The Big Frigates

HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeake exchange broadsides during their 15-minute battle on 1 June 1813 in Robin Brook’s painting “Duel off Cape Anne.” The Shannon’s lopsided triumph brought to an end a string of U.S. frigate victories in the War of 1812.

His Britannic Majesty’s 32 Gun Frigate ‘Amphion’ launches 1798. Artist Derek Gardner

Lord Palmerston once said, ‘Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business: the Prince Consort, who is dead; a German Professor, who has gone mad; and I, who have forgotten all about it.’ Much the same might be said about the reasons why the United States of America declared war upon Great Britain on 18th June 1812. There had been grumblings for at least four years, but nothing which could not have been settled by negotiation; in fact, was, and twice, settled by negotiation; but on one occasion the British and on the other the American government refused to ratify what their envoys had agreed. The ostensible reason was the British blockade of Europe, proclaimed by Orders in Council; but these had been rescinded before hostilities actually commenced. Historians and commentators have advanced their simplifications of the complex motivations of an emerging nation, with which fortunately we have nothing to do –

‘But one thing I’m sure

That at Sheriffmuir

A battle there was that I saw, man!’

Apart from the why, the when of the American declaration of war is hard to understand. True, the news they had from Europe was of Napoleon’s conference at Dresden, with almost all the sovereigns in western Europe tributary to his imperial power, while he reviewed an army of five hundred thousand men, superbly equipped. This may have seemed a good wagon to jump on, and they could not have known that within three days of the declaration of war, Wellington was to cross the Aguedo on the way to Salamanca, Vittoria and Toulouse; and within nine days Napoleon was to cross the Niemen, on the way to Moscow, Leipzig and Elba. But what they certainly did know was that the whole Navy of the United States consisted of 8 frigates and 12 sloops, of which 20, only 17 were available for sea service; and they also knew that Britain had 584 ships at sea in full commission, of which 102 were line-of-battle ships and 124 were frigates, with an immediate reserve of 18 battleships and 15 frigates. Moreover, the area of responsibility had diminished, since there were now no French or allied bases in all the seas of the world. The fleet with which Rear-Admiral Stopford had recently taken Java, with four line-of-battle ships and fourteen frigates, was at least three times stronger than the whole American Navy; nothing was easier than to call them home, and desire them to eat up the American Navy as they came by; but of course this did not happen.

The Royal Navy was suffering from a severe attack of superiority complex, resulting, not unnaturally, from almost twenty-two years of almost complete victories. The Navy of the United States consisted of only a few frigates: good enough, we have plenty of frigates on the West Indies and Halifax stations, let them deal with the situation. This was exactly the spirit with which, in 1914, Admiralty, with Winston Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty and Jacky Fisher as First Sea Lord, sent out Rear-Admiral Craddock to Coronel with a mixed ragbag of ships, manned mostly by reservists, to meet the crack cruiser squadron of the German Navy. It was the qualitative factor which they overlooked, and it was very difficult to tell them anything. In 1910–14, any Briton who dared to hint that the ships of the German Navy were better constructed, and their gunnery practice of a better standard, than the Royal Navy, was instantly branded as a traitor. In the same way, when Doctor Gregory, a well-known citizen of Edinburgh, said in 1808, ‘The Americans are building long 46-gun frigates, which really carry 56 or 60 guns; when our 44s come to meet them, you will hear something new some of these days’, of course nobody paid the least attention; what could a physician know about naval matters?

In fact the big American frigates were superior to any other frigate afloat, in two essentials; the ships themselves, and their crews.

The United States had in the great forests an endless supply of the finest ship-building timbers in the world. Northern white oak is only very slightly inferior to the Adriatic oak, while the pine and spruce for masts and spars was at least equal to the best the Baltic could produce. There was plenty of it, no need to scrimp, and only the selected best went into an American warship. To further ensure this, every American ship had an experienced captain standing by her during the whole course of her construction, a thing previously unknown, although now of course standard practice in all navies. Thus all American warships of whatever size were built of the very best materials, by skilled shipwrights, under strict and expert supervision. Class for class, they had no superior.

But the Americans were not content with class for class; they had to have something altogether superior to anything of the same nominal classification.

