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The War of 1812 – Part 6 - Naval War in the Atlantic



In Part 1, of this series we mentioned that, despite years of provocations and diplomatic disputes, neither the US nor Great Britain were ready for the war when it came. This was just as true at sea as it was for the land forces. Nonetheless, Congress declared war in 1812, and both the US and Great Britain were thrust into fighting something for which neither was prepared.


The Status of Naval Forces at the Beginning of the War of 1812

As we talked about in our post on the Naval Act of 1794, following the American Revolutionary War, the ships of the US Navy had been sold off and by August 1785, USS Alliance was the only remaining ship of the Continental Navy. Congress sold her due to a lack of funds to keep the ship or support a navy as the Articles of Confederation did not allow funding either a standing Army or Navy.


The United States Navy, reformed under the Naval Act, entered the conflict as the best prepared of the two American services. In 1812, the navy had 7200 sailors and marines; its officers were professional, and the volunteer seamen were experienced. Many of the men had seen action during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) and in the Barbary Wars of North Africa (1801-1805). On the other hand, the navy suffered from inadequate funding, uncertain national policy, and limited dockyard facilities in the pre-war years. In 1812, the ocean-going fleet included 13 vessels. Six of them were frigates while the other vessels included five sloops and two brigs. There were also 165 coastal vessels, 62 of which were in commission.


In contrast, the Royal Navy was the most powerful naval force of the time. In 1812, it had 145,000 men and 978 ships, of which about 70% were in commission. Despite the decisive victory at Trafalgar in 1805, France had continued to challenge Britain's domination of the seas, which kept most of the Royal Navy in European waters and prevented it from reinforcing the western Atlantic. The world-wide commitments of the Royal Navy also dissipated its strength and expertise, resulting in the navy sending many poorly constructed vessels with ill-trained crews to sea. Given these challenges, the sheer weight of the navy could not be employed against the United States until the war in Europe ended.


The Royal Navy kept two squadrons in North American waters. The North American Squadron was based at Halifax, while the other squadron was based at Newfoundland. Both were considered backwaters and so, in 1812, the North American Squadron had 27 ships, including one ship-of-the-line, eight frigates and seven sloops.


In anticipation of the declaration of war, the United States deployed its warships in the Atlantic. They were to protect their merchantmen, while trying to seize British commercial vessels and engage British warships. Between 1812 and 1815, there were 26 encounters between individual ships or combinations of vessels from both fleets however, we will not address all of them here. While much is made of the success of the American heavy frigates against smaller, less well armed British vessels, the total victories were equally divided between the two navies. Royal Navy warship losses represented less than one percent of their fleet, while the American navy lost 20% of their men-of-war.


Blockade of the Atlantic Coast

Once the declaration of War became known to the Royal Navy, they moved to blockade the American coastline. Originally, the blockade extended from Delaware to the Chesapeake Bay. New England was initially exempted as the British hoped to foment anti-war sentiment in that region, while enjoying the merchant’s willingness to sell grain and foodstuffs to the British for use in their war efforts in Europe. In March 1813, the blockade was expanded southward to include Savannah, Port Royal, and Charleston and northward to include New York. In mid-November, it was extended once again to include the entire coast south of Narragansett Bay, and in May 1814, after Napoleon’s abdication, New England was blockaded.


The blockade made it difficult for American naval vessels to sortie while also devastating the American economy. Between 1811 and 1814, the value of exports and imports fell from $114 million to $20 million, while custom rates, used to finance the war, were more than halved from $13 million to $6 million. Many American merchant vessels would not risk leaving port and being seized as prizes. British trade on the other hand increased significantly, from £91 million in 1811 to £152 million by 1814.

An American Privateer
An American Privateer

Another activity, undertaken by both Britain and the US during the war, looked to diminish each other's trade through the employment of privateers. These were private vessels that were outfitted with guns and given official sanction to raid and capture the opponent's merchantmen. Initially considered as a dubious, sometimes lawless activity, akin to piracy, privateering emerged during the War of 1812 and Napoleonic Wars as a respectable, legitimate, and effective means of maritime defense. This activity was a business venture, in which a successful captain could, following a cruise, sell the vessels he had seized (prizes) for money, which was then shared with the crew.


