, and many a French oath was hurled at his head. His action was indeed inexcusable by the rules of honor; and the utmost that can be said of it by the most patriotic American is, that by his falsehood he saved two good ships for the infant navy of the United States. From a military point of view, however, his conduct was commendable; and in recognition thereof, on his release from captivity, he was made commander of the "Norfolk," one of the vessels he had saved.
France and the United States were now actually at war, although no definite declaration of war had been made by either party. This fact made many French privateers assume an injured air, on being captured by United States ships, and complain that they had never heard of any declaration of war. With a Frenchman of this sort, Stephen Decatur the younger had an experience early in his naval career.
This occurred in February, 1799. The frigate "United States" was cruising near Martinique in that year, and to her young Decatur was attached as a sub-lieutenant. One morning a French privateer was sighted, and the frigate set out in hot pursuit. The privateer took the alarm quickly, and crowded on all sail, until her long, narrow hull slipped through the waves like a fish. The breeze was fresh, and the chase an exciting one; but gradually the immense spread of the frigate's canvas began to tell, and she rapidly overhauled the fugitive. The French captain was plucky, and even desperate, in his attempt to escape; for, seeing that he was about to be overhauled, he resorted to the expedient of a fox chased by hounds, and doubled, turning short to windward, and running right under the guns of the frigate. The move was a bold one, and might well have succeeded, had it not been for the good marksmanship of a gunner on the frigate, who promptly sent a twenty-four-pound shot (the only one fired in the affair) straight through the hull of the privateer, between wind and water. In an instant all was confusion on the French vessel. The water poured into her hold through the hole cut by the shot; and the hasty lowering of her sails, and the frantic howls for succor from the crew, told the people of the "United States" that their chase was at an end. The boats of the frigate were quickly lowered, and Decatur went in one as officer in command. When he reached the sinking ship, he found a scene too ludicrous to be pathetic. Along the rail of the vessel, from bow to stern, the Frenchmen were perched like birds. Many had stripped off all their clothes, in order to be prepared to swim; and from all arose a medley of plaintive cries for help, and curses on that unlucky shot. By skilful management of the boats, all were saved; and it happened that Decatur pulled into his own boat the captain of the sinking vessel.
Brushing the salt water out of his eyes, this worthy expressed great surprise that he had been fired upon by a vessel bearing the United States flag.
"Ees eet that that ees a sheep of les Etats-Unis?" he inquired, in the broken English that four years of cruising against Americans had enabled him to pick up.
"It is," responded Decatur.
"I am indeed sairprised. I had not thought that les Etats-Unis had the war with La Republique Francaise."
"No, sir," responded Decatur, thoroughly provoked; "but you knew that the French Republic was at war with the United States, that you were taking our merchant-vessels every day, and crowding our countrymen into prison at Basseterre to die like sheep."
This was more than the Frenchman could deny, and he was constrained to accept his capture with the best grace possible.
An audacious, but clearly illegal, exploit of the blue-jackets in this war, was the cutting out and capture of the French letter-of-marque vessel "Sandwich," as she lay in Port Platte, a small harbor on the Spanish side of St. Domingo. Commodore Talbot, who won a reputation for daring and recklessness in the Revolution, was cruising about on the San Domingo station, and had spent some weeks in monotonous voyaging, without an opportunity to capture a single prize. Word was brought to the squadron, that in the little harbor of Port Platte a vessel was taking in a cargo of coffee. From the description of the vessel, Commodore Talbot recognized her as a former British packet, the "Sandwich," now sailing under French letters of marque. Her known speed and seaworthy qualities made her too valuable a prize to be left in the hands of the enemy; and Talbot, without more ado, determined to capture her. The first difficulty that lay in the way was the fact that the vessel was under the protection of Spain, a neutral power. Talbot was no man to notice so purely formal an obstacle. He growled out a decided negative to all hints about respecting a neutral flag. Spain neutral, indeed! She might claim to be neutral, but her Picaroons were too often to be found among the French pirates to leave any respect for Spain's neutrality in the mind of a man of sense; and the "Sandwich" he was going to take, and on his own responsibility. This silenced all opposition.
Having arrived at the determination to take the "Sandwich," the next problem to be solved was, how shall she be taken? Obviously the first step was to make a careful reconnoissance of the ship and her defences. To Lieut. Hull of the "Constitution," this duty was assigned. One dark and stormy night Mr. Hull took one of the frigate's cutters, and, pulling into the harbor, carefully examined the situation. On his return, he reported that the "Sandwich" was stripped of her rigging, and lay directly under the guns of a small battery, built on shore for her protection. To sail in with the frigate, and capture the enemy by mere force of arms, would have been simple enough; but the object of the Americans was to take the ship without injuring her, in order that she might at once join the United States squadron. Strategy was therefore necessary.
It was accordingly determined to secure an American merchant-vessel, that could enter the port, and run alongside the "Sandwich," without arousing suspicion. Luckily at that very moment a craft turned up that filled the need precisely. This was the American sloop "Sally," a battered, weather-beaten little craft, that had for some time been trading in the West Indies, and by her very insignificance had escaped capture by the French. She had often entered and cleared from Port Platte, and therefore her appearance there would create no suspicion.
The "Sally" was accordingly chosen to bear the sailors on their audacious expedition. A rendezvous having been appointed, the sloop met the "Constitution" far out at sea; and a large body of blue-jackets and marines left the frigate, and took quarters on the clumsy little merchantman, which then laid her course for Port Platte. About midnight the lookouts on the "Sally" saw a vessel's lights near at hand; but, beyond reporting to the officer of the deck, they paid no heed to their neighbor. Suddenly, however, out of the darkness came a bright flash; and the hum of a heavy shot in the air above the "Sally" was followed by the dull report of a cannon. At the same time a blue light burned on the deck of the vessel from which the shot proceeded, showed her to be a powerful frigate. Then ensued a few moments of intense suspense for the little band on the "Sally." Should the stranger prove to be a French frigate, all was lost; but in that latitude English vessels were common, and possibly this might be one. Soon the regular thumping of oars in the tholepins, and the splashing of the waves against an approaching boat, could be heard; and in a few minutes a hail came from the black water alongside, and the dark figure of a man standing in the stern-sheets of a boat was seen. A rope was thrown him, by the aid of which he nimbly clambered aboard. An involuntary murmur of relief arose from the party on the "Sally," as by the dim light of the lanterns they saw that the officer wore a British uniform. The officer himself could not repress a start and exclamation of surprise as he saw a band of officers in naval uniform, and a large body of blue-jackets and marines, on the vessel which he expected to find manned by a half-dozen lanky Yankees, commanded by a down-east "skipper."
"Why, what ship's this?" he exclaimed in surprise, as he looked upon the armed men about him. Lieut. Hull, who was in command, explained to him the situation, and told him of the adventure that was being attempted. The officer seemed much disappointed, and told Mr. Hull that the British frigate was standing about outside the harbor, to capture the "Sandwich" as she came out; but the idea of so boldly setting at naught the principles of neutrality had not occurred to them. After a few minutes' conversation, the visitor returned to his ship, and the "Sally" proceeded on her errand. She reached the entrance to the harbor of Port Platte in the morning, and sailed boldly in. Most of the crew and the marines were hidden beneath the bulwarks, or sent below; so that the people on the "Sandwich" gave but a glance to the approaching vessel, until she ran so close to their vessel's bows that they feared an accident.
