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Lost voices from HMS Guerriere: Court Martial testimony.


uss frolick
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The story of the Constitution's most famous action has been written about exhaustively. But here are the words of British eyewitnesses, to the best of my knowledge, have not been published elsewhere. The officiel letter of Captain James Dacres will be omitted, because it has  been printed many times elsewhere. Here are the recollections of those under his command.

 

The court martial was held on board HMS Africa, 64, in Halifax, on October 2, 1812.

 

Lieutenant bartholomew Kent was sworn in and testified as followed:
 

"August 19th, 1812, at 2 P.M., being on the wind on the starboard tack, we saw a sail on our weather beam, coming down before the wind. Made sail in chase. At  3 made her out to be a man of war. Went to quarters and prepared the ship for action. At 4 made her out to be the Constitution, which we had formerly chased off New York, but escaped by her superior sailing. Hauled up our courses, took in our top gallant sails, and backed the main topsail to wait for her coming down. The enemy at the same time hauled o a wind, took in his top gallant sails, courses, and reefed his topsails. At 4.5 filled, wore ship and hoisted our colours at each mast head. At 4.10 the enemy bore up - fired several shot at him. At 4..15 she hoisted her colours and returned our fire.. Wore several times to avoid being raked exchanging broadsides. At 5 she closed within half pistol shot, on our larboard beam, both keeping up a heavy fire and  steering free, his intention, evidently, being to cross our bows. At 5.20 the mizenmast fell and exposed the ship to a heavy raking fire from the enemy, who placed himself on our larboard bow, a few only of our bow guns being able to bear on him . At 5.40 the ship not answering her helm, he attempted to lay us on board, At 6, the ship coming to we  brought some of our bow guns to bear on the enemy and got clear of him. At 6.20 the fore and main masts went over the side, leaving the ship a perfect unmanageable wreck. The frigate immediately made sail ahead, and we began to clear away the wreck, in hopes of being able to get the ship before the wind to recommence the action, but just as we had cleared the wreck, the spritsail yard went, leaving the ship in the trough of the sea, rolling her guns under. The enemy by this time refitted wore round to rake us, and all attempts to get her before the wind proving in vain, the ship being much shattered in her hull, in a sinking condition, and 1/3 of her crew killed or wounded, Captain Dacres called the remaining officers together, when all were of the opinion that further resistance would be a useless expense of lives.  

 

Bart. Kent 1st Lieut.

 

Q: After the Guerriere had laid to, for the enemy to come down was she put under command in time?

 

A:  Yes. She filled previous to the enemy's coming within gunshot, and was kept under three topsails and jib and mizen staysail occasionally.

 

Q:  At what distance was the enemy when the Guerriere opened her fire?

 

A:   We fired a single shot first which went, I think, a half a mile beyond her, to try our distance. We then have her our starboard broadside shortly afterwards, and wore so as to fire our larboard broadside. The Constitution returned our broadside before the 2nd or 3rd. One shot went through our quarterdeck and another went though her gangway hammocks from her first broadside.

 

Q:  Were the best  positions preserved, thtat the superior sialing of the enemy and other circumstances would permit before the fall of the mizen mast?

 

A:  They were the best!

 

 

Q:  In what manner did the fall of the mizen  mast operate so as to prevent the ship from manuevering?

 

A:  The mizen fell on our starboard quarter. The enemy shot ahead and attempted to haul across our bows,  The ship came to at the same time and we were exposed to a raking fire from the enemy. I cannot say whether the ship came to against her helm. I can not speak as to the manner of the mizen mast operation.

 

Q:  How long were you clearing the wreck of the mizen mast?

 

A: We did not get clear of the mizen mast until the other masts fell.

 

Q:  How long were you first lieutenant of the Guerrieire?

 

A:  Nearly three years and a half.

 

 

Q:  Did you consider her a handy ship, or otherwise?

 

A:  Much the reverse, she seldom stayed, if there was any sea on. 

 

Q:  Relate to the court, the cause that appears to you to have preceded the fall of the fore and the main masts.

 

A:  Our fore mast was struck by a double headed shot, which was afterwards found laying on the fore castle. Several of the shrouds were cut away, and when we were aboard of the enemy our bow sprit was over his quarter, the pitching of slackened the fore stay and the masts fell about the same time. The main mast did not appear to me to be wounded by shot. Previous to our going into action our fore tressel trees were gone most of the fore rigging knotted, our bowsprit was defective. We were obliged to get down our long fore topgallant mast and get a short one up. The fore topmast was hanging by the top tackle pendants, the tressel trees not being able to support the weight of the topmast. The heel of the fore mast in falling fell over the main stay and the main stay being slackened by the weight and the jerk of the fore mast, carried the main mast with it. Most of the main shrouds were shot away.

 

 

Q:  Inform the court the state of the wind and sea at the time.