Privateering was well established before the War of 1812 began and was undertaken by several participants. By 1810, the British had taken nearly 1000 American ships, for allegedly trading with France, while France had taken 500; another 300 fell to Danish, Neapolitan, Spanish and Dutch flags. Between 1812 and 1815, Britain captured another 500 American vessels. The loss of 2500 vessels over a ten-year period was proportionally more damaging to American trade than the 10,000 British vessels lost over the same period; 2000 of which were taken between 1812 and 1815. The Royal Navy recaptured at least 750 prizes, while others were handed back to neutrals or lost at sea.


One means of reducing losses, adopted by the British, was the compulsory convoy, which made it more difficult to prey upon merchantmen and which also supplied protection via escorting warships. By 1808, all shipping leaving Nova Scotia was subject to the Compulsory Convoy Act, which was further strengthened in 1813.


Engagements at Sea

If one looks on the internet for articles regarding the Naval Actions at sea during the War of 1812, you will find that most articles talk about the actions of America’s first Six Heavy Frigates: Chesapeake, Constitution, Constellation, Congress, President, and the United States. We here at the Academy of Knowledge have written about them in the past in our two-part series on the Naval Act of 1794 (Part 1 & Part 2) and so, we thought we would focus this article on the actions of America’s smaller Light Frigates, Sloops of War, Brigs, and other second line fighting ships.


1812


USS Essex vs HMS Alert

One of the earliest US Naval actions in the War of 1812, and the first American capture of a British warship, was the capture of the HMS Alert by the US light frigate USS Essex. The Essex was a 36-gun frigate that took part in the Quasi-War with France, the First Barbary War, and in the War of 1812. Essex was designed by James Hackett and built by Enos Briggs, in Salem, Massachusetts at a cost of $139,362, subscribed by the people of Salem and Essex County. She was armed with mostly short-range carronades that could not hope to match the range of 18- and 24-pounder naval guns. She was launched on 30 September 1799 and presented to the United States Navy on 17 December 1799. During the War of 1812, her armament consisted of forty 32-pounder carronades and 6 12-pounder long guns.


When war was declared against Britain on 18 June 1812, Essex, commanded by Captain David Porter, made a successful cruise to the southward. On 11 July near Bermuda, she fell in with seven British transports and by moonlight engaged and took one of them as a prize. The youngest member of the Essex crew was 10-year-old midshipman David Glasgow Farragut, who would become the first admiral of the US Navy. Farragut, who was Captain Porter's foster son, remained with the ship for the next two years.


HMS Alert was originally the collier Oxford, launched at Howdon in 1803. The Royal Navy purchased her in 1804 and renamed her HMS Alert. Her armament consisted of two 9-pounder long guns and sixteen 18-pounder carronades. She had a mundane career in the Royal Navy escorting convoys until in 1812, when, shortly after the outbreak of the War, she had the misfortune to encounter the frigate USS Essex.

USS Essex Capturing the HMS Alert
USS Essex Capturing the HMS Alert

Under the command of Commander Thomas Lamb Poldue Laugharne, Alert was cruising from Newfoundland searching for the American sloop USS Hornet when on 13 August they sighted a vessel that turned out to be the Essex. As HMS Alert approached, Essex kept her gunports closed, causing Laugharne to believe that Essex was a merchantman. This gave confidence to Laugharne in maneuvering his ship within pistol shot range of Essex. At this point, Porter ran out his carronades and opened fire. The duel lasted only about 8 minutes and Essex fired only one broadside, however, Alert was devastated. A shipment of 3rd pattern Brown Bess sea service muskets was found aboard Alert, which went towards arming the American Marines at the Washington and Boston Navy Yards. These muskets were preferred for their larger caliber, longer bayonets, and shorter barrels.


