The newspapers published during the War of 1812, granted even that they
were vastly prejudiced of course, contained so much of thrilling
interest, and so much that is now forgotten, that a complete file, for
instance, of "Niles's Register" is a mine of
wealth to a student of the times. Every week a stirring chapter was added to the records of Yankee ships and Yankee sailors. Fabulous sums were paid in prize money, fortunes were made often in a single venture. One of the luckiest cruises of the war, so far as rich returns are concerned, was made by a little squadron of four vessels that sailed from Boston on October 8th under the command of Commodore Rogers. It consisted of the President, the United States, and the Congress frigates, and the Argus sloop of war. Five days after sailing the United States and the Argus became separated from the others in a gale of wind, and afterwards cruised on their own account. On the 15th, the President captured the British packet Swallow, having on board two hundred thousand dollars in specie--a rich haul, indeed. On the 31st of the month, the Congress captured a South Sea ship loaded with oil that was being convoyed by an English frigate, the Galatea; the latter made off and left her consort to her fate. The President, on the 25th of October, captured the fine English frigate Macedonian, and sent her safely into New London harbor. After taking one or two smaller prizes, the President and Congress sailed into Boston the last of December, having covered over eight thousand miles. The landing of the money taken from the Swallow and the other prizes was made quite a function. It was loaded into several large drays, and escorted from the Navy Yard to the bank by the crews of the frigates and a detachment of marines, "drums beating and colors flying," as an old-time account has it. The gold dust and specie amounted to the value of three hundred thousand dollars, besides the value of the vessels taken. But the little Argus, under the command of Captain Sinclair, had some adventures worth the telling, before she returned to port laden with the fruits of war. After parting company with the squadron, she laid her course for the coast of Brazil, then one of the most profitable cruising grounds, although the waters swarmed with British war vessels. From Cape St. Roque to Surinam she sailed and there made two prizes; thence she cruised through the West Indies and hovered in the vicinity of the Bermudas; afterwards she went as far north as Halifax along the coast before she turned her head towards home. The Argus must have been a nimble vessel, for, according to her logbook, she had escaped imminent capture a score of times, owing to her speed and capacity for sailing close on the wind. Once she had fallen in with a British squadron of six sail, two of them being ships of the line. For three days and nights they pursued her closely. One of the big fellows, proving to be a very fast sailer, outstripped the others, and twice was almost within gunshot. On the fourth day the Argus came up with a large English merchant ship about sunset. The wind had shifted so as to give her the windward gage of the pursuing battle-ship. In full sight of her, and of the others that were distant some ten or twelve miles, the Argus captured the merchantman; and, under cover of the dark, stormy night that shut down, she made her escape with her prize. After a cruise of ninety-six days, she put into the harbor of New York. The actual value of the prizes she had captured amounted to upwards of two hundred thousand dollars--more than enough to pay for her original cost three times over. But to leave the deeds of the regular navy and take up those of a few of the private armed vessels: less is known of their doings, of course; they should be given a separate volume to themselves in writing the history of our wars with England--and the volume is yet unwritten, but some day it may be. Bravely they fought, often against odds, and more than once they contributed to the defence of our coast in cooperation with the regular navy and the land forces. Take operations of the English blockading squadron under Admiral Warren that was sent to close up the waters of the Chesapeake. Many were the times that the privateers eluded his watch-dogs and sailed in and out through his fleet, and more than once did he have a chance to test their metal. The schooner Lottery, of Baltimore, mounting six guns and having a crew numbering but thirty-five, in February, 1813, was attacked by nine large British boats containing over two hundred and forty armed men. For an hour and a half the privateer stood them off, and before she was finally captured, she had killed more of the enemy than her own crew numbered! The privateer Dolphin, also hailing from Baltimore, was taken after the same heroic defence, and Admiral Warren must have found such work to be rather uncomfortable experience. The United States schooner Asp, three guns and twenty-one men, was pursued up a shallow creek by a detachment of boats from the English fleet; and, after beating off her pursuers for some time, she was taken by superior numbers and upon her capture was set on fire. But the Americans, who had retreated to shore, returned and succeeded in extinguishing the flames and saving their vessel. A remarkable thing in connection with the presence of the English fleet in the Chesapeake was the attempt to blow up the flagship Plantagenet with a torpedo. The news that Americans were working upon such a line of invention had filled the English with dread and horror, they declared that any one captured while engaged in such a work would be hanged at once without a trial, for they denounced such methods of warfare as "crimes against