 

A:  There was a fresh breeze and a great deal of sea on.

 

Q:  What means were taken to get the ship before the wind after the fall of the masts, and how long were you clearing the wreck?

 

A:  The spritsail was loosed. We began immediately to clear away the wreck and got up a small spar on the stump of the foremast. I think we might have been three quarters of an hour before the whole wreck was cleared.

 

Q:  Did you succeed in getting before the wind?

 

A:  No. The sprit sail yard went and the ship having got into a trough of the sea, she lay there. She rolled so much I dod not think it would have been possible to work the guns. The shot and shot boxes on the quarterdeck were flying from side to side.

 

Q:  It appears from Captain Dacres letter that the fire from the enemy's small arms did great execution on the Guerriere's upper deck. Did you later ascertain the number of the enemy had at small arms at the time the ships came to close action, and how they were disposed of?

 

A:  When on board the Constitution I understand they had 12 men in each top with rifles and also between 50 to 60 marines with small arms on the gangways.

 

 

Q:  How many men with small arms did the Guerriere oppose at the time the ships first came to close action, to divert the enemy's fire from the men at your guns?

 

A:  In consequence of the main deck guns being shortly manned, from the number of men who were away, the marines were ordered down to man them, until Captain Dacres gave orders for the  whole of the marines to be sent up. I do not think we could have had more then ten men at small arms altogether. The whole of the marines were up when the ships closed, about thirty five in number.

 

Q:   How many men had you at each main deck gun?

 

A:  Seven including marines and a powder man - some calling themselves Americans were allowed to go below.

 

Q:  Do you know how many broadsides the ship fired?

 

A:  I cannot say. The fire from the ship was very brisk.

 

 

Q:  Relate to the court the position of the two ships when the enemy attempted to board?

 

A:   When the enemy came close to us, Captain Dacres gave me orders to go down on the main deck and snd every body up from below. I sent up part of them, but being found impracticable to board her, they were immediately sent down, previous to the others getting up The only position I observed the ships in was when I came up our bowsprit was over her larboard quarter.

 

Q:  Why was it impracticable to board?

 

A:  There was so much sea and the Guerriere coming to, it was impossible to get on board.

 

Q:  What proportion of the crew of the Guerriere was boarders and how were they armed?

 

A:   There were four men to every gun who were boarders, making 96 together, when the whole of the ships company were on board. All the men on the upper deck were boarders, armed with cutlasses - were lying on the main and upper deck  for them The boarding pikes were on the booms, some on the main deck, some on the fore castle.

 

 

Q:  Did the enemy make any attempt to board the Guerriere?

 

A:  The first lieutenant of the Constitution informed me that at the time he was wounded, he was on the tafferail to see if it was feasible to board the Guerriere. He heard us call our boarders and from the number of men that appeared on our deck, he expected we were going to board them and waited to receive us.

 

Q:  Did you exchange vollies of small arms at the time the people were up?

 

A:  Yes, we were defending ourselves with musketry and bow guns - at that time most of the marines were killed or wounded.

 

Q:  How often did the Guerriere wear during the action?

 

A:  We wore several times, but I cannot say how often.

 

 

Q:  Did the enemy wear as often?

 

A:  The enemy did not wear, she was coming down on our weather beam and yawed to give us her broadside.

 

Q:   Had you your broadsides to the enemy, when you wore?

 

A:  Part of our broadside wore on the enemy

 

Q:  What was the state of the Guerriere when the colours were ordered to be hauled down and what was the position and state of the enemy?

 

A:  All the masts  of the Guerriere were gone, several shot between wind and water, her hull much shattered and rolling so that it was impossible to use her guns The enemy wore round on the starboard bow, his masts and yards all standing, except the cross jack yard, and was approaching apparently with an intention of raking us, when we struck.

 

 

Q:  At what distance was the Constitution from the Guerriere when she struck?

 

A:  At long gun shot, about a mile.

 

Q:   How long had she retired from you to refit?

 

A:   I think about three quarters of an hour.

 

Q:   During the action, did any of the masts hamper your guns?

 

A:  Not until the fore and main masts fell - they rendered the starboard guns in part ineffectual.

 

 

Q:   Previously and during the action, was everything done that could be done to prevent the ship from falling into the hands of the enemy?

 

A:  Every thing was done."

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

 

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Captain Dacres, apparently also in the room, but remaining silent after reading his letter, had a few questions for his late first lieutenant:

 

"Q:  Was every department of the ship properly prepared for action and during its continuance did I encourage the men by every personal exertion and every other means in my power?

 

A:  Every part of the ship was cleared for action and every exertion was used by Captain Dacres to encourage the men.

 

Q:   Did you see any English men on board the enemy when you were taken prisoner?

 

A:  There were several men pointed out to me as Englishmen. There were some I knew personally as deserters from the Halifax squadron.

 

Q:  Did you understand generally the number she was supposed to have?

