Constitution vs Guerrière, 19 August 1812

The clash between USS Constitution and HMS Guerrière was the first significant American victory of the War of 1812. It was an early indication that this was not going to be the war that either side had expected. At the start of the war the United States expected to win easy victories on land but to be overpowered at sea. Pre-war plans saw the US Navy staying in port, acting as a “fleet in being” and only coming out in emergencies. These plans were only changed after the captains of the five major ships then at New York had a personal audience with President Madison to put their case.

The war began with a series of indecisive encounters between the American and British fleets. Although the Royal Navy was nearly sixty times larger than the U.S. Navy, the vast majority of British ships were needed elsewhere.  Only eight larger ships were immediately available – HMS Africa, a small 64 gun ship of the line, and seven frigates. Admittedly this was still a superior force to the five ship American squadron that started the war at New York (three frigates and two sloops), but this was would not be dominated by squadron sized actions.

Instead the War of 1812 would become famous for a series of clashes between single frigates. Here the U.S. Navy had a big advantage. The standard European frigate was designed to carry 38 18-pdr guns, giving them a broadside of 342lb. U.S.S. Constitution was a rather more powerful ship. Not only was she significantly more strongly built that her British opponents, she had been built to carry 44 24-pdr guns, giving her a broadside of 528lb. The American frigates were also normally much better manned than their British opponents. The Royal Navy relied on conscription to provide many of her men, had trouble rounding up enough men, and even more trouble keeping them. On 19 August the Guerrière would be carrying 280 men, 10 of whom were impressed Americans who were sent below when they refused to fight their fellow countrymen. In contrast the small U.S. Navy had no problem finding volunteers (including a number of British deserters). The U.S.S. Constitution would enter the battle with just over 550 men.

The U.S. Navy had one final advantage that would perhaps worry the British more than anything else. The American sailors were at least as good and as well led as their British opponents. For twenty years the Royal Navy had been able to assume, with some justification, that most of their opponents were inferior sailors. During the long war with France the navy had become used to winning victories over larger better armed opponents.

This tradition of success was clear in the mind of Captain James Dacres of the Guerrière, who early in the war had issued a challenge to any American frigate that wanted to engage in a fair fight. His ship might have been undermanned, but by August 1812 it was over-gunned, carrying 49 guns, which gave her a broadside similar to that of the Constitution as built. Unfortunately for Dacres, the USS Constitution had also been up gunned, and was now carrying 55 24-pdrs and a number of 32-pdr carronades.

The Constitution left Boston on 2 August for a cruise off the St. Lawrence, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull. He was the nephew of General William Hull, then commanding the American army around Detroit. Contrary to some accounts, Captain Hull did not set sail on learning of the fall of Detroit – on 2 August his uncle was still on Canadian soil, while Detroit was not surrendered until 16 August. News of the disaster could hardly have reached Boston by 19 August, yet along reached Captain Hull out at sea.

While cruising off the St. Lawrence, the Constitution sighted the Guerrière at long distance at around 2.00pm on 19 August. When Dacres identified the distant ship as an American frigate he began to prepare for battle. The British frigate opened fire at long range at just after 5.00pm, zigzagging so that she could fire both broadsides, but without any success. The two ships finally came together in a battle of broadsides just after 6.00pm. The British maintained a higher rate of fire than the Americans, firing three broadside for every two fired by the Constitution, but the American fire was both more accurate and more damaging.

The Guerrière soon lost her mizzenmast, and suffered heavy damage to her rigging and sails. Captain Hull was able to get the Constitution into a position where she could rake the Guerrière without taking heavy fire herself. The British ship soon lost her remaining sails, and was helpless. Captain Dacres struck his colours. The British had suffered 15 dead and 63 wounded by this time, representing one third of her crew, while the Constitution was virtually undamaged and had only suffered 7 dead and 7 wounded.

The defeat of the Guerrière caused deep shock in Britain and an outpouring of enthusiasm for the navy in the United States. Worse was to come. In October USS United States defeated HMS Macedonia and in December the Constitution scored another victory, this time over HMS Java (although by then Captain Hull had resigned his command). A massive public debate would follow in Britain, where the Navy’s control of the seas had been taken for granted, especially since the battle of Trafalgar. In the United States these naval victories helped to make up for embarrassing failure of the land campaign against Canada.

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 Guerrière, 19 August 1812 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_constitution_guerriere.html

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