The Capture of the USS President 15 January 1815

The United Kingdom and United States of America agreed terms to end the War of 1812 on 24 December 1814. They were ratified by the UK government three days later, but the slow speed of communications from Europe to America meant that fighting continued until well into February.

The American frigate USS President (44 guns), the sloops USS Hornet and Peacock and the schooner USS Tom Bowline were in New York at the start of 1815. Commodore Stephen Decatur, captain of the President, intended to break out in order to raid British shipping. The harbour was large, but difficult to enter and leave in bad weather because of the many sand banks between Coney Island and Sandy Hook.[1]

On 13 January the port was blockaded by the razee (a 74 gun ship of the line cut down to be a heavy frigate), HMS Majestic (58) and the frigates HMS Endymion (40), Pomone (38) and Tenedos (38). Note that ships often carried more guns carried than their official rating. Captain Henry Hope’s Endymion, which had recently suffered heavy casualties in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the American privateer Prince de Neufchatel, had just arrived to replace her sister HMS Forth.

USS President: 32 x 24 pound long guns, 22 x 42 pound carronades (very powerful but short ranged guns), one 18 pound long gun.

USS Hornet: 18 x 32 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns.

USS Peacock: 20 x 32 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns

USS Tom Bowline: 12 guns. Size unknown.

HMS Majestic: 28 x 32 pound long guns, 28 x 42 pound carronades, two 12 pound long guns.

HMS Endymion: 26 x 24 pound long guns, 20 x 32 pound carronades, two 9 pound long guns.

HMS Pomone: 28 x 18 pound long guns, 16 x 32 pound carronades, two 9 pound long guns.

HMS Tenedos: 28 x 18 pound long guns, eight 32 pound carronades, 10 x 9 pound long guns.

The British squadron was clearly superior, whilst in a single ship action Majestic outgunned President, which was stronger than any of the British frigates, which were far superior to the three smaller US ships.

The British commander, Commodore John Hayes of Majestic, was expecting a break out, as the British had intelligence that the President ‘was victualled and stored for a very long voyage, even…seven or eight months…with…charts of the East Indies.’[2]

There was a snow storm on 14 January, which split up the British squadron for a period. Decatur decided to take advantage of this to slip out that night. The President was accompanied by the Macedonian, a supply ship owned by the first John Jacob Astor. She was a merchantman, not the frigate of the same name that then served in the United States Navy after being captured by Decatur’s USS United States from the Royal Navy in 1812. The Tom Bowline should also have gone with them, but she ran aground on 13 January, so was ordered to sail with the Peacock and Hornet later.[3]

The night was dark and windy, which made it easier to evade the blockade force, but hard to safely navigate the difficult waters. This was compounded by the fact that, although Decatur and his crew were very experienced seamen, this was the first time that they had taken her to sea; they had been transferred to her from the United States in May 1814, as there was no prospect of the latter breaking out from New London.[4]

The President, deeply laden with stores because she had been ordered to undertake a lengthy cruise, ran aground at 8:00 pm. She managed to free herself after over an hour and resumed her course. Her damage reduced her speed; Alfred Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt both state that she would have returned to port for repairs if the westerly gale had permitted this, but Andrew Lambert thinks it ‘more likely’ that Decatur did not want to rather than could not return to port.[5]

At 5:00 am the President encountered Majestic, Pomone and Endymion, which had been separated by the storm, but were now together again. A chase developed, with Tenedos re-joining by 8:00 am. The winds lightened around mid-day, and the heavy Majestic fell back. Decatur tried to lighten ship, jettisoning stores, but his and his crew’s lack of knowledge of their ship made it hard to optimise her trim.[6]

Endymion, the fastest of the ships involved, gained on the President, which opened fire on her at 2:00 pm. The British quickly replied.

Both captains intended to slow the enemy down by damaging her rigging. The British had won many actions against brave but poorly trained and led French and Spanish crews by quickly closing to close range, firing at the enemy’s hull and boarding if required. These tactics had failed against the Americans, who were better seamen and tacticians than Britain’s other opponents of this era. The US ships carried 20 per cent more anti-rigging ammunition than British ones, using it to cripple the British ship’s sails and masts before they could close the range. The Americans could then out manoeuvre the British.[7]

By 5:00 pm Endymion was just over 100 yards off the President’s starboard quarter, ‘a near perfect position’ from which few American guns could reply.[8] Decatur’s problem was that if he turned his ship to try and bring her superior broadside to bear she would no longer be heading away from the other British ships. However, in the current position she would soon be slowed by damage to her masts and rigging, so at 5:30 pm he turned her in an attempt to cross Endymion’s bow and rake her.