"Look out there, or you'll run foul of us!" shouted a mate from the deck of the "Sandwich"; and, as if his cry was a signal, the helm of the "Sally" was put down, the vessel ranged up alongside, and in an instant a torrent of armed men poured over the sides of the surprised Frenchman, and drove the crew below. There was no resistance. The ship was captured in five minutes. The marines of the expedition had been sent ashore to spike the guns of the battery, and their work was performed with equal promptitude. Then all hands set to work rigging the captured vessel, and getting her ready for sea. On the shore the people were in the greatest excitement, beating drums, parading the few militia, and threatening dire revenge in the name of outraged Spain. But the captors of the vessel paid but little attention to their enemies; and by sunset the "Sandwich," with all sails set, left the harbor, and joined the United States squadron.
The news of this achievement, lawless as it was, evoked great enthusiasm in the United States. A nation's conscience is elastic; and the people praised the heroes of the "Sandwich" episode, much as sixty-five years later they commended the commander of the "Wachuset" for running down and capturing the Confederate ship "Florida," which was relying upon the protection of a neutral port in Brazil. Yet in 1814, when two British frigates attacked and captured the "Essex" in the harbor of Rio Janeiro, the good people of the United States were loud in their denunciations of the treachery of a commander who would so abuse the protection of a neutral nation. Such inconsistencies are only too common in the history of nations. In the end, however, the affair of the "Sandwich" terminated disastrously for the bold adventurers; for the protests of Spain were too forcible to be disregarded, and the prize-money of all concerned in the exploit was confiscated to pay the damages awarded the injured party.
Not all the successes of the United States navy in the war with France were, like those we have related, dependent upon the speed rather than the fighting qualities of our ships. Not many months had passed, when two representative ships of the warring nations met, and tried conclusions at the mouths of their cannon. It was on the 9th of February that the "Constellation," one of the new American frigates, was cruising on her station in the West Indies, when her lookout reported a large ship some miles to leeward. The frigate at once ran down the stranger, which hoisted American colors. Among ships of the same navy it is customary to have private signals of recognition; and Commodore Truxton, who commanded the "Constellation," set his signal, and awaited the answer. But no answer came; and the stranger, evidently considering further disguise impossible, boldly set French colors, and fired a gun to windward by way of a challenge.
On the "Constellation" the challenge aroused universal enthusiasm. For the first time since the Revolution, the gallant defenders of the stars and stripes were to have an opportunity to try their strength with a hostile man-of-war. The enemy seemed no less ready for the conflict, and waited gallantly for the "Constellation" to come down to closer quarters. From both ships came the roll of the drums and the shrill pipings of the bo's'n's whistle, as the men were called to quarters. Then all became still, and the two frigates bore down upon each other. Neither antagonist was hasty about opening fire, and the report of the first gun came from the Yankee when she had come into point-blank range. Then began the thunderous broadsides, that soon enveloped the hulls of the two ships in dense gray smoke; so that, to an observer at a little distance, all that could be seen of the fight was the tapering masts and yard-arms, above the smoke, crowded with sailors repairing damages, and nimble young midshipmen shrilly ordering about the grizzled seamen, and now and again taking a crack at the enemy with pistol or musket, by way of recreation. In the foretop of the "Constellation" was stationed young David Porter, who in that trying moment showed the result of his hard schooling in the merchant-service, of which we have spoken. By the rapid fire of the enemy, the fore-topmast was badly cut, and there was great danger that it might go by the board. Porter hailed the deck several times for instructions, but, finding that his voice could not be heard above the roar of battle, determined to act upon his own responsibility, and accordingly cut away the sails, lowered the yards, and, by relieving the injured spar of all strain, prevented its falling. In the mean time the battle raged fiercely below. The American frigate was more powerful in her armament, and better handled, than the Frenchman. Her guns were handled with deliberation, and the aim of the gunners was sure and deadly; while the shot from the enemy went hurtling through the rigging of the "Constellation," doing but little damage. The decks of the Frenchman were covered with dead and wounded, and at last two raking broadsides from the American frigate ended the conflict. When the vanquished ship was boarded, she proved to be the "Insurgente," the same frigate that had captured the "Retaliation" some months before. Her loss in this engagement amounted to twenty-nine killed and forty-one wounded, while the cock-pit of the "Constellation" was tenanted by but three wounded men; and but one American had lost his life, he having been killed by an officer, for cowardice. Both ships were badly cut up in the engagement.
The news of this victory was received with great rejoicing in the United States, and was celebrated with cannon-firing and the ringing of bells. At Boston, the fourth Sunday in March was set for a day of general rejoicing; and on that day huge crowds gathered in State Street, and after salutes had been fired, and the city's bells pealed, the people, at a given signal, joined in three mighty cheers, that fairly shook the surrounding houses, for Truxton, the "Constellation," the blue-jackets, and the success of the wooden walls of America.
Even after the "Insurgente" had struck her flag, the tars of the "Constellation" found they had an elephant on their hands. The work of transferring the prisoners was begun, and actively prosecuted; but, when night fell, there were still nearly two hundred Frenchmen on the prize. The wind was rising fast, and the long rollers of the Atlantic were being lashed into foaming breakers by the rising gale. It was hazardous for the two vessels to continue near each other; and Lieutenant Rodgers, with Midshipman Porter and eleven men, was detailed to take charge of the prize, and bring her into port. When the officers boarded the prize, they found that they had indeed a desperate undertaking before them. It was difficult enough for thirteen men to handle the great ship, without having to keep in subjection one hundred and seventy-three captives. To add to the clanger, the gratings had been thrown overboard, and there was no way of confining the captives in the hold. A careful search for handcuffs resulted only in failure. But Rodgers was a man of decision, and Porter, though but a boy, was bold and determined; and between them they solved the problem. The prisoners were ordered below; and a sentinel was placed at each hatchway, with orders to shoot the first man who should attempt to come on deck. Howitzers loaded with grape were trained upon the hatchway, for use in case of an organized movement of the prisoners. For three days the officers sustained this fearful strain, without a moment's sleep; but their labors were finally crowned by successfully bringing the ship and prisoners into St. Kitts.
In the second pitched battle of the war, the "Constellation" was again the American combatant; but this time, though the fight was a glorious one, it did not terminate so fortunately for the American ship. It was on the 1st of February, 1800, that the gallant frigate, under the same commander, was cruising about her old hunting-grounds, near Guadaloupe. A sail was sighted, which, after a careful examination through his marine-glass, Commodore Truxton pronounced to be an English merchantman. As an invitation to the stranger to approach, English colors were hoisted on the "Constellation," but had only the effect of causing the stranger to sheer off; for she was, indeed, a French war-vessel. Perplexed by the actions of the mysterious ship, the "Constellation" gave chase, and soon came near enough to see that she had caught a Tartar; for the vessel was the French frigate "La Vengeance," mounting fifty-two guns. Although a more powerful vessel than the American, she continued her flight; while the gallant Truxton, caring nothing for the odds against him, kept on in hot pursuit. All the remainder of that day, and until noon of the next, the chase continued, with but little change in the position of the ships. "A stern chase is a long chase," thought the jackies on the "Constellation;" but they were not discouraged, and only crowded on the more sail. On the afternoon of the second day, the American began to gain rapidly; and by eight at night the two ships were within speaking distance of each other. Truxton mounted the rail, and shouted through a speaking-trumpet, "What ship is that?" The only answer was a shot from the stern-port of the Frenchman, and the fight was opened.
