Reference:

The Naval history of Great Britain:
from the declaration of war by France in 1793 to the accession of George IV

William James
London 1824

USS Constitution
engages
HMS Java
28th December 1812

Aware of the injury that would accrue to British commerce by the presence of an enemy's squadron in the South-Seas, the American government ordered Commodore William Bainbridge (in the absence of Captain Hull, who wished to attend to his private affairs) to proceed thither with the Constitution and the 18-gun ship-sloop Hornet, Captain James Lawrence; calling of St. Salvador, on the coast of Brazil, at which rendezvous the 32-gun frigate Essex, captain David Porter, had been directed to join them. On the 27th of October the Essex sailed from the Delaware; and on the 30th the Constitution and Hornet sailed from Boston. On the 29th of December, at two o'clock in the afternoon, latitude 13°6' south, longitude 30° west, the Constitution and the Hornet, the latter standing out from St. Salvador to rejoin her consort, having in tow the American merchant ship William, which she had recently captured.

A little of the previous history of the Java may render more intelligible the details that are to follow.
On the 17th of August, in the present year, the late French frigate Renommée, under the name of Java, was commissioned at Portsmouth by Captain Lambert, in order to carry out to Bombay the newly appointed governor, lieutenant-general Hislop, and suite, together with a supply of store, particularly copper, for the Cornwallis 74, and Chameleon and Icarus 10-gun sloops, building at Bombay.

There was no difficulty in commissioning the ship, in caulking her sides and decks, in fitting up her accommodations, in putting on board her guns, or her stores for the voyage, or for the new ships building: but there was a difficulty in providing her with a crew. Officers, and a few petty-officers, were soon obtained. The ship's fifty marines also came on board; and although eighteen of the number were raw recruits, they were upon the whole a good set of men. Then came about sixty Irishmen, who had never smelt salt water, except in crossing from their own shores to England. As a fine addition to a crew that, in less than a month after the ship sailed, might have to fight an American frigate similar to that which had taken the Guerrière, a draught of fifty disaffected wretches came on board from the 18-gun ship-sloop coquette, lying at Spithead. Pressgangs and the prison-ships furnished others not much better. as to boys, the established number, twenty-three, was easily filled up; and, at length, about 290, out of a complement of 300 men and boys, were got together.

Feeling as every brave officer must feel, Captain Lambert remonstrated about the inefficiency of his ship's company; but he was told that a good voyage to the East Indies and back would make a good crew. It was in vain to urge the matter further; and, as some slight amendment to the Java's crew, eight seamen were allowed to volunteer from the Rodney 74. Thus, out of a complement of 300 men and boys, the whole number of petty-officers and men, (exclusive of those of the former that had walked the quarter deck,) who had ever been present in an action, amounted to fewer than fifty. here was a ship's company! As several officers and men were to come on board as passengers, some hopes were entertained that these might compensate for the worthlessness of the crew; but, of the eighty-six supernumeraries, a very large proportion turned out to be Marine-Society boys.

Manned in this way, with a total of 397 persons of every description, the Java, on the 12th November, set sail from Spithead, having in charge to outward-bound indiamen. On the 2nd of December the Java captured the American ship William, and placed on board a master's mate and nineteen men, (the latter of some experience, undoubtedly, or they would have been of no use there,) with orders to keep company. On the 24th, being rather short of water, and being unable, without much difficulty, to get at what remained in the hold, on account of some articles of stores that laid over the casks, Captain Lambert determined to put into St. Salvador. With this view the Java altered her course; but the two Bombay ships, not wishing to go so far out of their way, parted company, and proceeded alone on their voyage.
Hitherto, owing to the (with such a crew) tedious operation of setting up the rigging, besides many services that a newly-fitted ship, lumbered with stores, required to be performed; owing also to a succession of gales of wind since the day of departure, the men had only been exercised occasionally at training the guns. But, as the ship was now approaching a coast, where there was a probability of falling in with an enemy's frigate, French or American, Captain Lambert, on the 28th, ordered the crew to be exercised at firing the guns. Accordingly, for the first time since she had become a British frigate, the Java, on that evening, discharged six broadsides of blank cartridges. With the majority of the crew, of course, those six broadsides were the first they had ever assisted in firing. What a crew to go into action, not with an American frigate a third superior, but with a French frigate barely their equal.

Casting off the William, with directions for her to proceed to St. Salvador, the Java, soon after eight o'clock, with the wind blowing moderately from the north-east, bore up in chase of the Constitution, then in the south-south-west. At ten o'clock the Java made the private signals, English, Spanish and Portuguese, in succession: none of which were answered.

