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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 Fight of the American Frigate

By James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851)

[From The Pilot. 1823.]

THE CRY of “a strange vessel close aboard the frigate,” having already flown down the hatches, the ship was in an uproar at the first tap of the drum. The seamen threw themselves from their hammocks, and lashing them rapidly into long, hard bundles, they rushed to the decks, where they were dexterously stowed in the netting, to aid the defences of the upper part of the vessel….

The guns were cleared of their lumber, and loosened. The bulk-heads were knocked down, and the cabin relieved of its furniture; and the gun-deck exhibited one unbroken line of formidable cannon, arranged in all the order of a naval battery ready to engage. Arm-chests were thrown open, and the decks strewed with pikes, cutlasses, pistols, and all the various weapons for boarding. In short, the yards were slung, and every other arrangement was made with a readiness and dexterity that were actually wonderful, though all was performed amid an appearance of disorder and confusion that rendered the ship another Babel during the continuance of the preparations. In a very few minutes everything was completed, and even the voices of the men ceased to be heard answering to their names, as they were mustered at their stations, by their respective officers. Gradually the ship became as quiet as the grave; and when even Griffith or his commander found it necessary to speak, their voices were calmer, and their tones more mild than usual. The course of the vessel was changed to an oblique line from that in which their enemy was approaching, though the appearance of flight was to be studiously avoided to the last moment. When nothing further remained to be done, every eye became fixed on the enormous pile of swelling canvas that was rising, in cloud over cloud, far above the fog, and which was manifestly moving, like driving vapor, swiftly to the north. Presently the dull, smoky boundary of the mist which rested on the water was pushed aside in vast volumes, and the long taper spars that projected from the bowsprit of the strange ship issued from the obscurity, and were quickly followed by the whole of the enormous fabric to which they were merely light appendages. For a moment, streaks of reluctant vapor clung to the huge floating pile; but they were soon shaken off by the rapid vessel, and the whole of her black hull became distinct to the eye.

“One, two, three rows of teeth!” said Boltrope, deliberately counting the tiers of guns that bristled along the sides of the enemy; “a three-decker! Jack Manly would show his stern to such a fellow! and even the bloody Scotchman would run!”

“Hard up with your helm, quartermaster!” cried Captain Munson; “there is indeed no time to hesitate, with such an enemy within a quarter of a mile! Turn the hands up, Mr. Griffith, and pack on the ship from her trucks to her lower studding-sail booms. Be stirring, sir, be stirring! Hard up with your helm! Hard up, and be damned to you!”

The unusual earnestness of their aged commander acted on the startled crew like a voice from the deep, and they waited not for the usual signals of the boatswain and drummer to be given, before they broke away from their guns, and rushed tumultuously to aid in spreading the desired canvas. There was one minute of ominous confusion, that to an inexperienced eye would have foreboded the destruction of all order in the vessel, during which every hand, and each tongue, seemed in motion; but it ended in opening the immense folds of light duck which were displayed along the whole line of the masts, far beyond the ordinary sails, overshadowing the waters for a great distance, on either side of the vessel. During the moment of inaction that succeeded this sudden exertion, the breeze, which had brought up the three-decker, fell fresher on the sails of the frigate, and she started away from her dangerous enemy with a very perceptible advantage in point of sailing.

“The fog rises!” cried Griffith; “give us but the wind for an hour, and we shall run her out of gunshot!”

“These nineties are very fast off the wind,” returned the captain, in a low tone, that was intended only for the ears of his first lieutenant and the Pilot; “and we shall have a struggle for it.”

The quick eye of the stranger was glancing over the movements of his enemy, while he answered—

“He finds we have the heels of him already! he is making ready, and we shall be fortunate to escape a broadside! Let her yaw a little, Mr. Griffith; touch her lightly with the helm; if we are raked, sir, we are lost!”

The captain sprang on the taffrail of his ship with the activity of a younger man, and in an instant he perceived the truth of the other’s conjecture.

