March 11 1815: USS Constitution Escapes


Cape verde

On March 11 1815, the USS Constitution and her two prizes, the HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, are at Cape Verde, when they are surprised by the British fleet. Neither side is aware that the two countries are at peace. HMS Levant is recaptured by the British. The USS Constitution escapes with HMS Cyane, after it is decided not to engage the superior British fleet. Theodore Roosevelt  describes what happened in his The Naval War of 1812:

The three ships now proceeded to the Cape de Verds, and on March 10th anchored in the harbor of Porto Praya, Island of San Jago. Here a merchant-brig was taken as a cartel, and a hundred of the prisoners were landed to help fit her for sea. The next day [March 11 1815] the weather was thick and foggy, with fresh breezes. The first and second lieutenants, with a good part of the people, were aboard the two prizes. At five minutes past twelve, while Mr. Shubrick, the senior remaining lieutenant, was on the quarter-deck, the canvas of a large vessel suddenly loomed up through the haze, her hull being completely hidden by the fog-bank. Her character could not be made out; but she was sailing close-hauled, and evidently making for the roads. Mr. Shubrick at once went down and reported the stranger to Captain Stewart, when that officer coolly remarked that it was probably a British frigate or an Indiaman, and directed the lieutenant to return on deck, call all hands, and get ready to go out and attack her.

At that moment the canvas of two other ships was discovered rising out of the fog astern of the vessel first seen. It was now evident that all three were heavy frigates. In fact, they were the Newcastle, 50, Captain Lord George Stewart; Leander, 50, Captain Sir Ralph Collier, K.C.B., and _Acasta, 40, Captain Robert Kerr, standing into Porto Praya, close-hauled on the starboard tack, the wind being light northeast by north. Captain Stewart at once saw that his opponents were far too heavy for a fair fight, and, knowing that the neutrality of the port would not be the slightest protection to him, he at once signalled to the prizes to follow, cut his cable, and, in less than ten minutes from the time the first frigate was seen, was standing out of the roads, followed by Hoffmann and Ballard.

Certainly a more satisfactory proof of the excellent training of both officers and men could hardly be given than the rapidity, skill, and perfect order with which everything was done. Any indecision on the part of the officers or bungling on the part of the men would have lost everything. The prisoners on shore had manned a battery and delivered a furious but ill-directed fire at their retreating conquerors. The frigate, sloop, and corvette, stood out of the harbor in the order indicated, on the port tack, passing close under the east point, and a gunshot to windward of the British squadron, according to the American, or about a league, according to the British, accounts. The Americans made out the force of the strangers correctly, and their own force was equally clearly discerned by the Acasta; but both the Newcastle and Leander mistook the Cyane and Levant for frigates, a mistake similar to that once made by Commodore Rodgers. The Constitution now crossed her top-gallant yards and set the foresail, main-sail, spanker, flying jib, and top-gallant sails; and the British ships, tacking, made all sail in pursuit. The Newcastle was on the Constitution’s lee quarter and directly ahead of the Leander, while the Acasta was on the weather-quarter of the Newcastle. All six ships were on the port tack. The Constitution cut adrift the boats towing astern, and her log notes that at 12.50 she found she was sailing about as fast as the ships on her lee quarter, but that the Acasta was luffing into her wake and dropping astern. The log of the Acasta says, “We had gained on the sloops, but the frigate had gained on us.”

At 1.10 the Cyane had fallen so far astern and to leeward that Captain Stewart signalled to Lieutenant Hoffman to tack, lest he should be cut off if he did not. Accordingly the lieutenant put about and ran off toward the northwest, no notice being taken of him by the enemy beyond an ineffectual broadside from the sternmost frigate.

At 2.35 he was out of sight of all the ships and shaped his course for America, which he reached on April 10th.

At 1.45 the Newcastle opened on the Constitution firing by divisions, but the shot all fell short, according to the American statements, about 200 yards, while the British accounts (as given in Marshall’s “Naval Biography”) make the distance much greater; at any rate the vessels were so near that from the Constitution the officers of the Newcastle could be seen standing on the hammock nettings. But, very strangely, both the 50-gun ships apparently still mistook the Levant, though a low, flush-decked sloop like the Hornet, for the “President, Congress, or Macedonian,” Captain Collier believing that the Constitution had sailed with two other frigates in company. [Footnote: Marshal, ii, 533. ] By three o’clock the Levant had lagged so as to be in the same position from which the Cyane had just been rescued; accordingly Captain Stewart signalled to her to tack, which she did, and immediately afterward all three British ships tacked in pursuit. Before they did so, it must be remembered the Acasta had weathered on the Constitution, though left considerably astern, while the Newcastle and Leander had about kept their positions on her lee or starboard quarter; so that if any ship had been detached after the Levant it should have been the Leander, which had least chance of overtaking the American frigate. The latter was by no means as heavily armed as either of the two 50’s, and but little heavier than the Acasta; moreover, she was shorthanded, having manned her two prizes. The Acasta, at any rate, had made out the force of the Levant, and, even had she been a frigate, it was certainly carrying prudence to an extreme to make more than one ship tack after her. Had the Newcastle and Acasta kept on after the Constitution there was a fair chance of overtaking her, for the Acasta had weathered on her, and the chase could not bear up for fear of being cut off by the Newcastle. At any rate the pursuit should not have been given up so early. Marshall says there was a mistake in the signalling.

The British captains certainly bungled the affair; even James says (p. 558): “It is the most blundering piece of business recorded in these six volumes.” As for Stewart and his men, they deserve the highest credit for the cool judgment and prompt, skilful seamanship they had displayed. The Constitution, having shaken off her pursuers, sailed to Maranham, where she landed her prisoners. At Porto Rico she learned of the peace, and forthwith made sail for New York, reaching it about the middle of May.

As soon as he saw Captain Stewart’s signal, Lieutenant Ballard had tacked, and at once made for the anchorage at Porto Prayo, which he reached, though pursued by all his foes, and anchored within 150 yards of a heavy battery. [Footnote: Letter of Lieutenant Ballard. May 2, 1815.] The wisdom of Captain Stewart’s course in not trusting to the neutrality of the port, now became evident. The Acasta opened upon the sloop as soon as the latter had anchored, at 4.30. [Footnote: Newcastle’s log, as given by Marshall and James.] The Newcastle, as soon as she arrived, also opened, and so did the Leander, while the British prisoners on shore fired the guns of the battery. Having borne this combined cannonade for 15 minutes, [Footnote: Ballard’s letter.] the colors of the Levant were hauled down. The unskilful firing of the British ships certainly did not redeem the blunders previously made by Sir George Collier, for the three heavy frigates during 15 minutes’ broadside practice in smooth water against a stationary and unresisting foe, did her but little damage, and did not kill a man. The chief effect of the fire was to damage the houses of the Portuguese town.


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