At eleven she hauled-up, bringing the wind on her larboard quarter, took in her studding-sails, and prepared for action. The Constitution was at this time standing under easy sail to the south-east, with the view of closing the Java, whom she at first took for her expected consort, the Essex. At noon, when about four miles distant, the Constitution hoisted the private signal, and , finding it not answered, set her main sail and royals, to draw the Java from her consort, the William merchantman, then standing in for the land. The Java made sail in a parallel direction to the Constitution, and gained upon her considerably; but the breeze freshening, the former was obliged to take in her royals. At about half past one the Constitution hoisted her colours; and, in ten minutes more, finding the Java to have closed her within two mile, the American frigate shortened sail to her top-gallants-sails, jib, and spanker, and luffed-up to the wind. The Java, upon this, hoisted her colours, (an ensign at the mizen peak, one union jack at the mizen-top-gallant-mast head, and another lashed to the main rigging,) and, putting herself under the same sail, stood for the Constitution, then bearing about three points on her lee bow.

At ten minutes past two, when the Java, by her lasking course, had approached within half a mile of the Constitution, the latter opened a fire from her larboard guns; the shots of which, as a proof of their good direction, splashed the water against the Java's starboard side. Not being so close as she wished, the Java stood-on until within pistol-shot on the Constitution's weather or larboard bow; then, having received a second broadside, which (the guns here being elevated too much, as before they had been too little) passed over her, fired a broadside in return.
Almost every shot of this took effect: the Constitution had her wheel knocked away, besides receiving other damage, and lost four men killed and several wounded.
Dreading a repetition of this warm salute, the American frigate, having fired her third broadside without much effect, wore in the smoke to get further to leeward. The Java, as soon as she discovered that her wary antagonist was running before the wind, made sail after her; and at twenty-five minutes past two, the Constitution, and then the Java, having come round on the starboard tack, the two frigates again exchanged broadsides. Again the Constitution wore to get away. The Java wore also, and, passing slowly under the latter's stern, with her larboard main yard-arm over the Constitution's taffrail, have raked her in the most destructive manner.
But, either panic-struck at the sight of so large and formidable a looking ship, or unable, from sheer ignorance, to appreciate the value of the opportunity thus afforded them of reducing the strength of their antagonist, the Java's crew did not fire a gun, except the 9-pounder on the forecastle; and that was pointed and discharged by lieutenant James Saunders, one of the supernumerary officers.

The Constitution had now the weather-gage; but this did not suit her long shot tactics: the American frigate therefore made sail on the larboard tack, followed by the British frigate; who, luffing-up, crossed the Constitution's stern again, and fired, this time, two or three of her starboard guns.
A forty minutes past two, feeling ashamed of thus avoiding an antagonist so much inferior in size and force to himself, or impelled by his officers, some of whom, perhaps, hinted at the powerless state of the Java's battery, as recently witnessed, Commodore Bainbridge "determined to close with the enemy". The Constitution accordingly shortened sail, and engaged the Java, who (conners, luckily, having performed their office better than the men at the guns) had stood-on in chase, and now lay close to-windward.
In ten minutes, however, the American frigate repeated her favourite manoeuvre, and, wearing in the smoke, was not perceived until nearly round on the starboard tack. Having had her jib-boom and head of her bowsprit shot away, the Java, as the quickest mode to get round, hove in stays, hoping to do so in time to avoid being raked; but the ship, from the same cause that had brought her so readily to the wind, paid off very slowly.

The Constitution, luffing-up, now set the Java's men a good example, by pouring a heavy, but, as it happened, not a very destructive fire into her stern, within rather more then 500 yards. This the Java, as she fell off returned with her larboard guns. Immediately on receiving their fire, the Constitution wore round on the larboard tack, and was followed by the Java; who as quickly as she could, ranged up alongside to-windward; as yet, not much the worse for her forty minutes engagement with an antagonist, that ought, in time, to have knocked her to shatters.