It was then growing dark, though the faint glow of the long tropic twilight still lingered on the western horizon. Above the towering masts of the two great frigates, the stars gleamed with a brilliancy seldom seen in more northern latitudes. As the ships rushed through the water, the waves broke against the bows, and fell back in masses of phosphorescent light; while the wakes of the vessels could be traced far back into the darkness,—two parallel paths of light, that glowed and sparkled like the milky way that spanned the starry sky above.
Side by side the two frigates ploughed through the water. The creaking of their cordage, and the rushing of the wind through the rigging, mingled with the thunder of the cannonade, which, though slow, and made up of single reports, when the "Constellation" was confined to the use of her bow-chasers, soon rose to thunderous broadsides as the two ships came side to side. As the twilight died away, the two contestants were enveloped in almost total darkness, save for the fitful flashes of the cannon, and the red glare of the battle-lanterns that hung from the shrouds. The gunners had for a target nothing but a black, shapeless mass, that could be seen rushing through the waves some hundreds of yards away. But this did not prevent fearful execution being done on both sides. For five hours the two ships kept up the running fight. The ponderous eighteen and forty-two pound shot of the enemy crashed into the "Constellation," or swept her decks, doing dreadful damage. The deck was strewn with dead and dying men, and the surgeons down in the cock-pit soon had their tables full of moaning sufferers. No one could tell what might be the condition of "La Vengeance;" but her regular fire told that she was in no wise disabled. At one o'clock in the morning, the sound of her guns seemed to be more distant; and by the flash of the cannon it was seen that she was drawing out of the fight. The Americans cheered lustily, and Truxton ordered that his ship be braced up in chase.
But the fire of the enemy had been rapid and well directed; and now, at this critical moment, its results were to rob the "Constellation" of her victory. As the ships were brought about, to follow in the track of the flying "Vengeance," an officer came rushing to the quarter-deck, and reported that all the shrouds and braces of the foremast had been shot away, and the mast was in momentary danger of falling. The rigging had been so literally cut in pieces by the fire of the enemy, that splicing was out of the question; but Truxton, in the hope of saving his mast, called all hands from the guns, and the fire of the "Constellation" stopped.
Up in the foretop was stationed Midshipman Jarvis, with a dozen or more of jackies, whose duty it was to mend the cordage of the topmast, and to keep up a musketry fire upon the enemy. Long before the officer of the deck had reported the danger of the foremast, one of the topmen had told Jarvis, who was but a lad, that the mast was likely to fall.
"Ay, ay, my lad," responded the plucky young officer; "but our place is here, and we must go with it."
The sailors on the deck below worked manfully: but, notwithstanding all their efforts, the mast soon went by the board; and Jarvis and his brave comrades were thrown far out into the black water, never to be seen again.
The fall of the foremast ended the battle for the "Constellation." Helpless, and cumbered by the wreck, she tossed about on the water while her foe made good her escape. What might have been the outcome of the conflict, had it continued, it is impossible to tell. "La Vengeance" carried heavier metal and a larger crew than the American frigate; and Truxton, with all his dash, found no mean adversary in Capt. Pitot. Yet the condition of the French ship when she came into port at Curacoa showed that the fire of the Yankee gunners had been rapid and accurate. Fifty of the enemy were killed, and one hundred and ten wounded; while, of the Americans, only thirty-nine appeared on the lists of killed and wounded. It was said at the time, that Capt. Pitot reported having struck his flag three times; hoisting it again, on finding that in the darkness the "Constellation" took no notice of the surrender. But this seems, on the face of it, improbable; and the action can hardly be awarded to either ship, although the gallantry shown on either side was enough to win a victory.
It may well be imagined that this brilliant action, together with the capture of "L'Insurgente," made the "Constellation" the most popular ship of the navy; a place which she held until the stirring events of the war with England pushed the "Constitution" so far to the front, that even now, when she lies dismantled and rotting at the Brooklyn navy-yard, Americans still think of "Old Ironsides" as the typical ship of our once glorious navy.
The actions between the "Constellation" and the "Vengeance" and "Insurgente" were the chief contests between regularly commissioned ships of the two nations in the war with France. But the West Indies were filled with privateers and semi-piratical craft, with which the navy waged a ceaseless warfare, which well prepared the blue-jackets for the graver struggle which was yet to come with Great Britain. The half-savage population of the French islands was a fruitful source of trouble to the American seaman. These gentry, known as Picaroons, seemed to have a natural inclination for piracy; and the unlucky merchant-captain who should come to anchor, or be becalmed, near one of the islands, was sure to see his vessel boarded, and his cargo plundered, by a lawless horde of Frenchmen and mulattoes, whose dialect was an unmusical combination of French and African tongues. The custom of the Picaroons was to do their cruising in huge barges propelled by sweeps. With these they would often cut out a merchant-vessel from beneath the guns of a protecting man-of-war, and tow her off to be plundered at leisure. Occasionally, however, their well-laid plans failed in the execution.
One of the most noted of these occasions was the repulse of ten Picaroon barges that attacked the United States topsail schooner "Experiment," and a fleet of merchantmen under her charge. The "Experiment," with her convoy, was lying becalmed in the Bight of Leogane, in the island of San Domingo. Not a breath of air was stirring; and the vessels, drifting about at the mercy of the currents, soon became widely separated, and were an easy prey for the hordes of Picaroons that swarmed in that region. In no way could the "Experiment" secure a position which would enable her to protect all the merchantmen. In this dilemma it was determined to disguise the war-vessel, in the hopes that the pirates, taking her for a merchantman, would attack her first. This was done; and, as luck would have it, the Picaroons fell into the trap.
Although not the captain of the ship, Lieut. David Porter was in command on this occasion; and, on hearing that ten Picaroon barges with swivels in the bows, and crews of forty men each, were approaching, he sent his crew to quarters, and prepared for a desperate resistance. Onward over the smooth waters came the huge barges, each with its twenty-six oars, looking like a mighty centipede. On the ship every thing was quiet, as the jackies stood to their guns, with the prospect of a deadly struggle before them. Should the barges get to close quarters, and surround the schooner, no earthly power could prevent their boarding, when their numbers would surely bring them success. But the painful pause before the battle was not long. Suddenly Porter, ever on the alert, cried out to fire. From every gun that could be brought to bear, a storm of grape and canister was rained upon the advancing boats; and the yells that went up from the astounded Picaroons told of the deadly work done in the crowded boats. For a moment, the fleet of barges fell into confusion; some retreating, some advancing, and others drifting about helpless. Although the murderous fire was kept up, the pirates formed again, and attempted to get alongside, but were repeatedly beaten back. With musketry and swivels they attempted to answer the fire of the Americans; but with little effect, for the crew of the "Experiment" kept close under the bulwarks. Men were precious then, and Porter would not let one expose himself unnecessarily; but he himself, from his prominent post of observation, was an easy mark, and a Picaroon's bullet soon lodged in his shoulder. Notwithstanding the painful wound he never left his post. The unexpected opposition only maddened the Picaroons, and they made desperate attempts to get alongside; but to no avail. Now the stern and now the bow of the "Experiment" was chosen as the point of attack; but still the rapid fire of the jackies beat the pirates back.
