Constitution vs Java, 29 December 1812

The class between USS Constitution and HMS Java was the third American frigate victory of the War of 1812 and in many ways the most significant. In the two previous clashes, between the Constitution and the Guerrière in August and the United Statesand the Macedonian in October, the British had been very badly outgunned and outmanned.

In contrast, the Java was a well manned and well gunned ship. In December 1812 she was on her way to India, carrying the new governor of Bombay, his staff, and 100 extra sailors being sent to the East Indies as reinforcements. This gave her a crew of just over 400 compared to the 475 on the Constitution.

The Constitution had sailed from Boston in late October under the command of Captain William Bainbridge, to cruise in southern waters. The clash with the Java came off the coast of Brazil. The fighting began at 2.00pm with a long range artillery duel. The Constitution’s wheel was shot away, and at one point she was raked from the stern, but her heavy construction allowed her to absorb the damage. She was soon back under control, and after 40 minutes began to close on the British ship. The Java took heavy damage as the two ships approached and was then overwhelmed at close range.

Her captain, Henry Lambert, was mortally wounded by rifle fire from the Constitution’s masts, and the Java suffered over 100 casualties before she struck her flag after a two hour fight. The Java was too badly damaged to take as a prize, and so on the day after the battle she was sunk. This time the British could not blame a lack of men. They had inflicted more damage on the American ship than in either of the previous battles (the Constitution took 34 casualties), but the battle had demonstrated that a single British frigate, never mind how well manned, could not defeat one of three American 44 gun frigates.

The clash between the Constitution and the Java was the last of the single-frigate duels of the War of 1812. The Admiralty ordered single frigates not to take on the bigger American ships, built their own big gun frigates, and imposed a blockade on the American coast. The next time the American frigates got to sea, the war was nearly over. These early naval victories had very little long term impact on the war itself, but they did have a big impact in Britain, triggering a wave of self-examination which jolted the navy out of it’s post-Trafalgar complacency.  

The Line upon a Wind, Noel Mostert. This is an excellent account of the greatest naval war of the age of sail. Mostert covers a wider range of topics than most books on this subject, while always remaining readable. There is a good section on the rise of American naval power and the War of 1812 [see more]
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Books on the War of 1812 | Subject Index: War of 1812

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (23 November 2007), Constitution vs Java, 29 December 1812 ,

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