In 1794 it was decided to construct two 74-gun line-of-battle ships, and these were laid down; but due to changes in the political situation it was decided to finish them as frigates, but retaining, except for the extra gun-deck, the construction and sail-power of the 74. These were launched in 1797, as the United States and the Constitution, and rated as 44-gun frigates; in 1798 two more 44-gun frigates were built as frigates from the beginning, and therefore of slightly lighter construction and better sailing capacity, but still far bigger and more powerful than any other frigate in the world: the President, built at New York, and the Philadelphia, built at that city. All four 44-gun frigates actually mounted a main battery of thirty long 24-pounders, eighteen carronades, 42-pounders, on the quarter-deck, and on the forecastle six similar carronades and two long 24-pounders, a total of 56 guns, with a broadside of 768 pounds. By American measure they were all about 1,444 tons, but by British measure they were 1,533 tons. With their great length* and sail-power, they were the fastest warships in the world.

Not only were the big frigates larger and more powerful than anything they need meet, they were far better manned. While Britain was raking the gaols to make up the ‘quota’, the Americans were rejecting all but skilled seamen of first-class physique. The reason, of course, was the small number of ships compared to the seamen available. The north-east states of the Union produced a race of bold and hardy seamen, manning a very large merchant marine, many of whom were unemployed as the British blockade tightened. The western states produced the most highly skilled riflemen in the world, and these constituted the Marines. Lastly, the ranks were supplemented by a large number of trained seamen, deserters from the Royal Navy. There were something like 5,000 deserters every year, of which about half were Able Seamen. During the Peace of Amiens, about 70,000 men were dismissed, or liable to be dismissed, from the Royal Navy, and many took service with the United States Navy, which was at that time engaged in naval operations against the Barbary States. It is highly probable that every large American frigate had a hundred British seamen aboard. When war was declared, some of these asked to be released from their service, but many did not. In action, these could be relied upon to the death, for it was death for them anyhow if they were captured.

One of the four big frigates was lost in the Mediterranean in 1804. The Philadelphia, Captain Bainbridge, had chased a ship which escaped into the harbour of Tripoli; but, in beating out, the Philadelphia ran on a rock, not marked on her charts. All efforts were made to float her off, anchors cut away, guns thrown overboard, without effect; and on the approach of some Tripolitan gun-boats the Philadelphia surrendered without resistance. In about two days the captors managed to float her, and took her into Tripoli harbour. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur, now first heard of, proposed to Commodore Preble to go into the harbour and burn her, which the Commodore at first thought too risky, but at length approved. On the 18th February Lieutenant Decatur, with seventy volunteers in a captured ketch, entered the harbour, boarded the Philadelphia, and after a sharp engagement captured her. She was immediately set on fire, and the boarding party made good their escape, having only four wounded.

There are some odd aspects of this story; if the Philadelphia could be captured by 70 small-arms men, how could she not have been defended by 300? And, having captured her, why was no attempt made to bring her out? A good deal may be put down to inexperience, but it would superficially appear that more might have been done to preserve what, after all, was more than an eighth of the whole American Navy of that date.

In those days of slow communication, it was very difficult for ships at sea to be informed of a declaration of war; the side which was going to declare war could give advance information to commanding officers, but the ships on the receiving end had to depend on unofficial rumours and otherwise wait until actually attacked. Thus when war was declared on the 18th of June 1812, a strong squadron was able to sail from New York on the 21st, the object being the Jamaica convoy, which had not the least idea of hostilities, and was making a leisurely course for Britain; a hundred richly laden merchantmen under the protection of a frigate and a brig; easy meat for the American squadron, which consisted of two of the big frigates, a 36-gun frigate and two brigs. However, when they were still some hundreds of miles west of the convoy, they came upon a solitary British frigate, and the whole squadron altered course to pursue her, the leading ship being the big frigate President, Commodore Rodgers.