 

A:   I understand about 200. The gunner of the Constitution was captain of the forecastle in the Eurydice when she came from England - he was a Scotchman and went by the name of Robert Klein [?] in the Eurydice, and in the Constitution in the name of Anderson. Their third lieutenant I believe to be an Irishman, his name was Reid.

 

 

Q:  How many of them were supposed to have been in action in Trafalgar?

 

A:  I understand that seventeen of the captains of guns were with the British  service in that action, but I cannot say from what authority."

Edited by uss frolick
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Lieutenant Kent withdrew and Robert Scott, master of the Guerriere, was called into court, sworn and examined s follows:

 

 

Q:  Have you any narrative of the circumstances that occurred in the Guerriere's action?

 

A: I have.

 

Mr. Scott then produced the following narrative:

 

"On the 19th of August of 1812, at 2 PM, being on the wind on the starboard tack, saw a sail on the weather beam standing towards us. at 3 made her out to be a man of war, went to quarters and cleared for action. At 4 the stranger was supposed to the United States Frigate Constitution, which we had formerly chased off New York. Hauled up the course, took in the top gallant sails, backed the main top sail, hoisted an ensign at each mast head. The enemy shortened sail and hauled to the wind on the starboard tack. At 4.15, furled the main top sail. The Constitution then bore up and then and hoisted American colours on each mast head.  At 4.10 gave him our starboard broadside, and wore to give him our larboard when the enemy commenced firing, wore several times to avoid being raked, exchanging broadsides. At 5 our opponent closed with in half pistol shot on our starboard beam, both steering free and keeping up a [illegible] fire.. At 5.20 the mizen mast went over the starboard quarter, which brought the ship up in the wind against her helm which exposed us to a heavy raking fire from the enemy. At 5.40 the ship not answering her helm he attempted to cross our bow and lay us on board, but Captain Dacres, perceiving his intentions, gave orders to wear under her quarter which we accordingly did, when our bowsprit caught his quarter, which hindered our wearing as expeditiously as we could have wished. At this time the fore mast went by the board and fell across the main stay and carried the main mast with it over the starboard side leaving the ship a complete wreck. The Constitution stood on ahead. All hands were immediately employed clearing the  the wreck, in hopes of being able to get the ship before the win, to recommence the action, but just as we had completed clearing the wreck, the sprit sail yard went and left the ship in the trough of the sea rolling her main deck guns under water. Our opponent at this time had refitted and had wore around to rake us and all attempts to get the ship before the wind or bring any of our guns to bear proving fruitless, the ship in a sinking condition, much shattered in her hull, and many shot between wind and water with more than one third part of her crew killed or wounded, Captain Dacres called his officers together. who all were of the opinion that any further resistance would be a useless expense of lives. At 6.45 the colours were taken from the stump of the mizen mast.

 

Q:  At what distance was the enemy when the Guerriere  opened her fire?

 

A:  She was within range of her fire.

 

Q:   In what manner did the fall of the mizen mast operate as to oppose the ship from maneuvering?

 

A:  By falling over the starboard quarter, it brought the ship into the wind against her helm.

 

 

Q:  Was the helm immediately put up and other efforts used after the fall of the mizen mast  to prevent her coming to?

 

A:  Yes it was and the yards were trimmed and every effort used!

 

Q:   How long have you been master of the Guerriere?

 

A:  About eleven months.

 

Q: Did you consider her a handy ship to work, or otherwise?

 

A:  She was long in stays and in wearing.

 

 

Q:  State to the court the causes that appear to you to have produced the fall of the fore and main mast.

 

A:   One shot had cut the fore mast in the after part, and the fore and main rigging being nearly all shot away on the ltarboard side, the fore mast fell across the main stay, and carried the main mast along with it. The rolling to windward in my opinion caused the masts to fall over.

 

Q:  If your bow sprit had not touched the Constitution, do you think the masts would have went?

 

A:  I think the would.

 

Q:  What was the state of the masts when you went into action?

 

A:  The masts and bow sprit were in a bad stateThe head of the fore mast was entirely wrung, and the tressel trees were gone.

 

Q:  Did you make use of your runners to secure your masts?

 

A:   We had runners on our fore mast. Our fore rigging was bad. Two shrouds were carried away two days before the action.

 

Q:   What means were taken to get the ship before the wind, after the fall of the masts?

 

A:   We had all hands on deck to clear the wreck. The starboard fore rigging falling over the starboard best bower anchor, we cut the anchor and cable away to clear the wreck, loosed the spritsail and set it, the spritsail yard went directly after.

 

Q:  How was the wind?

 

A:  About N.N.W.

 

 

Q:  How was the ship headed when you set the sprit sail?

 

A:   About south. Right in the trough of the sea, and would not answer her helm.

 

Q:   Were many of the men who were quartered at the rigging killed or wounded?

