The battle between USS Constitution and the British frigate HMS Guerriere early in the War of 1812 provided a boost for American morale at a time when many opposed the war itself. The battering, capture, and burning of the British warship was celebrated at the time, and it has become one of the legendary battles in American naval history.
Success against the Guerriere led to the Constitution becoming known as "Old Ironsides," but the biggest factor in the victory wasn't the ship's sturdy construction.
The ship's greatest advantages in the battle were probably the sailing skill of the Constitution's commander, Capt. Isaac Hull, and the morale and fighting spirit of its crew.
When the War of 1812 began, neither the Americans or the British expected much from the small U.S. Navy. Britain's Royal Navy was undoubtedly the most powerful fleet on earth, and the idea that an American vessel could win a fight against a British ship had been unthinkable. Captain Hull and the Constitution decisively changed that thinking.
The Summer 1812 Cruise of USS Constitution
The USS Constitution, which had been built in 1797, got a complete refitting at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. in the spring of 1812, when war appeared imminent. As the ship needed crewmen, Captain Hull sailed her to Annapolis, Maryland to recruit sailors in mid-June.
With new sails, and a new crew, the ship left Annapolis on July 5, and sailed down the Chesapeake Bay. Captain Hull drilled the crew, having the men work the sails and the guns.
Hull was hoping to see action. The Madison administration in Washington was dubious about sending America's small number of frigates out to meet British warships, but some of the commanders, especially Hull, were eager to find a fight.
On July 17, less than a week after the Constitution entered the Atlantic, it was sailing toward New York City when it began to see sails in the distance. Captain Hull, at first, thought it might be a squadron of American ships, which he knew were somewhere in the Atlantic. He signaled the other ships, but when they did not respond he knew the Constitution was in grave danger.
The six ships were British, a squadron commanded by Commodore Philip Broke of HMS Shannon. The British warships hoisted their colors, and began chasing the Constitution.
Thanks to Captain Hull's sailing skills, the Constitution escaped from the British squadron. Unable to sail to New York, Hull continued onward to Boston, where he received a warm welcome. Though the war was actually not popular in New England, Hull and his crew were considered heroic for their actions in eluding a much more powerful force.
Hull was fearful of receiving orders to stay in port in Boston, so he readied his ship to return to see, and sailed out of Boston in three days.
The Constitution Found HMS Guerriere
Leaving Boston on August 3, 1812, Hull sailed along the Maine coast and eventually reached the Bay of St. Lawrence, along the coast of Canada. A few British merchant ships were intercepted and captured, and the Constitution encountered some American privateers, which were raiding British shipping. And then on August 19 Hull sighted sails in the distance.
The ship was HMS Guerriere, one of the British warships that had chased the Constitution a month earlier. The commander of the Guerriere, Capt. James Dacres, had been annoyed at having missed the opportunity to capture an American ship in July. And when he ran into an American merchant vessel, the John Adams, he wrote a message for American naval commanders in its logbook: he taunted the Americans to meet him on the open ocean.
Captain Dacres was about to get his wish. And, he was supremely confident that his ship would defeat the American frigate that was challenging him.
Hull Sailed the Constitution Expertly Toward HMS Guerriere
As the Constitution drew close to the British frigate, the two captains maneuvered for about three quarters of an hour. Captain Dacres expected to gain advantageous position on the American ship, but Captain Hull, a fine sailor himself, knew enough not to let the Constitution get exposed to a "raking" fire, shots that could sweep the deck of the ship from front to back.
Each captain refused to give a good target to the other, and the ships finally closed to within "a pistol's shot" and the actual battle began. Firing their cannon at each other, the Constitution did grave damage to Guerriere: within about 20 minutes the British ship had lost its masts, making it nearly impossible to maneuver.
Captain Hull placed the Constitution ahead of the Guerriere, and had his ship fire two raking broadsides into the British ship. The British crew suffered tremendous casualties, and as the ship could not fire ahead of itself, it could not respond.
Captain Dacres had little choice but to surrender his ship.
The Guerriere Was Blown Up at Sea
The British officers were brought on board the Constitution, and Captain Dacres offered his sword to Captain Hull. The American commander refused the sword, and treated Dacres courteously.
The Americans had suffered far fewer casualties than the British, and a number of wounded British sailors were brought on board Constitution for treatment.
All night the two ships stayed together, and Captain Hull hoped to tow the Guerriere back to Boston as a prize. But the British ship was so badly damaged that it had to be burned and sunk.
The Constitution returned to Boston, with many prisoners, and Hull and his crew were treated as heroes. The news of the victory spread, and Americans rejoiced.
The news came at a good time. Opposition to the declaration of war had continued in some parts of the country throughout the summer of 1812. And early reports of American troubles in the war, such as the surrender of Fort Detroit, were alarming.
The idea that an American warship could defeat a British warship in combat was astounding news, and was widely celebrated.