Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The story of HORNET and TWO Peacocks, or, Why not Wasp?

One of the singular occurrences in the War of 1812 related to USS HORNET (subject of our most recent initiative) is that she is the only US warship to challenge her own sister ship to a ship-to-ship duel - today in 1813. Confusing, I know. Let me explain.

HORNET and her close sister WASP were both built to the same design, by Josiah Fox, as we've covered in previous entries. But in 1805 new ship construction was closely scrutinized - President Jefferson's administration and a Republican dominated Congress had since resolved to focus on a reduction of the Naval establishment in favor of small gunboats for harbor defense. So an an experiment, it was decided to contract HORNET's construction to a private shipyard while WASP was built in a Navy yard by government workers. HORNET came in ahead of schedule and under budget, but once launched it was found that alterations to her rigging were going to be necessary as she had trouble in bad weather. WASP, taking a bit longer, was quickly altered in response to the lessons learned from HORNET, and HORNET was brought in for overhaul.

In the years leading up to the War of 1812, both ships served duty in the Mediteranean and made diplomatic calls transporting envoys. The two ships were side-by-side in the Washington Navy Yard in 1811, HORNET for her conversion to ship rig and WASP for a routine maintenance period. At the end of the year, HORNET was assigned a special diplomatic mission to Britain (which would prove the final straw in the US declaration of war) while WASP joined Stephen Decatur's squadron at Hampton Roads.

At the outbreak of war, HORNET and WASP made it to sea quickly. HORNET with Commodore Rodgers' squadron and WASP with Decatur's. After initial cruising turned up several merchant prizes, HORNET was assigned to cruise with CONSTITUTION under command of Bainbridge heading to the South Atlantic while WASP remained part of Decatur's force off the mid-Atlantic coastline.

WASP famously ran into the HMS FROLIC escorting a British convoy, where despite capturing FROLIC, the arrival of HMS POICTIERS, a 74-gun ship of the line recaptured FROLIC and took WASP as well.

HORNET challenged and blockaded HMS BONNE CITOYENNE in Brazil before breaking off and coming upon HMS PEACOCK. In a brisk 14-minute fight, HORNET sank PEACOCK outright before turning for home, overloaded with prisoners and spoils.

WASP, now captured, was taken into British service at Halifax and re-named HMS LOUP CERVIER (translation, Lynx). Later, she was re-named again, this time HMS PEACOCK after the ship lost to HORNET.

When HORNET returned to New York after capturing PEACOCK, command turned over to James Biddle and HORNET was assigned to cruise with UNITED STATES and the captured frigate MACEDONIAN under Commodore Decatur. Slipping out of New York via Hell Gate (a popular but dangerous option in running the blockade) the ships reached the ocean off Block Island where they were sighted by a superior British force and driven in to New London, CT.

This, as they say, is where the plot thickens.

The blockading force was soon augmented by several other craft, including the newly re-christened HMS PEACOCK, ex USS WASP. Biddle, instantly recognizing her (he had served as her first lieutenant in the action with FROLIC and was captured with her), immediately applied to the British commander to fight her, navio-e-navio and duke it out as per the common fetish of naval officers at that time. The British commander, Sir Thomas Hardy (former flag captain of Admiral Nelson and the man who held his head as he died) blatantly refused to permit the action. After all, wouldn't it be a mess if HORNET managed to capture two British ships named PEACOCK?


HMS PEACOCK, ex USS WASP, sank later that year in a storm off the Virginia Capes. She was sent away by Hardy soon after she arrived in the face of Biddle's challenges. Presumably there was some face to be saved from 'wimping out' there.

Another WASP was soon built at Newburyport MA, a sloop of war just like the last but slightly larger. On a remarkably sucessful voyage to British home waters in 1814, she captured an astonishing 15 ships, but foundered on her way back to the United States.


People seem to be very familiar with WASP but not as much with HORNET - to the point where they recommend - "maybe you could build WASP instead". While I agree that there were some laurels won by both of the 1812-era ocean-going ships (there was a third WASP in the conflict on Lake Champlain), neither showed the longevity or diversity of missions that HORNET had. And while the emphasis right now is on the 1812 bicentennial commemorations, we have to consider the bigger picture and an enduring mission set for the new HORNET that goes beyond only a few years' celebrations. The remarkably diverse story of the historic ship - coupled with her fantastic luck in the War of 1812 - simply makes for a better story.


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