 

A:  There were, very early in the action.

 

Q:  Did the enemy appear to have a great number of men at small arms?

 

A:  They had a great number indeed!

 

 

Q:  Did they do much execution?

 

A:  A great deal.

 

Q:  At what particular time?

 

A:  After the fall of the mizen mast, she then took a position on our larboard bow and raked us

 

Q:  What number of men were at small arms in the Guerriere at the commencement of the action?

 

A:  I do not know.

 

 

Q:   Did the Guerriere suffer from the accident of losing her masts, or for want of seamen to fight her?

 

A:  Entirely from the fall of her mast.

 

Q:   Not withstanding you were so short manned - was your fire quicker than the enemy's?

 

A:   I think it was a great deal quicker The seamen seemed to be very steady and zealous. It was impossible people could behave better, or do more.

 

Q: Was the fire of the enemy's muskets  greatly superior to the Guerriere's at the beginning of the action?

 

A:   As soon as the enemy ship was in a situation that I could see them, there appeared to be a great number of men, and the tops full, who annoyed us very much.

 

Q:  Did you think the proportion of the sail the ship was brought into action under was proper?

 

A:  I verily believe it was. She was going five or six knots in the action.

 

Q:  In your opinion, was everything done previous to and in the action to prevent his majesty's ship from falling into the hands of the enemy?

 

A:  I believe every thing was done.

 

Q: What part of the ship were you in when you were wounded?

 

A:   I believe at the wheel.

 

Q:   What was the general conduct as far as comes within your knowledge of the inferior officers and ships company from the time of her capture to the present moment?

 

A:  They have been very respectful, obedient and orderly.

 

 

 

Edited by uss frolick
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Captain Dacres had a couple questions for his former sailing master.

 

 

"Q:   Did you understand it was not intention to board while the mast stood, in consequence of our superior fire and their greater number of men?

 

A:  I did. I understood it perfectly from Captain Decres.

 

Q:  Have you been often in action?

 

A:  I have.

 

Q:   Have you ever seen a heavier fire than what was kept up by the enemy, when on our bow, raking us?

 

A:  I never did.  When they found themselves not opposed to our guns, they fired severely.

 

 

Q:  Was every department of the ship properly prepared for action and during its continuance did I encourage the men by my own exertions and every other means in my power?

 

A:  Yes.

 

Q:  Had you a doubt of our success when we began the action?

 

A:  I had not.

 

Q: With such a fine crew as I had notwithstanding our very short complement, would you not be glad to try the fortune again?

 

A:   I should.

 

Examined by the court

 

 

Q:  Did you understand there any English seamen in the Constitution?

 

A:  I heard there were, and I saw several who were born in England, a good number of North Country men. It is impossible I could be deceived in their dialect, I am a Scotsman and served my time from the north of England myself."

 

 

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Mr. William John Snow,  masters mate of the Guerriere was called ... and examined as follows:

 

 

Q:  What part of the main deck were you quartered at?

 

A:  The seven foremost guns.

 

Q:   How many broadsides do you suppose you fired?

 

A:  I don't know.

 

Q:  What sort of shot did you chiefly fire?

 

A:   Round shot at a distance - round and grape close We generally fire four shots to [their] three.

 

 

Q:  Were you at your quarters on the main deck during the whole of the action?

 

A:  Yes.

 

Q:  After the fall of the masts of the Guerriere, could you work her main deck guns?

 

A:  No. Part were covered by the wreck, and the ship rolled so much that the whole of the guns were unmanageble.

 

Q:  At the time the colours were hauled down, do you think that any mens could be taken to prevent the ship from falling into enemy hands?

 

A:  None.

 

 

Q:  What was the number of men at your guns?

 

A:  The foremost guns six only, the midship guns seven and eight.

 

Q:   It appears to the court that the Constitution had a great number of men at small arms. Do you think if all the Guerriere's marines had been called up to oppose her, the seamen would have been able to work the guns?

 

A:  I do not think they would.

 

Q:   What was the general behavior of the people on the main deck?

 

A:   They behaved very well indeed. No men could have behaved better than they did.

 

 

Q:  How many men did you lose at your quarters?

 

A:   Four killed and many wounded at the seven foremost guns. At the eighth gun all were killed or wounded.

 

Examined by Captain Dacres:

 

Q:  Did you understand it was not my intention to board while the masts stood, in consequence of our superior fire, and their great number of men?

 

A:  Yes, I understood the boarders were called to repel.

 

Q:   Had you a doubt of our success when we began the action?

 

A:   I had no doubt, nor had then men at my quarters.

 

 

Q:   Would you not be glad to try your fortune again with the same ships company notwithstanding our being so short of compliment?

 

A:  Yes. I should be very happy.

 

Q:    Was every department of the ship properly prepared for action and during its continuance did I encourage the men by my own personal exertions and every means in my power? 

