Sea Stories

The Loss Of The Vixen

On the 22d of October, 1812, at nine A.M., the United States brig Vixen crossed St. Mary's bar outward bound for a cruise to the southward. It was not expected that she would be absent from home waters for more than a month.

Her commander was George W. Reed, a good officer, although he had had little experience in actual warfare. The hundred and ten men under his immediate command had trust in his judgment and were all animated with a hope of coming in again with one of the enemy under their lee, or at least they trusted that they should be fortunate enough to make one or two rich captures and return with prize money to their credit. As one of the Vixen's crew wrote: "All hands were in high health and spirits, and filled with the idea of soon returning with some fruit of the consequence of the war." Day after day the Vixen sailed on and saw one sail after another; but owing to her having been well to the leeward in every case she had been unable to bring any to close quarters. On the tenth morning after her departure a sail was descried, and this time it so happened that the little brig was well to the windward. Setting every stitch of her canvas, she made after the stranger. Judging from all reports, the Vixen's intentions must have been better than her powers of putting them into practice; for if her legs had been faster, so to speak, the expectations of her crew might have been answered, and this story (which is nothing but a record of events, however) would never have had a chance to be written. So it is safe to draw the conclusion that she was not as fast as many of our little vessels were at this period of our naval history. While chasing the strange sail, another was perceived to be bearing down from the northwest. This put another face on the matter. The Vixen hauled her wind and waited. As it was perceived the second stranger was undoubtedly armed and was a large brig, Reed called his men together as was the custom and made the following little speech:-- "Now, my lads, there she is; I expect every man to stand to his guns. Don't fire a gun until you are within pistol shot; take good aim and show her fair play." As the vessel came on without raising her flag, she fired a broadside of round and grape, which, however, served no other purpose than to churn the water into foam some distance ahead of the Vixen's bow. The latter returned the compliment, and planted a double-shotted eighteen-pound charge in her antagonist's hull, above the sternpost. Again the stranger fired and missed, although at musket-shot distance. Now, odd to relate, the unknown ran up signals, which, not understanding, Captain Reed replied to with an assortment of grape. At this the signals came down and the Spanish colors went up in their place. Bitter was the disappointment; she was to be no costly prize, after all. Seeing there was some difficulty on board of her, Captain Reed lowered a boat, and ascertained that she was a Spanish brig of fourteen guns from Havana, bound for Cadiz. Finding out that she only had two or three men slightly wounded, Captain Reed went on his way, after regretting that the "mistake" had occurred. However, in the log there was entered on this day that "owing to the good chance for target practice the morning had not been spent amiss." For just one month everything seemed to run away from the poor little Vixen. The men were getting discouraged. They would see a convoy, most probably made up of rich merchantmen, somewhere off to leeward, and then a fog would shut down, and when it cleared away nothing would be seen but an expanse of empty horizon. With nothing done, and a sorry and disappointed crew, she was within two days' sail of St. Mary's, in the state of Maryland, when as luck would have it the man at the masthead reported a sail on the starboard beam. Much better would it have been for the little Vixen if the fog had closed down or a contrary wind had sprung up, or had she gone about her business and made for home as soon as possible. It was just daylight in the morning. Steering-sails were set on both sides as she was headed out again to meet the stranger, who had evidently not observed her presence. By six o'clock it was made out that the unknown was a frigate and no less. This was more than the Vixen had bargained for. With all her canvas standing as it was, she tacked ship and hauled up on the wind, which was extremely light. But the frigate proved herself to be a good one at going; she had set all of her light canvas that she could, and it was a caution the way she came down upon the little brig. Although it is only a preliminary to the story, which has another side than that of the amusing, one cannot read an extract from the Vixen's log without feeling inclined to smile. Therefore to quote: "At ten, finding the chase gained on us, increasingly, commenced starting water out of the fore and main holds to lighten the brig. At eleven dead calm; out sweeps and continued rowing without intermission until twelve. Slow work; but we had now gained some advantage over the chase. Then a breeze springing up we quickly lost it. In sweeps, and to lighten the brig still more, hove every article, in and under the boats, overboard. Stationed hands by the anchors to cut them away when ordered. Half past twelve P.M., discharged all the shot from the racks. At one, cut away both anchors. At two P.M., the chase still gaining, hove two elegant brass nine-pounders after the anchors. Chase still gained. Broached all the water in the casks, hove over all our broadside guns, and everything that seemed to carry weight. Finding that in despite of our exertions the Vixen would not sail an inch faster than her old gait, we now had the melancholy satisfaction