On the low-lying shores of the islands, some hundreds more of the Picaroons had gathered to watch the conflict; and, as the boats became short-handed from the carnage, they put back to the shore, and returned to the fight fully re-enforced. The bodies of the dead were thrown overboard without ceremony, and soon attracted great schools of the fierce sharks that abound in the waters of the tropics. Then a new horror was added to the scene. At a moment when the barges wavered and floated for a moment without motion, Porter ordered his gunners to load with solid shot. Two or three broadsides rang out; and, when the smoke cleared away, two barges were seen to be sinking. The affrighted crews bent to their oars, and strained every muscle to reach the shore; but, while yet in deep water, the barges sunk, and the Picaroons were left floundering in the sea. All struck out manfully for the shore; but suddenly one sprung half from the water, and with a horrid yell sunk from sight. One after another disappeared in the same way; for the sharks had tasted blood, and were not to be appeased. For seven hours the conflict raged fiercely; but at last the Picaroons confessed themselves beaten, and sullenly relinquished their attacks upon the "Experiment." But they were not to be wholly robbed of their plunder; and two merchant-vessels fell a prey to their piratical violence, before a breeze, springing up, enabled the squadron to escape.
Before the year was over, the Picaroons had another serious defeat to mourn over; and on this second occasion they were well punished for their many piracies. The "Boston," a twenty-eight-gun ship, was convoying a merchant-brig to Port au Prince, when the lookout discovered nine large barges skulking along the shore, ready to pounce upon the two vessels when a favorable moment should arrive. Porter was again in command. His tactics were at once determined upon; and the ports of the "Boston" were closed, and the ship thoroughly disguised. The Picaroons were deceived sufficiently to make a dash upon the two ships, and approach boldly within easy gunshot; then, discovering their mistake, they turned and fled in panic. This time no calm hampered the ship-of-war; and, making all sail, she dashed into their midst. For two hours she kept within easy range of the barges; and her gunners, working deliberately, did fearful execution in the ranks of the enemy, and sunk three barges before the wretched fugitives could reach the shore. After dealing out this summary justice, the "Boston" continued her voyage, and, after leaving her convoy in the port of her destination, began a cruise about the islands and the Spanish Main. In the course of this cruise she met the French corvette "Le Berceau," which struck after a plucky action of two hours. The Frenchman was badly cut up in hull and rigging, and shortly after the surrender her fore and main masts went by the board. The "Boston" was but little injured, and took her prize safely into port.
After this the fighting was chiefly confined to short, sharp affrays between the smaller United States ships and the French privateers, which were generally good sailers and well manned, although deficient in metal. The great frigates like the "Constellation" found no more adversaries worthy of their fighting qualities, and only the sloops and topsail-schooners gave their crews a chance to smell gunpowder. Some of these smaller actions, however, were sharp and gallant, although their details have not been preserved like those of the famous naval duels.
The "Experiment," after her adventure with the Picaroons, fought two gallant battles, and was successful in each, although the second for a time threatened to lead to international difficulties. While cruising on her station, the vessel made two sail, which, as they came nearer, proved to be a brig of eighteen guns and a three-masted schooner of twenty guns, both flying the French tricolor, and both intent on mischief. The American fled, but laid her course in such a way as to separate the two pursuers. When night had fallen, Lieut.-Commander Stewart, who commanded the "Experiment," saw that the enemy's forces were divided by about a league of green water, and at once determined to strike a blow. Doubling on his course, he ran his vessel alongside the schooner, and poured in two or three broadsides with such rapidity and haste that the Frenchman struck before his consort could come to his aid. Hastily throwing Lieut. Porter and a prize-crew aboard the prize, Stewart dashed off after the brig, which fled incontinently, and proved too good a sailer to be overtaken. Pure audacity had carried the day for the "Experiment," for the brig was powerful enough to have blown her pursuer to bits in a short engagement.
The second exploit of the "Experiment" was no less gallant than this, but in the end proved far less satisfactory. Late in a summer's afternoon a suspicious sail was made; and the chase, begun at once, had continued until nightfall. When darkness settled over the ocean, Stewart calculated the course laid by the stranger, and ordered his helmsman to keep the ship on that course until midnight, when, if the fugitive was not overhauled, the chase would be abandoned. Just before midnight a sail was seen near by and to windward. The men were sent to quarters; and with guns shotted, and battle-lanterns burning, the "Experiment" ran up under the stranger's lee, and hailed. No answer was returned. Perplexed and irritated, Stewart ordered a shot fired into the stranger, which was no sooner done than a broadside was returned, which made the schooner reel. Both vessels were then plunged into conflict, though neither knew the name or nationality of the opponent. For a time the "Experiment" was handicapped by the heavy wind, which laid her over so far that her guns were elevated skyward, and her shot whistled through the enemy's tops. To obviate this, planks were thrust under the breeches of the guns, until at last the proper range was secured, when an active cannonade soon forced the stranger to strike. Lieut. Porter was sent to take possession of the prize; but the report he brought back put all thought of prize-money out of the minds of the victors, for the stranger was a Bermudian privateer, flying the British flag, and under the protection of a nation with which the United States was at peace. The fault lay with the privateers for not responding to the hail, but the Americans did all in their power to repair the damage done. All the next day they lay by their vanquished adversary, and the sailors of two ships worked side by side in patching up the injuries done by the shot. By night the privateer was able to continue her cruise, resolving, doubtless, to avoid future conflicts with the ships of the American navy.
But to enter into the details of each of the naval duels of the French war of 1798, would require a volume devoted exclusively to its consideration. Although there was never a declaration of war between the two countries, yet the warfare on the ocean was earnest, and even desperate. Both nations went to work with a will, and the results were of incalculable benefit to the then pygmy navy of the United States. In their newspapers the Americans read with wonder and pride of the successes of their new vessels and young sailors, against the trained seamen and best frigates of France. When the war closed, the country rang with the praises of the blue-jackets. Indeed, a record of sixty-four French vessels captured, besides many American vessels which were recaptured from their captors, was enough to arouse feelings of pride throughout the nation; and the celerity with which France seized upon the proposal for peace showed well the reputation which our navy had gained beyond the ocean. For months after the peace was signed, the names of Bainbridge, Truxton, Stewart, and Talbot were household words throughout the nation; and the deeds of the gallant ships along the Spanish Main were the favorite stories of the boys of the land. Three of the oaken veterans, however, never came home; but against their names must be put the saddest of all naval records: foundered at sea. The captured "Insurgente," the "Saratoga," and the "Pickering" simply vanished from the ocean. Over fourscore years have passed; and of them, and the gallant lads that manned them, nothing has ever been known. Whether they perished by the fury of the tropical typhoon, whether a midnight collision sent them suddenly to the bottom, or whether the ships were destroyed and the crews murdered by the piratical desperadoes of the West Indies, can never be known. Somewhere on the coral-strewn bed of the blue seas of the tropics lie the mouldering hulks of those good ships, and the bones of their gallant crews. There will they lie, unknown and unsought, until earthly warfare is over for all men, and the sea gives up its dead.
PROPOSED REDUCTION OF THE NAVY. — RENEWAL OF BRITISH OUTRAGES. — THE AFFAIR OF THE "BALTIMORE." — ATTACK ON THE "LEANDER." — ENCOUNTER BETWEEN THE "CHESAPEAKE" AND "LEOPARD."