The British frigate was the BELVIDERA, 36 guns, 18-pounders, Captain Richard Byron. He must have had some grave suspicions, for when the whole squadron approached him, quite unnecessarily if only for greeting and information, he stood away to the NE by E, about as close as he could haul to the wind which was at NW. Finding the squadron gaining on him, Captain Byron cleared for action, and shifted two long 18-pounders so as to fire through the sternports in his cabin, as well as bringing two 32-pounder carronades to the stern of the quarter-deck. All guns were loaded, but not primed, so that there should be no accidental shot on his part. The wind veered to WSW and decreased, so that by 4.20 the President was able to open fire with her bow-guns, three hits causing damage and casualties. The BELVIDERA returned fire with her well-prepared stern-chasers, the Captain and the First Lieutenant Sykes personally pointing the quarter-deck carronades, while Lieutenants Bruce and Campbell did the same for the 18-pounders in the cabin. Within a few minutes one of the President’s forward 24-pounders burst, a most serious accident, killing and wounding sixteen men, including the commodore, who had gone forward. The damage to the decks and side was severe, and put her chase-guns out of action for a considerable time.

Thus deprived of her forecastle armament, the President began yawing from side to side to allow her main battery guns to bear; and as this would allow the BELVIDERA to make away, the fire was directed mainly at the rigging, which was considerably damaged; however, as only the four stern-chasers could fire, the crew were set to replacing and splicing the rigging and fishing damaged spars. It requires no common steadiness and discipline to go aloft about this work with the shot of heavy broadsides screaming past the ears. The President, however, was gaining, and Captain Byron now ordered four anchors to be cut away, on which the BELVIDERA began to get ahead. The 36-gun frigate Congress, Captain Smith, now took up the chase about 6.30 p.m., and appeared to be gaining, although her shot was falling short. Captain Byron now threw overboard four of his boats and fourteen tons of water, and by 8 p.m. was two miles ahead of any pursuer; now the business was to fish the damaged main topmast, a difficult and risky job with the spar in position and the ship under way. However, it was done, and at 11 p.m. Captain Byron, now three miles ahead, altered his course to ESE, boomed out studding sails, and went ahead at such a rate that by midnight the American squadron gave up the chase.

This was a very neat little engagement, and reflects the greatest credit on Captain Byron and the ship’s company of the BELVIDERA; but as they had been engaged in running away, they received no acknowledgement whatever from their government. Nevertheless, they had scored a notable victory, the saving of the Jamaica convoy. By keeping the whole American squadron hotly engaged from dawn to midnight of a long summer’s day, in the wrong direction, and inflicting such injuries on the President that took another day to repair, they had ensured the convoy’s escape. ‘Lose not an hour’, said Napoleon; and the big frigates had lost forty-eight.

On the 19th of August 1812 the Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull, about 500 miles south of Newfoundland, came up with the GUERRIERE, Captain Dacres, on her way to Halifax for a much-needed refit. This was a 38-gun 18-pounder frigate, a powerful vessel, but under-manned and in poor condition; she had been struck by lightning, which had damaged her mainmast and bowsprit, and her hull was leaky. She was no match for the big frigate, being 1,092 tons to 1,533, a much lighter broadside, and only 244 men against 460. However, when Captain Dacres descried the enemy frigate he shortened sail to allow her to come up, and at 5 p.m. opened fire, all her shot falling short.

Ten minutes later the Constitution opened up with a broadside so effective that the GUERRIERE began dodging about, in the hope of upsetting the aim of the American gunners; but in fact it had a far worse effect on the British. After half an hour of fairly long-range firing, Captain Hull decided to bring on a decisive action, and closed in. At about 6 p.m. the mizzen-mast of the GUERRIERE was shot away; it fell right aft, knocking a large hole in the ship’s counter in which some of the rigging stuck, difficult to cut away, while the mast kept dragging astern like a sea-anchor. The Constitution, handled with great skill, now ranged athwart the bows of her opponent, raking her with tremendous broadsides to which she could only reply with a few bow-guns. Shortly the two ships fell foul, the bowsprit of the GUERRIERE tangling in the starboard mizzen-rigging of the Constitution. Captain Hull now decided on boarding, and his men assembled on the quarterdeck, while Captain Dacres went for ward to the forecastle with his determined force to repel them. The Marines on both sides kept up a sharp and deadly fire at very close range. The officers were naturally the most conspicuous targets. The leaders of the two American boarding parties, the first lieutenant and the lieutenant of Marines, were both shot down, which caused some delay in preparation; and the sailing master was wounded. On the GUERRIERE, Captain Dacres was severely wounded in the back, but refused to leave the deck, while the sailing master and a master’s mate were also wounded.

