THE WAR OF 1812: 200 YEARS AGO
On 1 June 1812, President James Madison solemnly penned a “war message” to the 12th Congress. In his letter, Madison carefully crafted the reasons why hostilities should exist between the United States and Great Britain.
President Madison had grown tired of the highly aggressive Royal Navy who seemed determined to seize American shipping and sailors at will.
In his summation paragraph, President Madison asked whether “the United States shall con-tinue passive under these progressive usur-pa-tions and these accumulating wrongs, or, opposing force to force in defense of our national rights, shall commit a just cause into the hands of the Almighty Disposer of Events.”
While the U.S. House of Representatives took only four days to approve his request for a declaration of war, the Senate held more opposition. The Federalist Party senators, primarily from New England, vehemently argued against going to war with Great Britain. They were convinced that any rupture of relations between the two nations would have an immediate and negative effect upon their region since they were so heavily dependent upon overseas maritime trade. While the Madison administration eventually gained narrow congressional approval for war, not a single Federalist senator voted in its favor.
Soon after hostilities commenced, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton ordered Commodore John Rodgers in USS President and Captain Stephen Decatur in USS United States to take two small squadrons out to sea. Other vessels, such as USS Constitution commanded by CAPT Isaac Hull, put to sea as single ships. They did so in order to take advantage of the fact that the Royal Navy had not yet been informed that a state of war existed between the two nations.
Those particular American frigates were the famous “Super-44s” authorized at the end of George Washington’s second term. Called a Super-44 for the larger number of cannon they mounted, a standard British frigate carried slightly less ordnance and considerably fewer personnel. In reality, this 44-gun class of vessel usually carried close to 54 guns and occupied a unique interstice between a normal frigate, usually rated at 36 or 38 guns, and that of a much larger ship of the line, rated at 64 or 74 guns. However, in 1812 the American Navy did not possess a single ship of the line, while the Royal Navy maintained more than 115 such vessels, including Horatio Nelson’s famous 100-gun flagship, HMS Victory.
Conversely, the British did not possess a single frigate the equivalent of an American Super-44, although they had more than 125 standard-sized frigates on their active rolls at that time. Nevertheless, during the War of 1812, smaller British frigates regularly would challenge ships such as America’s President, United States and Constitution and nearly always found themselves disadvantaged. The big American frigates wisely avoided taking on a British ship of the line.
Marine detachments aboard a Super-44 usually consisted of two officers. The senior officer normally held the grade of first lieutenant or captain, and the junior officer was a more recently commissioned second lieutenant. The senior enlisted grades consisted of three or four noncommissioned officers in the grade of sergeant or corporal. Constitution’s Marine Detachment muster roll listed several sergeants, at least one corporal and 29 privates present for duty. The Marine Detachment also was responsible for the “ship’s music,” and the muster roll reported a single fifer and one drummer.
Those “musicians” were not there to provide entertainment for the crew. Rather they were underage males who were assigned that task until they turned 18. Once they reached that minimum age, the Marine “boys” were deemed old enough to shoulder a musket and were given the rank of private. However, their job as ship’s music was very important to the combat functioning of the vessel.
The fife and drum was one way a commander communicated with his crew. For example, if the captain desired to prepare the ship for action, a Marine drummer would be ordered to “beat to quarters,” and the young man would commence beating a continuous long roll on his drum as his older fellow Marines took their stations in the fighting tops and sailors cleared the decks for action.
When Constitution put to sea in the summer of 1812, the ship’s Marine Detachment was commanded by First Lieutenant William S. Bush. Commissioned a second lieutenant on 3 July 1809, and promoted to first lieutenant on 4 March 1811, William Sharp Bush came from a family with deep military roots. His father had served in several Pennsylvania units during the American Revolution and ultimately was promoted to the grade of captain.
Bush’s three uncles (his father’s brothers) also served during the war. The eldest brother, Lewis, was a major in the 6th Pennsylvania, who died of wounds received at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. Bush’s father, John, survived the war and eventually moved his family from Wilmington, Del., to a small farm in Talbot County, Md. Records do not indicate that William ever married, although he did have a brother, Lewis, named for his long-deceased Revolutionary War hero uncle. By all accounts, William Bush was a popular and competent officer of Marines.
Constitution, after some repair time in the Washington Navy Yard, cleared the capes of the Chesapeake Bay on 12 July 1812. Her captain, Isaac Hull, had orders to join with COMO John Rodgers’ squadron off Sandy Hook, N.J.
On 17 July, lookouts in Constitution spotted what appeared to be an enemy squadron on the distant horizon. It was not long before the ships under the command of CAPT Philip Broke of HMS Shannon began closing in. Bad luck had caused the wind initially to favor the British, and they had been able to close con-siderably the distance between themselves and the American frigate. However, it was not long before the winds had completely died and the British ships were still out of cannon range.