Not many months had elapsed after the close of the war between the United States and France, when the pride of the nation in the navy that had won such laurels in that conflict began to wane. In the place of poems and editorials singing the praises and pointing out the value of the navy, the newspapers began to be filled with demands for its reduction. It was an unwarrantable expense, exclaimed the critics of the press, for a nation so young, and so far from the warring peoples of Europe, to maintain a navy at all. A few gunboats to guard the coast would be enough. All the consequences of the reduction of the navy at the close of the Revolution were forgotten in an instant. A penny-wise and pound-foolish spirit came over all the political leaders; and the Democratic party, then newly come into power, determined to endear itself to the hearts of the people by cutting down the expenses of the Government, and to this end they attacked first the appropriations for the navy. A gallant fight was made against the total abolition of the navy; and finally it was decided to retain thirteen of the ships-of-war on the list, while the others should be sold. With these thirteen vessels, of which the most noted were the "Constitution," the "Constellation," and the "United States," the navy was placed upon a peace footing. Even this moderate squadron, however, brought out much opposition from economically minded statesmen; but the aggressions of the Barbary pirates, and the war with Tripoli which opened in 1801, gave the sailor lads active employment, and for the time the outcry of the economists against the navy ceased.
Of the various wars with Tripoli and the other states of Barbary, we have already given some account. The political bearing of the Tripolitan war upon the war which afterwards followed with Great Britain was slight; but, as discipline for the sterner reality of naval warfare with the nation long reputed to be "mistress of the seas," the experience of the Yankee tars with the turbaned infidels was invaluable.
Let us, then, return to the shameful recountal of the injuries committed by the British upon the American flag on the high seas. Even while the United States was at war with France, and thus aiding the British, the outrages never ceased. American sailors were still impressed. American vessels were boarded, and often seized, on the slightest pretexts. Even the ships of the Government were not exempt, for the British respected no right save that of greater power.
It was in November, 1798, that the United States sloop-of-war "Baltimore," of twenty guns, and under command of Capt. Phillips, was in charge of a convoy of merchantmen bound to Havana. On the morning of the 16th of that month, the sloop, with her convoy, were in sight of their destination, and could even see the solid, towering walls of the Moro, rising high above the low-lying shores about Havana. The breeze was fresh and fair; and all hands expected to cast anchor before night in the beautiful bay, oh the shores of which stands the chief city of the island of fruits and spices. On the "Baltimore" the jackies were busily at work holystoning the decks, until they glistened with the milky whiteness dear to the eye of the sailor of the days before the era of yellow pine or black, unsightly iron ships. The shrouds and standing rigging had been pulled taut with many a "Yo, heave ho!" until the wind hummed plaintively through the taut cordage, as through the resounding strings of an AEolian harp. The brasswork and polished breeches of the guns were polished by the vigorous rubbing by muscular sailors, until they shone again. All told of a coming season in a friendly port.
While the work of preparation for port was thus going busily on, the lookout hailed the deck, and reported a squadron in sight. A moment's glance convinced Capt. Phillips that the strangers were British war-vessels; and, as they were still accustomed to annoy American merchantmen, he hastily signalled his convoy to carry sail hard, and make port before the British came up, while the "Baltimore" bore up to speak to the British commodore.
Before the merchantmen could escape, however, the British cut off three of them, under some peculiar and mistaken ideas of the law of blockades. More than this, when Capt. Phillips paid his visit to the English commodore in the latter's cabin, he was calmly informed that it was intended to take from the "Baltimore" into the British service every sailor who had not a regular American protection; this under the new English doctrine, that every sailor was an Englishman unless proved to be otherwise. The avowal by the British captain of this intention filled Phillips with indignation, and he warmly protested against any such action.
It would, he insisted, be an outrage on the dignity of the nation which he served; and, as the overpowering force of the British rendered resistance impossible, he should insist upon surrendering his ship should they persist in their undertaking, which was no more nor less than open warfare. With this he arose from his seat, and leaving the cabin, to which he had been invited as the guest of a friendly nation, returned to his own ship.
Here he found a state of affairs that still further added to his indignation. At the foot of the gangway of the "Baltimore" floated a boat from one of the British ships, and on the deck of the sloop was a lieutenant in British uniform in the act of mustering the American crew. Capt. Phillips at once seized the muster-roll, and ordered the officious Briton to walk to leeward, while the crew of the "Baltimore" were sent to their quarters.
But, having done this, he became doubtful as to the course for him to pursue. Successful resistance was out of the question; for he was surrounded by five British vessels, one of which carried ninety-eight guns, while the smallest mounted thirty-two, or twelve more than the "Baltimore." Even had the odds against him been less great, Capt. Phillips felt grave doubts as to his authority to resist any armed vessel. He had sailed under instructions that "the vessels of every other nation (France excepted) are on no account to be molested; and I wish particularly to impress upon your mind," wrote the Secretary of the Navy, "that should you ever see an American vessel captured by the armed ship of any nation at war, with whom we are at peace, you cannot lawfully interfere, for it is to be taken for granted that such nation will compensate for such capture, if it should prove to have been illegally made." After some deliberation over this clause in his instructions, Capt. Phillips concluded that for him to make even a formal resistance would be illegal; and accordingly the flag of the "Baltimore" was lowered, and the British were told that the ship was at their disposal. They immediately seized upon fifty-five men from the American crew, who were taken away to the British fleet. But in this wholesale impressment they did not persist. Fifty of the men were sent back; and the squadron set sail, carrying away the five pressed men, and leaving the men of the "Baltimore," from the captain down to the smallest cabin-boy, smarting under the sense of an indignity and insult offered to the flag under which they served.
Capt. Phillips hoisted his flag again, and continued his cruise. News travelled slowly in those days; and the tidings of this latest British insult did not reach the United States until the "Baltimore," returning home, brought it herself. Hardly had the ship reached port, when Capt. Phillips hastened to Philadelphia, then the national capital, and laid his report of the affair before the Government. In a week's time, without even the formality of a trial, he was dismissed from the navy.
After the lapse of more than eighty years it is impossible to look back upon this affair without indignation, mortification, and regret. That the naval officers of Great Britain should have been able, by the mere force of arms, to inflict so cruel an insult upon our flag, can but arouse indignation in the breast of every true American. And the humiliation was great enough, without having added to it the obviously hasty and unjust action of the authorities, in dismissing, without a trial, an officer who had faithfully served his country. It is indeed possible that Capt. Phillips erred gravely in his course; but justice alone demanded for him a fair trial, and the nature of his instructions certainly afforded him some justification for his action.
The years that opened the nineteenth century were full of events that exerted the greatest influence over the growth of the United States. The continuance of the Napoleonic wars in Europe, our own war with the Barbary powers, the acquisition of Louisiana,—all these had their effect on the growth of the young Republic of the West. But, at the same time, England was continuing her policy of oppression. Her cruisers and privateers swarmed upon the ocean; and impressment of seamen and seizure of vessels became so common, that in 1806 memorials and petitions from seamen and merchants of the seaport towns poured in upon Congress, begging that body to take some action to save American commerce from total destruction. Congress directed the American minister in London to protest; but to no avail. Even while the correspondence on the subject was being carried on, the British gave renewed evidence of their hostility to their former Colonies, and their scorn for the military or naval power of the United States. From the far-off shores of the Mediterranean came the news that boats from the fleet of the British Admiral Collingwood had boarded the United States gunboat No. 7, and taken from her three sailors, under the pretence that they were Englishmen. But an occurrence that shortly followed, nearer home, threw this affair into oblivion, and still further inflamed the national hatred of the English.
