Fortune Favors the Brave – a look at the Marines aboard the USS Constitution
Summary: Events of the 20th century brought conventional war to an apotheosis. WWII was the great war, a climax to 3 millenia of evolution. Which is why our military so misses it. 4GW, the dominant form of war in the 21st century, makes different demands on our national armed forces. But however different war becomes from our victories of the past, our history can still inspire us. Victory still comes from the martial virtues, such as courage, leadership, and unit cohesion.
Today we have another in a series of guest articles by Beth Crumley: Fortune Favors the Brave – Marines aboard the USS Constitution” — Originally published at the Marine Corps Association’s website on 8 August 2011, and reposted here with their generous permission.
I am sure that by now, most of you are becoming accustomed to the way that I write, the way I tell a story. In the course of the past months, you have seen me tackle subjects on Marine armor in World War II and Korea, on both infantry and helicopter units in Vietnam, and on the meaning of “sacrifice.” Over the years I have become something of a Vietnam “specialist,” a subject that I love more than almost any other in Marine Corps history. And so it might surprise you to know that one of my other favorite subjects is the War of 1812.
I got a call at work this past week about the USS Constitution during the War of 1812 and what ties it had to the Marine Corps. Most people with an interest in Marine Corps history are well aware that Marines served in ship’s detachments, and in the days of sail, were noted for their accurate musketry from the “fighting tops”. The Marines’ ties to Constitution, however, run much deeper. It is, indeed, some of the most interesting history in the War of 1812.
Over the course of the war, British and American naval vessels fought sixteen engagements that resulted in the capture or sinking of at least one of the vessels involved. Marine musketry played a role in six of those engagements. Of those, three involved the Marines of the USS Constitution.
On 2 August 1812, the war with Great Britain was barely six weeks old. The Constitution, under the command of Captain Isacc Hull, sailed out of Boston Harbor on a raiding cruise off the coast of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The initial days at sea were spent training and readying the inexperienced crew for battle.
Seventeen days later, a large sail was sighted “bearing E.S.E. and leeward,” It was a British frigate, the HMS Guerriere. Despite a disadvantage in the number and size of his guns, Captain James R. Dacres was spoiling for a fight. At 5 p.m. Guerriere opened up with her weather-guns, the shot fell short and she wore round (turned away from the wind) and fired a port broadside. Two shot struck the Constitution but the rest passed over or through her rigging.
After these initial exchanges, Guerriere bore up and ran off under top sails and jib, with the wind almost astern. Constitution set her main-top gallant sail and her foresail. At 6 p.m., the two ships closed and a furious cannonade was opened. Hull later wrote, “within less than a pistol-shot, we commenced a very heavy fire from all our guns.”
In a period of 15 minutes, that intense fire, delivered with great accuracy, battered Guerriere’s hull and mast. Her mizzenmast fell to the side, essentially crippling her. With her adversary unable to move, Constitution moved to rake the British vessel. So close was the action that the two ships became entangled. Both sides prepared boarding parties. Lt. William Bush, commanding the Marines aboard Constitution, leapt to the taffrail, crying “Shall I board her, sir?” He was killed instantly, a Royal Marine musket ball striking him in the head. He was the first Marine officer to die in combat at sea.
Marine Lieutenant William Bush
As the two ships separated, Guerriere’s foremast collapsed, leaving her a defenseless hulk. She lowered her colors and surrendered at 7 p.m. It was the first of several U.S. Navy victories in ship-to-ship engagements. At 3 p.m. on 20 August 1812, HSM Guerriere sank. In total, the U.S took 14 casualties, mostly to enemy musket fire. The British lost a total of 23 killed and 56 wounded.
The London Times reported the loss of the British frigate, stating,
“It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, and enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. …how important this triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war.”
On 30 August 1812, Constitution returned to Boston for repair and was greeted by cheering crowds. Five months later she would, once again, be in action against the British Navy.
The Constitution, now under the command of Captain William Bainbrigde, left Boston on 26 October 1812 ordered “to annoy the enemy and to afford protection to our commerce.” With that in mind, Bainbridge decided to sail toward Brazil where the British enjoyed considerable trade.
On 29 December, two sails were sighted. It was the British frigate Java under the command of Captain Henry Lambert. Java bore down in chase of the American vessel and made private signals, English, Spanish and Portuguese in succession. As the British frigate closed, Bainbridge turned through the wind, took in his mainsail and cleared Constitution for action. Java “hoisting her ensign at the mizzen-peak, a union Jack at the mizzen top-gallant mast-head, and another lashed to her main rigging,” also took in her main-sail.