Both vessels now ran for a few minutes, keenly watching each other’s motions like two skilful combatants; the English ship making slight deviations from the line of her course, and then, as her movements were anticipated by the other, turning as cautiously in the opposite direction, until a sudden and wide sweep of her huge bows told the Americans plainly on which tack to expect her. Captain Munson made a silent but impressive gesture with his arm, as if the crisis were too important for speech, which indicated to the watchful Griffith the way he wished the frigate sheered, to avoid the weight of the impending danger. Both vessels whirled swiftly up to the wind, with their heads towards the land; and as the huge black side of the three-decker checkered with its triple batteries, frowned full upon her foe, it belched forth a flood of fire and smoke, accompanied by a bellowing roar that mocked the surly moanings of the sleeping ocean. The nerves of the bravest man in the frigate contracted their fibres, as the hurricane of iron hurtled by them, and each eye appeared to gaze in stupid wonder, as if tracing the flight of the swift engines of destruction. But the voice of Captain Munson was heard in the din, shouting while he waved his hat earnestly in the required direction—

“Meet her! meet her with the helm, boy! meet her, Mr. Griffith, meet her!”

Griffith had so far anticipated this movement, as to have already ordered the head of the frigate to be turned in its former course, when, struck by the unearthly cry of the last tones uttered by his commander, he bent his head, and beheld the venerable seaman driven through the air, his hat still waving, his gray hair floating in the wind, and his eye set in the wild look of death.

“Great God!” exclaimed the young man, rushing to the side of the ship, where he was just in time to see the lifeless body disappear in the waters that were dyed in its blood; “he has been struck by a shot! Lower-away the boat, lower-away the jolly-boat, the barge, the tiger, the”—

“’Tis useless,” interrupted the calm, deep voice of the Pilot; “he has met a warrior’s end, and he sleeps in a sailor’s grave! The ship is getting before the wind again, and the enemy is keeping his vessel away.”

The youthful lieutenant was recalled by these words to his duty, and reluctantly turned his eyes away from the bloody spot on the waters, which the busy frigate had already passed, to resume the command of the vessel with a forced composure.

“He has cut some of our running gear,” said the master, whose eye had never ceased to dwell on the spars and rigging of the ship; “and there’s a splinter out of the main-topmast, that is big enough for a fid! He has let daylight through some of our canvas, too; but, taking it by-and-large, the squall has gone over and little harm done. Didn’t I hear something said of Captain Munson getting jammed by a shot?”

“He is killed!” said Griffith, speaking in a voice that was yet husky with horror; “he is dead, sir, and carried overboard; there is more need that we forget not ourselves, in this crisis.”

“Dead!” said Boltrope, suspending the operation of his active jaws for a moment, in surprise; “and buried in a wet jacket! Well, it is lucky ’tis no worse; for damme if I did not think every stick in the ship would have been cut out of her!”

With this consolatory remark on his lips, the master walked slowly forward, continuing his orders to repair the damages with a singleness of purpose that rendered him, however uncouth as a friend, an invaluable man in his station.

Griffith had not yet brought his mind to the calmness that was so essential to discharge the duties which had thus suddenly and awfully devolved on him, when his elbow was lightly touched by the Pilot, who had drawn closer to his side.

“The enemy appears satisfied with the experiment,” said the stranger; “and as we work the quicker of the two, he loses too much ground to repeat it, if he be a true seaman.”

“And yet as he finds we leave him so fast,” returned Griffith, “he must see that all his hopes rest in cutting us up aloft. I dread that he will come by the wind again, and lay us under his broadside; we should need a quarter of an hour to run without his range, if he were anchored!”

“He plays a surer game; see you not that the vessel we made in the eastern board shows the hull of a frigate? ’Tis past a doubt that they are of one squadron, and that the expresses have sent them in our wake. The English admiral has spread a broad clew, Mr. Griffith; and, as he gathers in his ships, he sees that his game has been successful.”

The faculties of Griffith had been too much occupied with the hurry of the chase to look at the ocean; but, startled at the information of the Pilot, who spoke coolly, though like a man sensible of the existence of approaching danger, he took the glass from the other, and with his own eye examined the different vessels in sight. It is certain that the experienced officer, whose flag was flying above the light sails of the three-decker, saw the critical situation of his chase, and reasoned much in the same manner as the Pilot, or the fearful expedient apprehended by Griffith would have been adopted. Prudence, however, dictated that he should prevent his enemy from escaping by pressing so closely on his rear, as to render it impossible for the American to haul across his bows and run into the open sea between his own vessel and the nearest frigate of his squadron. The unpractised reader will be able to comprehend the case better by accompanying the understanding eye of Griffith, as it glanced from point to point, following the whole horizon. To the west lay the land, along which the Alacrity was urging her way industriously, with the double purpose of keeping her consort abeam, and of avoiding a dangerous proximity to their powerful enemy. To the east, bearing off the starboard bow of the American frigate, was the vessel first seen, and which now began to exhibit the hostile appearance of a ship of war, steering in a line converging towards themselves, and rapidly drawing nigher; while far in the north-east was a vessel as yet faintly discerned, whose evolutions could not be mistaken by one who understood the movements of nautical warfare.

“We are hemmed in effectually,” said Griffith, dropping the glass from his eye; “and I know not but our wisest course would be to haul in to the land, and, cutting everything light adrift, endeavor to pass the broadside of the flag-ship.”

“Provided she left a rag of canvas to do it with!” returned the Pilot. “Sir, ’tis an idle hope! She would strip your ship in ten minutes, to her plank shears. Had it not been for a lucky wave on which so many of her shot struck and glanced upward, we should have nothing to boast of left from the fire she has already given; we must stand on, and drop the three-decker as far as possible.”

“But the frigates?” said Griffith, “what are we to do with the frigates?”

“Fight them!” returned the Pilot, in a low, determined voice; “fight them! Young man, I have borne the stars and stripes aloft in greater straits than this, and even with honor! Think not that my fortune will desert me now.”

“We shall have an hour of desperate battle!”

“On that we may calculate; but I have lived through whole days of bloodshed! You seem not one to quail at the sight of an enemy.”

“Let me proclaim your name to the men!” said Griffith; ’twill quicken their blood, and at such a moment be a host in itself.”

“They want it not,” returned the Pilot, checking the hasty zeal of the other with his hand. “I would be unnoticed, unless I am known as becomes me. I will share your danger, but would not rob you of a tittle of your glory. Should we come to a grapple,” he continued, while a smile of conscious pride gleamed across his face, “I will give forth the word as a war-cry, and, believe me, these English will quail before it!”

Griffith submitted to the stranger’s will; and, after they had deliberated further on the nature of their evolutions, he gave his attention again to the management of the vessel….

Notwithstanding the ship of the line was slowly sinking beneath the distant waves, and in less than an hour from the time she had fired the broadside, no more than one of her three tiers of guns was visible from the deck of the frigate, she yet presented an irresistible obstacle against retreat to the south. On the other hand, the ship first seen drew so nigh as to render the glass no longer necessary in watching her movements. She proved to be a frigate, though one so materially lighter than the American, as to have rendered her conquest easy, had not her two consorts continued to press on for the scene of battle with such rapidity. During the chase, the scene had shifted from the point opposite to St. Ruth, to the verge of those shoals where our tale commenced. As they approached the latter, the smallest of the English ships drew so nigh as to render the combat unavoidable. Griffith and his crew had not been idle in the intermediate time, but all the usual preparations against the casualties of a sea fight had been duly made, when the drum once more called the men to their quarters, and the ship was deliberately stripped of her unnecessary sails, like a prize-fighter about to enter the arena, casting aside the encumbrances of dress. At the instant she gave this intimation of her intention to abandon flight, and trust the issue to the combat, the nearest English frigate also took in her light canvas in token of her acceptance of the challenge.

“He is but a little fellow,” said Griffith to the Pilot, who hovered at his elbow with a sort of fatherly interest in the other’s conduct of the battle, “though he carries a stout heart.”