A small coasting sloop, one of hundreds that made voyages along the American coast from Portland to Savannah, was running past Sandy Hook into New York Bay, when she was hailed by the British ship "Leander," and ordered to heave to. The captain of the coaster paid no attention to the order, and continued on his way, until a shot from the cruiser crashed into the sloop, and took off the head of the captain, John Pearce of New York. This was murder, and the action of the British in firing upon the sloop was gross piracy. Such an outrage, occurring so near the chief city of the United States, aroused a storm of indignation. The merchants of New York held meetings at the old Tontine Coffee-House, and denounced not only the action of the British cruiser, but even impeached the Government of the United States; declaring that an administration which suffered foreign armed ships to "impress, wound, and murder citizens was not entitled to the confidence of a brave and free people." The fact that the captain of the offending cruiser, on being brought to trial in England, was honorably acquitted, did not tend to soothe the irritation of the Americans.
Occurrences such as this kept alive the American dislike for the English, and a year later an event happened which even the most ardent peace-lover could not but condemn and resent with spirit.
In 1807 the United States frigate "Chesapeake," then lying at the navy-yard at Washington, was put in commission, and ordered to the Mediterranean, to relieve the "Constitution." Nearly a month was consumed in making necessary repairs to hull and cordage, taking in stores, shipping a crew, and attending to the thousand and one details of preparation for sea that a long time out of commission makes necessary to a man-of-war. While the preparations for service were actively proceeding, the British minister informed the naval authorities that three deserters from His British Majesty's ship "Melampus" had joined the crew of the "Chesapeake;" and it was requested that they should be given up. The request was made with due courtesy; and, although there is no principle of international law which directs the surrender of deserters, yet the United States, as a friendly nation, was inclined to grant the request, and an inquiry was made into the case. The facts elicited put the surrender of the men out of the question; for though they frankly confessed to have deserted from the "Melampus," yet they claimed to have been impressed into the British service, and proved conclusively that they were free Americans. This was reported to the British minister; and, as he made no further protests, it was assumed that he was satisfied.
Some weeks later the vessel left the navy-yard, and dropped down the river to Hampton Roads. Even with the long period occupied in preparation for sea, the armament of the ship was far from being in order; a fact first discovered as she passed Mount Vernon, as she was unable to fire the salute with which at that time all passing war-vessels did honor to the tomb of Washington. After some days stay at Hampton Roads, during which time additional guns and stores were taken on, and the crew increased to three hundred and seventy-five men, the ship got under way, and started on her voyage.
It was on a breezy morning of June that the "Chesapeake" left the broad harbor of Hampton Roads, the scene of so many of our naval glories. From the masthead of the frigate floated the broad pennant of Commodore Barron, who went out in command of the ship. The decks were littered with ropes, lumber, and stores, which had arrived too late to be properly stowed away. Some confusion is but natural on a ship starting on a cruise which may continue for years, but the condition of the "Chesapeake" was beyond all excuse; a fact for which the fitting-out officers, not her commander, were responsible.
As the American ship passed out into the open ocean, there was a great stir on the decks of four English cruisers that lay quietly at anchor in Lynn Haven Bay; and almost immediately one of these vessels hoisted her anchor, set her sails, and started out in the track of the frigate. A stiff head-wind blowing, the American was forced to tack frequently, in order to get ahead; and her officers noticed that the British ship (the "Leopard," of fifty guns) tacked at the same time, and was evidently following doggedly in the wake of the "Chesapeake." No suspicion that the pursuer had other than peaceful motives in view entered the minds of the American officers; and the ship kept on her course, while the sailors set about putting the decks in order, and getting the vessel in trim for her long voyage. While all hands were thus busily engaged, the "Leopard" bore down rapidly, and soon hailed, saying that she had a despatch for Commodore Barron. The "Chesapeake" accordingly hove to, and waited for a boat to be sent aboard.
The two ships now lay broadside to broadside, and only about a half pistol-shot apart. No idea that the Englishman had any hostile designs seems to have occurred to Commodore Barren; but some of the younger officers noticed that the ports of the "Leopard" were triced up, and the tompions taken out of the muzzles of the cannon. The latter fact was of the gravest import, and should have been reported at once to the commander; but it appears that this was not done.
In a few moments a boat put off from the "Leopard," and pulled to the American ship, where an officer stood waiting at the gangway, and conducted the visitor to Barron's cabin. Here the English lieutenant produced an order, signed by the British Admiral Berkeley, commanding all British ships to watch for the "Chesapeake," and search her for deserters. Commodore Barron immediately responded, that the "Chesapeake" harbored no deserters, and he could not permit his crew to be mustered by the officer of any foreign power. Hardly had this response been made, when a signal from the "Leopard" recalled the boarding officer to his ship.
The officers of the "Chesapeake" were now fully aroused to the dangers of the situation, and began the attempt to get the ship in readiness for action. Commodore Barron, coming out of his cabin for the first time, was forcibly struck by the air of preparation for action presented by the "Leopard." Capt. Gordon, the second in command, was ordered to hasten the work on the gun-deck, and call the crew to quarters. The drummers began to beat the call to quarters, but hasty orders soon stopped them; and the men went to their places quietly, hoping that the threatening attitude of the "Leopard" was mere bravado.
The most painful suspense was felt by all on board the American ship. The attitude of the "Leopard" left little doubt of her hostile intentions, while a glance about the decks of the "Chesapeake" told how little fitted she was to enter into action. Her crew was a new one, never exercised at the guns, and had been mustered to quarters only three times. On the gun-deck lay great piles of cumbrous cables, from the coiling of which the men had been summoned by the call to quarters. On the after-deck were piles of furniture, trunks, and some temporary pantries. What little semblance of order there was, was due to the efforts of one of the lieutenants, who, suspecting trouble when the "Leopard" first came up, had made great exertions toward getting the ship clear. While the captain stood looking ruefully at the confusion, still more serious troubles were reported. The guns were loaded; but no rammers, powder-flasks, matches, wads, or gun-locks could be found. While search was being made for these necessary articles, a hail came from the "Leopard." Commodore Barron shouted back that he did not understand.
"Commodore Barron must be aware that the orders of the vice-admiral must be obeyed," came the hail again.
Barron again responded that he did not understand. After one or two repetitions, the British determined to waste no more time in talking; and a single shot fired from the bow of the "Leopard" was quickly followed by a full broadside. The heavy shot crashed into the sides of the "Chesapeake," wounding many of the men, and adding to the confusion on the gun-deck. No answer came from the American frigate; for, though the guns were loaded, there was no way of firing them. Matches, locks, or loggerheads were nowhere to be found. Mad with rage at the helpless condition in which they found themselves, the officers made every effort to fire at least one volley. Pokers were heated red-hot in the galley-fire, and carried hastily to the guns, but cooled too rapidly in the rush across the deck. In the mean time, the "Leopard," none too chivalric to take advantage of an unresisting foe, had chosen her position, and was pouring in a deliberate fire. For nearly eighteen minutes the fire was continued, when the flag of the "Chesapeake" was hauled down. Just as it came fluttering from the masthead, Lieut. Allen, crying, "I'll have one shot at those rascals, anyhow," ran to the galley, picked up a live coal in his fingers, and carried it, regardless of the pain, to the nearest gun, which was successfully discharged. This was the only shot that the "Chesapeake" fired during the affair,—battle it cannot be called.