Essex was already carrying many prisoners who were crew from merchantmen she had captured earlier. Furthermore, Porter had depleted his crew to supply prize crews for those ships. After Porter disarmed Alert, he and Laugharne agreed that Alert would carry all Porter's prisoners, naval and mercantile, to Canada to be exchanged for American prisoners of the British, and that she would then sail to an American port with those freed prisoners. USS Essex continued her patrol and, by the time she returned to New York in September, she had taken ten prizes.


At St. John's, Newfoundland, Admiral Sir John Duckworth, then the senior officer of the Royal Navy in those waters, objected that Alert was not a true cartel as she had not left from an American port. He argued that allowing ships dispatched at sea to be considered cartels would be tantamount to granting all prizes immunity from recapture and would give them ultimate safe conduct to a port friendly to the captor.

Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth
Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth

However, in this instance, Duckworth felt himself honor-bound to respect Porter's conditions. Captain Laugharne and a small crew embarked some 200 American prisoners of war and sailed for New York where she delivered them safely in the early autumn. Alert was condemned by the New York Admiralty Court and sold to the United States Navy. The US Navy found Alert unfit for cruising and so instead used her as a storeship at the New York Navy Yard. In 1818 it began to use her as a receiving ship. She remained a receiving ship until 1829 when the Navy had her broken up at the Norfolk Navy Yard.


USS Wasp vs HMS Frolic

USS Wasp was a sailing sloop-of-war constructed in 1806 at the Washington Navy Yard and was commissioned sometime in 1807. Her armament consisted of sixteen 32-pounder carronades and two 12-pounder long guns. In 1811, she sailed to Hampton Roads, Virginia, where she and the brig Nautilus joined frigates United States and Congress in forming a squadron commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur. On 9 March 1812 Wasp sailed from New York for France to deliver an adventurer named John Henry who had sold correspondence to President Madison indicating Britain's interest in determining if the New England states wished to secede from the union. The correspondence, known as the Henry Papers, helped build outrage in Congress against Britain that led to the declaration of war.


HMS Frolic was an 18-gun Cruizer-class brig-sloop of the Royal Navy. She was built by Boole, of Bridport and was launched on 9 February 1806. Although she took part in the capture of Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Saint Martin, she appears to have had an uneventful career until 8 October 1812. Her armament consisted of sixteen 32-pounder carronades and two six-pounder long guns. In October 1812 the Frolic was serving on the North American station, protecting a convoy of six merchantmen off Virginia. On a passage from the Bay of Honduras, a gale dispersed the convoy and carried away Frolic's main top yard and sprung her main top mast.


Meanwhile, the American sloop of war USS Wasp had sailed from the Delaware River on 13 October and had run south-east to intercept ships sailing between Britain and the West Indies. It too had been slightly damaged by the gale on 16 October, losing its jib boom. At 11:30 pm on 17 October, the crew spotted several sails to the leeward (downwind). Jacob Jones, commanding the Wasp, kept his distance during the night, but at dawn he identified them as merchantmen, with a Royal Navy brig between them and Wasp.

USS Wasp vs HMS Frolic
USS Wasp vs HMS Frolic

Although the weather had cleared, there was still a strong wind blowing and a heavy sea. Both vessels shortened sail and prepared for action. Since both vessels carried a main armament of short-range carronades, there was no attempt at maneuvering to gain advantage before the fight; instead, they closed to "within hail" (60 yards) and opened fire around 11:30 AM, with the Wasp to the starboard and slightly to windward and the Frolic to port. The Wasp's crew fired low, into their opponent's hull, while the Frolic's gunners fired high to disable their enemy's rigging, an unusual tactic for the Royal Navy. As the action continued, the ships closed together to the point that the American gunners struck the sides of the Frolic with their rammers as they reloaded.


After 22 minutes, Wasp's rigging was in tatters, with the main topmast, mizzen topgallant mast and gaff being shot away, and almost every brace severed, making the ship unmanageable. The Frolic was even more heavily damaged, and the crew had suffered very heavy casualties. With both vessels incapable of being handled, the Wasp drew slightly ahead, and the Frolic collided with the American ship. The Wasp fired a final raking broadside which delivered the coup de grâce.