“We must crush him at a blow,” returned the stranger; “not a shot must be delivered until our yards are locking.”

“I see him training his twelves upon us already; we may soon expect his fire.”

“After standing the brunt of a ninety-gun ship,” observed the collected Pilot, “we shall not shrink from the broadside of a two-and-thirty.”

“Stand to your guns, men!” cried Griffith, through his trumpet; “not a shot is to be fired without the order.”

This caution, so necessary to check the ardor of the seamen, was hardly uttered, before their enemy became wrapped in sheets of fire and volumes of smoke, as gun after gun hurled its iron missiles at their vessel in quick succession. Ten minutes might have passed, the two vessels sheering close to each other every foot they advanced, during which time the crew of the American were compelled, by their commander, to suffer the fire of their adversary, without returning a shot. This short period, which seemed an age to the seamen, was distinguished in their vessel by deep silence. Even the wounded and dying, who fell in every part of the ship, stifled their groans, under the influence of the severe discipline, which gave a character to every man, and each movement of the vessel; and those officers who were required to speak, were heard only in the lowest tones of resolute preparation. At length the ship slowly entered the skirts of the smoke that enveloped their enemy; and Griffith heard the man who stood at his side whisper the word “Now.”

“Let them have it!” cried Griffith, in a voice that was heard in the remotest parts of the ship.

The shout that burst from the seamen appeared to lift the decks of the vessel, and the affrighted frigate trembled like an aspen with the recoil of her own massive artillery, that shot forth a single sheet of flame, the sailors having disregarded, in their impatience, the usual order of firing. The effect of the broadside on the enemy was still more dreadful; for a death-like silence succeeded to the roar of guns, which was only broken by the shrieks and execrations that burst from her, like the moanings of the damned. During the few moments in which the Americans were again loading their cannon, and the English were recovering from their confusion, the vessel of the former moved slowly past her antagonist, and was already doubling across her bows, when the latter was suddenly, and, considering the inequality of their forces, it may be added desperately, headed into her enemy. The two frigates grappled. The sudden and furious charge made by the Englishman, as he threw his masses of daring seamen along his bowsprit, and out of his channels, had nearly taken Griffith by surprise; but Manual, who had delivered his first fire with the broadside, now did good service, by ordering his men to beat back the intruders, by a steady and continued discharge. Even the wary Pilot lost sight of their other foes, in the high daring of that moment, and smiles of stern pleasure were exchanged between him and Griffith as both comprehended, at a glance, their advantages.

“Lash his bowsprit to our mizzen-mast,” shouted the lieutenant, “and we will sweep his decks as he lies!”

Twenty men sprang eagerly forward to execute the order, among the foremost of whom were Boltrope and the stranger.

“Aye, now he’s our own!” cried the busy master, “and we will take an owner’s liberties with him, and break him up—for by the eternal”—

“Peace, rude man,” said the Pilot, in a voice of solemn remonstrance; “at the next instant you may face your God: mock not his awful name!”

The master found time, before he threw himself from the spar on the deck of the frigate again, to cast a look of amazement at his companion, who, with a steady mien, but with an eye that lighted with a warrior’s ardor, viewed the battle that raged around him, like one who marked its progress to control the result.

The sight of the Englishmen rushing onward with shouts and bitter menaces, warmed the blood of Colonel Howard, who pressed to the side of the frigate, and encouraged his friends by his gestures and voice, to come on.

“Away with ye, old croaker!” cried the master, seizing him by the collar; “away with ye to the hold, or I’ll order you fired from a gun.”

“Down with your arms, rebellious dog!” shouted the colonel, carried beyond himself by the ardor of the fray; “down to the dust, and implore the mercy of your injured prince!”