A boat with two British lieutenants and several midshipmen on board speedily boarded the "Chesapeake," and the demand for the deserters was renewed. Four seamen were seized, and borne away in triumph; but the British commander refused to receive the ship as a prize, and even went so far as to express his regret at the loss of life, and proffer his aid in repairing the damages. Both sympathy and assistance were indignantly rejected; and the disgraced ship went sullenly back to Norfolk, bearing a sorely mortified body of officers and seamen. Of the four kidnapped sailors, it may be stated here, that one was hanged, and the other three forced to enter the British service, in which one died. His comrades, five years later, were restored to the deck of the ship from which they had been taken.
The news of this event spread like wildfire over the country, and caused rage and resentment wherever it was known. Cities, towns, and villages called for revenge. The President issued a proclamation, complaining of the habitual insolence of British cruisers, and ordering all such vessels to leave American waters forthwith. As in the reduced state of the navy it was impossible to enforce this order, he forbade all citizens of the United States to give aid to, or have any intercourse with, any such vessels or their crews. War measures were taken both by the Federal and State Governments. As usual, the popular wrath was vented upon the least culpable of the people responsible for the condition of the "Chesapeake." Commodore Barren was tried by court-martial, and sentenced to five years' suspension from the service, without pay. The cool judgment of later years perceives the unjustness of this sentence, but its execution cast a deep shadow over the remainder of the unhappy officer's life.
For some years after this episode, little occurred to change the relations of the two nations. The war spirit grew slowly, and was kept alive by the occasional reports of impressments, or the seizure of American ships by British privateers. The navy held its place amid the national defences, although a plan devised by President Jefferson came near putting an end to the old organization. This plan provided for the construction of great numbers of small gunboats, which should be stationed along the coast, to be called out only in case of attack by an armed enemy. A contemporary writer, describing the beauties of this system, wrote, "Whenever danger shall menace any harbor, or any foreign ship shall insult us, somebody is to inform the governor, and the governor is to desire the marshal to call upon the captains of militia to call upon the drummers to beat to arms, and call the militia men together, from whom are to be drafted (not impressed) a sufficient number to go on board the gunboats, and drive the hostile stranger away, unless during this long ceremonial he should have taken himself off." Fortunately the gunboat system did not work the total extinction of the old navy.
In 1811 the British aggressions began again, and the situation became more and more warlike. So bold had the privateers become, that they captured a richly laden vessel within thirty miles of New York. Shortly after, the British frigate "Guerriere" stopped an American brig eighteen miles from New York, and took from her a young sailor. The sea was running very rough, and a stiff breeze blowing, when the "Spitfire" was halted by the frigate; but the American captain went with the captured lad to the war-vessel, and assured the commander that he had known the young man as a native of Maine from his boyhood. The reply was, "All that may be so; but he has no protection, and that is enough for me." With these memories fresh, it is not surprising that Americans rejoiced when the news of an encounter terminating in favor of the United States ship was received.
On May 7, 1811, the United States frigate "President" was lying quietly at anchor off Fort Severn, Annapolis. Every thing betokened a state of perfect peace. The muzzles of the great guns were stopped by tompions. The ports were down. In the rigging of the vessel hung garments drying in the sun. At the side floated half a dozen boats. Many of the crew were ashore on leave. The sailing-master was at Baltimore, and the chaplain and purser were at Washington. From the masthead floated the broad pennant of Commodore Rodgers, but he was with his family at Havre de Grace; and the executive officer, Capt. Ludlow, was dining on the sloop-of-war "Argus," lying near at hand. But the captain's dinner was destined to be interrupted that bright May afternoon; for in the midst of the repast a midshipman entered, and reported that the commodore's gig was coming up rapidly, with Rodgers himself on board. The dinner party was hastily broken up, and the captain returned to his ship to receive his superior officer. On his arrival, Commodore Rodgers said that he had received orders to chase the frigate that had impressed the sailor from the "Spitfire," and insist upon the man's being liberated, if he could prove his citizenship. This was good news for every man on the frigate. At last, then, the United States was going to protect its sailors.
Three days were spent in getting the crew together and preparing for sea; then the stately frigate, with all sails set and colors flying, weighed anchor, and stood down the Chesapeake with the intention of cruising near New York. She had been out on the open ocean only a day, when the lookout, from his perch in the cross-trees, reported a strange sail on the horizon. The two vessels approached each other rapidly; and, as the stranger drew near, Rodgers saw, by the squareness of her yards and the general trim, symmetrical cut of her sails, that she was a war-vessel. Perhaps she may be the offender, thought he, and watched eagerly her approach.
As the stranger came up, the "President" set her broad pennant and ensign; on seeing which the stranger hoisted several signal flags, the significance of which was not understood by the Americans. Finding her signals unanswered, the stranger wore ship, and bore away to the southward, hotly followed by the "President." During all these manoeuvres, Rodgers's suspicion of the strange vessel had increased; and her apparent flight only convinced him the more of the hostile character of the stranger. It was a stern chase and a long one, for at the outset the stranger was hull down on the horizon. After an hour it became evident that the "President" was gaining, for the hull of the fugitive was plainly seen. The breeze then died away, so that night had fallen over the waters before the ships were within hailing distance.
A little after eight in the evening the "President" was within a hundred yards of the chase, which could be seen, a dark mass with bright lights shining through the rows of open ports, rushing through the water directly ahead. Rodgers sprang upon the taffrail, and putting a speaking-trumpet to his lips, shouted, "What ship is that?" A dead silence followed. Those on the "President" listened intently for the answer; but no sound was heard save the sigh of the wind through the cordage, the creaking of the spars, and the rush of the water alongside. Rodgers hailed again; and, before the sound of his words had died away, a quick flash of fire leaped from the stern-ports of the chase, and a shot whizzed through the rigging of the "President," doing some slight damage. Rodgers sprang to the deck to order a shot in return; but, before he could do so, a too eager gunner pulled the lanyard of his piece in the second division of the "President's" battery. The enemy promptly answered with three guns, and then let fly a whole broadside, with discharges of musketry from the deck and the tops. This exhausted Rodgers's patience. "Equally determined," said he afterwards, "not to be the aggressor, or to suffer the flag of my country to be insulted with impunity, I gave a general order to fire." This time there was no defect in the ordnance or the gunnery of the American ship. The thunderous broadsides rang out at regular intervals, and the aim of the gunners was deliberate and deadly. It was too dark to see what effect the fire was having on the enemy, but in five minutes her responses began to come slowly and feebly. Unwilling to continue his attack on a ship evidently much his inferior in size and armament, Rodgers ordered the gunners to cease firing; but this had hardly been done when the stranger opened again. A second time the guns of the "President" were run out, and again they began their cannonade. The stranger was soon silenced again; and Commodore Rodgers hailed, that he might learn the name of his adversary. In answer came a voice from the other vessel,—
"We are his Majesty's ship ——." A gust of wind carried away the name, and Rodgers was still in doubt as to whom he had been fighting. Hoisting a number of bright lights in her rigging, that the stranger might know her whereabouts, the "President" stood off and on during the night, ready to give aid to the disabled ship in case of need.
At early dawn every officer was on deck, anxious to learn the fate of their foe of the night before. Far in the distance they could see a ship, whose broken cordage and evident disorder showed her to have been the other party to the fight. A boat from the "President" visited the stranger, to learn her name and to proffer aid in repairing the damages received in the action. The ship proved to be the British sloop-of-war "Little Belt;" and her captain stated that she was much damaged in her masts, sails, rigging, and hull, and had been cut several times between wind and water. He declined the proffered aid, however, and sailed away to Halifax, the nearest British naval station. Commodore Rodgers took the "President" to the nearest American port.
