200th Anniversary: USS CONSTITUTION vs HMS GUERRIERE August 19, 1812
The 44-gun frigate USS CONSTITUTION was actually outfitted with 55 guns when she encountered the 38-gun frigate HMS GUERRIERE (armed with 49 at the time) off the coast of Nova Scotia, at about 2 p.m. Closing the distance of several miles between the two warships, HMS GUERRIERE raised three British ensigns as an invitation to a duel; USS CONSTITUTION’s Capt. Isaac Hull answered with four American ensigns.
Aboard HMS GUERRIERE, Capt. James Dacres ordered his small but highly experienced crew to begin firing broadsides early. USS CONSTITUTION’s commanding officer chose to hold fire until just after 6 p.m., Hull wrote soon after the engagement, “…within less than a Pistol Shot, we commenced a very heavy fire from all of our Guns.”
USS CONSTITUTION’s 24-lb. shots were devastating, bringing down the English warship’s masts, and entangling the two ships when they collided. The first United States Marine Corps officer to die in combat at sea was Lt. William Bush, who was shot on USS CONSTITUTION’s taffrail while attempting to board HMS GUERRIERE.
By 7 p.m., a wounded Dacres ordered a gun fired to leeward, signaling HMS GUERRIERE’s surrender to the American frigate. “The Guerriere was so cut up, that all attempts to get her in would have been useless,” Capt. Dacres explained in a letter to his superiors in England. “As soon as the wounded were got out of her, they set her afire, and I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his Officers to our Men has been that of a brave Enemy.”
HMS GUERRIERE sank into the sea in flames on Aug. 20, and USS CONSTITUTION returned to Boston on Aug. 30, to great fanfare.
The British reaction was summed up by the London Times, which stated, “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, and enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. …how important this triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war. Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.”