Because the water was relatively shallow, CAPT Hull accepted the suggestion of his able lieutenant, Charles Morris, and he employed the tactic of “kedging” to pull away from his British pursuers. Kedging involved taking the ship’s heavy anchors, rowing them several hundred yards ahead of the ship and then hauling on the attached cables which caused the ship to move forward until they reached the position of the anchors. The anchors were then hauled up and rowed forward over and over again. It was backbreaking work for the ship’s crew, and it is likely that Bush’s Marines fully participated in this endeavor for it was truly an all-hands effort.
Unfortunately, the British were quick to catch on to Hull’s trick, and they resorted to kedging themselves. Nevertheless, for 57 hours Hull used a combination of various sails, kedging, dumping his fresh water and outright superior seamanship to elude his British pursuers. By 20 July, with the distance ex-tending between Constitution and his British pursuers, Philip Broke gave up the chase. Constitution proceeded to Boston to await new orders from the Secretary of the Navy.
Meanwhile, Hull raced to ready Constitution for sea again. He feared the longer he remained in port, the greater possibility that Broke might return and blockade his ship in Boston harbor. Confident that once out upon the open sea he could outsail any ship, Hull cleared Boston Light on 2 Aug. 1812, and was soon off the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, hoping to snag British commercial vessels bound for Canada.
On 10 Aug., Constitution chased HMS Avenger, an 18-gun sloop, but Avenger was a faster vessel and was able to make her escape. On 18 Aug., Hull spotted another sail and chased that vessel as well. The ship turned out to be the Massachusetts privateer Decatur, commanded by CAPT William Nichols. Once Nichols realized that the frigate was American, he hove to and was taken on board Constitution to confer with Hull. One bit of intelligence provided by Nichols was that he recently had sighted a British frigate in the nearby vicinity. The frigate turned out to be HMS Guerriere, commanded by CAPT James Dacres.
While slightly smaller than Constitution and mounting fewer guns, 49 to Constitution’s 55, HMS Guerriere was considered one of the best frigates in the Royal Navy. Dacres himself was from a distinguished Royal Navy family and had a solid reputation as a captain of a British man-of-war. Moreover, at that early date in the war, the British generally held the “Yankees” in great contempt, and despite the size and ordnance differential, they firmly believed that a properly handled British frigate would prevail in any ship-to-ship engagement.
Just a few days before encountering Con-stitu-tion, Dacres had captured an American brig, John Adams, but since the vessel had left Liverpool without knowledge that war had commenced, he allowed the vessel to continue on to New York with her personnel under parole.
Before letting John Adams proceed, he wrote a curious challenge into the ship’s log: “Captain James Dacres, commander of his Britannic Majesty’s frigate Guerriere, of 44 guns, presents his compliments to Commodore Rodgers of the United States frigate President, and will be happy to meet him, or any other American frigate of equal force to the President, off Sandy Hook for the purpose of having a few minutes tete-a-tete.” What he was actually asking for was a gun fight with an American frigate. He soon got his wish.
On 19 Aug. 1812, about 750 miles east of Boston Light around 3 p.m., the two ships spotted each other. Both captains “beat to quarters,” prepared their ships for action and were eager for a direct engagement. Constitution’s sailors spread buckets of sand on the orlop deck where the ship’s surgeon usually was located and on the gun decks to give the barefooted men better traction once the battle began. The sand was designed to keep men from slipping in the pools of blood that inevitably formed on the deck from sailors and Marines killed or wounded in battle.
Hull made directly for Guerriere. Looking through his glass, Hull noted that Dacres had painted the ship’s name on one of the mainsails. On another sail, however, was a curious statement in bold letters: “NOT THE LITTLE BELT.” This was in reference to a prewar incident between USS President and HMS Little Belt. Little Belt was a captured Danish warship that the British had converted into a sloop of war. Spotted off Chesapeake Bay on 16 May 1811, Little Belt was chased down by COMO Rodgers in USS President.
In the gathering darkness, each side claimed the other had fired first, but Little Belt was decidedly worse off after the unequal encounter and had numerous casualties compared to only one man wounded in President. Later, Rodgers claimed that in the growing darkness he believed the smaller sloop was actually the British frigate Guerriere, which recently had impressed a sailor from a commercial brig, Spitfire. Thus Dacres painted his sails with the slogan so that the Americans would know beyond a shadow of a doubt which ship they were facing.
As Guerriere approached Constitution, Lt Bush was at his station near the quarterdeck. With bayonets affixed to their muskets, his Marines guarded key hatches (to keep personnel from leaving the gun decks without permission) or climbed the rigging and took their stations in the ship’s fighting tops. Around 5 p.m., with both ships just yards from each other, Dacres got off the first broadside. However, in a rolling sea, most of Guerriere’s guns missed their mark. Nonetheless, two of their 18-pounders managed to hit the side of Constitution’s hull with solid shot, but the rounds harmlessly bounced off. Allegedly, a sailor on board Constitution, seeing this, shouted, “Huzza, her sides are made of iron,” giving rise to Constitution’s nickname, “Old Ironsides.”