Invigorated by a momentary glow, the veteran grappled with his brawny antagonist; but the issue of the short struggle was yet suspended, when the English, driven back by the fire of the marines, and the menacing front that Griffith with his boarders presented, retreated to the forecastle of their own ship, and attempted to return the deadly blows they were receiving, in their hull, from the cannon that Barnstable directed. A solitary gun was all they could bring to bear on the Americans; but this, loaded with canister, was fired so near as to send its glaring flame into the very faces of their enemies. The struggling colonel, who was already sinking beneath the arm of his foe, felt the rough grasp loosen from his throat at the flash, and the two combatants sunk powerless on their knees, facing each other.

“How now, brother!” exclaimed Boltrope, with a smile of grim fierceness; “some of that grist has gone to your mill, ha!”

No answer could, however, be given before the yielding forms of both fell to the deck, where they lay helpless, amid the din of the battle and the wild confusion of the eager combatants.

Notwithstanding the furious struggle they had witnessed, the elements did not cease their functions; and, urged by the breeze, and lifted irresistibly on a wave, the American ship was forced through the water still further across the bows of her enemy. The idle fastenings of hemp and iron were snapped asunder like strings of tow, and Griffith saw his own ship borne away from the Englishman at the instant that the bowsprit of the latter was torn from its lashings, and tumbled into the sea, followed by spar after spar, until nothing of all her proud tackling was remaining, but the few parted and useless ropes that were left dangling along the stumps of her lower masts. As his own stately vessel moved from the confusion she had caused, and left the dense cloud of smoke in which her helpless antagonist lay, the eye of the young man glanced anxiously towards the horizon, where he now remembered he had more foes to contend against.

“We have shaken off the thirty-two most happily!” he said to the Pilot, who followed his motions with singular interest; “but here is another fellow sheering in for us, who shows as many ports as ourselves, and who appears inclined for a closer interview; besides, the hull of the ninety is rising again, and I fear she will be down but too soon!”

“We must keep the use of our braces and sails,” returned the Pilot, “and on no account close with the other frigate; we must play a double game, sir, and fight this new adversary with our heels as well as with our guns.”

“’Tis time then that we were busy, for he is shortening sail, and as he nears so fast, we may expect to hear from him every minute; what do you propose, sir?”

“Let him gather in his canvas,” returned the Pilot, “and when he thinks himself snug, we can throw out a hundred men at once upon our yards, and spread everything alow and aloft; we may then draw ahead of him by surprise; if we can once get him in our wake, I have no fears of dropping them all.”

“A stern chase is a long chase,” cried Griffith, “and the thing may do! Clear up the decks, here, and carry down the wounded; and, as we have our hands full, the poor fellows who have done with us must go overboard at once.”…

The ship which the American frigate had now to oppose was a vessel of near her own size and equipage; and when Griffith looked at her again, he perceived that she had made her preparations to assert her equality in manful fight.

Her sails had been gradually reduced to the usual quantity, and, by certain movements on her decks, the lieutenant and his constant attendant, the Pilot, well understood that she only wanted to lessen her distance a few hundred yards to begin the action.

“Now spread everything,” whispered the stranger.

Griffith applied the trumpet to his mouth, and shouted in a voice that was carried even to his enemy, “Let fall—out with your booms—sheet home—hoist away of everything!”

The inspiring cry was answered by a universal bustle; fifty men flew out on the dizzy heights of the different spars, while broad sheets of canvas rose as suddenly along the masts, as if some mighty bird were spreading its wings. The Englishman instantly perceived his mistake, and he answered the artifice by a roar of artillery. Griffith watched the effects of the broadside with an absorbing interest, as the shot whistled above his head; but when he perceived his masts untouched, and the few unimportant ropes only that were cut, he replied to the uproar with a burst of pleasure. A few men were, however, seen clinging with wild frenzy to the cordage, dropping from rope to rope like wounded birds fluttering through a tree, until they fell heavily into the ocean, the sullen ship sweeping by them in cold indifference. At the next instant the spars and masts of their enemy exhibited a display of men similar to their own, when Griffith again placed the trumpet to his mouth, and shouted aloud—

“Give it to them; drive them from their yards, boys, scatter them with your grape—unreeve their rigging!”

