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From The International Library of Masterpieces, Literature, Art, & Rare Manuscripts, Volume I, Editor-in-Chief: Harry Thurston Peck; The International Bibliophile Society, New York; 1901; pp. 45-49.



HENRY ADAMS. [1838-1918]

ADAMS, HENRY, an American historian, third son of Charles Francis Adams, was born in Boston, Mass., February 16, 1838. He graduated at Harvard in 1858, and from 1861 to 1868 was private secretary to his father, who was then Minister to England. From 1870 to 1877 he was assistant professor of history at Harvard. He then again spent several years in London, and upon his return to this country settled in Washington, D. C. He has been a frequent contributor to periodicals, and was, for a time, the editor of the “North American Review.” He published “Essays in Anglo-Saxon Law” (1876), “Life of Albert Gallatin” (1879), “Writings of Albert Gallatin” (1879), “John Randolph” (1882), “History of the United States,” including the first and second administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889-90), “Historical Essays” (1891), “The Tendency of History” (1895).


(From “History of the United States.”)

AS Broke’s squadron swept along the coast it seized whatever it met, and on July 16th caught one of President Jefferson’s sixteen-gun brigs, the “Nautilus.” The next day it came on a richer prize. The American navy seemed ready to outstrip the army in the race for disaster. The “Constitution,” the best frigate in the United States service, sailed into the midst of Broke’s five ships. Captain Isaac Hull, in command of the “Constitution,” had been detained at Annapolis shipping a new crew until July 5th, the day when Broke’s squadron left Halifax; then the ship got under way and stood down Chesapeake Bay on her voyage to New York. The wind was ahead and very light. Not until July 10th did the ship anchor off Cape Henry lighthouse, and not till sunrise of July 12th did she stand to the eastward and northward. Light head winds and a strong current delayed her progress till July 17th, when at two o’clock in the afternoon, 46 off Barnegat on the New Jersey coast, the lookout at the masthead discovered four sails to the northward, and two hours later a fifth sail to the northeast. Hull took them for Rodgers’s squadron. The wind was light, and Hull being to windward determined to speak the nearest vessel, the last to come in sight. The afternoon passed without bringing the ships together, and at ten o’clock in the evening, finding that the nearest ship could not answer the night signal, Hull decided to lose no time in escaping.

Then followed one of the most exciting and sustained chases recorded in naval history. At daybreak the next morning one British frigate was astern within five or six miles, two more were to leeward, and the rest of the fleet some ten miles astern, all making chase. Hull put out his boats to tow the “Constitution;” Broke summoned the boats of the squadron to tow the “Shannon.” Hull then bent all his spare rope to the cables, dropped a small anchor half a mile ahead, in twenty-six fathoms of water, and warped his ship along. Broke quickly imitated the device, and slowly gained on the chase. The “Guerrière” crept so near Hull’s lee beam as to open fire, but her shot fell short. Fortunately the wind, though slight, favored Hull. All night the British and American crews toiled on, and when morning came the “Belvidera,” proving to be the best sailer, got in advance of her consorts, working two kedge anchors, until at two o’clock in the afternoon she tried in her turn to reach the “Constitution” with her bow guns, but in vain. Hull expected capture, but the “Belvidera” could not approach nearer without bringing her boast under the “Constitution’s” stern guns; and the wearied crews toiled on, towing and kedging, the ships barely out of gunshot, till another morning came. The breeze, though still light, then allowed Hull to take in his boats, the “Belvidera” being two and a half miles in his wake, the “Shannon” three and a half miles on his lee, and the three other frigates well to leeward. The wind freshened, and the “Constitution” drew ahead, until, toward seven o’clock in the evening of July 19th, a heavy rain-squall struck the ship, and by taking skilful advantage of it Hull left the “Belvidera” and “Shannon” far astern; yet until eight o’clock the next morning they were still in sight, keeping up the chase.

Perhaps nothing during the war tested American seamanship more thoroughly than these three days of combined skill and endurance in the face of the irresistible enemy. The result showed that Hull and the “Constitution” had nothing to fear in these respects. There remained the question whether the superiority 47 extended to his guns; and such was the contempt of the British naval officers for American ships, that with this experience before their eyes they still believed one of their thirty-eight-gun frigates to be more than a match for an American forty-four, although the American, besides the heavier armament, had proved his capacity to outsail and out-manœuvre the Englishman. Both parties became more eager than ever for the test. For once, even the Federalists of New England felt their blood stir; for their own President and their own votes had called these frigates into existence, and a victory won by the “Constitution,” which had been built by their hands, was in their eyes a greater victory over their political opponents than over the British. With no half-hearted spirit the seagoing Bostonians showered well-weighed praises on Hull when his ship entered Boston Harbor, July 26th, after its narrow escape, and when he sailed again New England waited with keen interest to learn his fate.

