"Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!" - The Duel of USS "Constitution" and HMS "Guerriere" in 1812

19 August 1812, in the early stages of the War of 1812, the American frigate USS “Constitution” defeats the British frigate HMS “Guerriere” off the coast of Nova Scotia, earning the nickname "Old Ironsides".

“...the conclusion of course was, that she was either a French or an American frigate. Captain Dacres appeared anxious to ascertain her character, and after looking at her for that purpose, handed me his spy-glass, requesting me to give him my opinion of the stranger. I soon saw from the peculiarity of her sails, and from her general appearance, that she was, without doubt, an American frigate, and communicated the same to Captain Dacres. He immediately replied, that he thought she came down too boldly for an American, but soon after added: ' The better he behaves, the more honor we shall gain by taking him.'“ (William B. Orne, former master of the American merchant brig “Betsey”, aboard HMS “Guerriere” during the engagement)

The final stages of the naval duel, as imagined by the Saturday Evening Post's illustrator Anton Otto Fischer (1882 - 1962)

It was a hundred years before Admiral Mahan wrote his influential treatise on “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783“ and decades before the young United States established the Monroe Doctrine in the Americas, recognised their Manifest Destiny and played with the Europeans at empire building. In the earlies, Congress decided that a small navy was completely sufficient to protect trade and protect US interests abroad. In 1794, the construction of the original six frigates of the United States was authorised, more or less the entire US Navy at the turn of the 18th century, and they soon had their baptism of fire in the Quasi War against France in 1798 and against the Barbary States between 1801 and 1805 exactly along the lines they were designed for. Three of the frigates, USS “Constellation”, “Congress” and unlucky USS “Chesapeake” were pretty much conventional designs and wouldn’t have created a rush if they’d sailed under the Tricolour or the Union Jack, the other three though, “Constitution”, “President” and “United States” were radically different. Besides being smart sailers, the 200’ vessels were built from local American hardwoods, chiefly southern live oak, very expensive, durable, almost as hard as iron, made-to-last. With a weight of 1,500 tons they would rival the dimensions of a ship-of-the-line and even though designed as one-deckers, technically frigates, they were crammed to their rims with heavy artillery, 30 24 pounder long guns, battleship ordnance, for long range engagement and 32 32 pounder carronades for close combat on her spandeck, giving these uber-frigates a broadside weight of 950lb at short range, equalling that of a Seventy-Four. In short, they were stronger than anything faster or as fast as they were and faster than any stronger. And when war broke out with Great Britain in 1812, the Royal Navy, whose frigates had not lost a single ship-to-ship duel for the last ten years, was in for a nasty surprise.

Anton Otto Fischer's imagination of the "Chase of the Constitution" by a British squadron in July 1812

The declaration of War in June 1812 came more or less unexpectedly to Captain Isaac Hull who had assumed command of USS “Constitution” two years earlier. She lay at Annapolis, completed repairs after a year of cruising in European waters, took on a fresh crew and was not ready to sail for New York to join Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron there until early in July. Rodgers was already at sea by then and Hull promptly ran into a British task force under Vere Broke out to get him. A ship-of-the-line and four frigates were a bit too much, even for his uber-frigate, Hull tried to flee but was promptly becalmed, but so were the British, Hull ordered the boats put to sea and tow “Constitution”, the British did likewise and were lead in a stern chase for a whole day until a squall saved the American frigate. Hull made good his escape and reached Boston on 2 August. Informed by a Yankee privateer that one of Broke’s frigates was out there, Hull left harbour to give chase. It was James Richard Dacres’ HMS “Guerriere“, a French prize taken in 1806, rated 38 guns, 28 18 pounder long guns and 14 32 pounder carronades, throwing a broadside weight of 500lbs. Actually, “Guerriere“ had left Broke’s squadron for Halifax three weeks earlier for an urgent refit, but when “Constitution” came in sight, Dacre, eager to become the first Royal Navy captain to take an American frigate, had his ship cleared for action and closed in for the engagement. A few broadsides were exchanged at mid-range and when “Guerriere’s“ 18 pounder balls were seen to bounce off “Constitution’s” southern live oak bulwark, one of Hull’s hands was heard to cry out: "Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!", giving USS “Constitution” her famous nickname “Old Ironsides”. Even after realising how ineffective his gunnery was against his considerably larger enemy, Dacre did not break off the engagement, wasn’t an option, really, and both ships approached for close quarter fighting and a probable attempt of boarding each other, typical for frigate actions of the day. That brought “Guerriere“ into the range of “Constitution’s” carronades though, soon her mizzenmast was shot away, fell overboard and immobilised the British frigate, allowing Hull to cross her vulnerable bow and firing a few broadsides into her at half pistol-shot distance that travelled the whole length of the ship. “Guerriere’s“ bowsprit became entangled with “Constitution’s” mizzen, an attempt to board over it was abandoned in the heavy rolling seas, still “Constitution” poured 24 and 32 pounder shot into “Guerriere”, her fore- and mainmast fell, the ships broke free, and while “Constitution” prepared to renew combat, Dacres ordered a last gun fired from his battered frigate, signalling that he would give up. A boat brought a Yankee boarding crew over to “Guerriere”, they climbed on board and were greeted by Dacres, who could barely stand, wounded by a musket ball as he was, and when he was asked if he’d surrender, he still managed to answer: “Well, Sir, I don't know. Our mizzen mast is gone, our fore and main masts are gone - I think on the whole you might say we have struck our flag."

The final stages of the fight, HMS "Guerriere's"main mast getting shot away (American School, mid 19th century)

“It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after what we are free to express, may be called a brave resistance ... 'but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them”, the “Times” wrote in reaction to the event. And indeed, the Bostonians were beside themselves with triumph when Hull sailed “Constitution” back home and so was the rest of the young American nation. Actually, he had planned to tow “Guerriere” along as a prize, but she was literally shot to a wreck and blown up after her survivors were taken on board of “Old Ironsides”. Less than half a year later, she would capture another British frigate, HMS “Java”, off Brazil, while USS “United States” took HMS “Macedonian” in October. British Admiralty forbade any single ship-to-ship actions with the uber-frigates after the events and it fell to Broke, the squadron commander of 1812 whom “Constitution” had so narrowly escaped, to restore the honour and the tradition of victory of the Royal Navy at least partially, when he defeated USS “Chesapeake” in HMS “Shannon” during a more balanced duel off Boston in June 1813. Dacres himself was honourably acquitted of all blame for the loss of his “Guerriere” in the customary court martial in Halifax that followed his exchange later that year and, as a small belated consolation for not becoming “made for life" as being the first RN captain engaging an American frigate, at least not the way he imagined it before the fight, sailors of HMS “President”, built along the lines of USS “President” captured in 1815, named a fortification they built at the mouth of Fish River in South Africa Fort Dacres in his honour.

USS "Constitution", now the world's oldest sailing ship still able to sail under her own power, firing a 17-gun salute in honour of Independence Day on 4 July 2014 in her home port of Boston (image found on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Constitution#/media/File:USS_Constitution_fires_a_17-gun_salute.jpg)

And more about the duel of USS “Constitution with HMS “Guerriere” on: