Tag Archives: USS Essex

The Capture of the USS Essex 28 March 1814.

The USS Essex, Captain David Porter, sailed from the Delaware on 28 October 1812 with orders to rendezvous with the USS Constitution and Hornet under Commodore Bainbridge.

Porter believed his ship to be ‘the worst frigate’ in the United States Navy.[1] He disliked her armament, which consisted largely of carronades, very powerful but short range guns.

The Essex missed a number of rendezvous with Bainbridge before capturing the Post Office Packet Nocton on 12 December. Porter removed £15,000 worth of specie and sent her back to the USA as a prize, but she was recaptured on the way. On 29 December he took another British merchant ship.

Before the war Porter had proposed that the USN send an expedition to explore and colonise the Pacific. No action was taken, but his planning for it meant that he was well informed about the Pacific.

The Spanish colonies on the Pacific coast of South America had revolted, so might be friendly to a US warship. The Royal Navy had no warships in the region, making the British whaling industry and Britain’s substantial trade in the region, which included shipments of specie and bullion to the UK, vulnerable. He therefore decided to use a section of his orders that gave him discretion to act ‘for the good of the service’ to move to the Pacific.[2]

The RN’s Brazil Station, responsible for protecting British maritime trade from the Caribbean to Chile, was commanded by Rear Admiral Manley Dixon. His most important task was to ensure that the bullion and specie needed to finance the war in Europe was transported safely home from South America. By July 1813 he had one 74 gun ship of the line, eight frigates, three sloops and two cutters to protect a vast area from Bainbridge, Porter and a number of privateers.

Dixon’s force was even weaker than the numbers suggest, since one of his frigates was old and three were sixth rates, too small to fight the larger US frigates. He therefore relied on what Andrew Lambert calls ‘widely deployed, effective British intelligence-gathering assets: with consuls, merchants, ship masters and warships in several key locations the information flow was relatively rapid.'[3]

The Essex took 13 prizes in 1813 and inflicted heavy damage on the British whaling fleet. There were no US bases in the Pacific, so for 17 months she was forced to supply herself entirely from prizes . Anything bought had to be paid for by money obtained from the prizes. Theodore Roosevelt describes this feat as being ‘unprecedented.'[4]

Porter valued his captures at $5,000,000: the exchange rate was then £1=$4.40.[5] However, the only one of them that got back to the USA was the Atlantic, which Porter renamed the Essex Junior and armed with 10 long six pounders and 10 18 pound carronades. This made her a useful commerce raider, but she would be helpless against a British frigate.

On 12 January the Essex and the Essex Junior anchored at Valparaiso. On 8 February the 38 gun frigate HMS Phoebe, Captain James Hillyar, and the 18 gun sloop HMS Cherub, Captain Thomas Tudor Tucker, arrived at Valparaiso.

Roosevelt suggests that the British hoped to take the Americans by surprise, but failed to do so because the Essex was ready for action by the time that Phoebe came alongside her.[6] Lambert argues that they hoped to provoke the Americans into firing first in what was a neutral port.[7]

There then followed a stand-off. Both sides raised provocative banners. The Americans claimed to be fighting for free trade, although their seaman were more likely to be fighting for their ship and shipmates. A British banner referring to traitors would only make the British born members of the US crew fight harder.

Hillyar and Porter had met before when both were serving in the Mediterranean. They had a meeting onshore, at which they agreed to release prisoners, with the proviso that the men involved would not serve in the forthcoming action.

After resupplying his ships Hillyar took them to sea on 14 February. He may have been concerned that the local authorities would prevent the British from sailing for 24 hours if the Americans left the neutral port first.

On 27 February Phoebe fired a gun accidentally. The US officers, including Porter’s 12 year old foster son Midshipman David Farragut, the future Civil War Admiral, thought that this was a challenge. The two US ships set sail, but the British withdrew, refusing to fight a close action.

By the end of March Porter had learnt that two more British frigates were on the way. On the night of 27-28 March the Essex left Valparaiso. An attempt to distract the British by sending out a boat to fire rockets and burn lights failed. The Essex was then hit by a heavy squall, which swept away its main topmast. This cost two of her seamen their lives and made it impossible for her to outrun her pursuers.

At 4 pm the Essex anchored just off the coast.[8] Hillyar argued that she was not in neutral waters because she was out of range of Chilean shore batteries.

Phoebe had a crew of 320 men and a broadside of 13 long 18 pounders, one long 12 pounder, one long 9 pounder, seven 32 pound carronades and one 18 pound carronade, a weight of 255 pounds at long range and 497 pounds at short range.[9]

Cherub had a crew of 180 and a broadside of two long 9 pounders, two 18 pound carronades and nine 32 pound carronades, a weight of 18 pounds at long range and 342 pounds at long range. This made the total weight of the British broadside 273 pounds at long range and 839 pounds at short range.

The Essex had a crew of 255 and a broadside of six long 12 pounders and 17 32 pound carronades, a weight of 66 pounds at long range and 570 pounds at short range if Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that US shot was 7 per cent lighter than its stated size is accepted.[10]

The Essex was outgunned even inside carronade range, even if Roosevelt’s theory about the weight of US shot is rejected, and hopelessly so at longer range. The British also had the tactical advantage of having two ships against one, enabling them to manoeuvre for a better position and keep one ship out of the Essex’s arc of fire.

Hillyar closed to 250 yards before opening fire at 4:20 pm. He initially placed Cherub on the Essex’s starboard bow and Phoebe under her stern, meaning that the US ship could not fire on Phoebe. Three attempts were made to put springs on the Essex cables in order to move her into a position where she could fire, but the springs were shot away. Cherub came under fire from the US bow guns, so moved close to Phoebe. Tucker was wounded but remained at his post.

In the first five minutes of the action the Americans suffered heavy casualties without being able to damage Phoebe, but then moved three 12 pounders to fire from the Essex’s stern, with the intention of crippling Phoebe’s rigging.

At 4:40 pm Hillyar ceased fire and withdrew. After repairing the damage to Phoebe’s rigging the British resumed the attack at 5:35 pm. Hillyar positioned his ship on the Essex’s starboard quarter, where the US broadside and stern guns could not bear. He stayed about half a mile away from his opponent, close enough for the British 18 long pounders to inflict significant damage, but too long a range for the American carronades to be effective.

Porter cut his ship’s cables at 5:50 pm and set all her remaining sails, his intention being to board Phoebe. This was a desperate move because the damage to the Essex’s rigging made her far less manoeuvrable than Phoebe. What little chance it had of success was ended when the wind died away.

Porter, with no hope of victory, now tried to run his ship aground and blow her up, but he was again thwarted by a change in the wind. With many of his crew badly wounded he now had no choice to surrender, but first encouraged the able bodied to abandon ship and head for the shore. The Essex’s flag was lowered at 6:20 pm by Hillyar’s account.

Total US casualties were 58 killed on board, 31 drowned whilst trying to reach the shore, 66 wounded and 76 captured unwounded, with 24 of the 255 crew making it to the shore. Phoebe lost four killed and seven wounded and Cherub one killed and three wounded. Porter offered Hillyar his sword, as was the custom of the day, but Hillyar allowed him to keep it.

Essex Junior, which had played no part in the battle, was also captured by the British. She was disarmed and sent to New York with exchanged US prisoners, including Porter. The Essex was taken into the RN, but was used mostly as a prison ship.

Hillyar reached the rank of Admiral and commanded fleets at sea in peacetime: the RN had far more officers than peacetime jobs for them, so this showed that he was well regarded.

Porter was treated as a hero on his return to the US. He was later court-martialled for exceeding his orders whilst suppressing piracy in the West Indies, commanded the Mexican Navy and became US Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire

As with almost all naval actions of the War of 1812 the Battle of Valparaiso was won by the more powerful force. Hillyar acted cautiously, but his duty was to take the Essex with the minimum casualties and damage to his ships, which he achieved.