of knowing our capture was a certainty. But we were determined to use every exertion to avoid it. Thus we commenced manoeuvring with the sails, which kept the men on the jump and had only the effect of putting off the capture for an hour or two. At three P.M., all her guns were visible, at half past, coming up, hand over hand, she gave us a shot which fell short. A few minutes later another was sent which went between our foremast and mainmast. Answered by running up our colors and firing a musket to windward. The chase having English colors up, and as it would have been madness to engage her, we fired another shot to leeward and hauled our colors down. At four P.M., she ranged alongside." And now, strange to say, all those on board the brig were astonished to see that the frigate had the word "Constellation" painted on her stern. The crew of the Vixen looked at each other in astonishment. Had there been another mistake? But there was something unmistakably English about the cut of her jib, and the red coats of a party of marines who were scrambling down into a boat which she had lowered plainly showed her character. Besides this, Captain Reed knew well that the Yankee Constellation was aground in the mud-flats of the James River, where she stayed during the war. The officer, who was soon on board, with his seamen and marines, informed Captain Reed and his lieutenants that the Vixen was a prize to His Britannic Majesty's frigate Southampton, thirty-six guns, Sir James Lucas Yeo, commander. At once Captain Reed entered the English boat and went on board the frigate. As he rode close under the stern he saw that the word "Constellation" had been painted on a wide strip of canvas, tacked neatly over the name "Southampton." He did not ask the reason for this; it was easy to guess. If she happened to put in to one of the small harbors along the coast, it would conceal successfully her identity. Probably Sir James did not know that the real Constellation was fast in the mud-flat. Sir James was a gentleman and a nobleman by action as well as by birth, and his very first doing proved it. He came forward to meet Captain Reed and lifted his hat in a courtly salute; Captain Reed presented the hilt of his sword in token of surrender. "No, no, sir," spoke up the Captain of the Southampton. "I cannot accept this from you; and I wish to commend you, sir, upon the skill you displayed in endeavoring to save your vessel. My ship is a very fast one." "And mine a very slow one," put in Captain Reed. "But I am sure you did everything that any one could do to get speed out of her." "We hove everything overboard but our top sides and scantlings," returned Reed. The officers standing about smiled, for the Vixen's frantic endeavors to escape had been watched closely through the glass. The kindness shown to the brig's commander was extended in every way to the other officers and to the crew also. As the frigate was very crowded, but seventy of the Vixen's men were transferred to her. The other forty were kept as prisoners on board their own vessel. Every man was allowed to take his dunnage, and the prisoners on board the Southampton were given the run of the forward and main holds, although the hatchways were closely guarded by armed sentinels. Excepting for the confinement, which was absolutely necessary, of course, and which was in direct accordance with the rules of war, the prisoners suffered no inconvenience. Twice a day in details of twenty they were permitted to be on deck to enjoy the fresh air. The Southampton's crew were already on short allowance, owing to their having been at sea for some length of time, and the dole allowed the Americans was almost, if not quite, equal to that given the Englishmen. The officers were treated with the greatest of politeness and civility, and Captain Reed dined daily with Sir James in the cabin. All hands voted him a fine man and gentleman, and that he was a naval officer was proved conclusively enough by his actions subsequently when at the head of the British operations on the Lakes. Five days after the capture the weather was fine, but a small sea was running. The Southampton, under easy sail, was leading, and crowding on all she could carry; the Vixen managed to keep within signalling distance of her. In three or four days every one expected to be anchored safe in Jamaica. It was about half past eleven on a bright starry night when the lookout forward suddenly gave the cry, "Land ho!" A line of breakers could be seen about two miles to the westward, and above them the shores of a little island, at its highest point but twelve or fourteen feet above the water. Evidently the sailing-master of the frigate was out of his course. He probably had not allowed for the drift of one of those strange Gulf currents which have caused the destruction of many a fine ship. The Southampton was put about in a hurry, and as she was such a good sailer and was so quick in manoeuvring, no danger was apprehended, and she jogged along to the eastward to escape the proximity of the shoals. The Vixen was following her and taking in some of her sail as the wind commenced to blow much fresher. At twelve o'clock the sky had darkened, and it was difficult for one vessel to distinguish the other, although in the early part of the evening, by the aid of the moon and stars, everything had been visible. The mid-watch was just coming on, when, with a sudden shock, the Southampton struck on a sunken ledge of rocks; but she slid over the first, tearing the sheathing from her hull and wedging herself firmly in at the stern. Immediately a gun was fired to warn the Vixen, that was following in the wake; and also to be a signal of distress, as the greatest consternation prevailed now on board