Wednesday, February 9, 2011

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 5

Part 5: A New Commander

When James Lawrence was promoted to Captain and deemed too senior to command Hornet, command passed to newly promoted Master Commandant James Biddle. Biddle had been First Lieutenant of Hornet’s sister Wasp when she fought HMS Frolic and was subsequently captured by a British ship of the line. Earlier, he had also been aboard the USS Philadelphia when she ran aground and was captured in Tripoli. He spent several months in captivity following both occasions. He had seen a great deal of action, but not much success, and it can be safely assumed that he looked upon his command of Hornet as a chance to achieve what he must have felt was long overdue.

After some refitting and re-provisioning, Hornet sailed with Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron consisting of United States and Macedonian on May 24th 1813. To evade the British ships watching the southerly approaches to New York near Sandy Hook, Decatur led his squadron north through Hell Gate and up the East River into Long Island Sound – a daring maneuver of itself, considering the treacherous currents and rocks that lined the passage.

Making his way up Long Island Sound, Decatur anchored his squadron in Gardner’s Bay to wait for an opportunity to slip past the British blockading squadron. On June 1st, he decided to make a break for the open sea. However the timing was imperfect, and they were soon discovered and chased by superior forces into New London. Working their way up the Thames River, Decatur in United States and the Captain of Macedonian positioned themselves for what they were sure would be a long wait. Biddle, however, had different ideas for Hornet.

Biddle immediately applied to Decatur for permission to run the blockade. But the two British 74-gun ships and frigate that had chased them into the Thames were soon augmented by another frigate and several smaller ships. Commanding the British squadron was Sir Thomas Hardy, Lord Nelson’s Flag Captain at the Battle of Trafalgar seven and a half years earlier. His ships were now anchored across the mouth of the river, ready to thwart any attempt to escape.

In the following months, local militias and the three blockaded ships prepared for the British assault they knew must surely follow. The city of New London emptied its banks of hard currency and sent women and children away. Several times, the British made sail and appeared to be standing up the river, but anchored instead five miles below the city. The American forces remained in constant vigilance for the British onslaught.

Months passed. Winter fell on New England. After several small skirmishes along the shoreline and a failed attempt by Decatur to run the blockade with his three ships, it was decided that United States and Macedonian would be dragged up the river and be dismantled, their military stores removed and shipped overland. Hornet remained at New London, waiting for an opportunity to escape. A previous attempt to escape at night had been thwarted by a series of mysterious blue lights on shore, which Biddle thought must surely be the work of treasonous elements ashore. Breaking out, even in the best of circumstances, would not be easy if the British had warning. Or would it?

According to a letter written by a Rev. Jarvis of New London, Biddle at one point sent a letter by boat down the river. “Captain Biddle indicated that he intended to sail and should any ship wish to object he would gladly receive their applications the following day.” (Jarvis) Though this specific event is not documented elsewhere, Hornet did in fact escape on November 18th 1814 passing less than a quarter mile from and between the anchored British ships. Though Hornet’s log records “two sail in chase” she reached New York in safety two days later (Biddle).

Hornet arrived in New York in time to sail in squadron with President under command of Stephen Decatur, who had escaped from the blockade at New London with his crew by travelling overland. Also assigned the squadron was USS Peacock, a new sloop of war named after the vessel Hornet had sunk the year before. The intention of the cruise was to hunt for British merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean. President had gone ahead and, unbeknownst to Biddle, had been captured. The rest departed New York on January 22nd in the throes of a violent gale that caused the British blockaders to heave to and ‘hunker down’. Hornet and Peacock with store ship Tom Bowline sailed out under storm canvas within sight of the helpless British ships, and headed for the South Atlantic. Agreeing to rendezvous at Tristan d’Acunha, a small island in those waters, Hornet parted company to sail independently and search for British shipping. She found her prey, capturing the British merchant ship William. Biddle put a prize crew aboard and sent her back to the United States.

