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Fight proved Constitution was both agile and strong

Jan 1, 2003

No conflict in U.S. history provoked more split feelings, congressional debate, mob riots, and outright disregard for federal law in a relatively short period of time than did the War of 1812.

Several impressive victories by a single American frigate over ships of the Royal Navy, however, did more to bolster the self-respect of the new republic, and secure recognition by the world, than did any other endeavor of the war.

Much has been written about the brilliant design of the Constitution and her sisterships by a Quaker ship designer from Philadelphia, Joshua Humphreys. Knowing that the burgeoning new navy could not afford to build and maintain the first-rate battleships of her European counterparts, he proposed to build a few large, heavy, powerful frigates that could withstand the pounding from, and also outgun, any other frigate then afloat. Constitution's first two celebrated victories over Guerriere and Java were basically slugfests that confirmed the strength of the new ship's white oak planking (more than two feet thick where inner and outer planking were joined to the solid live oak frames). In addition, Humphreys provided an enormous sail plan, enabling the ship to outrun anything it couldn't fight. Twice during the War of 1812 Constitution narrowly escaped the clutches of a superior British squadron by effective use of her sail inventory and slippery new hull. Sketches of her sail plan detail topsails that appear oversizealmost as large as her courses, which were the largest, lower sails. These large topsails gave her a much greater sail area than her adversaries (the courses were normally furled for battle). There were even rumors spread around the British Admiralty that, with her huge, heavy hull (21-foot draft) and unusually large spread of canvas, the new American frigate was actually a two-decker, ship-of-the-line in disguise.One quality rarely attributed to this grand old ship was her agility, which was demonstrated in a battle that has taken a back seat to her other celebrated engagements. It was a contest that not only illustrates her superior sailing qualities but also the abilities of the new U.S. Navy's captains and crews.On December 18, 1814, Capt. Charles Stewart, after being bottled up in Boston Harbor by a rigid British blockade, finally got the opening he needed. Although the Bostonians had cheered his ship's arrival eight months before, after barely evading two of His Majesty's ships, Constitution and its crew had worn out its hero's welcome. Bostonians did not enjoy the attention Constitution attracted from the Royal Navy. They were concerned both with blockade and the risk of bombardment. Therefore, Stewart took advantage of some nasty winter weather, plus the departure of a blockading 50-gun frigate, and slipped out into the open ocean. He was anxious for the opportunity to match the famous successes of his two predecessors (Isaac Hull's victory over Guerriere and William Bainbridge's over Java).

He got his chance, two months later, on February 20, when two sets of sail were spotted late in the day near the Madeira Islands, off the coast of Portugal. Stewart had three choices available to him, since he was upwind of the British ships and had the weather gauge. He could delay the fight until first light next morning, but risk losing them in the dark of night; he could take advantage of his longer-range guns and pepper his foes while keeping station just out of reach of their fire; or he could try to take on each ship independently before the other could render assistance. Stewart characteristically chose the boldest option. He broke out studding sails and sailed straight downwind to close the enemy before the light of day had completely disappeared.

Like Andrew Jackson's battle at New Orleans, this contest was to take place after peace was negotiated at Ghent in December. However, none of the three captains present used this as a premise to deter battle. Each knew he would have to answer a court martial if he surrendered his ship on the basis of a peace that could break down prior to its ratification. This may seem trivial compared to the loss of life that was bound to occur, but a keen sense of duty was prevalent that day.

Capt. Gordon Falcon, in H.M.S. Cyane (a 34-gun light frigate), exchanged fire with Constitution (44 guns) at long range at dusk, just after 1800. He and his senior officer, Capt. George Douglas, in the smaller 20-gun sloop Levant, could not delay the contest or escape into the cover of night. So, they endeavored to out-maneuver and out-gun the lone combatant. But the Yanks were not only exceptional sail-handlers, they were also expert gunners. Stewart, Hull, and Bainbridge had all advocated incessant practice with the Constitution's 24-pound long guns and 32-pound carronades. They did not just run the carriages in and out once a week, as did many of the British frigate commanders. During their frequent calls to quarters, the gun crews fired live rounds while aiming at real targets placed at different ranges from the ship. The fire from the British ships may have been more expeditious, but the Americans were deadly accurate. (Note that, although warships of this age had gun ratings assigned to them, most carried, as did these three ships, more firepower than their actual rating. The 44-gun Constitution, for example, actually mounted 52 total guns and carronades at this time. However, the British ships still out-gunned Constitution.)

After the opening broadsides, Constitution drew up abreast of Levant while Cyane luffed up to pass behind the big frigate's stern in an attempt to lay a raking fire along her decks. The next series of maneuvers demonstrated the unassailable Yankee seamanship that would carry the day. Constitution first fired a broadside into Levant. Then Stewart, while keeping the wind off his starboard beam, ordered the yards hauled to windward. The sails were thus back-winded, and the huge ship actually reversed direction and turned toward Cyane, which received a lethal fire. In the smoke and confusion, Stewart next trimmed the braces back around, filled his sails, and pulled ahead to deliver two additional broadsides of shot into the stern of Levant, which had turned to aid her companion. Falcon attempted to coax Constitution away from its murderous position over Levant by sailing in between the two and then turning downwind. But he misjudged the maneuverability of his foeStewart quickly wore around for yet another blistering salvo into Cyane's stern. Falcon had enough. His hull was shot to pieces. The main and mizzenmasts were damaged, and he had many dead and wounded. Forty minutes after first exchanging volleys with Constitution, he ordered his ensign hauled down. Stewart sent his second lieutenant and a boatload of marines to take over the fallen ship and collect Falcon and his officers.

It took about an hour to take possession of the British prize. Stewart then went after Levant, which had sailed off into the fading light and growing mist in an attempt to repair its damage. They met a half hour later on opposite tacks, and exchanged broadsides at close range. Constitution still held the wind off her starboard beam. Consequently, with Levant off to port, and still to leeward, Stewart could easily turn downwind to cross the sloop's stern, whereas Douglas would have been required to execute a difficult tack through the wind to accomplish the same traversing maneuver. The result was another devastating sweep of Levant's decks. She tried to run off under cover of darkness, but Constitution was still in good sailing trim. She easily overtook the sloop and accepted her surrender at around 2200.

Stewart had definitely surpassed the victories of Constitution's previous commanders. Not only did he successfully assimilate the complexities of maneuver against two British warships, but he also captured both in sailing condition. "Old Ironsides" proved that, in the hands of a well-trained crew and imaginative commander, she was as agile as she was strong.