Fire, Iron, and Wood
August 19, 1812
By Dwayne MacInnes
"Her sides are made of iron!"
As he did in July, Captain Isaac Hull left harbor without orders. Then like now, he was taking a great risk with his ship, crew, and career. If he failed the consequences would be dire, however if he succeeded no one in congress would care he left without their authorization.
Hull left the harbor for fear of having his frigate bottled up as the British navy established more blockades off the coast of the United States. In a bit of historical irony when orders did arrive, Congress had ordered Hull to remain in Boston.
Hull set the Constitution on an easterly course. For two weeks, Hull did not notice anything worth engaging until 2 p.m. on the 19th. A square sail appeared on the horizon off the coast of Nova Scotia. Word of the sighting passed like wildfire, men rushed to the deck to see the ship. It was obvious that the ship noticed the American frigate as well, for the strange ship turned towards the Constitution. Only a British warship would risk approaching an American frigate.
Captain Hull wasted no time; he made careful preparations for the inevitable battle. His first order of duty was to make sure he kept the windward position. This would allow the Constitution maneuverability. If a ship found itself in the leeward position they would literally be out of wind and therefore at the mercy of the ship in the windward. Hull's second order of duty was to approach the enemy warship when he was satisfied with his own preparations.
For the next couple of hours the two ships closed upon each other. The gun crews were ready and the marine sharpshooters climbed into the rigging to snipe the enemy crew working on the exposed deck. It was 4:10 when the British ship, now recognized as the 38-gun Guerriere hoisted her colors and fired on the Constitution. Hull responded ten minutes later by hoisting his colors and returning fire. Both ships maneuvered to avoid taking fire by grapeshot, which could decimate the crew, or round shot, which could pulverize the wooden hull.
Captain James R. Dacres of the Royal Navy had no doubt that, though the American vessel had heavier armament with her 24 and 32-pounders, his seasoned crew would win the day. After all, the British navy on October 21, 1805 had soundly defeated the combined French and Spanish fleet off the coast of Trafalgar. When the battle concluded, the French and Spanish fleet lost 22 of its 33 ships while the British lost none of its 27 ships. Dacres smiled to himself. Great Britain was the master of the seas, and he was about to impart that lesson on the upstart Americans.
An 18-pound cannon ball from the Guerriere struck the Constitution near one of the gun ports. Wood splintered everywhere but somehow managed not to injure anyone. Some Yankee gunners in grim humor grabbed the spent ball, loaded it into one of their own 18-pound long cannons, and returned it to its proper owner.
Another broadside sent an 18-pounder into the foremast of the Constitution doing minimal damage. Hull was in full motion now; the time for action had arrived. He passed from officers and men addressing them and building up their courage.
"Men, your officers cannot have entire command over you now," Hull advised. "Each man must do all in his power for his country."
The crew set upon their task with grim determination and encouragement. Hull turned towards the warrant officer who relayed orders to the crew working the rigging and sails. He said in his usual calm demeanor, "You shall have her as close as you please, Sailing master! Lay her alongside!"
As the ship swung to bare its broadside, the gunners loaded the cannons and carronades with double-shots of round and grape. When the Constitution was in position, the guns exploded in a thunder of fire and acrid smoke. The grapeshot swept over the deck felling any exposed sailor with the tiny iron balls. The larger round shot smashed into the hull of the opposing ship. The wooden planks on the hull splintered into deadly missiles of wooden fragments that could injure, maim or kill a sailor as readily as the hot iron fired out of the cannons.
The Guerriere's crew was quicker at reloading the cannons. However, their accuracy was not of the same level. The British frigate's broadsides tended to fire into the Constitution's rigging doing little damage to the ship. By 5:20, the heavier and better place shots from the Constitution's guns soon had the Guerriere's mizzenmast shot away.
Nonetheless, some of Guerriere's shots found their way to the Constitution's hull. With the construction of using southern live oak combined with the diagonal beams to reinforce the frigate's skeletal frame, many of the 18-pound cannon balls bounced off the American frigate's hull. One of the Yankee gunners observing this exclaimed, "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!" and the Constitution earned her nickname of 'Old Ironsides'.
Hull used the Constitution's better maneuverability to his utmost advantage. He would cross the Guerriere's bow in the classic crossing the 'T' maneuver, allowing him to maximize the Constitution's firepower. However, with the damage to the rigging, this maneuver proved extremely difficult and the Guerriere's bowsprit became entangled in the Constitution's mizzen rigging.
Captain James Dacres was in the midst of preparing his marines for boarding when the ships became entangled. However, two things suddenly happened that prevented it from occurring. First, he received a wound to his back. Second, shortly thereafter, the two ships pulled apart. As the ships parted at 6:20, the fore and mainmasts of the Guerriere crashed over her side. The British frigate was now a sinking derelict. Yet she fought on.
Hull pulled the Constitution back and made emergency repairs. When the repairs were complete, he sent his marines back to the masts and approached the helpless Guerriere again.
As Captain Dacres witnessed the Constitution approaching he quickly ordered the gunners to fire to leeward in a token of surrender. The battle ended at 7:00 p.m.
After the battle, Hull sent a boarding party over to the Guerriere to help the wounded and see if repairs were possible. Unfortunately, the British frigate was beyond help. The surviving British crew boarded the Constitution and the Americans showed them every kindness.
Captain Hull was on hand as he helped Dacres from his crippled war vessel. After Dacres set foot on the Constitution Hull extended his hand and said, "Dacres, my dear fellow, I am glad to see you aboard."
Captain Dacres winced from the pain of his wound to his bandaged back as well as to his pride. He sharply replied, "Damn it, Hull. I suppose you are." As per military tradition, Dacres unbuckled his sword and offered it to Hull.
Hull smiled and shook his head, "I will not take a sword from one who knows so well how to use it. But, I tell you, Dacres I will trouble you for that hat."
Captain James Dacres of the Royal Navy taken off guard only looked at Hull for a moment before he broke into laughter and presented Captain Isaac Hull of the United States Navy his hat.