 

A:  Yes. You used every possible means.

 

Q:  Do you suppose the enemy could have possibly captured the ship, but for the accident of losing her masts?

 

A:  I do not.

 

 

Q:   When you were on board the Constitution, did you understand that there were many English men on her?

 

A:   I understood there were about 200. One man was in the Achilles with me in the action off Trafalgar. I believe the gunner and third lieutenant to be English subjects.

 

Q:   Do you know of any bribe being offered to our seamen to enter into the American service?

 

A:   No. An american gentleman told me me he had heard two officers ask a boy of the Guerriere to enter. The boy's name was William Low, and he was offered a bounty of 5 pounds.

 

William Low was brought into court and confirmed the above evidence. He was born in London.

 

Q: Relate to the court the state of the Guerriere's masts when she went into action on the 19th of August last.

 

A:  Our bow sprit was wrung. The head of the fore mast was wrung both the tressel tress were broken. The other spares were pretty good.

 

Q: Mention the state the ship was in when the action ceased.

 

A:  Our masts were gone by the board. There were two or three shots went in between wind and water. The hull was considerably damaged, particularly the starboard counter from the fall of the mizen mast. The gangways were carried away by the fall of the main mast. When we went into action, we had 19 inches of water in the well. When it ceased, we had two feet, six or seven inches.. I sounded the well at 9 o'clock, there was then three feet six inches A number of shots had stuck in her sides. The ship rolled so much I cannot depend on the soundings of the well being correct. Several shot had entered on the main deck.

 

 

Q:  was it the defects of the fore mast that occasioned its fall, ot was it the fire of the enemy?

 

A:  I think it was its defective state as on examination afterwards, it was quite rotten.

 

Q:  Did you remain in the Guerriere that night?

 

A:  Yes.

 

Q:   What water was in the ship the next morning?

 

A:  Six or seven feet.

 

Examined by Captain Dacres:

 

 

Q:   In what state did you find the main mast after it fell?

 

A:  Rotten at the heart, and I think it fell in consequence of the fall of the fore mast, which fell on the stay."

 

 

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Here's another bit:

 

"Samuel Burns, sergeant of the marines, John Melvin quarter master, quartered on the quarter deck, John Shot Boatswain's mate quartered on the main deck, and George Morrison, quartermaster, stationed on the forecastle, were called forward and stated that everything was done for the preservation of His Majesty's ship. On being questioned whether there was any bribe offered, to induce them to enter into the American service, Samuel Burns stated that he was enticed by a military officer to enter into the service while at Boston promising him promotion above what he then was, and anything he stood in need of. John Shot, Boatswain mate, also stated that he had been offered a bounties of forty and fifty dollars by a naval officer having epaulettes if he would enter the American service, with four days leave, and as much food and drink for that time as he chose, and would then be put on board a ship until the Chesapeake was ready to receive men."

 

Good thing Johnny Shot didn't take the bounty, because we all know what was going to happen to the Chesapeake the following summer ... :)

 

Finally, Captain Dacres added: 

 

 

"On the larboard side there were about thirty shots, which had taken effect about five sheets of copper down. The mizen mast had knocked a large hole in her starboard counter and she was so completely shattered that the enemy found it was impossible to refit her sufficiently to attempt carrying her into port and so they et fire to her as soon as they had gotten the wounded out."

 

CORRECTED!

Edited by uss frolick
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It is so interesting to see all of this testimony laid out end to end... Thanks Frolic for sharing this.

 

I know folks find it bizarre that I could call out the discrepancy in Dacres' testimony, but it goes to the heart of how accounts of this battle have been dissected and/or manipulated over the years.  Notice how the witnesses differ on the commencement of the close action in each account:

 

Lt. Kent: "At 5 she closed within half pistol shot, on our larboard beam, both keeping up a heavy fire and  steering free, his intention, evidently, being to cross our bows. At 5.20 the mizenmast fell and exposed the ship to a heavy raking fire from the enemy, who placed himself on our larboard bow..."

 

Master Scott: "At 5 our opponent closed with in half pistol shot on our starboard beam, both steering free and keeping up a [illegible] fire.. At 5.20 the mizen mast went over the starboard quarter, which brought the ship up in the wind against her helm which exposed us to a heavy raking fire from the enemy.

 

In his post-battle report, Captain Dacres stated: "At 5 She clos'd on our Starboard Beam, both keeping up a heavy fire and steering free, his intention being evidently to cross our bow. At 5.20, our Mizen Mast went over the starboard quarter and brought the Ship up in the Wind. The Enemy then plac'd himself on our larboard Bow, raking us..."