When the "President" reached home, and the news of her exploit became known, the exultation of the people was great, and their commendations of Rodgers loud. "At last," they cried, "we have taught England a lesson. The insult to the 'Chesapeake' is now avenged." Rodgers protested that he had been forced unwillingly into the combat, but his admirers insisted that he had left port with the intention of humbling the pride of some British ship. Indeed, the letter of an officer on the "President," printed in "The New York Herald" at the time, rather supported this theory. "By the officers who came from Washington," wrote this gentleman, "we learn that we are sent in pursuit of a British frigate, who had impressed a passenger from a coaster. Yesterday, while beating down the bay, we spoke a brig coming up, who informed us that she saw the British frigate the day before off the very place where we now are; but she is not now in sight. We have made the most complete preparations for battle. Every one wishes it. She is exactly our force; but we have the "Argus" with us, which none of us are pleased with, as we wish a fair trial of courage and skill. Should we see her, I have not the least doubt of an engagement. The commodore will demand the person impressed; the demand will doubtless be refused, and the battle will instantly commence.... The commodore has called in the boatswain, gunner, and carpenter, informed them of all circumstances, and asked if they were ready for action. Ready, was the reply of each."
No consequences beyond an intensifying of the war spirit in America followed this rencounter. Before dismissing the subject, however, it is but fair to state that the account as given here is in substance Commodore Rodgers's version of the matter. The British captain's report was quite different. He insisted that the "President" fired the first shot, that the action continued nearly an hour, that it was his hail to which no attention was paid, and finally he intimated that the "President" had rather the worse of the encounter. The last statement is easily disproved, for the "President" was almost unscathed, and the only injury to her people was the slight wounding of a boy, in the hand. On the "Little Belt," thirty-one were killed or wounded. The other points led to a simple question of veracity between the two officers. Each government naturally accepted the report of its officer; and, so far as the governments were concerned, the matter soon passed into oblivion.
Not long after this episode, a somewhat similar occurrence took place, but was happily attended with no such serious consequences. The frigate "United States," cruising under the broad pennant of Commodore Decatur, fell in with two British ships near New York. While the commanders of the vessels were amicably hailing, a gun was suddenly fired from the battery of the "United States," owing to the carelessness of a gunner in handling the lanyard. It was a critical moment, for the British would have been justified in responding to the fire with broadsides. Happily, they were cool and discreet, and Decatur made such explanations as showed that no attack or insult was intended. This little incident is interesting, as showing the distrust of the British which led an American captain to keep his guns primed and cocked, while conversing with English men-of-war.
Another incident showed that the hatred of the British service that prevailed among seamen was a matter of deep-seated conviction. While the United States ship "Essex" was lying in an English port, it became known that one of her crew was a deserter from the British navy, and his surrender was immediately demanded. Although the man stoutly protested that he was an American, yet no proof could be shown; and, as the ship was in British waters, it was determined to surrender him. A British officer and squad of marines boarded the "Essex" and waited on the deck while the sailor went below to get his kit. Bitterly complaining of the hardness of his fate, the poor fellow went along the gun-decks until he passed the carpenter's bench. His eye fell upon an axe; and after a minute's hesitation he stepped to the bench, seized the axe in his right hand, and with one blow cut off the left. Carrying the severed member in his hand, he again sought the deck and presented himself, maimed, bleeding, and forever useless as a sailor, to the British officer. Astonished and horrified, that worthy left the ship, and the wounded man was sent to the sick-bay. The incident was a forcible commentary on the state of the British service at that time, and left a deep impression on the minds of all beholders.
In the next contest over deserters, however, the Americans rather secured the best of the argument. The "Constitution" was lying at anchor in Portsmouth roads, when one of the crew slily slipped overboard and swam down with the tide to the British ship "Madagascar" that lay at anchor near by. When he had reached the Englishman, he was too exhausted to speak; and the officers, supposing that he had fallen overboard accidentally, sent word to the "Constitution" that her man had been saved, and awaited the orders of his commander. The next morning a boat was sent down to the "Madagascar" to fetch the man back; but, to the astonishment of the visiting officer, he was told that the sailor claimed to be a British subject and wished to escape from the American service.
"Have you any evidence," asked the American officer of the British admiral, "beyond the man's own word, that he is an Englishman?"
"None whatever, sir," was the response, "but we are obliged to take his declaration to that effect."
The American officer returned to his ship, vowing vengeance on the harborers of the deserter. His opportunity came that very night.
In the dead watches of the night, when all was still on deck save the monotonous tramp of the sentries, there suddenly rang out on the still air the sharp crack of a musket. The officer of the deck rushed to see what was the matter, and was shown a dark object floating near the ship, at which a sentry had fired. A boat was lowered and soon came back, bringing in it a sailor who had deserted from the "Madagascar," and reached the "Constitution" by swimming. Capt. Hull asked the fellow his nationality.
"Sure, O'im a 'Merricun, your honor," he answered in a rich brogue that would have branded him as a Paddy in any part of the world. With a twinkle in his eye, Hull sent the Irishman below, and told the sailors to take good care of him.
Early in the morning, a boat came from the "Madagascar;" and a trim young lieutenant, clambering aboard the American frigate, politely requested that the deserter be given up. With great dignity, Capt. Hull responded that the man was a citizen of the United States, and should have protection. The visiting officer fairly gasped for breath. "An American!" he exclaimed. "Why, the man has never been out of Ireland except on a British man-of-war."
"Indeed!" responded Hull blandly. "But we have his statement that he is an American, and we are obliged to take his declaration to that effect." And the man was never given up.
During the day, two British frigates cast anchor so near the "Constitution" that Capt. Hull suspected them of hostile intentions, and moved his ship to a new anchorage. A frigate followed closely in her wake. At eight in the evening, Capt. Hull determined to meet the show of force with force. The drums beat, and the men were called to quarters. The battle-lanterns were lighted fore and aft. The tops were crowded with sailors, armed with short carbines, to pick off the men on the enemy's decks. Along the gun-deck stood the men at the guns; and an officer, describing the scene, says they took hold of the ropes as if they were about to jerk the guns through the ship's sides. All were enthusiastic over the prospect of the coming action.
"Now, then, my lads," said an officer to a group of sailors, "if a fight comes of this, it will be in the cause of you sailors; and I expect you to fight like men."
"Ay, ay, sir," was the response. "Let the quarter-deck look out for the colors, and we'll keep the guns going."
All the preparations for battle were made openly, and the attitude taken by the "Constitution" was an open challenge. No notice of it was taken by the British ship; and, after maintaining her hostile attitude for some time, the "Constitution" hoisted her anchor, and left the harbor.
The time of the formal declaration of war was now rapidly approaching. The long diplomatic correspondence between the two nations had failed to lead to any amicable solution of the difficulties that were fast urging them to war. Great Britain still adhered to her doctrine that a man once an Englishman was always an English subject. No action of his own could absolve him from allegiance to the flag under which he was born. Upon the trade of the United States with France, the English looked with much the sentiments with which, during our civil war, we regarded the thriving trade driven with the Confederacy by the British blockade-runners. Upon these two theories rested the hateful "right of search" and the custom of impressment.