Just before noon, American sailors boarded the Frolic to find that every British officer and over half the crew, 90 men, were wounded or dead. The Americans themselves had suffered only 10 casualties. Although it was acknowledged that the British crew had fought to their utmost, it was clear that the American gunnery had been far superior to that of the British. Shortly after the fighting ended, both the Frolic's masts fell. An American prize crew went aboard the Frolic and attempted to repair the rigging, but a few hours later a British 74-gun ship of the line, HMS Poictiers came into view. Frolic was still unmanageable, and with its damaged rigging Wasp was soon overtaken and surrendered in the face of impossible odds. Poictiers was due to join the fleet blockading the American coast but thought it necessary to collect Frolic's convoy and take them to Bermuda, where they were forced to remain for several days until another escort could be found.


Master Commandant Jacob Jones and the crew of the Wasp were soon released by an exchange of prisoners. Jones was promoted and appointed to command USS Macedonian, which had been captured from the Royal Navy on 25 October. He later served as second in command to Commodore Isaac Chauncey on Lake Ontario.


Frolic had been too badly damaged to fight again and was broken up in November 1813. Wasp was taken into service in the Royal Navy as HMS Loup Cervier and renamed HMS Peacock in 1814. She disappeared off the Virginia Capes in July 1814 and is presumed to have foundered.


1813


USS Hornet vs HMS Peacock

USS Hornet was a brig-rigged (later ship-rigged during a rebuild in 1810/11) sloop-of-war of the United States Navy. Hornet's design was a compromise between the six original U.S. frigates and the coastal gunboats championed by President Thomas Jefferson. The fledgling Navy needed a light-draft vessel that was fast and maneuverable, but also had sufficient firepower to deter or defeat enemy ships. Hornet’s design is attributed to Josiah Fox but her builder, William Price, is said to have altered it based on the successful lines of the Baltimore Clipper, with which he had extensive experience. She was launched in July 1805 and commissioned on 18 October of that year. Her armament consisted of eighteen 32-poundeer carronades and two 12-pounder long guns.


HMS Peacock was a Cruizer-class brig-sloop of the Royal Navy. She was launched in 1806 and had a relatively uneventful career until she had the misfortune to meet USS Hornet. Peacock was commissioned under Commander William Peake in February 1807 for the North Sea. In 1812 Peacock transferred to the Jamaica station. There, on 1 August, she captured the American merchant ship Forester. Her armament consisted of nineteen 24-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder long guns.

USS Hornet Capturing HMS Peacock
USS Hornet Capturing HMS Peacock

On 24 February, the Hornet commanded by Master Commandant James Lawrence pursued a British merchant brig into the mouth of the Demerara River. Peacock, sailing out of the anchorage where she had left her sister ship Espiegle, met the Hornet sailing in. Hornet beat to windward and gained the advantage of the windward position. Lawrence then tacked, and as Hornet and Peacock passed each other on opposite tacks they exchanged broadsides at "half pistol shot". Even at this close range, the British fire went high. Some American sailors were killed and wounded at the mastheads while Peacock suffered heavy damage to the hull.


Captain Peake of Peacock turned downwind to bring his opposite battery to bear, but Lawrence had carried out the same maneuver more rapidly. The starboard bow of Hornet came up against the stern of Peacock from where the British could bring no guns to bear, and from this position, Hornet's gunners shattered Peacock in a mere four minutes. Peake was killed, and his First lieutenant almost immediately made a distress signal and struck her colors and surrendered.


Both vessels anchored as it became clear that Peacock was sinking. The Americans rescued her crew. She had suffered five men killed and 33 men wounded in the short battle. Three of her wounded later died aboard Hornet. Four of her men, who escaped in a small boat, may also have been lost. Hornet had one man killed and four wounded, one of whom died later.


