USS Constitution - The First U.S. Naval Victory
Written by Tim Nash
American Wars - War of 1812
During those formative decades of U.S. history, each time the infant nation was able to show itself capable, that only continued to reinforce that we had not only declared ourselves an independent nation, we were prepared to act like one. Part of acting like a nation meant building and deploying an army and navy to secure the nation against attack. And in those days when attack was a very real possibility from the British navy, the importance of a strong navy was significant.
That is why when the USS Constitution defeated the HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812, along with the military victory, the moral boost was tremendous because that battle proved that the US Navy was a force to be reckoned with.
If you have ever examined the USS Constitution, you know it is a heavily fortified ship. Even though at the time it was rated as a 44-gun warship, it actually carried 56 guns to give it the edge in any sea encounter it might come upon. On that day in August in 1812, it had its chance to prove its worth. Under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, the Constitution left Boston and headed north into the British shipping lanes. Before long, in the distance, the captain sighted the outline of the British frigate, the Guerriere.
Conflict was inevitable but despite the impending battle, Hull did not fire on the British ship until they were an amazing 25 yards from each other. Then for a half hour, the battle was furious as the Constitution attacked broadside and the Guerriere responded in kind. It was at this point that the Constitution was able to take out the Guerriere's mizzenmast that things began to turn in favor of the Americans. During the ensuing battle, the Guerriere and Constitution ran into each other no less than three times. This close quartered fighting lead to several attempts at boarding from one ship to the other each of which was repelled by stubborn musket work from the sailors on each ship.
It was on the last of those three times the ships hit each other that the Constitution got snarled up in the bowsprit of the Guerriere. To the despair of captain James R. Dacres who was commanding the Guerriere, when the Constitution pulled away to try to break free of the bowsprit entanglement, the bowsprit snapped and went overboard taking the Guerriere's riggings and both masts with it into the sea. The Guerriere was disabled by the accident. Captain Dacres called his crew together and although he himself had been wounded in the battle, he commanded that the colors of the Guerriere be lowered signaling surrender.
Quickly captain Hull boarded the Guerriere and determined with captain Dacres that the Guerriere would not be salvageable. After moving both crews to the Constitution, the Guerriere was set on fire so it could sink. The day was won by the Americans and finally and once and for all, the United States knew that its navy was a significant force to conduct naval warfare in defense of the new nation.