At Boston, Hornet reprovisioned and prepared for an extended cruise. She next sailed on October 23rd 1812 with USS Constitution under Commodore Bainbridge on a cruise to harass British shipping and resources in the South Atlantic. The frigate Essex was to also join the squadron, though was already underway with the intention of meeting Constitution and Hornet en route.
Arriving on the Brazilian coast at San Salvador, and still without any sign of Essex, Hornet made a critical discovery. HMS Bonne Citoyenne, a British brig with nearly the exact same heavy armament as Hornet, was loading half a million pound of specie (by other reports $1.6 million, yet others $30,000) – a vast fortune – for carriage back to England. Brazenly sailing into the neutral harbor and sailing completely around the anchored Bonne Citoyenne, Hornet stood back out to sea to report the finding to Bainbridge before returning to wait for the British ship to depart. Lawrence decided to challenge his opponent head on – sending a formal challenge letter. But even with Bainbridge’s personal assurances that Constitution would not interpose in the fight, Captain Pitt Barnaby Greene of Bonne Citoyenne refused to fight, citing his responsibility to the money and not fear of defeat. To reinforce the point, Bainbridge sailed Constitution southward in search of other quarry while Hornet maintained the blockade. Only the arrival of a British 74-gun ship of the line on January 24th finally drove Hornet off.
Meanwhile, Constitution continued her search southward where she came upon and famously defeated HMS Java. Hornet, on leaving San Salvador, had similar luck. On Valentine’s Day 1813 she fell in with and captured the British brig Resolution, carrying $23,000 in gold. Continuing the cruise toward the mouth of the Demerara River, she sighted HMS Espiegle (also carrying nearly the same armament as Hornet) and chased her into shoal water where Lawrence turned seaward for fear of going aground on the bar near the mouth of the river.
At the same moment another sail appeared, and proved to be HMS Peacock approaching the port. Clearing for action, Hornet quickly closed the distance and hauled up her colors. Peacock hauled up hers and at 5:25 pm the ships opened fire with full broadsides at a range of less than 20 yards. Passing each other, Peacock quickly came about only to find Hornet had maneuvered to a position close aboard on her bow, firing broadside after broadside into the British ship which was in turn unable to respond by virtue of Hornet’s position. Peacock, severely damaged, hauled down her colors at 5:39, just 14 minutes after the first shots were fired (Roosevelt 216).
Sending a boat, Lawrence ordered both ships to anchor. Peacock had settled by the stern and her mainmast had fallen, hanging over the side of the ship. The returning boat crew reported that Peacock was sinking fast and requested assistance. Sending some of Hornet’s men to evacuate Peacock’s crew, the ship sank rapidly, taking three of Hornet’s crew and nine of her own with her. In the entire action Hornet only lost one sailor, the three victims of the sinking Peacock added made a total of four dead and two wounded. Meanwhile Peacock lost eight dead – including her captain – and 30 wounded. The remaining prisoners were brought onboard and treated very kindly. They would later publish a letter of thanks to Hornet’s officers and crew:
“We ceased to consider ourselves prisoners; and everything that friendship could dictate was adopted by you and the officers of the Hornet to remedy the inconvenience we would otherwise have experienced from the unavoidable loss of the whole of our property and clothes owing to the sudden sinking of Peacock.” (Roosevelt 216)
Lawrence, now with a reported 277 souls onboard – including his own crew numbering 138 with the rest being made up of prisoners from her various prizes – decided to make for home. On March 19th 1813 Hornet dropped anchor off Martha’s Vinyard, one of the few locations known to be frequently ignored by the British blockaders, and discharged their prisoners. She then proceeded to New York, where the crew was wined and dined by New York society and Lawrence learned of his promotion to Captain. The promotion rendered him too senior to command Hornet, and he was reassigned to take command of the frigate Chesapeake then refitting at Boston.
More about Hornet under her new commanding officer and the cruise of 1813, tomorrow.
The reverse of the medal authorized by Congress for James Lawrence and officers of the Hornet for the sinking of HMS Peacock.