At this point, as an American prize crew went aboard to try to plug holes below the waterline and throw the guns overboard, Peacock’s main mast fell, and she began to sink suddenly. Three American and nine British sailors were trapped below deck and drowned. Four British sailors saved themselves by climbing the foremast, the top of which remained above the water and were rescued from there. The survivors of Peacock were taken aboard Hornet, where they joined some other prisoners from captured British merchant vessels. Together with some American sailors from a recaptured prize, Hornet was now carrying 277 people. Hornet made for Martha's Vineyard; the nearest point of the American coast known not to be watched by the Royal Navy. Even so, all on board were suffering severely from shortage of water when they arrived on March 19.


USS Enterprise vs HMS Boxer

USS Enterprise was a schooner, built by Henry Spencer at Baltimore, Maryland, in 1799. Her first commander thought that she was too lightly built and that her quarters, should be bulletproofed. Enterprise was overhauled and rebuilt several times, effectively changing from a twelve-gun schooner to a fourteen-gun topsail schooner and eventually to a brig. Her armaments, in 1812 included fourteen 18-pounder carronades and two 9-pound long guns.


HMS Boxer was a 12-gun Bold-class gun-brig built and launched in July 1812. Boxer was commissioned in August 1812. Her armaments included twelve 18-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder long guns. On 17 April 1813 she sailed for Halifax and service in the squadron of Sir John Borlase Warren. While coming down from New Brunswick and off the coast of Lubec, Maine, Boxer sighted and captured a small sailing craft crewed by a group of women out for a sail. Captain Blyth, brought the women aboard, politely suggested that in the future they sail closer to the shore, and then released them. One of the women was married to the local militia commander who, impressed with Blyth’s courtesy, placed advertisements in local newspapers praising his chivalry.


Over the next two months, Boxer captured seven small vessels. These were:

  • On 6 July, the schooner Two Brothers of 89 tons, from Tanfield, bound to Eastport; and the sloop Friendship, of 100 tons, from Blackrock bound to Eastport.

  • On 25 July, the sloop Fairplay.

  • On 27 July, the schooner Rebecca, of 86 tons, from New York and bound for Cadiz or Halifax.

  • On 28 July, the schooner Nancy, of 14 tons, taken in the harbor at Little River.

  • On 3 August, the schooner Rebecca, of 117 tons, from Townsend, bound to Boston

  • On 31 August, the schooner Fortune.

On 5 September 1813, USS Enterprise sighted HMS Boxer off Pemaquid Point, Maine and after six hours of maneuvering, the antagonists finally engaged. Blyth prepared for a fight to the finish. He ordered a Union Jack nailed to the foremast and two on the mainmast. In Enterprise, Burrows showed similar resolve as he moved one of his two long 9-pounders from the bow to a stern port so he could “fight his ship from all sides”. When the firing began, the ships were eight miles southeast of Seguin and when it ended, according to William Barnes, a member of the American crew, the ships were "some four or five miles east from Pemaquid point, four miles southwest of East Egg Rock . . . and about seven miles west northwest of Monhegan."

USS Enterprise vs HMS Boxer
USS Enterprise vs HMS Boxer

Closing to within half a pistol shot, the two brigs opened fire. Blyth was killed during the first fusillades and moments later, while helping his crew run out a carronade, a musket ball hit Burrow in the thigh. He fell to the deck mortally wounded but refused to be carried below. The fierce contest ended in 30 minutes. Command of Enterprise devolved to Lieutenant Edward McCall, while Lieutenant David McGrery had assumed command of the battered Boxer. Towards the end, McGrery described the Boxer as a complete wreck with three feet of water in the hold. The flags on the mainmast were shot away, and although the Englishman's colors remained nailed to the foremast, Lieutenant McGrery had little choice but to surrender the ship. The dying Lieutenant Burrows declined to accept Commander Blyth's sword, directing it be sent to the family of the dead British captain. McCall returned to Portland to the southwest with the two ships and the casualties.


1814


USS Peacock vs HMS Epervier

USS Peacock was a Sloop of War laid down in July 1813, by Adam and Noah Brown at the New York Navy Yard, and launched 19 September 1813. Her armaments included twenty 32-pounder carronades and two 12-pounder long guns. During her service in the War of 1812, she captured twenty ships.