 

Captain Hull and 1st Lt. Morris both maintain that Constitution commenced the close action on the Larboard beam of Guerriere.  This would seem to be corroborated by Dacres' assertion that the larboard side had thirty shots below the waterline in line with the 5th row of copper.  This would imply a well coordinated broadside instead of random shots during the course of a running battle.  Very likely the result of the initial broadside that Captain Hull withheld until directly alongside Guerriere within "can't miss" range.  Both Alfred Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt assumed that Dacres erred in his initial report and the master's testimony was mistakenly captured by a clerk or otherwise mis-remembered by Scott.  All seem to agree, however, that Constitution ended up on the larboard bow at some point.

 

​Tyrone Martin capitalized on these discrepancies and created an entirely new version of the battle with Constitution engaging initially on the Starboard side.  He inserts an entirely new set of maneuvering with Constitution crossing the bow of her adversary before wearing around for another bow crossing where the final entanglement and dismasting takes place.  None of this ties back to any testimony or eyewitness account.

 

Fun stuff

 

Evan

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One thing I note and it's more of a gut feeling than anything else.  The Court Martial was a whitewash.   We read that the masting (note the missing tressel trees and use of the word "rotten")  was not in the best of shape, the ship was rolling badly and taking on water with every roll.   Yet the esprit de corps among those interviewed insist that the ship was ready.  In my opinion, the ship should have been pulled off duty and returned to a facility to have the masts repaired/remade.   

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What is interesting is Captain Dacres's observation that the Guerriere's larboard side had been struck with a whopping thirty round shot, total, including some that were five sheets of copper down. The Constitution mounted 54 broadside guns, or 27 guns per side. Let's say that the initial broadside to broadside stage lasted, for sake of argument, about thirty minutes, and let's further say that the Constitution's gunners were able to fire one shot every three minutes, a respectable, realistic rate. (Patrick O'Brian's much quoted 'three shots every five minutes' is just fiction!) That means that, even if only loaded with a single round shot at each discharge, the Constitution should have fired about 270 times individually during that half hour, yet only about one shot in ten, hit her hull, according to Dacres's observation. Yet we know that the Constitution fired multiple round shot from each discharge for most of the engagement, according to her master gunner, yet only 30 shot hit her hull, not counting grape? Yes, I know that the Constitution's gunners were aiming at the masts for much of the time, but come on! Thirty hits only, on a hull that was 160 feet long, in broad daylight at pistol shot range? This speaks volumes about the accuracy of early nineteenth century sea gunnery!

Edited by uss frolick
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Captain Tyrone Martin, USN, Ret., wrote in the American Neptune, "Isaac Hull's Victory Revisited":

 

"As for Hull's statement that the close of the action lasted thirty minutes, one must consider them in relation not only to the sequence of events, but to the reported ammunition expenditure by Constitution. This appears in Moses Smith's recollection, and is said to have been taken from the ship's log. According to this source, she fired 953 rounds of all sorts. If we delete the ten 18-pounder shot used earlier in the action by the bow chasers, and if we assume the 260 stands of grape were all used in double shotted loads, we are still left with 683 rounds to be fired by twenty-seven guns (Constitution's broadside at this time.) This equates to each of these guns being fired every one minute and eleven seconds, and incredible sustained rate of fire., for gun crews in their first battle, Even if we conclude that the 100 canister shots were expended in double shots, the rate of fire remains a surprising one minute and twenty three seconds. It must be recognized too that there were some periods the fire slackened and stopped altogether because of the maneuvering of the ships."

 

Based upon this, Captain Martin shows that the battle must have lasted much longer than Hull's officially reported thirty minutes. Regardless of the length of the action, 583 is a lot of round-shot, especially for only about thirty to have struck Guerriere's engaged side!

 

Here's the exact figures from Smith:

 

32-pounders: 

 

236 round shot

140 stands of grape

60 canister

 

24-pounders:

 

300 round shot

120 stands of grape

40 canister

47 double-headed shot

 

18-pounders (chase guns):

 

10 round shot.

 

2,376 pounds of black powder.

Edited by uss frolick
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In a later letter that I found in the National Archives microfilm stacks, written by Captain Thomas Tingey, Commander of the Washington Navy Yard, dated August 28, 1813, and dealing with the types of ordinance recommended to be issued to American ships of war in the future, he wrote:

 

"The Constitution fired from her carronades two round shot at each discharge during the entire battle with the Guerriere."

 

He also noted in the same letter : "Double-headed shot ... this did great execution against the Guerriere, the enemy complain much of their effect. One double-headed shot cut her fore mast about one third off."

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Contemporary British Historian William James, wrote in his "Naval Occurrences ..." in 1816:
 

"The Guerriere was captured from the French on the 19th of July, 1806, by the Blanche, Captain Lavie. The following was the force of the ... ship. twenty-eight long 18-pounders and two 68-pound carronades (in the bridle ports, and therefore no use in the broadside upon the main deck, ten long nine-pounders and ten [36] pound carronades on the quarterdeck and forecastle; total 50 guns."