[1] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol ii. p. 1.

[2] Quoted in A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 5365-68.

[3] Ibid. Kindle locations 5401-6.

[4] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2), p. 201.

[5] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle locations 5483-87.

[6] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii p. 10.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle locations 5536-40.

[8] Times quoted are from the British account. The Americans clock was 25 minutes earlier.Ibid. Kindle location 5630-71.

[9] Crews and armaments are from Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. ii, p. 30

[10] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 82-83.



Filed under War History

Defeat on Land, Victory at Sea: The Hull Family and the USA in 1812

This post follows on from this one on the origins of the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain.

In mid August 1812 the USA suffered a defeat on land and gained a victory at sea in its war with Britain. On 16 August the US garrison of Detroit surrendered to the British. Three days later the USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere.

The US commanders in these two actions were closely related. Constitution’s captain Isaac Hull’s father died when he was a child. He was then adopted by his uncle William Hull, the man who surrendered Detroit. William was a veteran of the American War of Independence, but had been a civilian ever since. He was appointed a Brigadier-General and given command of the US Northwestern Army because he was governor of Michigan Territory.

The Americans planned to invade Canada early in the war. Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada and acting administrator in absence of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore, did not want to give up territory. He strengthened the militia and looked for Native American support, which he saw as vital. He immediately attacked Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan and took it on 17 July.

General Hull invaded Canada on 12 July at western end of Lake Erie with a force of only 2,500 men, who were untrained.[1] He advanced on Fort Amherstburg on Lake Erie, which had a garrison of only 300 and lacked civilian support. Hull, whose supplies were threatened by Native Americans, hesitated. Captured papers gave the British had intelligence of his plans and strength.

Four skirmishes between 16 and 26 July decided nothing. Colonel Henry Procter rallied the garrison of Amherstburg and, with the help of the Native American leader Tecumseh, obtained the support of the Wyandot tribe. Hull’s supply line was cut at Brownston on 5 August and at Maguaga 4 days later. He retreated to Detroit. The small US garrison of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) tried to do the same, accompanied by some civilians, but were attacked and massacred by the Potawatomis.

Hull believed that he faced a large force of Native Americans, so surrendered on 16 August to Brock in order to avoid a massacre. Brock actually had 300 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Natives. Jeremy Black quotes Shadrach Byfield of the British 41st Foot as saying that when asked for a 3 day ceasefire ‘our general replied that if they did not yield in three hours, he would blow up every one of them.’[2]

Hull was court-martialled in August 1814 and sentenced to death for neglect of duty and cowardice, but the court’s recommendation of mercy accepted. Brock was knighted just before being killed at the battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October.

The British did not exploit their success at Detroit. Fort Wayne was besieged by 500 Native Americans in late August, but it was relieved on 12 September. Captain Zachary Taylor, the future US President, beat off an attack on Fort Harrison by Tecumseh on 4 September.

The British captures of Detroit and Fort Mackinac impressed the Native Americans and maintained geographical links with them. They were important to the defence of Canada’s western flank. However, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, moved Brock and many of his troops from Detroit to defend in Niagara.

Black argues that Prevost wanted a ceasefire now that the repeal of the British Orders-in-Council had removed one of the causes of the war. This damaged relations with the Native Americans, as Tecumseh realised that a negotiated peace would be bad for them.[3]

Three days later Hull’s nephew Isaac restored the pride of both his country and his family when his frigate the USS Constitution defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

Captain Hull had been ordered to join Commodore John Rodger’s squadron off New York on the first day of war. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wanted Rodgers to act cautiously and defend US merchant shipping, but Rodgers saw a chance to act aggressively before British reinforcements arrived. He set sail before Hamilton’s orders arrived, intending to attack a West India convoy.

Rodgers’s squadron consisted of the 44 gun frigate USS President and the 18 gun sloop USS Hornet. He also commanded Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron of the 44 gun frigate USS United States, the 38 gun frigate USS Congress and the 16 gun brig USS Argus.