HMS Epervier was an 18-gun Cruizer-class brig-sloop of the Royal Navy, built by Ross at Rochester, England, and launched on 2 December 1812. Her armaments included sixteen 32-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder long guns. She and the schooner Shelburne sailed with a small convoy bound to Bermuda and the West Indies. On 14 April Epervier sailed from Port Royal, Jamaica, calling at Havana, where she took on board $118,000 in specie. She left Havana on 25 April bound for Halifax.


Peacock, under the command of Master Commandant Lewis Warrington, sailed from New York on 12 March 1814 and having eluded the British blockade, delivered some stores to St. Marys, Georgia. Peacock was then supposed to rendezvous with the frigate USS President, but President had been unable to break out of New York. While waiting for President to appear, Warrington cruised around the Bahamas, hoping to intercept British merchant ships sailing from Jamaica.


Early on the morning of 28 April, several sails were sighted to windward. They belonged to a small convoy that had sailed from Havana on 23 April, escorted by Epervier. When the convoy sighted Peacock the merchant ships made all sail to escape, while Epervier prepared to engage. As the two vessels made toward each other, the wind shifted to the southward, giving neither Peacock nor Epervier the advantage of the windward position.

USS Peacock vs HMS Epervier
USS Peacock vs HMS Epervier

At about 103:0 in the morning, both ships fired their starboard broadsides on opposite tacks, aiming high to disable their opponent's rigging. Both vessels received damage aloft, after which Epervier turned downwind and engaged Peacock on a parallel course. Peacock directed her fire against Epervier's hull with profound effect. The British fire fell away rapidly, and Epervier probably scored no hits after the first broadside from the port battery. After 40 minutes, Epervier was badly damaged, with 45 shot holes in the hull, and 5 feet (1.5 m) of water in the hold. Commander Wales summoned boarding parties to muster, intending to board and capture Peacock, but his crew refused. At 11:05, Epervier struck her colors.


Epervier had eight men killed and 15 wounded, about 20 percent of the crew, while the Americans suffered only 2 casualties. The Americans repaired the damage to Peacock's rigging within an hour. Peacock's first lieutenant took charge of the prize and succeeded in preventing it from sinking and the prize crew had the brig ready to sail by nightfall. The next day, The Americans sighted two British frigates. Peacock successfully decoyed them away from Epervier and escaped, with the result that both vessels reached Savannah, Georgia, a few days later. The Americans repaired Epervier and took her into the United States Navy as USS Epervier.


USS Wasp vs HMS Reindeer

Following the capture of the original USS Wasp by the British in 1812, the United States began construction of a second Wasp. This Wasp was a ship-rigged sloop-of-war constructed in 1813 at Newburyport, Massachusetts. She was commissioned in February of 1814, with Master Commandant Johnston Blakeley in command. Her armaments consisted of twenty 32-pounder carronades and two 12-pounder long guns.


HMS Reindeer was a Royal Navy 18-gun Cruizer-class brig-sloop of the Royal Navy, launched in 1804. She was built of fir, which made for more rapid construction at the expense of durability. Her armaments consisted of sixteen 24-pounder carronades, two 6-pounder long guns and one 12-pounder carronade boat gun.


Wasp had remained at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, until late spring 1814 awaiting sailing orders and, upon receipt of them, put to sea on 1 May 1814 for a commerce raiding war cruise to the western approaches to the English Channel. Over several weeks, Blakely captured seven merchant vessels. At daybreak on 28 June, while Wasp was chasing two more merchantmen, the brig-sloop Reindeer was seen bearing down from the windward.


Reindeer had sailed from Plymouth a few days earlier with orders to hunt down Wasp. Due to the light wind, more than half the day was gone before the two vessels came within range of each other. Reindeer was within 60 yards of Wasp's quarter, where neither vessel could bring its broadside to bear, and so, over ten minutes, Reindeer fired five shots from its shifting boat carronade from this position. Eventually, Wasp turned downwind to bring its broadside to bear, and the two vessels exchanged broadsides while almost dead in the water.

