The escape of the USS Constitution from a squadron of British warships early in the War of 1812 served as an inspirational story at a time when the United States Navy was not expected to perform well against the much more powerful Royal Navy of Britain.
The chase of the Constitution played out for more than 70 hours, as the sailors of the American frigate, under the direction of its very skillful captain, engaged in backbreaking work which succeeded in moving the ship despite the absence of any wind.
Captain Isaac Hull resorted to every trick he could think of to keep his ship out of enemy hands, and his actions while being chased by five heavily armed British ships certainly saved his ship from capture or destruction.
Other naval engagements in the War of 1812 may have been more spectacular in terms of combat on the high seas. But the narrow escape of the Constitution ranks as one of the most dramatic incidents of the war.
Background To the Chase of the Constitution
The USS Constitution, which had been built in 1797, was being overhauled at the Washington Navy Yard just prior to the outbreak of the War of 1812. The ship left Washington in mid-June, just as war was declared, and visited Annapolis, Maryland, where it added needed sailors to its crew.
Setting out for what was anticipated to be a short trip to the port of New York City, Captain Hull had his crew practice working the sails as well as the ship's guns.
A few days after entering the Atlantic Ocean, sails were sighted in the distance. At first Captain Hull thought the distant boats might be American, but they did not respond to signals. It became clear that the Constitution had sailed into trouble.
The British squadron encountered by the Constitution was sailing under the command of Captain Philip Broke and consisted of Broke's ship HMS Shannon, along with the ships Africa, Aeolus, Belvidera, and Guerriere. A captured American brig, the Nautilus, was also sailing with the squadron.
The British Squadron Began to Chase the Constitution
At sunrise on July 18 the British ships began sailing toward the Constitution, and the chase was on. The Constitution was being overtaken. Making things worse, the Americans ship lost the wind and was barely moving in the water.
Captain Hull sent small boats out ahead of the ship, and as men rowed the boats they towed the ship behind them. As the British ships got closer, they too lost the wind, and the chase turned into a slow and grueling ordeal.
The American frigate had some advantages: as it had just been outfitted, it had fresh sails, and its hull was clean, which could make it somewhat faster in the water. And Captain Hull, expecting a fairly short voyage to New York, had not stocked a full load of supplies, which meant the ship was lighter than it might have been.
Captain Hull Resorted to the Backbreaking Work of Kedging
Realizing that the water was fairly shallow off the New Jersey coast, Hull resorted to "kedging," a maneuver in which a ship's anchor is rowed forward a few hundred feet in a small boat and dropped. And men turning the capstans on board the ship would essentially winch the Constitution toward the anchor.
When British officers saw the American ship getting away from them they were puzzled at first. And then, copying the tactic, the British ships also began to kedge.
A slow backbreaking race began, as sailors engaged in the monotonous labor of moving the anchors and turning the capstan. On the Constitution, men took turns sleeping on the deck and the capstans were manned around the clock.
According to a newspaper account published a few weeks later, the British ships arranged themselves in a half-moon pattern, spreading themselves out in hopes that one of them would catch some wind and be able to close on the Constitution.
Using his superior sailing skill, and every trick he could think of, Captain Hull managed to keep the Constitution out of the grasp of the British squadron. The chase had gone on for more than two days before the wind finally picked up, and Hull was able to get the Constitution safely away.
On the morning of July 20, Captain Broke realized he could not catch the Constitution and he called off the chase.
Captain Hull's outstanding sailing skill, and the enormous cooperative effort of his crew, had managed to best some of the finest ships, and officers, in the Royal Navy.
The Escape of the Constitution Boosted Morale
The great naval strategist and historian, Admiral Albert Thayer Mahan, writing about the Constitution's escape nearly a century later, lauded the actions of Hull and his men. But Mahan also pointed out something negative: Hull had been unable to sail to his destination, New York City, and had been forced to sail onward to Boston.
Mahan wrote, in his classic 1905 book Sea Power In Its Relations to the War of 1812:
"It should not escape attention that thus early in the war, before Great Britain had been able to reinforce her American fleet, one of our frigates was unable to enter our principal seaport."
While the Constitution's narrow escape could be seen to have negative implications, that was not an issue in the late summer of 1812.
When the ship hadn't arrived in New York City, rumors circulated that the British squadron must have captured it. And when Captain Hull sailed the ship into Boston harbor he was greeted with celebrations.
A Boston newspaper, the Columbian Centinel, published a vivid description of the chase on July 29, 1812. It mentioned that Captain Hull had been complimented by the British naval officers who had chased him, and that Bostonians greeted him with cheers:
"A gentleman (belonging to an American captured vessel) who was on board the Shannon during the [chase], informs us that the captains and officers of the British squadron praised the conduct of Capt. Hull, and although much mortified at losing so fine a ship, gave him much credit for the prudent and skillful management with which his frigate was worked.
"Capt. Hull came up to town yesterday -- and on his landing, and reaching State Street, was received by his fellow Citizens with repeated huzzas."
Captain Hull did not stay long in Boston. He was worried he would receive orders from Washington directing him to stay in port, so he quickly had the ship fitted out with provisions, and sailed back into the Atlantic Ocean within three days.
Back on the open ocean, Constitution encountered one of the ships which had chased it. In what would be one of the most famous naval encounters of the 19th century, USS Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812.