On 23 July Rodgers’s five ships met the 36 gun frigate HMS Belvidera, captained by Richard Byron. He did not know war had been declared, but realised that the US ships were hostile. Belvidera escaped after a brief engagement in which Rodgers was wounded when a gun on the USS President exploded.

Rear Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commanding RN forces at Halifax Nova Scotia, was advised by Augustus Foster, British Minister in Washington, and Andrew Allen, British Consul in Boston, to act cautiously, attacking only US warships, foreign trade and privateers. They hoped for negotiations. US supplies were vital to the British army in Spain. Sawyer in any case had too weak a force to enforce a full blockade.

Captain Philip Broke left Halifax on 5 July. He was captain of the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon,  and also had  the elderly 64 gun 3rd rate HMS Africa and the 32 gun frigate HMS Aeolus under his command. He intended to meet HMS Belvidera and Guerriere and then engage and defeat Rodgers’s squadron. On 15 July Shannon captured the 14 gun brig USS Nautilus, which became HMS Emulous.

Broke met the USS Constitution on 17 July. The wind was initially light, and four days of manoeuvring ensued, before Hull’s ship escaped thanks to what Andrew Lambert describes as ‘a brilliant display of seamanship, skill and resolve.’[4]

Broke joined a convoy of 60 merchantmen escorted by HMS Thetis, an old 38 gun frigate, on 29 July. He expected Rodgers to attack it, but he was pursuing another convoy, 1,000 miles to the east. Broke escorted the convoy to safety before returning to the American coast, sending Guerriere back to Halifax to repair her masts, which had been damaged by lightning.

Guerriere had been captured from the French in 1806 and was in a poor state of repair. In this period captured ships were often pressed into service by their captors, usually retaining their names unless the captor already had a ship by the original name or found it offensive.

Hull headed for Boston. In the absence of orders he then sailed for the Gulf of St Lawrence to raid British shipping. He planned a long cruise, knowing that he was about to be replaced by William Bainbridge, and bought charts of the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa and the River Plate.

On 19 August his 44 gun frigate encountered HMS Guerriere, a 38 gun frigate. The number of guns given is an indication of the size of the ship rather than the actual armament carried. The Constitution had 56 guns and the Guerriere 51. The US ship’s main armament comprised 24 pounders, compared with 18 pounders on her British opponent.

Both ships also carried carronades. These were short barrelled guns of great power but short range, so-called because they were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland. Some US 44 gun frigates carried 42 pound carronades, but both these ships had 32 pound carronades.

According to Alfred Mahan, the USS Constitution’s broadside was 736 pounds versus 570 pounds for HMS Guerriere.[5] Theodore Roosevelt claimed that US shot was shown to be 5-9 per cent lighter than its nominal value .He took the midpoint of 7 per cent and reduced the Constitution’s broadside to 684 pounds, compared to 556 pounds for Guerriere. He stated that the American ship had a crew of 456 against 272 on the British vessel, excluding 10 Americans who took no part in the fighting[6]. Andrew Lambert describes the Constitution as being 50 per cent more powerful than Guerriere.[7] [p. 79]

The official reports of both Hull and Captain James Dacres, commanding Guerriere, are available online. The two ships sighted each other at 2 pm on 19 August. Dacres realised that the other ship was a warship at 3 pm and beat to quarters, the sailing age equivalent of the modern sounding of action stations/general quarters. Hull recognised Guerriere to be what he called ‘a large frigate’ at 3:30.

At 4:30 Hull shortened sail, making his ship slower but easier to manoeuver and a steadier gun platform. Dacres claimed that he opened fire at 4:10 with his starboard batteries. He then manoeuvred to bring his port batteries into action; port was then referred to as larboard. He times the USS Constitution’s reply at 4:20. Hull says that the first British broadside came at 5:05. Roosevelt puts the first broadside at 5 pm, citing HMS Guerriere’s log, so it is likely there is an error in Dacres’s report. Times quoted hereafter are from Hull’s report.

