Naval actions in the War of 1812, No.1: The three day chase of the Constitution

In the tumultuous waters off the east coast of America, Captain Hull of the USS Constitution found himself facing a relentless pursuit by a formidable British squadron. Having embarked on a daring journey, the Constitution's crew faced multiple challenges, showcasing their remarkable resourcefulness and adaptability. The gripping tale unfolds as Captain Hull employs ingenious strategies, demonstrating the crew's resilience and strategic prowess in the face of evolving challenges. This blog post explores the historic night when the Constitution, under the leadership of Captain Hull, outsmarted the British navy, leaving an indelible mark on maritime history.

Richard Bird

2/14/20247 min read

Prelude to peril

Returning from a mission to Europe during the uncertain days that preceding the declaration of war between England and America, Captain Hull had drawn into the Chesapeake to outfit for a cruise. He had encountered numerous thrilling moments in the tumultuous waters of Europe, where the atmosphere was charged, and every sail raised suspicion. Despite being in a time of peace, Hull found himself calling his men to quarters on multiple occasions, as a precaution. The next few days would test his skills to the limit.

Captain Hull, after assembling a new crew in Annapolis, embarked on a journey on July 12th, sailing around the capes and venturing out to sea. Five days into the voyage, out of sight of land and with a gentle breeze from the northeast, the crew spotted four sails to the north, heading westward, and an additional fifth sail to the north and east.

A night of unprecedented challenges

Before sunset, it became evident that the approaching ships were vessels of war, likely English. The wind favored the closest ship, but a sudden calm shifted the advantage to the Constitution, giving it the weather-gage. This marked the beginning of an unparalleled test of seamanship and sailing prowess, a historic moment that unfolded through the night.

Captain Hull, with confidence in the Constitution's speed, stood almost alone in this belief. The vessel's capabilities were put to the test, emphasizing that speed relies on effective handling. Throughout the night, signals and lights flashed from the vessels to leeward. The English, mistakenly, took the Constitution for one of their own ships, as it displayed the private signal of the day, thinking the nearby vessel might be American.

Outsmarting the Pursuers

Before daybreak, HMS Guerrière, firing rockets and guns, revealed itself as the ship astern of the Constitution. In a surprising turn of events, Guerrière would soon strike its flag to the very frigate it was eager to escape from. As daylight broadened, three sail were discovered on the starboard quarter and three more astern, with an additional one spotted to the westward.

By nine o'clock, with lifted mists, the Constitution found itself to leeward and astern of seven English ships—two frigates, a ship of the line, two smaller frigates, a brig, and a schooner—led by Captain Sir Philip Vere Broke. Fortunately for "Old Ironsides," all English vessels remained beyond gunshot range.

Captain Hull deployed boats ahead for towing, while stern-chasers were run out over the after-bulwarks and through the cabin windows. The calm weather prompted all English vessels to start towing as well. The Constitution, strategically positioned, had an advantage, as it could have thwarted approaching boats while protecting its own.

The Ingenious Tactical Manoeuvre

The Shannon, one of the nearest frigates, opened fire, but its shots fell short, leading to its abandonment of the futile attempt. At this critical juncture, Lieutenant Morris of the Constitution proposed a brilliant idea. Drawing from the maritime tradition of using kedge-anchors to warp ships in narrow channels, they spliced together spare hawsers and ropes, creating a line almost a mile in length.

Towed ahead of the ship with a kedge-anchor dropped, the Constitution skillfully distanced itself from its pursuers. As one kedge was tripped, another was promptly hauled upon. Captain Hull, orchestrating this tactical maneuver, unveiled his colors and fired a gun, successfully outsmarting the British. This ingenious strategy, credited to Lieutenant Charles Morris, played a pivotal role in Old Ironsides' escape, showcasing the crew's remarkable resourcefulness and adaptability in the face of a formidable British squadron.

All available hawsers and ropes capable of withstanding the strain were expertly spliced together, forming a nearly mile-long line towed ahead of the ship with a dropped kedge-anchor. The Constitution commenced walking away from its pursuers, employing a continuous cycle of tripping and hauling upon kedges. Captain Hull, seizing the moment, revealed his colors and fired a gun. The British, however, quickly caught on to this Yankee trick and attempted to replicate it.

Fortunately, a slight breeze favored the Constitution, allowing it to forge ahead of the leading vessel, despite the fifteen or sixteen boats towing at her. As calm conditions returned, the towing and kedging resumed. The Belvidera, led by a flotilla of rowboats, gained ground again. To counter this, Hull ordered the release of approximately twenty-four hundred gallons of water to lighten the vessel. Despite some exchanged shots, the crew persevered without complaint, working tirelessly for over twelve hours.

Endurance in the Face of Challenges

This challenging endeavor was just the beginning. Occasional breezes from the southward provided brief respite, allowing exhausted sailors to rest on the deck. The crews, ever vigilant, had never left their quarters. From eleven o'clock in the evening until past midnight, the breeze held, keeping the Constitution in advance. However, the calm returned, prompting Captain Hull to grant his men much-needed rest until 2 A.M., when the boats were once again deployed.