 

But when in British service, he writes:

 

"The Guerriere's established armament consisted of twenty-eight long 18-pounders upon the main deck; sixteen carronades, 32-pounders, a 12-pound launch carronade, and two long nine-pounders, upon the quarterdeck and forecastle; total 47 guns. The Guerriere, like most French ships,sailed very much by the head; and, to assist in giving her that trim, as well as to obviate the inconvenience of a round house which intervened between the foremost and bridle ports on each side; and prevented the gun stationed at the former port from being shifted to the latter, when required to be used in chase, two additional 18-pounders, as standing-bow-chase guns, were taken on board at Halifax.  These guns, not acting upon the broadside, will not be estimated as part of the broadside force; nor will the launch carronade, because, owing to its defects, or the want of some appendages, no use whatsoever was made of it.  When Captain Skene had the Guerriere he had ports fitted on her quarterdeck for two bras 12-pounders, given to him by the Duke of Manchester. Upon quitting the Guerriere, Captain Skene, of course, took with him his private brass guns. The vacant ports, led some of the Constitution's officers to suspect, that the Guerriere's people had, between the time of surrender and of taking possession, thrown two of her guns overboard."

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One thing I note and it's more of a gut feeling than anything else.  The Court Martial was a whitewash.   We read that the masting (note the missing tressel trees and use of the word "rotten")  was not in the best of shape, the ship was rolling badly and taking on water with every roll.   Yet the esprit de corps among those interviewed insist that the ship was ready.  In my opinion, the ship should have been pulled off duty and returned to a facility to have the masts repaired/remade.   

Her spars were known to be weak and she was headed for Halifax for refit.  This was the flagship of the squadron which chased Constitution in July, so a senior captain and his favorite ship.  This might have helped the esprit de corps.

Yes it was a whitewash.  Hard to explain why the best Navy in the world, that nobody had been able to stand up to, suddenly has a ship, not just damaged or beaten off, but sunk as unsalvageable by those upstart colonial amateurs.

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Mark -

 

Guerriere was actually en route to Halifax for refit.  She was detached from Broke's squadron as part of a regular rotation for each ship.  She was certainly worn down, but that was the typical status of so many ships in the RN that were under manned and overused.  I think you're right that her condition was not considered an issue for her captain and crew until after they lost the battle.  Likewise it was a convenient defense to imply that the American ships were well crewed because they were largely manned by RN deserters.  There is some truth to the assertion - many Americans had been impressed in the RN and had served in the fleet for years (some even at Trafalgar).  It was also interesting that American crew members on the Guerriere were allowed to go below during the battle while onetime citizens of the British empire (who claimed American naturalization) helped man the Constitution and fought like tigers.  These were largely Irish (and in some cases Scottish) who felt no loyalty/love for King and country.  The plucky Irishman Dan Hogan clambered up the rigging in the heat of the fight to secure an ensign that had been flapping loose on the foremast.  Hull called attention to his courage to the Navy secretary and approved an extra month's pay.  Hogan was later wounded in both hands during the Java battle.  A pre-war Destroyer was named after him.

 

The court martial failed to fully reveal the true underlying reasons for the defeat that could be quickly socialized within the fleet to alter future outcomes.  Dacres gamely suggested to the court that he would gladly refight a similar opponent with the same ship and crew.  The facts strongly suggest that he was spewing unrealistic bluster and he would've lost that battle under any circumstances.  Nothing about the result would indicate any chance of success.  It took a few more kicks in the gut before the RN acknowledged that the big American frigates were an overmatch for any standard 38 and orders were issued prohibiting single frigate actions with the American 44s.  

 

We modern folk would've reprimanded Captain Dacres for engaging a clearly superior force with a ship in impaired condition with less than a full complement of able bodied crew.

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My bad.  I was not aware of Guerriere heading for refit.  Thanks for insight on everything else as that was my impression of things.    In some ways, I suspect the Brits thought they were fighting the same Navy as in the Revolution and that it would be just as easy this time around.

 

On the subject of crews... as I understand it, the English were not very forgiving about "their men" fighting on the American side so I can see where the Scots and Irish would probably be fierce fighters.   

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Frolic -

 

I think you well know my own opinion regarding Tyrone Martin's revisionist version of the battle.  Stated plainly, I have serious doubts about his use of facts and interpretation. 

 

Regarding the overview provided by sailor Moses...The prodigious amounts of ammunition used would rightly raise eyebrows. But Tyrone Martin seems to have overlooked the simplest and most obvious explanation for this remarkable output of iron and lead. The truth is that the Constitution fired every broadside - every discharge – with two round shot. Every. One. 

 

I think your own valuable research regarding the use of TWO round shot in each discharge explains the ammunition expenditure across the relatively short duration of the close action.