Until 6 pm HMS Guerriere manoeuvred so as to bring both her batteries into action, but caused little damage. Hull took great care to ensure that his ship was not raked, which means firing down the length of a ship from its bows or stern. The target is smaller than if the side is fired on, so is harder to hit, but hits will pass through more of the ship, thus causing more damage. A stern rake is more damaging than a bow one, because the bow is curved and stronger, so deflects some of the shots.

At 6:05 Hull commenced a heavy fire with all his guns from pistol shot range. This caused heavy damage, whilst the British reply did little damage. Some British shots reputedly bounced off the Constitution’s wooden sides, giving her the nickname of “Old Ironsides”.

A TV documentary called Master and Commander: The True Story attributed this to the quality and thickness of the wood used in her construction. It came partly from southern live oak. a type of tree found only in the Americas, which is much stronger than the white oak used in British ships. The programme was shown in the UK by Channel 5 on 12 April 2012, but was made by the Discovery Channel.

Within 15 minutes Guerriere’s mizzen mast, the rear of her three masts, fell to starboard. It dragged in the water, slowing her and acting like a rudder to turn her to starboard. Hull then manouevred the Constitution to rake Guerriere. The rigging of the two ships became entangled and both prepared boarding parties. A number of men, including Dacres, were wounded by musket fire, but the sea was too heavy for either side to board the other.

Guerriere’s fore and main masts than fell, leaving her helpless. Hull decided to back off and repair the damage to his ship. Half an hour later he returned to the Guerriere. It was too dark to see if she was still flying her colours, so Hull sent Lieutenant Reed in a boat to see if Guerriere had surrendered. Reed returned with Dacres, who had surrendered as his ship was immobile.

The British prisoners were taken on board the Constitution the next day. The Guerriere was too badly damaged to take to port so at 3 pm, so Hull had her set on fire and destroyed at 3 pm. US casualties were seven killed and seven wounded. British ones were 23 killed and 56 wounded. The Constitution ought to have won, given her greater strength, but a less skilful captain than Hull could have lost more men in doing so.

Hull returned to Boston on 30 August as a hero, his ship full of prisoners and wounded. This was the first good news for the USA in the war. The British were not used to defeat at sea and took the news badly, ignoring the fact that Guerriere had been beaten by a stronger ship. According to Andrew Lambert:

Hull had handled his ship very well, exploiting his advantages to the full. Amid the euphoria, and without the prize to prove otherwise, most chose to celebrate Hull’s victory as a fair and equal contest…Instead of pausing for reflection, an unthinking British press blindly accepted the idea of humiliating defeat; the Times blustered that the Navy’s ‘spell of victory’ had been shattered.’[8]

The Americans needed a victory and defeats for the RN were rare in this period. Focus on the fact than the Constitution versus Guerriere was not a contest of equals obscures the major impact of the US victory on American morale.

Dacres was court-martialled, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ships. He was acquitted and given another command in 1814 and later promoted. Lambert points out that his only way of saving his ship was to run away, in which case he would have been ‘cashiered or shot.’ He adds that the Admiralty, short of sailors, were more worried about the loss of men than the loss of an old and worn out ship.’[9]

Rodgers returned to Boston the day after Hull, having captured only 7 merchantmen. His cruise was curtailed by scurvy. Most US frigates were in Boston by early September. The exceptions were the USS Constellation, which was under repair at Washington DC, and the USS Essex.

The Essex, captained by David Porter, carried out a successful cruise, capturing 10 prizes. Porter valued them at $300,000, a figure that Lambert suspects is too high, while accepting that the cruise was very successful.[10] Porter encountered HMS Shannon and a prize that he misidentified as another warship on 4 September. He evaded them and, unable to get into Boston or New York, made for the Delaware River.

[1] Force sizes are from J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), pp. 61-64.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.

[3] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[4] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012), p. 72.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i. p. 334.

[6] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 82-88.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge, p. 79.

[8] Ibid., p. 78.

[9] Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Ibid., p. 81.


Filed under War History