At fifty-five minutes past two, being abreast of each other, within pistol-shot distance, the two frigates mutually engaged; so much, however, to the disadvantage of the Java, that, in the course of ten minutes her rigging was cut to pieces, and her fore and main masts badly wounded: her master was carried below, wounded, and several other officers and men were killed and wounded. In this state, Captain Lambert determined on boarding, as the only chance of success left. With such intent, the Java bore-up, and would have laid the Constitution aboard at her larboard main chains had not the fore-mast at that instant fallen; and which, by its weight and the direction o fits fall, crushed the forecastle, and encumbered the principle part of the main deck. The remains of the Java's bowsprit now, passing over the Constitution'sstern, caught in her starboard mizen rigging, and brought the ship up in the wind, whereby the opportunity to rake, as well as to board, was lost. This manoeuvre failing, the Java was left at the mercy of her antagonist; who, wearing across her bows, raked her with a very heavy fire, and shot away her main topmast; the wreck of which and of the fore-mast rendered useless the greater part of the starboard guns. Running past her unmanageable, and now nearly defenceless, opponent to-leeward, the Constitution, at two minutes past three, luffed-up and raked her on the starboard quarter; then wore round on the larboard tack, and, resuming, her position, fired her larboard broadside with most destructive effect.

At half past three Captain Lambert fell, mortally wounded in the left breast by a musket-ball from the Constitution's main top, and was carried below. The command of the Java then devolved upon lieutenant Henry Chads; who, although he had been painfully, but not dangerously, wounded since the commencement of the action, still remained on deck, animating the surviving officers and crew by his noble example. Until a quarter past four, when the mizen-mast of the Java was shot away, as her gaff and spanker-boom had been about ten minutes before, the Constitution lay on her starboard quarter, pouring a tremendous fire of round, grape and musketry. The latter, from the damaged state of her rigging, ranging ahead, and the former, from the fall of her mizen-mast, falling off a little, the two frigates became opposed broadside to broadside.

Whether inspirited by the intrepid conduct of the Rodney's eight seamen and a few others, (who almost fought the main deck,) or recovered from their panic by knowing that the chief slaughter had hitherto fallen among their comrades on the deck above, the men at the Java's 18-pounders began blazing away with the utmost animation; blazing, indeed, for, the wreck lying over the guns on that side, almost every discharge set the ship on fire. Having effectually done her work, the Constitution, at thirty-five minutes past three, made sail ahead, out of gunshot, to repair her damages; leaving the Java a perfect wreck, with her main mast only standing, and that tottering, her mainyard gone in the slings, and the muzzles of her guns dipping in the water from the heavy rolling of the ship in consequence of her dismasted state.



Engagement between USS Constitution and HMS Java
courtesy of Peabody Museum

Mistaking the cause of the Constitution's running from them, or becoming more attached to their new occupation by the few hours practice they had had, the tyro ship's company of the Java cheered the American frigate, and called her to come back!
When the Constitution, with far more care than was requisite, ( the loss of her main topsail-yard, with some cut rigging, was the only visible injury she had sustained,) lay at a distance on the Java's weather and larboard bow, getting ready to give the finishing blow to this, by her means chiefly, protracted contest the Java, with one union jack lashed to the stump of her mizen mast, and another, where it had been first placed, in her main rigging, was busied clearing away the wreck of her masts and getting herself in order to renew the action, as soon as her antagonist, with whom the option lay, should readvance to the attack.

The Java's first endeavours were to get before the wind: with this view, a sail was set from the stump of the fore-mast to the bowsprit; and, as the weather main yard-arm still remained aloft, the main tack was got forward. A top-gallant-mast was also got from the booms, and begun to be rigged as a jury for-mast, with a lower studding sail for a jury fore-sail; when, owing to the continued heavy rolling of the ship, the main mast was obliged to be cut away, to prevent its falling in-board. In half and hour after that service had been accomplished, the Constitution wore and stood for the hulk of the Java; whose crew, with very creditable alacrity, had reloaded their guns with round and grape, and seemed, notwithstanding their hopeless state, far from dispirited.

The Constitution, on approaching near, judiciously placed herself in a very effectual raking position, close athwart the Java's bows. Having, besides the loss of her masts and bowsprit as already mentioned, had six of her quarterdeck, four of her forecastle, and several of her main deck guns disabled, the latter chiefly from the wreck lying over them, all her boats shot to pieces, her hull shattered and one pump shot away, and having also much water in the hold, the Java, as a measure that could no longer be delayed, at forty-five minutes past five, (full three hours and a half from the commencement of firing,) struck her colours, and at six was taken possession of by the Constitution.

Out of her crew, supernumeraries included, of 354 men and twenty-three boys, the Java had three master's mates, two midshipmen, twelve seamen, four marines, and one supernumerary clerk killed, her captain, (mortally,) first lieutenant, master second lieutenant of marines, boatswain, (severely,) four of her midshipmen, fifty-five seamen, (one mortally,) four boys, and twenty-one marines, (with the killed, just half the number on board,) wounded; and of her supernumeraries, one commander, (John Marshall,) one lieutenant, (James Saunders,) captain Wood, aide-de-camp to general Hislop, one master's mate and nine seamen also wounded: total, twenty-two killed, and 102 wounded; two mortally, five dangerously, fifty-two severely, and forty-three slightly.