Now the GUERRIERE got her bowsprit free, and was able to get a good position across the stern of the Constitution, firing a broadside at so short a range that the burning wads set fire to the captain’s cabin. But now the foremast came down, taking the mainmast with it, so that the GUERRIERE lay quite dismasted, while the Constitution ranged ahead to make some repairs to the rigging. Without masts to steady her, the GUERRIERE was rolling enough to dip her main deck guns in the sea, and there was grave danger of their breaking loose. Captain Dacres set a division to secure the guns, another to clear the decks of wreckage, and another to set a sail on the sprit-sail yard, which warships still carried but seldom used. However, as soon as the wind filled this little sail, the yard carried away. The Constitution now came up, and the GUERRIERE hauled down her colours from the stump of the mizzen-mast.

The casualties in the GUERRIERE were terribly severe, 78 killed and wounded, as against 14 in the Constitution. The ship was a shattered wreck, so much so that next morning the prize master hailed that she was sinking. The prisoners and prize crew were taken on board the Constitution, the wreck of the Guerriere was fired, and shortly blew up. Captain Hull repaired the slight damages to the Constitution, and on 50th August arrived at Boston to a hero’s welcome, the thanks of the government, and a present of $50,000.

The United States was one of the big frigates which had been laid down as a 74-gun ship, and her construction was even more massive than usual for that heavy class; she sailed a little slower than the others, and was nicknamed ‘The Wagon’, hence, doubtless, the term ‘battle wagon’ for a more modern battleship. Provisioned for a long voyage, with an ample crew of picked seamen, and commanded by the fine officer Commodore Stephen Decatur, she was cruising in the Atlantic with no doubt the hope of intercepting some of the convoys from India. When about five hundred miles south of the Azores, at dawn on 12th October 1812, a sail was descried about twelve miles to windward, headed on a parallel track, both ships being as close-hauled as possible on a fresh wind from the SSE. This was a fine new 38-gun frigate, the MACEDONIAN, Captain John Surman Carden, rather under-manned as usual, with only 262 men and the extraordinary proportion of 35 boys; but a crew in good heart with excellent officers.

Immediately on sighting, the MACEDONIAN boomed out studding sails and bore away in pursuit. At first Commodore Decatur took her for a 74, no doubt deceived by the vast spread of canvas, and therefore wore away also, to get the wind more on the quarter, as he had, very properly, no intention of engaging a line-of-battle ship so far from any possibility of support. As the MACEDONIAN came closer, her single deck of guns became visible, and the United States put about and advanced to meet her, at the same time hoisting her colours, the broad pendant showing her to be commanded by a commodore and therefore one of the new ‘44s’. This caused no hesitation on the MACEDONIAN, for they had had no news for some time, had not heard of the GUERRIERE, did not know the power of these new big frigates, but were quite sure that a British 38-gun ship could capture any size of frigate afloat.

Being asked his opinion, Lieutenant Hope thought it would be best to continue the present course, which would bring her very close across the bows of the enemy, in the hopes of raking her; a good manoeuvre, but dangerous if the enemy were clever enough. Captain Carden preferred to keep the advantage of the weather-gauge, which he already had, and hauled closer to the wind. As the two ships passed in opposite directions, the United States fired a broadside, without any effect, the range being too great for accuracy. Having got himself into the position he wanted, Captain Carden now put about and followed the United States, coming up on her windward quarter about 9.20 a.m., when the cannonade commenced. The first exchange brought down a small spar of the United States, but took the mizzen top-mast of the MACEDONIAN, letting her driver-gaff fall; so that the United States had now the advantage in sailing, and continued with the MACEDONIAN on her quarter, at a fairly long range, where the 24-pounders of the American were much more effective than the 18s of the British. Particular aim was taken at the carronades on the forecastle and quarter-deck, which were all dismounted and the bulwark shattered on the engaged side, before Commodore Decatur closed the range to a decisive distance.

