The Naval history of Great Britain:
from the declaration of war by France in 1793 to the accession of George IV
On the 17th of December, the Constitution, Captain Charles Stewart, succeeded again in putting to sea unobserved...
On the 20th of February, at one o’clock in the afternoon, the island of Madeira bearing west-south-west, distant about sixty leagues, the Constitution, steering to the south-west with a light breeze from the eastward, discovered about two points on her larboard bow, and immediately hauls up for, the British 22-gun ship Cyane, Captain Gordon Falcon, standing close-hauled on the starboard tack, and about ten miles to-windward of her consort, the 20-gun ship Levant, (eighteen 32-pound carronades and two nines,) Captain and senior officer the honourable George Douglas.
At three quarters past one the Constitution got sight of the latter, then bearing right ahead of her.
At four o’clock the Cyane, having stood-on to ascertain the character of the stranger, made the private signal, and, finding it not answered, bore-up for her consort, with the signal for an enemy flying.
The Constitution immediately made all sail in chase, and at five o’clock commenced firing her larboard bow guns, but ceased soon afterwards, finding her shots fall short. At about half past five, the Cyane having arrived within hail of the Levant, Captain Douglas expressed to Captain Gordon his resolution to engage the enemy’s frigate, known from previous information to be the Constitution, notwithstanding her superior force, in the hope, by disabling her, to save two valuable convoys, that had sailed from Gibraltar a few days back in company with the two British ships.
At three quarters past five the Levant and Cyane made all sail upon the wind, in order to try for the weather-gage. In ten minutes, finding they could not accomplish their object, the two ships bore -up, with a view of delaying the commencement of the action until night; when they might hope, by skilful manoeuvring, to engage with more advantage. The superior sailing of the Constitution defeating that plan also, the Levant and Cyane, at about six o’clock, hauled to the wind on the starboard tack, formed in head and stern line, at the distance of rather less than a cable’s length apart.
At five minutes past six the Constitution, all three ships having previously hoisted their colours, opened her larboard broadside upon the Cyane, at a distance of about three quarters of a mile upon the latter’s weather beam. The Cyane promptly returned the fire; but her shots, being all fired from carronades, fell short, while the frigate’s long 24-pounders were producing their full effect.
In about fifteen minutes the Constitution ranged ahead, and became engaged in the same manner with the Levant. At about this time the Cyane luffed-up for the larboard quarter of the Constitution: whereupon the latter, backing astern, was able to pour her whole broadside into the former. meanwhile the Levant had bore-up, to wear round and assist her consort. The Constitution now filled, shot ahead, and gave the Levant two stern rakes. Seeing this, the Cyane, although without a brace or bowline except the larboard fore-brace, wore and gallantly stood between the Levant and the Constitution: whereon the latter wore also, and raked the Cyane astern. The Cyane immediately luffed up as well as she could, and fired her larboard broadside at the starboard bow of the Constitution. the latter soon afterwards ranged up on the larboard quarter of the Cyane, within hail, and was about to pour in her starboard broadside; when, at fifty minutes past six, having most of her standing and running rigging cut to pieces, her main and mizen masts left in a tottering state, the other principal spars wounded, several shots in the hull, nine or ten between wind and water, five carronades disabled, chiefly by the drawing of the bolts and starting of the chocks, and the Levant being two miles to-leeward, still bearing away to repair her heavy damages, the Cyane fired a gun and hoisted a light as a sign of submission.
It was not until eight o’clock that the Constitution, having manned her prize and refitted some slight damages in her own rigging, was ready to bear up after the Levant, then in sight to-leeward. At a quarter past eight, which was as soon as the Levant had rove new braces, the gallant little ship again hauled her wind, as well as to ascertain the fate of her companion, as to renew the desperate contest.
On approaching the Constitution and Cyane, the Levant, with a boldness bordering on rashness, ranged close alongside the Constitution, to leeward, being unable to weather her; and at half past eight the two ships, on opposite tacks, exchanged broadsides. The Constitution immediately wore under the Levant’s stern, and raked her with a second broadside.
At half past nine Captain Douglas, finding that the Cyane had undoubtedly struck her colours, put again before the wind; in doing which the Levant received several raking broadsides, had her wheel shot away, and her lower masts badly wounded. To fire her stern-chase guns, and steer at the same time, was impossible, owing to a sad mistake in the construction of this new class of vessel. Seeing the Constitution ranging up on her larboard quarter, the Levant at about half past ten struck her colours.
Out of her 115 men and sixteen boys, the Levant had six seamen and marines killed, one officer and fourteen seamen and marines wounded; and the Cyane, out of her 145 men and twenty-six boys, (making forty-two boys between these two small ships!) had six seamen and marines killed and thirteen wounded: total, twelve killed and twenty-nine wounded.
The Constitution had sailed on her last cruise with a complement of 477 men
These were provided with leather caps, for boarding; fitted with narrow plates of iron, crossing at the top, and bending upward from the lower edge of the cap, to prevent a blow from striking the shoulder, after having glanced off the head.
and three boys, but, having manned a prize with an officer and seven men, had on board, besides her boys, only 469 of the former. Out of these she had six killed and mortally wounded and six others wounded severely and slightly.
On the 7th of march the Constitution anchored with her two prizes in the harbour of Porto-Praya, island of Saint-Jago. On the 11th at a quarter past meridian, the British 50-gun ships Leander, Captain Sir George Collier and the Newcastle, Captain Lord George Stuart, and 40-gun frigate Acasta, Captain Alexander Kerr, standing in for the harbour, in thick weather, on the starboard tack, discovered the three American ships at anchor. In less than ten minutes the latter cut their cables and stood out on the larboard tack.
At this time the Constitution was between four and five miles to-windward of the Acasta, who was about one mile on the weather quarter of the Newcastle, and the latter about two miles ahead of the Leander. The three British ships presently tacked in chase; and the Constitution soon afterwards cut away her first cutter and gig towing astern. Finding the Acasta was gaining her wake, and that the Cyane, the rearmost ship, was rather dropping astern,
the Constitution at ten minutes past one signalled the latter to tack; and the Cyane did so. No British ship tacked after her, but all continued in chase of the Constitution and Levant. At three o’clock observing that the Acasta was drawing fast upon the Levant, the Constitution directed the latter to tack. The Levant accordingly did tack; and, strange to say, the Leander made a signal, not for one , but for all of the British ships to tack after her. This little paltry ship, as she afterwards bore-up towards the anchorage, was honoured by receiving the fire of the Leander; a fire that, heavy as it was, and destructive as it might have been, appears to have done the Levant no injury in personnel, and very little, if any, in matériel. The Levant was of course recaptured, (the Acasta took possession of her,) but the Constitution and Cyane effected their escape.
It was stated by the British officers, at the court-martial, that the crews of the two ships [Cyane and Levant] were , for three weeks kept constantly in the Constitution's hold, with both hands and legs in irons, and there allowed but three pints of water during twenty-four hours. This too in a tropical climate! It was further proved that, after the expiration of three weeks, upon the application of Captain Douglas, one third of the men were allowed to be on deck, four hours out of twenty-four, but had not the means of walking, being still in leg irons; that on mustering the crews when they landed at Maranham, five of the Levant’s boys were missing; that, upon application and search for them, two were found locked up in the American Captain of marine’s cabin...Upon these facts, let the reader employ his own thoughts; if he possesses a British heart, he will need no prompter -
James’s Naval Occurrences, p. 465.
War of 1812