the frigate--that was leaking badly. But the usual ill fortune of the Vixen pursued her. At first she hove to and shortened sail, preparing to come to the frigate's assistance. Just as she was about to heave to the second time and lower a boat, she struck with such a vicious force that her bows drove high out of water, she was stove in completely, and all the prisoners, who had been wondering what was going on, now terrified and in great fear of immediate death, rushed up on deck to see a strange sight. It was pitch dark; the waves were breaking on every hand, and off the port bow the big frigate could be seen hard and fast, signalling in great distress. Her position, in fact, was much worse than that of the brig, for she was filling and settling rapidly. Everything was being done that knowledge and good seamanship could suggest or direct. The top-gallant yards and masts were sent down, and top-masts were struck; and notwithstanding the sea was very rough, two boats were lowered, and although one was crushed against the vessel's side, the other set out to search for a safe passage through the reef. On board the Vixen the boats had been called away, and the American and English crews were mingled, but without confusion. A Yankee sat beside John Bull on a thwart, and deeming that their own vessel was in no immediate danger, but that the Southampton was about to sink, they started to act the part of life-savers and rescue as many of the frigate's crew as they could. There was no thought of their being enemies, no observance of the differences between prisoners and captors; all sought to act for the cause of humanity and to save human life. But they had not proceeded far from the side of the brig when they were called back in a hurry. The Vixen had slipped from her firm position on the jagged rock and was surely sinking. So instead of being a rescue party to others they found they had all they could do to save themselves. But every man was taken off and brought on board of the Southampton. direct."] Daylight was waited for most anxiously, and when it came, a dreary prospect was before the ship-wrecked ones. Not far away was a low island that was pronounced at once to be the island of Conception. Nothing but the topgallant masts of the Vixen showed above the water, as she had sunk during the night. The Southampton's pumps had been kept going for six hours. But she was so badly bilged, and the water was gaining so fast, that her hours were numbered. With a rising sea there was immediate danger of her going to pieces, and in her crowded condition the consequent loss of life would have been too terrible to think of. It was a row of about ten miles from the reef on which the ship lay to the distant low-lying, sandy shore. All the boats were made ready, a raft was built and floated alongside, and the boatswain, obeying orders from the quarter-deck, began bawling: "Away there, you Vixens, away!" So the prisoners were to go first; but since the vessels had struck they had not been treated as prisoners at all. They had obeyed Sir James's orders as though they were members of his own crew, and they had not been shown the slightest evidences of bad blood or ill feeling on the part of the ordinary seamen. Before the day was over all the crew had been transferred to the island, and a boatload of provisions had been safely landed. Sir James and his officers spent the first night on board ship; but on the following morning, as she showed all evidences of a speedy breaking up, a tent was made for him on shore. A strange life now followed. The great lack felt upon the island was that of proper drinking-water. Conches and shellfish and land-crabs there were in plenty. The four hundred odd men who now found themselves marooned on this island far removed from the usual course of trade, and but seldom visited, had to depend upon a small pond for their drinking-supply. If this should be exhausted, their position would be perilous in the extreme. Two boats had been despatched to summon aid if possible. One to see if there were not some cruiser at Cat Island, with orders to proceed to Nassau, and the other to make for the island of Exhuma. A little settlement composed of tents and wig-wams made from ship's wreckage soon grew up. Friend and foe mingled together in hunting for conches, or in sports to while away the time. After a week a small vessel arrived from Cat Island, for the message calling for help had been received, bringing eighteen sheep and a quantity of meal, and the skipper showed where there was hidden a well which the mariners had failed to discover. An empty hogshead was sunk, and a sign-post erected on which was cut "The Southampton's Well, November, 1812." For many years it stood there. The sheep did not last long, and soon resort was had again to the conches. On the eighth of December, three English vessels arrived, the Caledonia, a cutter, Rolla, privateer, and the government brig Rhodian. Captain Sir James Yeo made a speech to his crew and their "guests," which was the term he used in referring to the Vixens, in which he thanked the latter for their assistance, their cheerfulness and good behavior, and he stated that he would do everything in his power to help get them exchanged, or provide them with a cartel to take them to their own country on their arrival at Jamaica, whither they were bound. Then, forming into a ragged company, arm in arm, Yankee sailors and British tars marched out from their little settlement, a fifer at their heads playing The Girl I Left Behind Me. Leaving their little island to the mercies of the half-breed wreckers whose small craft swarmed about, they sailed away. The rescued "guests" were prisoners again.

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