Hornet arrived off the island on March 23rd 1815 and prepared to anchor north of the island when a sail was spotted. This proved to be HMS Penguin, a new British brig-sloop under the command of Captain James Dickenson. Penguin was armed and manned almost identically to Hornet, having 32-pounder carronades but heavier 18-pounder long guns. And in contrast to her previous fight with HMS Peacock, Hornet was downwind of Penguin, giving her enemy the maneuvering advantage. At about 1:40 pm, Peacock caught up with Hornet and the two exchanged heavy broadsides as they sailed parallel courses. Inching closer and closer together, Penguin’s captain suddenly threw his helm over and rushed Hornet, intending to board her. At that moment, Captain Dickenson was killed by small arms fire from Hornet’s marines, and Penguin’s bowsprit became entangled in Hornet’s aft starboard rigging. Thinking he heard something in the way of surrender shouted from Penguin’s deck, Biddle jumped up onto the bulwark and was shot through the neck by the British marines aboard Penguin (Roosevelt 432). American marines immediately took down the perpetrators, and Hornet lunged forward pulling clear of Penguin’s bowsprit, ripping it from the ship as she went. Penguin’s foremast fell at the same time, and the now freed Hornet turned and began pummeling the crippled Penguin with broadside after broadside. Just after two o’clock, after 22 minutes of action, Penguin hauled down her colors.

Penguin had lost 42 dead to 11 aboard Hornet – nearly a four to one disparity. Her hull was so badly cut up that she had to be scuttled, and after removing her crew and useful stores, began to effect her demise when two strange sail were sighted to windward. Measures to scuttle the ship were expedited but as Penguin slipped beneath the waves the two sail proved to be Peacock and Tom Bowline. The Penguin’s crew were transferred to the Tom Bowline which was sent to Rio de Janeiro while Hornet and Peacock waited for President.

On April 13th the two ships ended their vigil, assuming quite correctly that President had been captured. Setting out northward, the two planned to cruise in company as they made their way south. On April 27th near the Cape of Good Hope, Peacock spotted what appeared to be a large merchantman. Sailing closer Biddle sensed a hesitation, and soon Peacock was setting all sail running away from the strange ship, signaling ‘man of war’ and ‘enemy’.

Hornet, already at full sail, turned to run, but the newer Peacock soon pulled ahead. The strange ship was in fact the British 74-gun ship of the line Cornwallis, and was now bearing down on Hornet. Biddle began to jettison the stores taken from Penguin, and as Cornwallis pressed on canvas and began gaining, the situation began to look quite serious. Suddenly the winds shifted, then again, both times in favor of Cornwallis and soon she began shooting. Hornet, in running away, actually navigated a complete circle around Cornwallis. Three shots from the chasing man-of-war found Hornet’s hull, and Hornet’s ammunition, anchors and cables were thrown overboard to further lighten the ship. Cornwallis continued to gain, but Hornet’s crew pushed harder. One by one the guns and boats followed, going overboard, leaving only one solitary carronade on the bow. After more than three days, the chase continued. Then, on the morning of April 30th, Cornwallis gave up and turned away. (Aimone) The determination of her crew had paid off.

No longer useful as a warship and having thrown most of her provisions overboard, Hornet made for home via Brazil, where she stopped to take on provisions, new anchors, cable and boats. On a slightly humorous note, Biddle recorded in the ship’s log, “exercised the crew at the great gun” – a notation frequently seen in the plural, but for Hornet’s one remaining piece of artillery. (Biddle) On crossing the equator, the crew were allowed to proceed with the traditional ceremony, a surviving account of which provides a fascinating glimpse of this practice in the age of sail (Aimone), but need not be recounted here.

Arriving back at New York on July 30th 1815, Biddle learned of the declaration of peace. Voted a gold medal for his capture and destruction of Penguin, Biddle was promoted to Captain and ordered to discharge Hornet’s crew and place the ship in ordinary – the 19th century version of moth balls – as many other ships were ordered at the end of their lives. Her performance in the war had been spectacular, capturing the first prize of the war and five others later in the war, sinking two enemy naval combatants, and making several runs of a blockade that kept many of the larger frigates bottled up. Now, at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, her guns were stripped, her masts housed and she was put aside for posterity – or, as more likely, to await dismantling as had been the case with so many other vessels.

But what nobody at the time could know was that Hornet had not yet seen even half of her useful service life. More to follow tomorrow.


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