The Constitution received several shots in her hull, and also in her masts, particularly in her fore and mizen masts; but these, the main mast especially, were far too stout even to require fishing in consequence. Out of her eight boats, it is acknowledged that the ship, when the action ended, had only one in a state to take the water: a tolerable proof that her damages were no means so trifling as was represented by the Americans.
From the same cause, the loss of the Constitution must have been quite as much as the British official account makes it: ten men killed, her fifth lieutenant, Mr. Aylwin, mortally, four men dangerously, or, as it proved, mortally wounded, the Commodore very slightly, and about forty-two others, most of them severely. Having none of her men absent in prizes, the Constitution had on board her full complement, besides five or six supernumeraries; making 477 men and three (as we shall say, although only one, a lad of seventeen, was seen ) boys.
By adding about 100 men to the Guerrière's crew, the "Comparative force" in her action will suffice to refer to on the present occasion.

The Constitution captured the Java certainly, but in so discreditable a manner that, had the latter been manned with a good well-trained crew of 320 men, no doubt remains in our mind, (and we have considered the subject seriously,) that the former, notwithstanding her vast superiority of force, must either have succumbed or have fled. Indeed, if American report be worth attending to, Captain Bainbridge, once during the heat of action, had the idea of resorting to the latter alternative; but his first lieutenant, Mr. Parker, succeeded in dissuading him from the measure. If the surviving British officers, on coming on board the Constitution, were surprised at the immense force, both in materiel and personnel, to which they had so long been opposed, the American officers, on boarding the Java, were mortified at the little screwed-up ship, (her sides tumbled in so, that she appeared, at the gangways, scarcely wider than the Hornet, ) which had given them so much trouble to take.

The thing, however, was done: and it only remained, by arts which none knew better than the Americans how to practise, to swell the victory into one of the grandest triumphs that any nation, except America, had hitherto gained. Lieutenant Parker, prize-master of the Java having reported to the Commodore her disabled condition, received orders, as soon as he had removed the prisoners and their baggage, to set the ship on fire. This tedious service, with only one boat to perform it, being at length accomplished, the Java, on the forenoon of the 31st, was set fire to.
Now occurred a curious scene on board the Constitution. The Java was burning without the customary emblem of her newly acquired national character. Not finding, as he expected, an American flag among the Java's signals, and deeming it unnecessary, owing to the distance between the ships, (the Constitution having retired further to avoid the effects of the explosion,) to send for one, lieutenant Parker left the Java burning without any colours at all.

Scarcely had Commodore Bainbridge recovered from the rage into which this, in point of national etiquette, very serious event thrown him, than someone informed him, that the Java had an immense quantity of specie in her hold. After a while some of the late officers of the latter, pitying the acuteness of his feelings, assured the American Captain, that the cases contained neither gold nor silver, but copper.

At about three o'clock in the afternoon the Java exploded; and that evening the Constitution, having at last refitted herself, made sail for St. Salvador. Shortly afterwards the Constitution's consort, the Hornet, hove in sight.
Here was bustle and confusion. Another British frigate to a certainty! There stood the Commodore, with a drawn sword, threatening to run a man through for not stirring quickly, and he laughing at his captain's rage and consternation. Meanwhile, the Hornet approached and was recognised; and a degree of order was restored on board this overgrown privateer: for, no other could the Constitution then be called. On the 3rd of January the two ships arrived at St. Salvador; where already lay the William, recaptured by the Hornet.

The Commodore soon afterwards disembarked and paroled the prisoner. On the 4th the young and gallant Captain Lambert breathed his last, and on the 5th was buried with military honours in Fort St. Pedro, attended by the governor of St. Salvador, the condé Dos Arcas, and the Portuguese in general, but not (will it be believed?) by either Commodore Bainbridge or Captain Lawrence, or any of their respective officers.
On the 6th the Constitution, requiring more repairs than she could obtain in any foreign port, got under way from St. Salvador, and, breaking up her cruise to the Pacific, bent her course towards home; leaving the Hornet to blockade in the port the British sloop-of-war Bonne-Citoynne.
We shall by and by set this matter right, confining our attention at present to the Constitution; who, without any further consequence, anchored, on the evening of the 8th February, 1813, in the harbour of Boston.
The surviving officers and crew of the Java, having quitted the Brazils in two cartels, arrived at Portsmouth early in April, and, on being subsequently tried for the loss of their ship, were, of course, honourably acquitted.


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War of 1812