Hope could not allow his ship to be raked, so reacted to this move, resulting in the ships exchanging broadsides. The President fired at Endymion’s rigging, hoping to disable her in order to allow herself to escape. The British ship fired into the American one’s hull, aiming to inflict casualties and destroy guns. The effect of the American gunfire was reduced by poor quality powder.[9]

By around 8:00 pm Endymion’s rigging was mostly shot away. Lambert says that the President showed a light in her rigging at 7:58 pm, the night signal of surrender. Hope prioritised repairing his ship’s rigging and did not have any intact boats to send to take the surrender, so the President was able to sail away.[10] A ship that had struck her colours could not fire on the enemy, but was not obliged to heave to and wait to be boarded.

Roosevelt, however, makes no mention of the President striking her colours, writing that ‘Decatur did not board [Endymion] merely because her consorts were too close astern.’[11] Mahan argues that ‘[t]here is…no ground whatever for the assumption that the Endymion did, or singly would, have beaten the President.’[12]

Pomone, followed by Tenedos, caught up with the President by 11:00 pm. The American ship surrendered after Pomone had fired two broadsides at her. Lambert contends that Decatur’s failure to resist proves that he had struck his colours to Endymion.

Mahan quotes Decatur as saying that the damage and casualties suffered by his ship and the strength of the enemy meant that ‘without a chance of escape, I deemed it my duty to surrender.’[13] However, he goes on to suggest that Decatur ought to have engaged Pomone unless his ship was as badly damaged as the British claimed, since putting a second British frigate out of action would have significantly weakened the blockade of New York.[14] Roosevelt argues that Decatur had beaten Endymion, but then acted ‘rather tamely’ in surrendering.[15]

The most likely explanation is that, whether Decatur did or did not strike his colours to Endymion, his ship was too badly damaged to resist two British frigates even if they were both weaker than his ship. The British were able to examine the President after they captured her, so could see how bad the damage was. They took her into service under the same name, but broke her up only three years later. Another and very similar HMS President was then built. The actions of Decatur, whose personal courage has never ben doubted, at the time, and the RN three years later suggest that his ship was very badly damaged in its action with Endymion.

Casualties were 24 killed and 55 wounded out of 450 men on the President according to Roosevelt, but Lambert says 35 were killed and 70, including Decatur, wounded. Both give 11 killed and 14 wounded out of 346 on Endymion. Roosevelt says that many of the US casualties were inflicted by Pomone’s two broadsides.[16] Lambert notes that Decatur claimed this, but quote the President’s chaplain, Mr Bowie, as saying that Endymion caused all her casualties.[17]

Endymion had inflicted most, if not all, of the damage, but the RN’s rules were quite clear; the victory, and thus the prize money, was shared between the whole squadron since all were in sight of the enemy.

The other three American ships managed to get out of New York on 20 January, heading for a rendezvous at Tristan da Cunha. The Hornet arrived first, on 23 March. She met a British sloop, HMS Penguin, which was slightly inferior to herself: 16 x 32 pound carronades, and three 12 pound long guns, one of which could fire on either broadside.

Lambert says that the British knew that the war was over and told the Americans, but a fight still took place.[18] Penguin was forced to surrender, being so badly damaged that she had to be scuttled. Hornet suffered little damage. The British lost 14 killed and 28 wounded, the Americans one killed and 10 wounded.[19] This was one of the more evenly matched battles in a war in which the naval actions were normally won by the side that ought to have won on paper.

The Peacock, Tom Bowline and Macedonian arrived at Tristan da Cunha the next day. Peacock captured the East India Company sloop Nautilus on 30 June, but the prize had to be returned to its owners as the war had then been over for four and a half months.

 

 

[1] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition location 6896 of 12307

[2] Quoted in Ibid. location 6934.

[3] Ibid. location 7001.

[4] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. ii, p. 397.

[5] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7005; Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 398; T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 146.

[6] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7043.

[7] Ibid. locations 7067-90.

[8] Ibid. location 7100.

[9] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 150.

[10] Lambert, The Challenge. locations 7175-87.

[11] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 148.

[12] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 401.

[13] Quoted in Ibid. vol. ii, p. 402.

[14] Ibid. vol. ii, p. 403.

[15] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 153.

[16] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7230; Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii. pp. 149-50.

[17] Lambert, The Challenge. location 7304-11.

[18] Ibid. location 7280.

[19] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 406-7.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “The Capture of the USS President 15 January 1815

  1. I didn’t know any of this, Martin or I’ve simply forgotten since school. I was fairly good in history, I wonder if we were ever taught it?

    • Certainly not taught in British schools. Reasonable amount on the Napoleonic Wars, but top down rather than study of battles. The main focus in this period was on the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions and the subsequent struggle for democracy.

  2. Reblogged this on History Stuff That Interests Me and commented:
    Superb blog in general but a great article on a War of 1812 naval battle.

  3. Pingback: The End of the War of 1812 | War and Security

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