February 20 1815: USS Constitution Fights On

On February 20 1815, the USS Constitution captures the HMS Cyane and HMS Levant after a sea battle in the mid-Atlantic near Madeira  Levant was later recaptured by the British, as the Constitution escaped the pursuing British fleet. The tweets for the battle in @1815now are based on the account in The Naval War of 1812 by Theodore Roosevelt, which reads as follows:

After the Constitution had escaped from Boston, as I have described, she ran to the Bermudas, cruised in their vicinity a short while, thence to Madeira, to the Bay of Biscay, and finally off Portugal, cruising for some time in sight of the Rock of Lisbon. Captain Stewart then ran off southwest, and on Feb. 20th, Madeira bearing W. S. W. 60 leagues, the day being cloudy, with a light easterly breeze, at 1 P.M. a sail was made two points on the port bow; and at 2 P.M., Captain Stewart, hauling up in chase, discovered another sail. The first of these was the frigate-built ship corvette Cyane, Captain Gordon Thomas Falcon, and the second was the ship sloop Levant, Captain the Honorable George Douglass. Both were standing close hauled on the starboard tack, the sloop about 10 miles to leeward of the corvette.

At 4 P.M. the latter began making signals to her consort that the strange sail was an enemy, and then made all sail before the wind to join the sloop. The Constitution bore up in chase, setting her top-mast, top-gallant, and royal studding-sails. In half an hour she carried away her main royal mast, but immediately got another prepared, and at 5 o’clock began firing at the corvette with the two port-bow guns; as the shot fell short the firing soon ceased.

At 5.30 the Cyane got within hail of the Levant, and the latter’s gallant commander expressed to Captain Gordon his intention of engaging the American frigate. The two ships accordingly hauled up their courses and stood on the starboard tack; but immediately afterward their respective captains concluded to try to delay the action till dark, so as to get the advantage of manoeuvring. Accordingly they again set all sail and hauled close to the wind to endeavor to weather their opponent; but finding the latter coming down too fast for them to succeed they again stripped to fighting canvas and formed on the starboard tack in head and stern line, the Levant about a cable’s length in front of her consort. The American now had them completely under her guns and showed her ensign, to which challenge the British ships replied by setting their colors.

At 6.10 the Constitution ranged up to windward of the Cyane and Levant, the former on her port quarter, the latter on her port bow, both being distant about 250 yards from her [Footnote: Testimony sworn to by Lieutenant W. B. Shubrick and Lieutenant of Marines Archibald Henderson before Thomas Welsh. Jr., Justice of the Peace, Suffolk St., Boston, July 20, 1815. The depositions were taken in consequence of a report started by some of the British journals that the action began at a distance of 1/4 of a mile. All the American depositions were that all three ships began firing at once, when equidistant from each other about 250 yards, the marines being engaged almost the whole time.]—so close that the American marines were constantly engaged almost from the beginning of the action.

The fight began at once, and continued with great spirit for a quarter of an hour, the vessels all firing broadsides. It was now moonlight, and an immense column of smoke formed under the lee of the Constitution, shrouding from sight her foes; and, as the fire of the latter had almost ceased, Captain Stewart also ordered his men to stop, so as to find out the positions of the ships. In about three minutes the smoke cleared, disclosing to the Americans the Levant dead to leeward on the port beam, and the Cyane luffing up for their port quarter. Giving a broadside to the sloop, Stewart braced aback his main and mizzen top-sails, with top-gallant sails set, shook all forward, and backed rapidly astern, under cover of the smoke, abreast the corvette, forcing the latter to fill again to avoid being raked. The firing was spirited for a few minutes, when the Cyane’s almost died away. The Levant bore up to wear round and assist her consort, but the Constitution filled her top-sails, and, shooting ahead, gave her two stern rakes, when she at once made all sail to get out of the combat. The Cyane was now discovered wearing, when the Constitution herself at once wore and gave her in turn a stern rake, the former luffing to and firing her port broadside into the starboard bow of the frigate. Then, as the latter ranged up on her port quarter, she struck, at 6.50, just forty minutes after the beginning of the action. She was at once taken possession of, and Lieut. Hoffman, second of the Constitution, was put in command. Having manned the prize, Captain Stewart, at 8 o’clock, filled away after her consort. The latter, however, had only gone out of the combat to refit. Captain Douglass had no idea of retreat, and no sooner had he rove new braces than he hauled up to the wind, and came very gallantly back to find out his friend’s condition. At 8.50 he met the Constitution, and, failing to weather her, the frigate and sloop passed each other on opposite tacks, exchanging broadsides. Finding her antagonist too heavy, the Levant then crowded all sail to escape, but was soon overtaken by the Constitution, and at about 9.30 the latter opened with her starboard bow-chasers, and soon afterward the British captain hauled down his colors. Mr. Ballard, first of the Constitution, was afterward put in command of the prize. By one o’clock the ships were all in order again.

The Constitution had been hulled eleven times, more often than in either of her previous actions, but her loss was mainly due to the grape and musketry of the foe in the beginning of the fight. [Footnote: Deposition of her officers as before cited.] The British certainly fired better than usual, especially considering the fact that there was much manoeuvering, and that it was a night action. The Americans lost 3 men killed, 3 mortally, and 9 severely and slightly, wounded. The corvette, out of her crew of 180, had 12 men killed and 26 wounded, several mortally; the sloop, out of 140, had 7 killed and 16 wounded. The Constitution had started on her cruise very full-handed, with over 470 men, but several being absent on a prize, she went into battle with about 450. [Footnote: 410 officers and seamen, and 41 marines, by her muster-roll of Feb. 19th. (The muster-rolls are preserved in the Treasury Department at Washington.)] The prizes had suffered a good deal in their hulls and rigging, and had received some severe wounds in their masts and principal spars. The Cyane carried on her main-deck twenty-two 32-pound carronades, and on her spar-deck two long 12’s, and ten 18-pounder carronades. The Levant carried, all on one deck, eighteen 32-pound carronades and two long 9’s, together with a shifting 12-pounder. Thus, their broadside weight of metal was 763 pounds, with a total of 320 men, of whom 61 fell, against the Constitution’s 704 pounds and 450 men, of whom 15 were lost; or, nominally, the relative force was 100 to 91, and the relative loss 100 to 24. But the British guns were almost exclusively carronades which, as already pointed out in the case of the Essex and in the battle off Plattsburg, are no match for long guns. Moreover, the scantling of the smaller ships was, of course, by no means as stout as that of the frigate, so that the disparity of force was much greater than the figures would indicate, although not enough to account for the difference in loss. Both the British ships were ably handled, their fire was well directed, and the Levant in especial was very gallantly fought.

As regards the Constitution, “her manoeuvring was as brilliant as any recorded in naval annals,” and it would have been simply impossible to surpass the consummate skill with which she was handled in the smoke, always keeping her antagonists to leeward, and, while raking both of them, not being once raked herself. The firing was excellent, considering the short time the ships were actually engaged, and the fact that it was at night. Altogether the fight reflected the greatest credit on her, and also on her adversaries.

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