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War of 1812: USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere

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War of 1812: USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere

Action between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, 19 August 1812, attributed to Thomas Birch

Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval Historical Center
War of 1812: USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere

USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere by Michel Felice Corne

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
War of 1812: USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere

USS Constitution

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy

Conflict:

The engagement between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere was part of the War of 1812.

Date:

USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812.

Commanders & Ships:

US Navy

Royal Navy

  • Captain James Richard Dacres
  • HMS Guerriere, 38 guns (18-pdrs)
  • 263 men

Battle Summary:

Following the beginning of the War of 1812, the ships of the small US Navy put to sea to avoid being blockaded in port by the Royal Navy. Departing the Chesapeake Bay, the frigate USS Constitution, Captain Isaac Hull commanding, sailed northward to join a squadron led by Commodore John Rodgers. Though rated at 44-guns, Constitution sailed with 56. This increased armament, along with the ship's heavy design, was meant to give it an edge over any enemy frigates it might encounter. After narrowly avoiding capture by a British squadron off the New Jersey coast, Hull steered for Boston to re-water.

Leaving port, Constitution headed northeast towards the British shipping lanes. On the afternoon of August 19, 1812, while cruising approximately 400 miles southeast of Halifax, Nova Scotia, a strange sail was sighted on the horizon. Turning downwind to intercept, the unknown vessel was soon identified as a British frigate. Across the water, the captain of HMS Guerriere (38 guns), James R. Dacres, ordered the ship cleared for action. Seeing that approaching warship was American, he kindly permitted the Americans in his crew to leave their battle stations.

As Constitution neared Guerriere, Hull held his fire, waiting until the ships were only 25 yards apart. The two ships exchanged broadsides for nearly 30 minutes until Constitution closed on Guerriere's starboard beam and toppled the British ship's mizzen mast. Turning, Constitution was able to rake Guerriere, sweeping its decks with fire. As the fighting continued, the two ships collided three times, but all attempts to board were beaten off by determined musket fire from each ship's marine detachment. During the third collision, Constitution became fouled in Guerriere's bowsprit.

As the two ships pulled apart, the bowsprit snapped, jarring the rigging and causing Guerriere's fore and main masts to go over the side. Unable to maneuver, Dacres, who had been wounded in the fighting, convened his officers and decided to strike Guerriere's colors to prevent a further loss of life. After boarding and assessing the condition of Guerriere, Hull decided that the vessel was too damaged to take back to port. Once the wounded were transferred, Guerriere was set on fire and left to sink. In the fighting, Constitution's crew suffered 9 killed and 13 wounded to Guerriere's 21 killed and 57 wounded.

Aftermath & Impact:

The capture of Guerriere provided an early boost to American morale and was the first in a series of ship-to-ship victories for the young US Navy. As a result of these victories and the superiority of the US Navy's heavy frigates, the Royal Navy forbade its commanders from engaging these ships in single-ship combat. Despite the quality of the American ships, they were too few and had increasingly less impact as the war continued. This was largely due to the Royal Navy imposing a strong blockade of the American coast which prevented the ships of the US Navy from getting to sea.

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