USS Wasp vs HMS Reindeer
USS Wasp vs HMS Reindeer

After twenty minutes' firing, the two vessels came into contact, and some of the British crew tried to board Wasp but were beaten back. Commander Manners of the Reindeer was mortally wounded but continued to urge on his crew until killed by a musket shot from Wasp's rigging. American boarding parties, following up the repulse of the British crew, swarmed aboard Reindeer. Once they had driven the surviving British crew below, the British captain's clerk, almost the only surviving officer of any rank, surrendered. Reindeer had suffered 25 killed, including her commander, and 42 men wounded, out of a total of 98 men and 20 boys. Out of 173 men and two boys in her complement, Wasp had two midshipman and nine seamen and marines killed and mortally wounded, and fifteen petty officers, seamen, and marines wounded severely or slightly.


Reindeer had been beaten into a wreck, and Blakely set it on fire before putting some of the wounded prisoners aboard a neutral ship and proceeding into Lorient, France where they remained for seven weeks while making repairs, chiefly to the damaged masts.


USS WASP vs HMS Avon

After spending seven weeks in port at Lorient, France making repairs from her previous engagement with HMS Reindeer, the Wasp sortied on August 27 and began once again raiding English shipping. Following the repairs, Wasp’s armament consisted of twenty-two 32-pounder carronades, two 12-pounder long guns, and the 12-pounder boat carronade that they had removed from HMS Reindeer.


HMS Avon was a Cruizer-class brig-sloop built at Falmouth and launched in 1805. Avon underwent repairs and refit at Portsmouth in beginning in November of 1813. Her armament included sixteen 32-pounder carronades and two 6-pounder long guns. She was recommissioned in July 1814 with Commander the Honorable James Arbuthnot as her skipper.

Battle by Moonlight - USS Wasp vs HMS Avon
Battle by Moonlight - USS Wasp vs HMS Avon

On the evening of September 1, 1814, while in the English Channel, Wasp, spotted four unknown sails, and made for the nearest. The unknown vessel was the Avon. As Wasp approached Avon's quarter, the two vessels exchanged several hails, in which the Americans demanded that the British vessel heave to, as well as shots from the bow and stern chase guns. Blakely eventually drew up alongside Avon, deliberately selecting the leeward position to prevent Avon escaping downwind. Although by this time it was dark, the wind fresh, and the sea rough, the American gunners were very accurate. After half an hour, Avon had been partly dismasted, one third of her crew were casualties and her guns had been silenced, many of the broadside carronades being knocked off their mounts. By contrast, although the battle took place at such close range that one American sailor was struck by wadding from a British carronade, only four shots from Avon struck the hull of Wasp and only three American sailors were wounded.


Three quarters of an hour after the start of the battle, Avon surrendered. While the crew of Wasp were lowering a boat to take possession, another unknown vessel was seen approaching, followed by two more. Wasp made away downwind while the braces which had been shot away were replaced. The nearest pursuer was the British brig-sloop HMS Castilian. The brig got close enough to fire an inaccurate broadside over Wasp's quarter, but Avon had been making repeated distress signals, and Castilian broke off to help. Avon's crew was taken off, and the shattered brig sank soon afterwards. Wasp continued to cruise west of the mouth of the English Channel. On 21 September, it met with a neutral Swedish merchant vessel, on board which were two officers from the frigate USS Essex, which had been captured the previous year off the coast of Chile. Some of the officers from the prizes taken earlier by Wasp were put aboard the Swedish ship. After the two vessels parted, Wasp vanished, and was presumed lost to bad weather south of the Azores.


We hope you found Part 6 of our examination of the War of 1812 to be interesting and informative. Please join us again in two-weeks for our final look at the battles of the War of 1812 as, in Part 7 we look at the Naval War of 1812 in the Pacific Ocean. Actions that, in part, inspired Patrick O’Brian’s novel The Far Side of the World (not the movie). O’Brian himself admitted that the USS Norfolk in his novel is a reference to the historical expedition of the USS Essex.


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