It was Hull’s turn to fire, and Constitution’s heavier ordnance exacted a terrible toll on board Guerriere. Firing at nearly point-blank range, Hull had Constitution’s 24-pounder cannon double-shotted, and Guerriere literally shuddered from stem to stern. Dacres attempted to return fire as best he could, but within 15 minutes of such close-quarters fighting, Guerriere’s mizzenmast had fallen to starboard, and the crew was unable to cut it away. It acted like a huge sea anchor.
Further, Guerriere’s hull had been damaged, and her sails and rigging were in shreds. Since Guerriere had lost her ability to steer properly, Hull took advantage of the situation by putting Constitution hard to port, thus enabling him to deliver two devastating raking broadsides on Guerriere. Meanwhile, Bush’s Marines in the fighting tops tried to pick off the ship’s officers on her quarterdeck. Typically, most fighting-top Marines were usually not all doing the shooting. Instead, most acted as loaders for the few who were accurate shots. At that point in the engagement, the Marines valued accuracy over volume of fire.
During the height of the largely one-sided fight, Guerriere had a temporary stroke of luck when her bowsprit became briefly entangled with Constitution near the stern of the ship. The point where the ships were entangled together gave CAPT Dacres a brief opportunity to board his opponent. Hull’s second in command, Charles Morris, rushed to the collision point and began lashing Guerriere’s bowsprit to Constitution.
Morris initially mounted the taffrail and noticed British sailors and Royal Marines massing for a boarding attempt. He informed Hull what Dacres was up to, but before he could do much about it, he was shot down. Amazingly, Hull noted that despite his grievous wound, Morris remained in action. Hull also called for boarders.
When Morris went down, 1stLt William Bush, at the head of a party of Marines he had just called aft to potentially repel boarders, also mounted the taffrail with his sword in hand and shouted out to Hull, “Shall I board her, sir?” Before Hull could answer, a crash of musketry from Royal Marines on Guerriere hit the Americans. Sailing Master John Aylwin, stand-ing behind Bush, was wounded slightly in his shoulder. However, Bush was shot in the face. According to Marine Lt John Contee, the .75-caliber ball entered Bush’s left cheekbone and exited out the back of his head. He died instantly.
Not long after Bush was killed, the two ships suddenly wrenched apart. As they did, Guerriere lost her two remaining masts and was a riddled hulk in danger of sinking. Hull briefly stood Constitution off to assess his own damage, which proved to be remarkably light. Along with Bush, Constitution had six other sailors killed in action. Marine Pvt Francis Mullen was wounded slightly.
It was at that point that CAPT Dacres was convinced that the time had come to strike his colors before Constitution returned to do more execution. Unfortunately, due to the loss of all his masts, he had nothing left to haul down. Instead he fired a single cannon to leeward, a traditional naval signal that indicated that a ship no longer intended to continue fighting.
In order to confirm this, Hull sent over his Third Lieutenant, who quickly confirmed Guerriere indeed had surrendered. Dacres had 15 dead and more than 60 men wounded. At least 24 Guerriere sailors were missing (most likely drowned when Guerriere’s masts gave way). The entire combat had lasted only 30 minutes.
Hull spent the night and most of the next day transferring the remaining British sailors and their baggage to Constitution. Unable to haul her into Boston as a prize, Hull ordered the shattered Guerriere to be destroyed. The loss of the gallant Lt Bush was felt deeply throughout the American naval establishment. CAPT Hull noted, “In him our country has lost a valuable and brave officer.”
On 29 Jan. 1813, Congress approved CAPT Hull for a gold medal and silver medals for all officers of Constitution and made a special provision for the deceased Lt Bush’s relatives to receive his medal.
The defeat of the obnoxious Guerriere was significant. Throughout the Napoleonic era, the Royal Navy rarely, if ever, lost a ship-to-ship engagement. Within months, they would lose two more frigates, HMS Java to USS Constitution and HMS Macedonian to Stephen Decatur’s USS United States. The Super-44s had broken the British myth of naval invincibility, and it was not long before the Admiralty sent specific instructions to their frigate commanders to avoid, if at all possible, single combat engagements with those particular vessels.
While the gallantry of Lt Bush did much for the reputation of the early Marine Corps, his death in combat was the first time a United States Marine Corps officer had suffered such a fate. Gone but not forgotten, the U.S. Navy later named two destroyers for William Bush. The first was a World War I-era destroyer, Number 166. The second, DD-529, had a distinguished fighting career in the Pacific during WW II, but similar to the ship’s namesake, was fated for death in combat in 1945 when she was repeatedly struck by kamikaze aircraft and sank off the island of Okinawa.