Hull could not expect to keep command of the “Constitution.” Bainbridge was much his senior, and had the right to a preference in active service. Bainbridge then held and was ordered to retain command of the “Constellation,” fitting out at the Washington Navy Yard; but Secretary Hamilton, July 28th, ordered him to take command also of the “Constitution” on her arrival in port. Doubtless Hull expected this change, and probably the expectation induced him to risk a dangerous experiment; for without bringing his ship to the Charlestown Navy Yard, but remaining in the outer harbor, after obtaining such supplies as he needed, August 2d, he set sail without orders, and stood to the eastward. Having reached Cape Race without meeting an enemy, he turned southward, until on the night of August 18th he spoke a privateer, which told him of a British frigate near at hand. Following the privateersman’s directions, the “Constitution” the next day, August 19th, [1812,] at two o’clock in the afternoon, latitude 41 deg. 42 min., longitude 55 deg. 48 min., sighted the “Guerrière.”

The meeting was welcome on both sides. Only three days before, Captain Dacres had entered on the log of a merchantman a challenge to any American frigate to meet him off Sandy Hook. Not only had the “Guerrière” for a long time been extremely offensive to every seafaring American, but the mistake which caused the “Little Belt” to suffer so seriously for the misfortune of being taken for the “Guerrière” had caused a corresponding feeling of anger in the officers of the British frigate. 48 The meeting of August 19th had the character of a preconcerted duel.

The wind was blowing fresh from the northwest, with the sea running high. Dacres backed his main-topsail and waited. Hull shortened sail, and ran down before the wind. For about an hour the two ships wore and wore again, trying to get advantage of position; until at last, a few minutes before six o’clock, they came together side by side, within pistol shot, the wind almost astern, and running before it, they pounded each other with all their strength. As rapidly as the guns could be worked, the “Constitution” poured in broadside after broadside, double-shotted with round and grape; and without exaggeration, the echo of these guns startled the world. “In less than thirty minutes from the time we got alongside of the enemy,” reported Hull, “she was left without a spar standing, and the hull cut to pieces in such a manner as to make it difficult to keep her above water.”

That Dacres should have been defeated was not surprising; that he should have expected to win was an example of British arrogance that explained and excused the war. The length of the “Constitution” was one hundred and seventy-three feet, that of the “Guerrière” was one hundred and fifty-six feet; the extreme breadth of the “Constitution” was forty-four feet, that of the “Guerrière” was forty feet: or within a few inches in both cases. The “Constitution” carried thirty-two long twenty-four-pounders, the “Guerrière” thirty long eighteen-pounders, and two long twelve-pounders; the “Constitution” carried twenty thirty-two pound carronades, the “Guerrière” sixteen. In every respect, and in proportion of ten to seven, the “Constitution” was the better ship; her crew was more numerous in proportion of ten to six. Dacres knew this very nearly as well as it was known to Hull, yet he sought a duel. What he did not know was that in a still greater proportion the American officers and crew were better and more intelligent seamen than the British, and that their passionate wish to repay old scores gave them extraordinary energy. So much greater was the moral superiority than the physical, that while the “Guerrière’s” force counted as seven against ten, her losses counted as though her force were only two against ten.

Dacres’ error cost him dear; for among the “Guerrière’s” crew of two hundred and seventy-two, seventy-nine were killed or wounded, and the ship was injured beyond saving before Dacres realized his mistake, although he needed only thirty minutes of 49 close fighting for the purpose. He never fully understood the causes of his defeat, and never excused it by pleading, as he might have done, the great superiority of his enemy.

Hull took his prisoners on board the “Constitution,” and after blowing up the “Guerrière” sailed for Boston, where he arrived on the morning of August 30th. The Sunday silence of the Puritan city broke into excitement as the news passed through the quiet streets that the “Constitution” was below in the outer harbor with Dacres and his crew prisoners on board. No experience of history ever went to the heart of New England more directly than this victory, so peculiarly its own: but the delight was not confined to New England, and extreme though it seemed, it was still not extravagant; for however small the affair might appear on the general scale of the world’s battles, it raised the United States in one half-hour to the rank of a first-class Power in the world.

Of all spells that could be cast on a nation, that of believing itself invincible was perhaps the one most profitably broken; but the process of recovering its senses was agreeable to no nation, and to England, at that moment of distress, it was as painful as Canning described. Certainly the American forty-four was a much heavier ship than the British thirty-eight, but the difference had been as well known in the British navy before these actions as it was afterward; and Captain Dacres himself, the Englishman who best knew the relative force of the ships, told his court of inquiry a different story: — “I am so well aware that the success of my opponent was owing to fortune, that it is my earnest wish, and would be the happiest period of my life, to be once more opposed to the ‘Constitution,’ with them [the old crew] under my command, in a frigate of similar force with the ‘Guerrière.’” After all had been said, the unpleasant result remained that in future, British frigates, like other frigates, could safely fight only their inferiors in force. What applied to the “Guerrière” and “Macedonian” against the “Constitution” and “United States,” where the British force was inferior, applied equally to the “Frolic” against the “Wasp,” where no inferiority could be shown. The British newspapers thenceforward admitted what America wished to prove, that, ship for ship, British were no more than the equals of Americans.



1  Copyright, 1890, by Charles Scribner‘s Sons. Used by permission.

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