During this interval, the Guerrière closed in, positioned off the lee beam. With the threat of imminent engagement, Hull faced challenges with two heavy stern-chasers that were nearly impractical due to the risk of damaging the stern-quarters. Soundings revealed decreasing depths, raising concerns about the effectiveness of kedging in deeper waters.

At daybreak, a tense situation unfolded as three enemy frigates approached within long gunshot on the lee quarter. The Guerrière maintained its position on the beam, while the Africa, a ship of the line, and two smaller vessels lagged behind. The Belvidera gradually outpaced the Guerrière, nearly reaching the Constitution's bow before tacking. In an effort to preserve the advantageous windward position, Captain Hull was compelled to follow suit. A critical moment occurred as the Æolus approached within long range on another tack, but both frigates passed each other without firing. Taking advantage of a strengthening breeze, Hull hoisted in his boats, granting the fatigued rowers a much-needed rest. The escape persisted, showcasing the crew's resilience and strategic prowess in the face of evolving challenges.

As the English vessels rounded on the same tack as the Constitution, the five frigates displayed all their kites, becoming masses of shining canvas from their trucks to the water's edge. With a total of eleven sail in sight, a twelfth appeared to the windward, identified as an American merchantman by the display of stars and stripes upon sighting the squadron. Rather than dispatching a vessel for pursuit, the English encouraged the merchantman by flying the stars and stripes. In response, Hull drew down his flag and set the English ensign, prompting the merchantman to haul on the wind and attempt to escape.

Hull, maintaining wet sails to hold the wind, witnessed the crew's cheering and laughter by ten o'clock as they slowly drew ahead. The Belvidera trailed nearly three miles in their wake, while other vessels were scattered to leeward. The wind freshened in the early afternoon, and with carefully trimmed sails, Hull's claim of the Constitution being a speedy vessel was verified as it gained two miles and more on the pursuers. A strategic play unfolded as dark, angry clouds and deeper shadows signaled an approaching squall. Hull prepared the ship, furling light canvas and bringing her under short sail, anticipating the rain would reach them first. The English vessels astern observed this and, thinking a hard blow was imminent, let go and hauled down without waiting for the wind to reach them.

Triumph Amidst Tension

As rain shrouded the Constitution, Hull seized the opportunity, sheeted home, hoisted fore and main topgallant-sails, and roared away over the sea at a pace of eleven knots. The breeze held strong for an hour, blowing almost half a gale, before disappearing to leeward. A triumphant Yankee cheer erupted as the English fleet remained far downwind, with the Africa barely visible. The Constitution continued to elude the pursuing frigates throughout the night, signaling occasionally. By daybreak, all fear subsided as Broke's squadron gave up, hauling to the northward and eastward, and the Constitution kept all sail. The crew's resourcefulness and the strategic brilliance of Captain Hull secured Old Ironsides' successful escape from the formidable British squadron.

The Nautilus: A Noteworthy Loss

The small brig identified in the pursuers' fleet was the Nautilus, captured by the English a few days earlier, marking the first vessel lost on either side during the war. Notably commanded by the gallant Somers, who lost his life in the harbor of Tripoli, the Nautilus was under the charge of Lieutenant Crane when taken by the English. Crane, witnessing the entire chase, recounts the wonder and astonishment of the British officers at the Constitution's handling. Expecting drastic measures from Hull, such as throwing overboard guns and anchors or staving boats, the British officers themselves cut adrift many cutters, spending subsequent time picking them up. The Constitution, however, had only started the water-casks to lighten the load.

Repercussions and Recognition

Confident in their capture, the English, led by Captain Broke of the Shannon, appointed a prize crew and claimed the honor of sailing the Constitution into Halifax. However, their certainty proved premature, as Captain Broke counted his chickens before they were hatched. The Shannon's log entry on July 18th reveals a fatiguing and anxious chase, including towing and kedging, as the Constitution exchanged shots with the Belvidera. Despite cutting their boats adrift, the Constitution sailed well and successfully escaped, leaving the British officers in disappointment.

Recriminations and explanations took place in the Shannon's cabin, recorded in English annals. Captain Hull, by then headed northward, sought water in Boston harbour on the following Sunday. Broke's squadron separated, with hopes of encountering the Constitution in the future for a forced engagement. Captain Dacres of the Guerrière succeeded in finding the Constitution, leading to the well-known outcome that stirred American hearts and cast a gloom over the Parliament of England.

Upon arriving in Boston, Captain Hull received ovations and praises. Grateful and humble, he inserted a card at the Exchange Coffee-House, transferring credit for the successful escape to Lieutenant Morris, other brave officers, and the crew for their remarkable exertions and prompt attention to orders during the challenging chase. Captain Hull acknowledged the crew's resilience, noting that not a murmur was heard despite the length of the chase, sleep deprivation, and limited refreshment.

The the days chase was just the prelude to a more fateful clash, when a month later the Constitution met the Guerrière once again in one of most iconic fights of the war. Check out the narrative here.