Monday, July 11, 2011

199 years ago today....

Today marks an interesting anniversary - 199 years ago something significant happened.  This is in marked contrast to the tin sign hanging in the Dockyard that proclaims "On this site 200 years ago NOTHING HAPPENED".  Actually, we're not sure about that one but it seemed funny.  But today in history, a relatively small but significant 'first' ocurred having to do with USS Hornet.

When war was declared in June of 1812, a squadron consisting of the frigates President, United States, Congress, sloop Hornet and brig Argus under the command of Commodore John Rodgers set out from New York to scour the North Atlantic for British shipping.  Specifically, Rodgers had hoped to catch the seasonal convoy of the British 'plate fleet' carrying specie from the West Indies bound for England.  After several weeks at sea, the squadron had unsuccessfully chased HMS Belvidera (the chase ended when one of USS President's bow chasers exploded, killing several and injuring Commodore Rodgers himself) and managed to find the floating trash trail of coconut shells and banana peels left in the wake of the convoy - but alas no plate fleet.

Most sources - even the Navy's official record - state that on July 9th, 1812, USS Hornet discovered a strange sail, overtook the same and found her to be the British merchant brig Dolphin - which she promptly captured.  However, if Hornet's own logs can be trusted, this event occurred on July 11th - not July 9th (even I've reported this incorrectly, it would seem).  Still, it represents what I believe to be the first British ship captured by any US Navy ship.  Privateers and even a Revenue Cutter (the Revenue Cutter service was a precursor to today's Coast Guard) claimed merchant prizes earlier, everyone taking advantage of the British being unaware that the United States had declared war.  But the Navy was still intent on cruising in large squadrons, and so otherwise low-hanging fruit was neglected.

The incident of Hornet capturing Dolphin is interesting not for its strategic value - which was negligible at best - but for the people involved, and their stories.  Of course, there is Hornet's commander, James Lawrence, who gave the Navy "Don't Give Up the Ship!"  I've covered that plenty.  Newly promoted Lieutenant David Conner was put aboard Dolphin and instructed to take her back to the United States - but was recaptured by the British en route.  After a short time as a prisoner he was exchanged and returned to duty in Hornet, where he was present for the remainder of the war, including the famous engagements with HMS Peacock and HMS Penguin.  During the latter engagement he was severely wounded and spent several years on crutches when a piece of grapeshot shattered his hip.  Later, he rose to the rank of Commodore, and commanded the naval forces in the amphibious assault on Vera Cruz in 1847 - where General Winfield Scott commanded the army contingent going ashore.

More historical notes to follow as we gear up for the 1812 bicentennial - and HORNET!


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