At 1.50 p.m., Java attempted to cross Constitution’s bow and rake her, but Bainbridge wore around on a southeasterly heading. Ten minutes later, the American ship fired a shot ahead of Java followed quickly with a broadside, from the 24-pound long guns. The British returned fire from their starboard battery, as the Americans fired back with port guns. By 2.10 p.m., the ships were in range of grape and canister shot. Several of Constitution’s crew were killed or wounded.
The swifter Java surged ahead and maneuvered to wear across Constitution’s bow and rake her, but Bainbridge turned away from the wind and into the smoke. Once again, Java moved ahead. At 2.30 p.m., the wheel of Constitution was entirely shot away. Bainbridge’s minutes, taken during the action note, “At 2.40 p.m. Determined to close with the enemy notwithstanding her rakeing.”
Constitution set her foresail and mainsail and drew close on Java’s starboard beam. Under heavy fire from Constitution, Java lost her bowsprit, jib-boom and mizzen mast. According to later testimony offered by British sailor Christopher Speedy, Java lost many men to the musketry of those Americans positioned in the “fighting tops.”
Constitution forged ahead and once more turned away from the wind and into the smoke. The two ships were now positioned yard arm to yard arm, and Constitution began to pound the British frigate with heavy batteries. Java lost her mainmast, and therefore the musket fire from her fighting tops. Another heavy broadside emanated from Constitution. According to a report by the Surgeon aboard the British vessel, a musket ball fired fromthe American’s fighting tops mortally wounded Captain Lambert. Lieutenant Henry D. Chads, himself wounded, took command of the crippled Java. Amidst the terrible slaughter, the British fought on, but Java soon lost her foremast and finally, her mainmast under the withering fire from Constitution. The British vessel was little more than a hulk floating in the ocean swell.
Constitution stood off to make some minor repairs and returned to find a sail rigged over Java and her tattered ensign flying from the stump of the mizzenmast. As Constitution turned to deliver the final blow, Java lowered her colors and surrendered. Lt Chads later wrote, in a report to the Secretary of the Admiralty, John W. Croker,
“I then consulted the Officers who agreed with myself that on having a great part of our crew Killed & wounded and our Bowsprit and three masts gone, several guns useless, we should not be justified in waisting the lives of more of those remaining whom I hope their Lordships and Country will think have bravely defended His Majesty’s Ship. Under these circumstances, however reluctantly at 5.50 our Colors were lowered from the Stump of the Mizen Mast and we were taken possession a little after 6 by the American Frigate Constitution.”
Losses for the British were very high. 48 were killed in action, including Captain Lambert who succumbed to his wounds. 102 were wounded. Among the Americans, 12 were killed in the battle, including one Marine. Another 22 were wounded.
Java was the third British frigate to be vanquished by an American frigate in the course of four short months. When news of the defeat reached the British Admiralty, it was ordered that henceforth, no American 44-gun frigate was to be engaged except when the odds were two-to-one or better in favor of the British.
Constitution returned to Boston on 18 February 1813, to a hero’s welcome. When she sailed again, the Captain of her Marine detachment was 30-year old Archibald Henderson.
A native of Dumfries, Virginia, Henderson was appointed a second lieutenant of Marines on 4 June 1806. In less than a year, he commanded the Marine detachment aboard USS Wasp. By December 1807 he had transferred to the USS Constitution. Assignments ashore followed, including billets at the Marine Barracks, New York and Charleston, South Carolina where his Marines were assigned to gunboats then engaging pirates along the coast of the U.S. Appointed to the rank of captain in 1811, Henderson spent the first 15 months of the War of 1812 ashore, commanding the Marine Barracks at Charlestown, Massachusetts.
Henderson’s frustration at not being more directly in the fight was mounting. He had already approached the Army regarding an inter-service transfer, an effort for which he had been rebuked by Paul Hamilton, Secretary of the Navy. A letter written in May 1813 to his brother John, clearly showed Henderson’s dissatisfaction with his assignment, as well as his intent to resign his commission at the end of the war if he was not promoted. In June, fate intervened and Henderson was ordered to return to sea and command the Marine detachment aboard Constitution.
By the time Henderson reported for duty on 9 September 1813, the exploits of Constitution were already the stuff of legend. She had shattered HMS Guerriere, her crew given a heroes’ welcome upon their return to Boston. Four months later, she had captured and burned HMS Java. Henderson feared he had already missed much of the action.
The morning of 18 December 1813 dawned fair and clear. The Constitution, now under the able command of Captain Charles Stewart, sailed from Boston Harbor for the West Indies. There she preyed on British vessels, capturing the Lovely Ann, Phoenix and Catherine and burning the schooner Pictou. In March 1814, a cracked mainmast and an appearance of scurvy among the crew forced Stewart to sail for Boston. Spotted and pursued by the frigates Junon and Tenedos, Stewart managed to evade the British ships by ordering stores and provisions to be thrown overboard, thus lightening the load and gaining speed. On 17 April, the Constitution was anchored in Boston Harbor, greeted by the cheers of thousands. Although orders were issued in May for Stewart to sail, a British blockade prevented Constitution’s departure until 17 December 1814. Once again, Henderson feared that in his time ashore, he had missed the action.