 

Here is a snippet of my long-winded rebuttal of Martin's version of the battle that is focused on the ammunition (Full version here: http://modelshipworld.com/index.php/topic/270-uss-constitution-by-force9-revell-plastic-revisiting-the-classic-196-kit/?p=205092 ):

 

Tyrone Martin seems to have never considered this explanation to the dilemma of the ammunition expenditure. If we isolate and examine the 32 pounder carronade round shot - which would only be used during the close engagement - the math works out quite nicely (even for those of us without advanced math degrees). I agree with Martin that the grape and canister would've been thrown in on top of the round shot for good measure and can be omitted from our calculation:

236 32 pdr round shot expended in 35 minutes. (Let's round up to 240 for us math-challenged types)
Double-shotted , so divide by two and get 120 discharges in 35 minutes.
12 carronades on a broadside... 120/12 gives 10 discharges for each gun.
35 minutes/10 discharges gives us one discharge every 3.5 minutes. 
(BTW - the math works out exactly the same for the 300 24-pdr shot)

According to Mark Adkin in his excellent Trafalgar Companion, a well drilled British gun crew would be expected to fire three rounds in five minutes. Does anyone think a new American crew drilled constantly for six weeks by professional American naval officers can fire one double-shotted round every 3.5 minutes? Me too. I've used 35 minutes because Martin mentions that length of time in the same context as the ammunition breakdown. Using Hull’s estimate of 30 minutes we have a discharge on average every 3.0 minutes - I'm good with that too. It seems likely that the American gun crews loaded full charges with two round shot with the remainder of the tube loaded with whatever grape/canister would fit and then let ‘er rip. It certainly explains the gruesome damage inflicted on the Guerriere - all the accounts of washtubs of blood flowing down hatches and bits of brain and skull scattered across the smoldering decks when the prize crew got on board. Not to mention the water filling her hold that eventually sealed her doom.

 

My view is that Captain Dacres' testimony regarding the thirty shot holes on the larboard side was not meant to suggest a complete accounting of the hits Guerriere absorbed. It was likely meant to highlight the damage inflicted by Constitution's initial broadside (15 long guns double round shot= 30 holes). Other accounts state that two of the gun ports on the larboard side were blown into a single gaping hole.  The detained ship master William Orne noted that the first broadside from Constitution fairly rocked the Guerriere and "washtubs" of blood poured down the hatchways.  The prize crew after the battle were stunned by the blood and gore distributed throughout the upper decks.  The ship was completely disabled and in a sinking state.  On the contrary, I think Constitution hardly missed across the 30-40 minutes of punishment meted out to Guerriere during the decisive close action. Certainly some of the American shot went high and caused little damage, but the mizzen and foremasts seem to have been cut down by shot that struck fairly low down - indicating more fire concentrated against the hull.  I think the American gun crews were well trained to fire on the down roll and maximize her advantage in broadside weight. The British, in contrast, likely fired more rapidly, but with little regard to high or low... RN practice would probably have reduced the powder charges at such a close range (to avoid having round shot punch neat holes in one side and out the other without inflicting showers of splinters and collateral damage within) which contributed to the "Old Ironsides" moniker.

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Her spars were known to be weak and she was headed for Halifax for refit.  This was the flagship of the squadron which chased Constitution in July, so a senior captain and his favorite ship.  This might have helped the esprit de corps.

Yes it was a whitewash.  Hard to explain why the best Navy in the world, that nobody had been able to stand up to, suddenly has a ship, not just damaged or beaten off, but sunk as unsalvageable by those upstart colonial amateurs.

I mispoke there.  Force9 has the right of it.  Broke in Shannon was indeed the Commodore, and the famous stern chase was in August.

Further to the damage received, Guerriere was a French prize with, one presumes, the typical light scantlings of French construction.  Her timbers, in this scenario, would be lighter and more widely spaced for strategic reasons.  Constitution, on the other hand, has the timbers and spacing of a 74-gun ship.  Combining the presumed differences of timbering with the known weight of metal advantages of Constitution and it is no wonder Guerriere was left in such battered condition.

Edited by jbshan
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It seems a bit strange to me that, even if you allow all thirty shot holes in Guerriere's larboard bilge to have come from the opening broadside, that she was apparently fought from leeward, when the traditional position was to fight from windward.  She lost the weather gauge, in other words.  Not the most skillful thing to have done, or perhaps she was in such a hurry to get to grips or had such contempt for the colonials that the position was held of little or no account.

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While British doctrinw preferred the weather gauge, the lee gauge had advantages too, particularly that you could slip away and break off the engagement a lot easier. That might have been in his mind engaging a heavier opponent.

That's the traditional French argument.  It usually resulted in the French losing.  British (especially frigate) captains often were quite pleased with the speed of their French prize ships, made possible in part by the lighter construction of French ships.  Very, very few French captains could make similar claims since there were so very few British-built ships under French command.

I don't think Dacres had any conception of the degree of advantage enjoyed by the larger American.  This was the first time they had met one of the big American frigates in battle.

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