Shortly after 11 a.m. the MACEDONIAN was a wreck; mizzen-mast gone, main and fore top-masts gone; nevertheless they set the only remaining sail on the foremast, to make enough way to come against the United States and try boarding her; however at that moment the fore-brace was shot away, and the sail swung round. The United States now passed the bows of the MACEDONIAN, without firing a shot, and stood away. The crew of the MACEDONIAN began cheering this surprising deliverance, but in fact the United States went off a little way to refill cartridges, having fired seventy broadsides in the action, using up all her ready cartridges. By noon, having filled a sufficiency and repaired some rigging, she tacked around and took up a position athwart the stern of the helpless MACEDONIAN; and the colours had to come down.

In this stout defence, the casualties of the MACEDONIAN were very heavy, amounting to 104 killed and wounded, as against 12 killed and wounded in the United States, which was also very little damaged, whereas the MACEDONIAN had more than 100 shot in her hull. Indeed, the two ships had to lie together for a fortnight until the Macedonian could be made fit to sail, and it was the 4th of December before they sighted Long Island. It is quite remarkable that during this long period, two weeks lying-to and five weeks passage, the two ships were never sighted by any British vessel. The Macedonian was purchased into the US Navy, with prize-money of $200,000 to the crew; along with the thanks of both Houses, a gold medal to the commodore and silver ones to the officers. These were well deserved; with hind sight, it is clear that the action could have no other ending, but this was by no means so clear before. Some bloodthirsty historians have criticised Decatur for not closing immediately, but in that case the 32-pounder carronades of the British ship would have been very effective; he was quite right to put them out of action before he closed. He won a complete victory with minimum loss, which should be the aim of every commander. There was every possibility that some British warship might come up, while there was no possibility whatever of American support. Had he fought a close action immediately and incurred severe damage, he would have been in a very poor position. His action at Tripoli had sufficiently shown the dashing lieutenant; this one showed the clear-headed and cautious commodore.

The government of the United States now decided to put a strong squadron into the Pacific, commanded by Commodore William Bainbridge, in the Constitution, along with the Essex, frigate, and the 18-gun Hornet. They were to sail from different ports and meet at Salvador (Bahia) in Brazil, not a good arrangement. The Essex sailed from the Delaware River on 27th October 1812, and the other two from Boston on the 30th, arriving off Salvador towards the end of December, where they found no sign of the Essex. The commodore ordered the Hornet into the port to make inquiries, while he took the Constitution about thirty miles off the coast.

The Renommeé had been captured in an action off Madagascar by the ASTREA, Captain Schomberg, in February 1811, taken into the Royal Navy at Portsmouth and renamed JAVA, the former ship of that name having been lost (p. 95). On 17th August 1812 Captain Lambert, a brave and efficient officer, was commissioned to her, with orders to fit her out in order to convey to Bombay the new Governor, Lieutenant-General Hislop, with his suite, and also stores, largely copper, for ships which were building at Bombay. With the resources of Ports mouth the ship was quickly got ready; but to get a crew was a very different matter. With 140,000 seamen and Marines at sea, the barrel had been scraped clean. Officers and senior petty officers were easy, and 50 Marines were provided, 18 of them raw recruits, but good material. The 23 boys were easily found. 60 Irish landmen were put on board, along with 50 seamen suspected of mutinous intentions, from a sloop at Spithead. At length 292 out of 300 were got together. Captain Lambert naturally remonstrated about the poor quality and inexperience of his crew, but was laughingly assured that a voyage to Bombay and back, under his captaincy, would make sailors of them all; and besides, the chance of meeting an enemy was now very remote. At length, he was allowed to take eight real seamen, volunteers, from the RODNEY. He now had his complement, of whom, excluding the officers, less than fifty had ever been in action. Eventually he sailed on the 12th of November, having 397 people on board, including the Governor, his suite and servants; and having two East India merchantmen under his convoy.