On 20 February 1815 Constitution sailed near the Portuguese island of Madeira in the mid-Atlantic, steering southwest with a light breeze. It was a quiet morning until shortly after noon when the lookout atop the frigate’s main masthead spotted a sail off the starboard bow. Another sail was reported off the port bow. The first ship changed course and was heading directly towards Constitution. The ship’s log recorded the event:
“At 1 discovered a sail two points on the larboard bow-hauled up and made sail in chace-at ½ past 1 made the sail to be a ship’s at ¾ past 1 discovered another sail ahead-made them out at 2 p.m. to be both ships, standing closehauled, with their starboard tacks on board.”
The vessel approaching from the starboard flew signal flags, which could not be answered. Realizing Constitution was not friendly, the unknown ship turned westward, sailing away.
A.Y. Humphreys, chaplain aboard Constitution, wrote the following passage in his journal:
“As we were now in direct track for craft bound from the Mediterranean to Madeira and felt assured that none but men of war would manoeuver in this way and were not mistaken.”
The ships were, indeed, men of war; the HSM Cyane and HSM Levant. Stewart crowded on all sail and ordered his bow guns to fire, hoping to bring the ship to battle. With the chase on, came a resounding crack, as the main royal mast of Constitution snapped. Stewart was forced to slow his pursuit and effect repairs.
Within an hour, the wreckage was cleared and the mast repaired, a testament to the skill of the men aboard. Stewart’s after-action report stated, as the distance closed between Constitution and the enemy vessels, she “commenced firing on the chase from our two larboard bow guns; our shot falling short.”
Still about 4 miles from the British vessels, Stewart cleared Constitution for action. The 24-gun Cyane and 18-gun Levant “passed with hail of each other, and hauled by the wind on there [sic] starboard tack, hauled up there [sic] courses and prepared to receive us.” Shortly before six, the two ships went to fighting sails and formed up, sailing westward, 100 yards apart, with Cyane astern of Levant.
Stewart ordered the Stars and Stripes broken, which was answered by both ships hoisting English ensigns. From the ships’ log, we learn that Constitution continued to close and
“ranged up on the starboard side of the sternmost ship, about 300 yards distant, and commenced the action by broadsides, both ships returning our fire with the greatest of spirit for about 15 minutes, then the fire of the enemy beginning to slacken, and the great amount of smoke under our lee, induced us to cease our fire to ascertain their positions and conditions.”
Captain Archibald Henderson, commanding the Marine detachment, later testified that the range was “so close that the Marines were engaged almost from the beginning of the action.” Even at this early date, Marine marksmen were known to be among the best in the world. Posted high in the ships’ rigging, their mission was to find and fire upon the enemy’s officers and gunners. Their fire was deadly, and in this particular battle, was key to victory.
Constitution had drawn parallel with Levant. Cyane had moved starboard to close the range and was in position to rake Constitution’s stern with her carronades. In a brilliant example of seamanship and naval tactics, Stewart ensured victory over both vessels. He ordered a full broadside into the smoke and toward the Levant, then
“braced aback our main and mizen and topsails, and backed astern under the cover of smoke abreast the sternmost ship, when action was continued with spirit and considerable effect.”
Cyane was heavily damaged. Levant reappeared through the smoke and turned to starboard, in an attempt to gain a raking position across Constitution’s bow. Stewart ordered the ship hard to port and delivered a raking broadside to Levant’s stern. Heavily damaged, she disappeared into the darkness. Constitution continued its turn to port to come under Cyane’s port quarter and stern. Cyane’s log documented the damage,
“Tried to get the Cyane before the wind to close her but could not- owing to the State of the rigging and situation of the Sails, they lying flat aback and driven so entangled in the wreck of the mizen mast…totally unmanageable with most of the Standing and all the running rigging Shot away, Sails much shot and torn down … A number of shot in the Hull and Nine or Ten between Wind and water. Six guns disabled by the Enemy’s Shot …”
Outgunned, outmaneuvered, and unable to flee, HMS Cyane, under the command Captain Gordon Thomas Falcon, struck her colors, fired one of her carronades leeward and yielded
Stewart quickly ordered a prize crew of 15 Marines, under the command of 1st Lieutenant Beekman Hoffman to take control of the vanquished vessel. With Cyane’s officers aboard, the American ship went in search of Levant. The smaller ship had sweeping turn to port, returning to the fight. As Levant sailed out of the darkness, the two ships passed within 50 yards and exchanged broadsides. The British vessel began to flee. Constitution followed, firing her bow guns. Unable to return fire, her deck describes as “a perfect slaughterhouse”, Captain George Douglas struck his colors in defeat. The battle was over.
