Friday, February 11, 2011

US Sloop of War Hornet, Part 7

Last night I attended a lecture and book signing at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. So let me take this moment to plug the new book Perilous Fight - America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas 1812-1815 by Stephen Budiansky. The author had some interesting views on the subject matter and I look forward to examining the book in greater detail this weekend.

Part 7 - Ebb Tide

In 1828 Hornet was at New York and received a new commanding officer, Commander Otho Norris. Sailing on February 4th 1829, Hornet made her usual cruise to the West Indies Squadron.

However this time, counter-piracy operations were a slightly lower priority. General Santa Anna had kept up an ongoing fight against Spanish authority in Mexico, working to free that country from colonial rule. In September, the Spanish launched an assault against Santa Anna at Tampico, and Hornet was dispatched to stand by to evacuate the American Consul, his family and any other Americans along with their valuables.

Arriving on the scene, Hornet went to anchor outside the bar so as to prevent interference with the ongoing fight in and around the city by entering the harbor. Launching five boats, Hornet’s crew began moving valuables to the ship as people took stock of their homes and prepared for the trip out to the ship. On the evening of September 9th, a sudden gale sprang up, and Norris decided to get underway to weather the storm.“…the boats were suddenly recalled to the ship by signal, and accordingly instantly abandoned their task and repaired to their vessel. The boats were immediately hoisted in, the Hornet weighed her anchors, and, a little before dark, stood off to sea under close reefed topsails” (Rush).

Three other ships anchored nearby likewise made sail, following the general direction of the much faster Hornet. Though her prospective passengers were abandoned on the beach, they surely appreciated the result later on.

As night fell, the storm increased with tremendous fury. One of the three merchant vessels that had gotten underway with Hornet from the beach at Tampico capsized, and her captain and three other crew members spent the night clinging to the overturned hull. That captain later reported:

“…amid the roar of the tempest and the rush of waters, suddenly arose above the storm the shrill sound of a boatswain’s call. I was instantly aware of the proximity of Hornet…and suddenly she appeared. In a moment she had passed into the darkness… She came and went as a phantom ship.” (Rush)

This proved to be the last time anyone saw the ship and lived to tell of it. He goes on to specify that she was scudding under bare poles, that is to say had no sails set, and was running with the wind (Rush). Her upper masts had been run down and ‘housed’ to lower their center of gravity and her yards were lowered to the same effect – all common measures used by sailing ships to weather storms.

The storm was later recorded as one of the worst hurricanes anyone could remember. In the following weeks, pieces of boats and hats with the name HORNET painted on the tallies began washing ashore in Mexico. It is very fitting that the last glimpse of the ship revealed a crew hard at work (as evidenced by the boatswain's calls)– even in desperate odds, the Hornet and her crew fought on until the end.

When the news of Hornet’s demise reached Washington, Congress voted the widows and orphans of her crew payment of the departed sailors’ salaries for a full year after the reported sinking. Songs were written and poems were inked in newspapers and periodicals around the country. Though many other sloops of war and smaller vessels suffered the same fate on different occasions, none had the tremendous outpouring of public sympathy as did the Hornet.


This and the previous six parts about the history of Hornet have been intended as a framework of sorts - next week, I'll start going back and filling in interesting details about her people and some of the unique connections the ship had - which in many instances far surpass the history of the ship itself in longevity and interest.

Standby for some fun entries to come - next week.


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