Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The “Constitution” and the “Guerriere”

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The “Constitution” and the “Guerriere”

By Henry Marie Brackenridge (1786–1871)

[Born in Pittsburgh, Penn., 1786. Died there, 1871. From History of the Late War between the United States and Great Britain. Revised Edition. 1839.]

THE Constitution again put to sea, on the 2d of September. On the 19th a vessel hove in sight, and a chase instantly commenced. It was soon discovered to be the Guerriere, one of the best frigates in the British navy; and which seemed not averse from the rencontre, as she backed her main-topsail, waiting for the Constitution to come down. This was a most desirable occurrence to our brave tars, as this frigate had for some time been in search of an American frigate, having given a formal challenge to all our vessels of the same class. She had at one of her mast-heads a flag, on which her name was inscribed in large characters, by way of gasconade, and on another, the words, “Not the Little Belt,” in allusion to the broadsides which the President had given that vessel, before the war. The Guerriere had looked into several of our ports, and affected to be exceedingly anxious to earn the first laurel from the new enemy. The Constitution, being made ready for action, now bore down, her crew giving three cheers. At first it was the intention of Captain Hull to bring her to close action immediately; but on coming within gun-shot, she gave a broadside and filled away, then wore, giving a broadside on the other tack, but without effect. They now continued wearing and manœuvring, on both sides, for three-quarters of an hour, the Guerriere attempting to take a raking position; but failing in this, she bore up, and ran with her topsail and jib on the quarter. The Constitution, perceiving this, made sail to come up with her. Captain Hull, with admirable coolness, received the enemy’s fire without returning it. The enemy, mistaking this conduct on the part of the American commander, continued to pour out his broadsides with a view to cripple his antagonist. From the Constitution not a gun had been fired. Already had an officer twice come on deck with information that several of the men had been killed at their guns. The gallant crew, though burning with impatience, silently awaited the orders of their commander. The moment so long looked for at last arrived. Sailing-master Aylwin having seconded the views of the captain, with admirable skill, in bringing the vessel exactly to the station intended, orders were given at five minutes before five P.M. to fire broadside after broadside, in quick succession. The crew instantly discovered the whole plan, and entered into it with all the spirit the circumstance was calculated to inspire. Never was any firing so dreadful. For fifteen minutes the vivid lightning of the Constitution’s guns continued one blaze, and their thunder roared with scarce an intermission. The enemy’s mizzen-mast had gone by the board, and he stood exposed to a raking fire which swept his decks. The Guerriere had now become unmanageable; her hull, rigging and sails dreadfully torn; when the Constitution attempted to lay her on board. At this moment Lieutenant Bush, in attempting to throw his marines on board, was killed by a musket-ball, and the enemy shot ahead, but could not be brought before the wind. A raking fire now continued for fifteen minutes longer, when his main-mast and foremast went, taking with them every spar, excepting the bowsprit. On seeing this, the firing ceased, and at twenty-five minutes past five she surrendered. “In thirty minutes,” says Captain Hull, “after we got fairly along-side of the enemy, she surrendered, and had not a spar standing, and her hull, above and below water, so shattered, that a few more broadsides must have carried her down.” The Guerriere was so much damaged, as to render it impossible to bring her in; she was therefore set fire to the next day, and blown up. The damage sustained by the Constitution was comparatively of so little consequence, that she actually made ready for action when a vessel appeared in sight the next day. The loss on board the Guerriere was fifteen killed and sixty-three wounded: on the side of the Constitution, seven killed and seven wounded. It is pleasing to observe, that even the British commander, on this occasion, bore testimony to the humanity and generosity with which he was treated by the victors. The American frigate was somewhat superior in force, by a few guns; but this difference bore no comparison to the disparity of the conflict. The Guerriere was thought to be a match for any vessel of her class, and had been ranked amongst the largest in the British navy. The Constitution arrived at Boston on the 28th of August, having captured several merchant vessels.

Never did any event spread such universal joy over the whole country. The gallant Hull, and his equally gallant officers, were received with enthusiastic demonstrations of gratitude, wherever they appeared. He was presented with the freedom of all the cities through which he passed on his way to the seat of government, and with many valuable donations. Congress voted fifty thousand dollars to the crew, as a recompense for the loss of the prize, and the Executive promoted several of the officers. Sailing-master Aylwin, who had been severely wounded, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and Lieutenant Morris, who had been also wounded, was promoted to the rank of post-captain. This affair was not the less mortifying to Great Britain, who for thirty years had in no instance lost a frigate in anything like an equal conflict.