As is well known, long before this period the study of winds and currents had shown that the best route to India was to make Madeira, then keep west of the Canaries and Cape Verde Islands and then S by SW almost to the coast of Brazil, then S by SE until latitude 35° South, and there pick up the great westerly wind which circles the world in 35° to 55° South; returning, the route is fairly near the African coast all the way, although it was usual, after touching at St Helena and sighting Ascension, to stand well to the westward for the Azores. Following this course, the JAVA touched at Madeira, where the officers and the Governor’s suite laid in a stock of the native product. On Christmas Eve, being at the nearest point to Brazil on the well-known route, Captain Lambert had a report that water was short; the Governor and his suite had brought such an immensity of luggage that it was impossible to get at the water casks until the upper load was taken out of the ship. Captain Lambert then decided to put into Salvador to adjust cargo and take on water, but the two East Indiamen, feeling no need of further convoy, kept on their way. He was left with the WILLIAM, an American merchant ship he had captured on the way, putting into her a master’s mate and nineteen seamen, whom he could ill spare.

On the 28th December, for the first time on the voyage, Captain Lambert ordered six broadsides of blank cartridge to be fired; for the majority of the crew it was the first time they had served a gun on ship-board. Next day, the 29th, at 2 a.m., the Constitution was seen, lying hove-to, a bad sign in those waters, where all shipping should be going about its business. Captain Lambert therefore parted with the WILLIAM, ordering her to go into Salvador while he examined the stranger, which was now seen to be making sail. In fact, it was supposed on board the Constitution that the JAVA was the expected Essex, and they kept approaching until, at about four miles away, the JAVA made the private recognition signals for British, Spanish or Portuguese ships, without reply; and the Constitution made the American one, without reply, and then wore ship away from the JAVA.

The JAVA was under a press of sail, and went in pursuit, definitely gaining in the chase; but the wind coming up quite strongly from the north-east, and the sea rising, she heeled so much that she had to take in her royals. On this, at 1.40 p.m., the Constitution also shortened sail, and hoisted her colours; the JAVA did the same, and they approached under the usual sail for fighting in moderate weather, top and top-gallant sails, one jib and the driver.

The action commenced at 2.10 p.m., with the Constitution firing a broadside at half a mile range, falling short; then, as the JAVA came close, another which whistled overhead; then the JAVA, ranging alongside within a few yards, gave a most effective broadside, which carried away the wheel, killed four men and wounded several more. The Constitution fired a third broad side, and under cover of the smoke wore away to lengthen the range. The JAVA followed, more broadsides were exchanged, and the Constitution again wore away. This time the JAVA passed close under her stern, in a most advantageous position for raking, but only one shot was fired; probably the inexperienced crew had not reloaded in time. The Constitution now had the weather-gauge, but this did not suit her tactics, so she made sail to leeward, giving the JAVA again the opportunity of crossing her stern, and this time giving her quite a raking broadside.

It was now 3 p.m., and the JAVA, with her raw crew, had given a very good account of herself; had for fifty minutes sustained the fire of an enormously superior opponent, and given as good as she got. Now, however, Commodore Bainbridge decided to close, and came alongside within forty yards, when the rapid fire of his well-served guns began to tell; the JAVA’S rigging was cut to pieces, her masts badly damaged, and men were dropping every minute. Captain Lambert saw his serious disadvantage, and determined on boarding in a desperate attempt to save his ship; before the JAVA could be laid aboard of the enemy, however, the foremast came down with a terrific crash, smashing in the forecastle and blocking most of the deck. The Constitution now attained a commanding position on the JAVA’S quarter, and poured in a tremendous fire of all arms, to which scarcely any reply could be given. At 3.30 p.m. Captain Lambert was mortally wounded by a musket-ball, and the command devolved upon Lieutenant Henry Ducie Chads, who was himself wounded but kept the deck. Still the pitiless fire continued; at 4 p.m. the mizzen-mast went, and from this or some other cause the ships fell away a little and lay broadside to broadside; immediately the men at the guns of the JAVA opened fire again, with the best broadsides they had given yet, although the flame from the guns was igniting the wreckage that hung overside. The Constitution now drew ahead to repair damages, and the crew of the JAVA cheered wildly, thinking she was retreating.

