Friday, February 24, 2012

24 February - HORNET sinks PEACOCK

Happy Peacock Day!  Here at NHS we're commemorating the 199th anniversary of the sinking of HMS Peacock by the US Sloop of War Hornet, commanded by Master Commandant James Lawrence.  I had originally intended to publish a much longer paper on the subject, but as has so often been the case, new information has come to light that is redirecting some of my conclusions.  Nevertheless, I hope to have it ready for next year's 200th anniversary.

So what exactly happened there?  How did Hornet manage to "maul so unmercifully" (as one period newspaper wrote) a ship of approximately similar size that she was reduced to a sinking condition in less than 15 minutes?  The general story, though often retold in short by almost every author writing on the War of 1812, is far more interesting than it would seem.  And though the action didn't officially begin until 5:25 pm, 199 years ago today, this morning in fact, the events that led both ships into the engagement were already playing out.

At dawn on February 24th 1813, Hornet’s lookouts spotted a British merchant ship, and Lawrence gave chase.  Running close in shore, the merchant made for the mouth of the Demerara River and the British port of Georgetown, Guyana.  As the chase approached the port, Lawrence sighted an anchored British brig, HMS Espiegle.  But Hornet was running into shallow water, and Lawrence tacked seaward to prevent running aground – intending to approach his prospective adversary from deeper water.  At 3:30 pm, while beating around the shoals, another British warship came into sight, slightly to windward and astern of Hornet.  The situation was becoming tenuous – Lawrence was between two British brigs, each about the same size as Hornet.  If he stood out to sea and made sail quick enough, he might outrun his adversary.  Instead, he made a bold decision.

Hornet and Peacock – the opening shots.  Original painting by Patrick O’Brien
Seeing that if he stayed close on the wind he could weather the ship on his stern  – that is, seize the maneuvering advantage  – he decided to turn and fight.  At 5:10 pm, Lawrence tacked, cleared for action and hauled up his colors. Hornet was now running almost directly toward her opponent, and  quickly closed the distance.  At 5:25 pm the ships passed and opened fire with full broadsides at a range of less than 20 yards.  As they passed, the adversary began to turn downwind.  Seeing this maneuver, Lawrence brought  Hornet  about, turning faster than his opponent.  As the opposite batteries were now brought to bear shots were once again exchanged.  But in her sharper turn, Hornet shot ahead, and Lawrence skillfully brought her to on his opponents starboard quarter – where her guns couldn‟t respond. Hornet’s gun crews blazed away with remarkable speed.   At 5:39 pm, just 14 minutes after the opening shots were fired, the British ship hauled down her colors, her mainmast falling soon after.

Lawrence immediately sent a boat to receive the formal surrender.  The adversary proved to be HMS Peacock, 18 guns, commanded by Captain William Peake.  But she was badly cut up and sinking fast.  Additional boats were sent to save Peacock as the sun set.  By that time the wind was freshening and the sea was roiled in large swells.  Hornet’s boats managed to evacuate most of  Peacock’s crew in the darkness, but the badly damaged ship sank quickly taking three of Hornet’s crew and nine of her own with her to the bottom.  Being  in shallow water, some of the crews survived by climbing into the fore top - which remained above water - while others jumped into Peacock’s shattered launch on deck.  After retrieving those from the fighting top, the survivors paddled the crippled boat with pieces of wreckage some three miles back to Hornet, which had anchored while repairing damaged rigging. 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. Captain Peake's body was later recovered and buried at St. George‟s Church in Georgetown.  His monument there, which survives today, reads in part:

British historians would continue the outrage of the “unequal combat” into the 20th century.  And indeed, Peacock was lighter gunned and had a smaller crew than Hornet.  But this couldn't have been known to either captain until the moment action was joined – if even then it were possible.  Of the entire action, only two irascible facts carry any weight: first, that even though Lawrence was in a regard 'spoiling for a fight', Peacock’s maneuvering before the battle made her the distinct antagonist.  She could have stood into Georgetown and made contact with  Espiegle rather than sail down to Hornet.    She chose the latter to her own demise.    Second, as Theodore Roosevelt pointed out, the discrepancy in armament could not explain the discrepancy in accuracy.  By nearly all accounts, none of Peacock’s shot found Hornet’s hull, but rather passed over doing relatively little damage to her rigging.  In contrast, Hornet’s crew fired not only more accurately but by many accounts significantly faster than Peacock’s.  Peacock was apparently known as “the yacht” for the „tasteful arrangement of her deck‟ and shimmering brass and brightwork.  To use Roosevelt‟s turn of phrase, they “confounded the mere  incidents of good  discipline with the essentials.”

The captain and crew of HMS Espiegle, the first warship Hornet had seen at anchor, reported seeing her on the day of the battle, but that she sailed out of sight and had heard nothing of the battle with  Peacock until the following day.  Indeed, Hornet and Peacock were out of sight by the time they engaged.  In the aftermath of the battle, her captain was court-martialed and dismissed from the Royal Navy, though of the many charges heaped against him, failure to assist Peacock was not among them.

The survivors from Peacock were brought onboard Hornet 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.”
Drawing on the inside of a contemporary sea chest, depicting Peacock sinking and Hornet nearby.  In reality, darkness fell quickly after the battle and the two ships were much farther apart.

Lawrence, now with a reported 277 souls onboard – including her 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, discharged their prisoners and sent ahead news of the victory.

When Hornet arrived in New York, her crew was thrown a massive party and officers' portraits were painted by Gilbert Stuart.  Lawrence also 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.  Before departing Hornet, he took the opportunity of writing the Secretary of the Navy proposing another cruise in Hornet to the Grand Banks fishing grounds to cut up the Canadian fishing fleet  – followed by another letter extolling Hornet’s superior virtues as a “supreme example of her class”. But it was not to be.
Master Commandant James Lawrence, portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1813.  The painting is the only image of Lawrence  made from life (others made after were based on this one).  It currently hangs in the US Naval Academy Museum.

Lawrence was mortally wounded in the subsequent  famous engagement of Chesapeake with HMS  Shannon, during which his last reported orders on being taken from the deck were “Don't give up the ship!” – a now legendary Navy motto.  It is interesting to note that the battle flag he flew during that fateful engagement, which was emblazoned with the words “A FREE TRADE AND SAILORS RIGHTS!” was the same that he had flown aboard Hornet during the engagement with Peacock.  In another ironic twist, USS Chesapeake herself passed the port of Georgetown on her way home, the day after Hornet's famous engagement on the site.

It is interesting to note that Congress eventually voted to have a Congressional Gold Medal struck to honor Lawrence and the officers of Hornet for their victory.  But as was typical of the award in the period, Lawrence's medal wasn't approved until January 1814 and it wasn't completed until several years later, when it was ultimately presented to his daughter.

For more information about James Lawrence, and his command of Hornet, check out his biography on Google Books, available to read online free of charge.

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