The crew of the American wanted but little encouragement to enter on this experiment with hearty good-will, and the close of his cheering words were uttered amid the deafening roar of his own cannon. The Pilot had, however, mistaken the skill and readiness of their foe; for, notwithstanding the disadvantageous circumstances under which the Englishman increased his sail, the duty was steadily and dexterously performed.

The two ships were now running rapidly on parallel lines, hurling at each other their instruments of destruction with furious industry, and with severe and certain loss to both, though with no manifest advantage in favor of either. Both Griffith and the Pilot witnessed with deep concern this unexpected defeat of their hopes; for they could not conceal from themselves, that each moment lessened their velocity through the water, as the shot of their enemy stripped the canvas from the yards, or dashed aside the lighter spars in their terrible progress.

“We find our equal here!” said Griffith to the stranger. “The ninety is heaving up again like a mountain; and if we continue to shorten sail at this rate, she will soon be down upon us!”

“You say true, sir,” returned the Pilot, musing; “the man shows judgment as well as spirit: but”—

He was interrupted by Merry, who rushed from the forward part of the vessel, his whole face betokening the eagerness of his spirit, and the importance of his intelligence.

“The breakers!” he cried, when nigh enough to be heard amid the din; “we are running dead on a ripple, and the sea is white not two hundred yards ahead.”

The Pilot jumped on a gun, and bending to catch a glimpse through the smoke, he shouted, in those clear, piercing tones, that could be even heard among the roaring of the cannon, “Port, port your helm! we are on the Devil’s Grip! pass up the trumpet, sir; port your helm, fellow; give it them, boys—give it to the proud English dogs!” Griffith unhesitatingly relinquished the symbol of his rank, fastening his own firm look on the calm but quick eye of the Pilot, and gathering assurance from the high confidence he read in the countenance of the stranger. The seamen were too busy with their cannon and their rigging to regard the new danger; and the frigate entered one of the dangerous passes of the shoals, in the heat of a severely contested battle. The wondering looks of a few of the older sailors glanced at the sheets of foam that flew by them, in doubt whether the wild gambols of the waves were occasioned by the shot of the enemy, when suddenly the noise of cannon was succeeded by the sullen wash of the disturbed element, and presently the vessel glided out of her smoky shroud, and was boldly steering in the centre of the narrow passages. For ten breathless minutes longer the Pilot continued to hold an uninterrupted sway, during which the vessel ran swiftly by ripples and breakers, by streaks of foam and darker passages of deep water, when he threw down his trumpet, and exclaimed—

“What threatened to be our destruction has proved our salvation! Keep yonder hill crowned with wood, one point open from the church tower at its base, and steer east by north; you will run through these shoals on that course in an hour, and by so doing you will gain five leagues of your enemy, who will have to double their tail.”

The moment he stepped from the gun, the Pilot lost the air of authority that had so singularly distinguished his animated form, and even the close interest he had manifested in the incidents of the day became lost in the cold, settled reserve he had affected during his intercourse with his present associates. Every officer in the ship, after the breathless suspense of uncertainty had passed, rushed to those places where a view might be taken of their enemies. The ninety was still steering boldly onward, and had already approached the two-and-thirty, which lay a helpless wreck, rolling on the unruly seas that were rudely tossing her on their wanton billows. The frigate last engaged was running along the edge of the ripple, with her torn sails flying loosely in the air, her ragged spars tottering in the breeze, and everything above her hull exhibiting the confusion of a sudden and unlooked-for check to her progress. The exulting taunts and mirthful congratulations of the seamen, as they gazed at the English ships, were, however, soon forgotten in the attention that was required to their own vessel. The drums beat the retreat, the guns were lashed, the wounded again removed, and every individual able to keep the deck was required to lend his assistance in repairing the damages of the frigate and securing her masts.

The promised hour carried the ship safely through all the dangers, which were much lessened by daylight; and by the time the sun had begun to fall over the land, Griffith, who had not quitted the deck during the day, beheld his vessel once more cleared of the confusion of the chase and battle, and ready to meet another foe.