They were now set to work furiously, to get some sail on the wreck; a sail was rigged between the stump of the foremast and the remains of the bowsprit; a spare top-gallant mast was fished to the same stump, with a studding-sail set on it; the mainmast could not stand in the heavy rolling, so it was cut away, and in the strong wind the JAVA began to make headway. Now, however, the Constitution began to come down, but the JAVA’S men reloaded her guns with ball and grape-shot, and returned the fire defiantly. By 6 p.m. she had seventeen guns out of action, no spars left standing, all her boats destroyed, pumps disabled and the hull a mere piece of wreckage; when Lieutenant Chads ordered the colours to be hauled down. The raw, botched-together crew of the JAVA had acquitted them selves like veteran heroes; they had sustained a fight against fearful odds for four hours; they had 124 casualties killed and wounded; but they were ready to fight on when their commander put an end to the slaughter. Lieutenant Chads,* though wounded, remained on deck throughout the action; Boatswain Humble had his hand shot off, went below to have a tourniquet on the stump, and returned to the deck. ‘I had my orders from Lieutenant Chads,’ he explained simply, ‘to cheer up the men with my pipe.’

The Constitution had 34 casualties killed and wounded, according to Commodore Bainbridge’s account; but the British officers on board as prisoners estimated 52. She had several shot through her hull and masts, and of her eight boats only one could take the water. In this only boat Lieutenant Parker, first of the Constitution, boarded the Java and took possession; but had to send a message to the commodore that the ship was in a sinking condition and could not be salvaged. He was now ordered to remove all the prisoners and their baggage to the Constitution, and then set the Java on fire. With only one boat, the transfer was a tedious business, taking up the whole of the next day; but on the morning of the 31st January the Java was fired, and blew up about 3 p.m.

The officers of the Constitution have been criticised for the pressure brought to bear on the seamen prisoners to induce them to enter the American Navy; however, only three did so, believed to be Irish Roman Catholics, who had little cause to adhere faithfully to the British government. As the Java was about to blow up, one of these deserters informed the commodore that a large part of her cargo was gold bars, which he himself had helped to stow; Bainbridge’s chagrin at this information may well be imagined, but after having enjoyed the ameliorations of the position for some time, the British officer prisoners were able to assure him that the precious metal was in fact copper.

Part of the prize was a very splendid service of silver, suited for the pomp and dignity of a Governor of Bombay; this Commodore Bainbridge ordered to be restored to Lieutenant-General Hislop, who returned the compliment with a present of a handsome sword. Captain Lambert died on the 4th January 1813, and was buried with full honours in Fort St Pedor, attended by the Governor of the fort, the Conde’ dos Arcos. The American officers did not think it suitable to attend, but the commodore wrote to Lieutenant-General Hislop:

Commodore Bainbridge has learned, with real sorrow, the death of Captain Lambert. Though a political enemy, he could not but greatly respect him for the brave defence he made with his ship; and Commodore Bainbridge takes this occasion to observe, in justice to Lieutenant Chads, who fought the JAVA after Captain Lambert was wounded, that he did everything for the defence of that ship that a brave and skilful officer could do, and that further resistance would have been a wanton effusion of human blood.

On the 6th of January 1813 Commodore Bainbridge decided that the damages to the Constitution were beyond local repair to fit her for a voyage round the Horn, and returned to Boston, where he was naturally received with rapture, a gold medal, the thanks of Congress supplemented with $50,000, silver medals for all the officers and a triumphal procession.

Commodore Bainbridge has been criticised (by a very partial British historian) for delaying the action so long, and indeed appearing to evade it; but it must be considered that he was at any moment expecting his consort the Hornet to come up, and at any hour the Essex. Before this formidable squadron it might be expected that the JAVA would surrender without further resistance, and allow him to resume his Pacific cruise; which, by engaging, he was forced to abandon. Indeed, it has to be observed that all these tactical victories of the big frigates were in fact strategical defeats; they had to abandon their main objective in every case. By running away from the President and consorts, the BELVIDERA saved the Jamaica convoy. By fighting the United States, the MACEDONIAN, although surrendered, caused that powerful ship to leave the track of the East India convoy and return to her home port; and by fighting the Constitution to the death, the JAVA turned her back from the Pacific, where her presence might have had very serious consequences. These defeats must be aligned with the defeat of the JERVIS BAY, Captain Fogarty Fegen, V.C., by the Scheer, Captain Krancke, on 5th November 1940. In all those cases the convoys were saved; the warships were lost: they had carried out their orders.

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