On this day in history, August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution won a successful victory in single ship action against the HMS Guerriere.
The victory was not necessarily a great victory from a military perspective considering that the United States had a considerably smaller fleet of ships compared to the 600 ship Royal Navy, but the victory greatly boosted morale and American patriotism. So a moral victory it was.
There was a lack of public support for the war before the battle, but after it, support increased dramatically. The win also validated the point that the United States was becoming a powerful nation.
Both ships prepared for action after sighting one another around 2 pm, and shortened sail to “fighting sail.” As the Constitution closed in, Captain James Richard Dacres of the HMS Guerriere fired a broadside, which fell short of its target, and then ran before the wind for three quarters of an hour with the Constitution on her quarter. Dacres yawed several times to fire broadsides at the Constitution, but the Guerriere’s broadsides were mostly inaccurate, while the few shots fired from Constitution’s foremost guns had little effect.
After one cannonball bounced “harmlessly” off the side of the Constitution, a crew member yelled “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” Once the range had closed to within a few hundred yards, Captain Hull of the USS Constitution ordered extra sail to be set, to close the distance quickly.
Dacres did not match this maneuver, and the two ships began exchanging broadsides at “half pistol-shot”, with the Constitution to starboard and Guerriere to port. After fifteen minutes exchanging shots, during which Guerriere suffered far more damage than the Constitution due to the Constitution’s larger guns and thicker hull, Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell overboard to starboard, acting like a rudder and dragging the ship all over the place.
This allowed Constitution to get ahead of Guerriere, firing a raking broadside which brought down the main yard. Hull then crossed Guerriere’s bow again, firing another raking broadside, but the maneuver was cut too close and the Guerriere’s bowsprit became entangled in the rigging of the Constitution’s mizzenmast. On both ships, boarding parties were summoned and the two sides exchanged musket fire. Captain Dacres was wounded by musket shots.
Some of the gunners aboard Guerriere fired at point-blank range into Hull’s stern cabin, setting the American ship on fire briefly. The two locked ships eventually broke free. The Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast both snapped off at deck level, leaving the ship helpless. Dacres attempted to set sail, but it too had been damaged and broke. The Constitution meanwhile ran downwind for several minutes, repairing damage to the rigging, before once again wearing and beating upwind to return to battle.
As the Constitution prepared to get back into the action, the Guerriere fired a shot in the opposite direction to the Constitution, signaling a surrender. Hull ordered a boat to take a Lieutenant over to the British ship. When the Lieutenant boarded the Guerriere and asked if Guerriere was prepared to surrender, Captain Dacres said, “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.”