Captain Stewart reported American losses during the battle as three killed, another 12 wounded. A muster roll signed by Captain Archibald Henderson reported Privates William Horrell and Antonio Farrow “killed in action with his Britannic Majesty’s Ships Cyane and Levant, 20 February 1815.” Four of the wounded were Marines.
In a General Order dated 23 February 1815, Captain Stewart offered “his thanks to the officers, seamen, ordinary seaman, and marines” for “their gallantry, order and discipline displayed.” To Captain Archibald Henderson and First Lieutenant W.H. Freeman, commanding the Marines, Stewart specifically noted that he owed “his grateful thanks for the lively and well-directed fire kept up by the detachment under their command.”
This single engagement aboard Constitution benefitted Henderson greatly. He was awarded $400 in prize money, and a silver medal, ordered by Congress, to commemorate the battle. (That medal is currently housed at the Commandant’s House, Marine Barracks, 8th and I, Washington D.C.)
Years later, Henderson would receive a presentation sword given to him by the State of Virginia, honoring his actions during the battle. It featured a solid gold hilt, with a fouled anchor in a medallion on the grip. The large langet carries the State Seal of Virginia: Virtue, with sword in hand, her foot on the prostrate figure of Tyranny, whose crown lies nearby. Inscribed above: “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (thus always to tyrants). Inscribed on the reverse: “The State of Virginia to Col. Archibald Henderson, U.S.M.,” with details of the action between Constitution, Cyane and Levant. Engraved on the gilt scabbard: “Honor to the Brave” with a tablet depicting the 3 ships in combat. The sword is currently on display at the National Museum of the Marine Corps.
Of greater importance to Henderson, however, was his brevet promotion to major, dated August 1814.
Six years later, Navy Secretary Smith Thompson appointed Archibald Henderson “Lieutenant Commanding and Commandant, United States Marine Corps,” thus beginning a 38 year tenure. Now known as the “Grand Old Man of the Marine Corps”, Henderson’s tenure as Commandant is nothing less than the stuff of Marine Corps legend — fitting for a Marine who earned his reputation aboard “Old Ironsides.”
Note: Illustrations are courtesy of Navy Art Collection, Naval History and Heritage Command, Marine Corps Art Collection, National Museum of the Marine Corps and Commander Tyrone G. Martin, USN (Retired).
About the author: Beth Crumley
Beth is currently a reference historian at History Division, Marine Corps (Quantico, VA) serving as one of two unit historians within the USMC, responsible for researching and updating the lineage and honors of approximately 435 Marine Corps units. SHe interacts daily with units throughout the Marine Corps, answering questions concerning their lineage and honors, as well as battle streamers.
Prior to the above she was a curator for the National Museum of the Marine Corps, and also worked as a contract historian and writer. Authored the book The Marine Corps: Three Centuries of Glory, a battle history of the Corps with emphasis on the 20th century. She also worked on the indexes for several other publications including US Army: A Complete History, US Navy: A Complete History, US Air Force: A Complete History as well as chronologies of American forces in World War II and Vietnam. Additionally, she is under contract to complete an update of the USMC Chronology that is contained in The Marines, scheduled for reprint this summer.
For more information
See these FM Reference Pages for links to other posts:
- Naval warfare and strategy
- History – economic, military and geopolitical
- America’s military, and our national defense strategy
Other posts about the US Marine Corps:
- Why a Marine Corps?, 23 August 2010
- Another perspective on the future of the Marine Corps, 24 August 2010
- Generals read “Ender’s Game” and see their vision of the future Marine Corps, 7 September 2010
- Defining the Marine Corp’ Strategic Concept, 29 September 2010
- The Marine Corps Today, Tonight, and Tomorrow, 21 February 2011
- Looking back on USMC thanksgivings, reminding us of things for which we should be grateful, 24 November 2011
- Father Vincent Capodanno and the Meaning of “Sacrifice”, 4 December 2011
- Old Corps? New Corps? It Doesn’t Matter as Long as it’s Marine Corps!, 11 December 2011
Posts about the US Navy
- Recommended reading: an autopsy of the 2002 Millennium Challenge war games, 14 January 2008
- DoD Death Spiral – the US Navy version, 31 January 2008
- Update to the “Navy Death Spiral”, 22 April 2008
- A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
- A step towards building a Navy we can afford, 16 July 2008
- “Amphibious Ships are the Dreadnoughts of the modern maritime era”, 2 September 2008
- What Tom Barnett should have told Congress about America’s 21st century Navy, 3 April 2009
- How to design a naval strategy for a crazy nation, 16 July 2009
- Dr. Gross asks “Can The Case Be Made For Naval Power?”, 5 July 2010