Monday, February 7, 2011

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 3

I must be getting more difficult to please because that Super Bowl was crap. 1) CA forgot the words to the National Anthem, 2) Pop Warner games are more fearsome than that 3) Fergie should be retired to Skinnemax and 4) I'd already seen all the best commercials thanks to YouTube. But at least I was working while I watched so it wasn't a total loss.

But I digest.

Last week we began a cursory overview of the history of the third USS Hornet. We briefly outlined her design, construction, early service and conversion to ship-rig at Washington in 1810-1811. Today, we'll start off the week with her service in 1812.

Part 3 - Free Trade and Sailor's Rights

The only thing that could add icing to the cake of Hornet's recent overhaul was a brilliant new commander, and he joined the ship at Norfolk in October 1811. At 30 years old, Master Commandant James Lawrence had seen considerable Naval service over his short career. He served in Enterprise in the Mediterranean and was second in command of Stephen Decatur’s successful expedition to destroy the captured frigate USS Philadelphia. By the time he set foot on Hornet’s quarterdeck, he had commanded the smaller ships Vixen and Argus, as well as Hornet’s sister Wasp. Now, in Hornet, he made sail for New York and from there crossed the Atlantic to France and Great Britain with emissaries to the French and British governments.

But this seemingly routine mission was anything but – tensions between the United States and Great Britain were the hottest they had ever been since the revolution. The Royal Navy’s continuing impressment, that is essentially seaborne kidnapping, of American seamen to fill its ships had caused a nationwide tumult. Now, negotiations to end the practice were underway, and the result would mean life or death for many Americans.

Getting underway from New York on December 6th 1811, she made the passage from North America to Europe in eighteen days - a very fast passage for her time. Arriving at Cherbourg on New Year's Eve 1811, Lawrence only remained long enough for the French emissary to land his dispatches and return to the ship before Hornet was again underway, bound for England. (Lawrence I)

Passing the Royal Navy anchorage at Spithead, Hornet dropped anchor near Cowes on the Isle of Wight and sent her two diplomats to Portsmouth by boat. All Lawrence could do was wait while the diplomats made their way to London. The wait did not pass without incident.

In early January, a sailor from Hornet deserted from one of the ship's boats. It was later learned that he had somehow ended up in the Royal Navy (whether he went voluntarily or not is not clear). Furious, Lawrence sent his first lieutenant in to ask the British to return the Sailor - but was rebuffed by a British claim that the man had been a deserter from HMS Implacable and could not be returned to the American ship. Implacable's Captain, George Cockburn personally confirmed the claim. Lawrence decided that in light of his diplomatic mission further action was not prudent. (Gleaves 85)

For the next several months, Hornet ferried messages between US Diplomats in Britain and France. Tensions built, mounting in the near constant interaction with Royal Navy ships, both of the Home Squadron and the forces blockading France (Hornet was allowed through as she was on a diplomatic mission). On several occasions, Hornet cleared for action as Royal Navy ships came bearing down as though to fight, only to turn away. Lawrence was fully aware that if war were declared, he might be caught at sea ignorant of that fact, and so remained constantly on guard.

On April 27th 1812, Lawrence set sail for home. Making another speedy passage, Hornet returned to New York in early May 1812 with unpleasant news – negotiations were not progressing well, and the British had refused yet again to cease their policy of impressment of American sailors. To the "War Hawk" dominated government in Washington, this proved all they needed.

"The 'Hornet' has at last arrived. On the rumor of this news the avenues of the State Department were thronged by a crowd of members of both Houses of Congress, as well as by strangers and citizens, impatient to know what the long expected vessel had brought. Soon it was learned that the 'Hornet' had brought nothing favorable, and that Mr. Barlow had as yet concluded nothing with your Excellency. On this news the furious declamations of the Federalists, of the commercial interests, and of the numerous friends of England were redoubled; the Republicans, deceived in their hopes, joined in the outcry, and for three days nothing was heard but a general cry for war against France and England at once. . . ." (Gleaves 87-88)

On June 1, President Madison sent a letter to Congress requesting a declaration of war, which he received on June 18, 1812 and announced the following day:

“I do specially enjoin on all persons holding offices, civil or military, under the authority of the United States, that they be vigilant and zealous in discharging their duties…in supporting and invigorating all the measures which may be adopted by the constituted authorities, for obtaining a speedy, a just, and an honorable peace.” (Davison 10-11)

Among the first to answer this charge was Hornet herself. Her logbook records:

June 21st, 1812.
At 6 A. M., got under way. At 5/2 past 2: nearly abeam of the Hook, frigates "President," "Congress" and "United States" in company. At 6 p. M., discharged pilot. At 6 P. M. called all hands to muster, when Captain Lawrence informed the ship's company that war was declared against England and was received by three cheers. (Gleaves 103)

Sailing with Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron on June 22, 1812, she departed New York in company with President, Congress and United States – three of the six “original” frigates – and the brig Argus. Despite the general lack of success that ensued, including a tragic event where a gun exploded and injured the commodore himself, Hornet captured the British privateer Dolphin on July 9th (Roosevelt 46) –the first prize of the war made by a US Navy ship. Later, she captured the privateer John (16 guns) and the merchant vessel Argus - not to be confused with the Navy brig of the same name (Gleaves 105).

Returning to Boston in August, Lawrence prepared Hornet for another extended cruise. She was to sail to the East Indies by way of the Indian Ocean in a raiding expedition under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge in Constitution.

More to follow about Hornet's 1812-13 cruise - and her rise to national fame - tomorrow.

Works Cited:

Davison, Gideon M., Williams, Samuel. Sketches of the war, between the United States and the British isles. Rutland VT: Fay & Davison, 1815.
Gleaves, Albert. James Lawrence, captain, United States navy, commander of the Chesapeake. G. P. Putnam & sons, 1904.
Lawrence, James et al. "Log of USS Hornet, May 1810 - December 1811." National Archives Main Branch, Washington DC.
Lawrence, James. "Log of USS Hornet, December 1811 - November 1812." National Archives Main Branch, Washington DC.
Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.


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