humanity." But this did not deter an adventurous projector by the name of Mix from trying to rid the bay of its unwelcome visitors. For a long time he had been at work perfecting a "new explosive engine of great destructive powers," and on the 18th of July, at midnight, he dropped down with the tide alone in a small rowboat, and, when within forty fathoms of the Plantagenet, he put his torpedo into the water with the intention of having it drift with the tide athwart the flagship's bows. But an alert sentry on one of the guard boats discovered him and hailed; Mix drew his infernal machine into his boat and escaped. Every night for a week the inventor tried his luck, but was spied before he could complete his preparations, and was forced to draw off. But once he so frightened the English officers that they made sail and shifted their anchorage, and upon another occasion the flagship let go a pell-mell broadside, and threw up rockets and blue lights to ascertain the whereabouts of the lone adventurer. On the night of the 24th Mix came very near to accomplishing his purpose, and a contemporary printed account gives such a vivid description of it that it is well worth quoting: "When within one hundred yards the machine was dropped into the water, and at the same moment the sentinel cried, 'All's well,' the tide swept it towards the vessel, but it exploded a few seconds too soon. A column of water full fifty feet in circumference was thrown up thirty or forty feet. Its appearance was a vivid red tinged with purple at the sides. The summit of the column burst with a tremendous explosion, and fell on the deck of the Plantagenet in torrents, while she rolled into the yawning chasm below and nearly upset." Then the account shortly remarks, "She, however, received but little injury." But this early attempt at waging submarine warfare made the British exceedingly weary of anchoring in our ports, which was to our advantage. But to leave this digression and return to the privateers again: justice has not been done them, as we have said. But to take the names of a few and tell of their experiences is perhaps a good idea. Well known were they to the public eighty odd years ago. For instance, the schooner Atlas, of nineteen guns, that sailed from Philadelphia soon after war was declared with England--she was famous! Her captain's name was David Moffat, and he was a fearless commander and a "right good seaman." The Chronicle and the Naval Temple, published in 1816, give each a short account of one of his encounters with the enemy; to quote from the latter:-- "On the third of August at eight A.M., the Atlas discovered two sail, for which she bore away. At eleven o'clock the action was commenced with a broadside and musketry. She continued engaged with both ships till noon, when the smaller one struck her colors. The Atlas then directed the whole of her fire against the large ship, when the small one, although her colors were down, renewed her fire on the Atlas, which had to recommence firing on her; in a few minutes every man was driven from her decks. Twenty minutes past twelve the large ship struck. Possession was immediately taken of both of them. One proved to be the ship Pursuit, Captain Chivers, of four hundred and fifty tons, sixteen guns, and thirty-five men. The other was the ship Planter, Captain Frith, of two hundred and eighty tons, twelve guns, and fifteen men." They proved to be richly laden, and with both of them in her wake the Atlas started for home; she had lost but two men killed and five wounded. The Pursuit arrived safe in port on the same day as the privateer, but the Planter was recaptured off the cape of the Delaware. The privateer Decatur under command of Captain Divon, after a long and severe fight, captured a schooner of the English service that mounted fifteen guns--over twice as many as the Decatur carried. The Saratoga of New York, Captain Aderton, took the Morgania, a British packet of eighteen guns, off Surinam, and in the action both vessels were nearly dismantled. The Comet, of Baltimore, had a running fight with three English merchant-men and a Portuguese sloop of war; she beat off the latter, who officiously interfered, and compelled all three of the Englishmen to strike their colors. The Young Eagle took two British ships at once--one quite as large and as powerful as she was. The Montgomery, Captain Upton of Boston, mounting twelve guns, fought yard arm to yard arm with a fine sloop of war belonging to the English navy, mounting twenty guns. The Surinam, for that was her name, gave up the fight, and, much crippled, put in at Barbadoes. They were rare good fighters--these privateers. But perhaps one of the strangest adventures was that of the Young Teazer--what a saucy, impudent name for a vessel; but, according to account, it suited her to a nicety. Captain Dobson of New York was part owner and commander, and while cruising off Halifax he was chased by a large armed ship, the Sir John Sherbroke. As she kept gaining steadily, Dobson headed his own vessel straight for Halifax harbor; he passed the lighthouse, and as he did so hoisted up English colors over the American in order to lead his pursuer to suppose he was an English prize. As if in disgust at having wasted so much time, the Sir John Sherbroke hove about and put to sea, and as soon as she was at a safe distance, Dobson hauled down his misleading colors and did likewise, successfully escaping. The journals of the time are crowded with adventures such as these, and the few here referred to have been selected merely at random. But they give an idea of the adventurous spirit and daring enterprise of the Yankee tars and captains.
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