USS Hornet vs HMS Penguin, 23 March 1815

The victory of USS Hornet over HMS Penguin (23 March 1815) was an American naval victory that came several months after the Treaty of Ghent had ended the War of 1812.

News of this diplomatic success travelled slowly. In January 1815 there was a British army threatening New Orleans, while on 20 January 1815 the American government decided to send a naval force into the Pacific. This was to consist of the Peacock and the Hornet, supported by a supply ship. The Hornet was an eighteen gun brig that had already won one victory over a British ship, sinking HMS Peacock on 24 February 1813. She was now given a chance to win a second victory.

This came about because the British believed that the American privateer Wasp was threatening the trade routes to India through the South Atlantic. The brig Penguin was ordered to patrol on a line between the Cape of Good Hope and Ascension Island, a vast area for one ship to cover. She had some excellent officers, but her crew was considered to be very poor.

The two ships clashed off the northern end of Ascension Island. The Penguin hoisted her colours and fired one gun, a signal for the other ship to raise its colours. The Hornet did so, and the two ships then passed on opposite tacks, each firing a broadside. The results were disastrous for the Penguin. A newly built ship (1814), her carronades must rarely have been fired, for many of them were dismounted by the force of their own shots. Despite this initial setback, the gunnery duel lasted for half an hour, before the British decided to try and board the Hornet.

This effort also ended disastrously. The ship's captain, Commander James Dickinson, was killed soon after giving the order. The Penguin managed to run into the Hornet, but soon after this her bowsprit and foremast came down, making it almost impossible to actually reach the deck of the Hornet. With her guns out of action and boarding not an option, the Penguin was forced to surrender.

During this short battle the Penguin lost 10 dead and 30 wounded, out of a crew of 122. The Hornet reported losing 2 dead and 11 wounded, although the actual losses might have been higher.

In the aftermath of this victory, the Hornet sailed south, having finally been joined by the Peacock and the store ship. On 28 April this small squadron ran into the 74-gun ship of the line HMS Cornwallis. The only option was to flee. The Peacock escaped to the south-east, while the Hornet headed north, with Cornwallis in pursuit. This chase lasted for three days, an impressive performance for a ship of the line, but eventually the lighter, faster American ship was able to escape, although only after throwing most of her arms overboard. She managed to return to her home port, and remained part of the US Navy until being lost at sea with all hands in 1829.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 September 2011), USS Hornet vs HMS Penguin, 23 March 1815 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_hornet_penquin.html

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