Friday, March 23, 2012

Happy PENGUIN Day!

On this date in 1815, the US Sloop of War HORNET was attacked by and subsequently captured and sank HMS PENGUIN in the South Atlantic in a fierce 22-minute battle.  To relate a portion of the story of that great victory, I'd like to post the text of an article written by Mr. Joe Holt, who formed part of the Marine Detachment aboard the most recent USS HORNET, CV-12 from 1967 to 1969.

Take it away, Mr. Holt:

We all know the history of seagoing Marines goes back as far as the Navy itself, but how often do we come across an opportunity that tells their tale?  All after-action reports promote the Navy’s exploits, but it’s rare to come across a ship’s account that brags on its Marines.  I’ve been lucky enough to discover just such a report.

As one of the part time archivists aboard the USS Hornet Museum, and a former member of her Marine Detachment (’67-’69) I have more than a casual interest in the Hornet’s history.  I read histories on a daily basis, mostly Second World War journals and newspaper accounts, but I really struck it rich when I came across an 1815 Baltimore newspaper that included March 18, 1815 accounts and letters concerning the Hornet’s defeat of the HMS Penguin.
The cover of the April 1958 edition of Proceedings featured a painting of this famous battle.

In the first letter, a report from the Hornet’s Captain Biddle to his Commodore Decatur, he related a detailed account of the entire battle, which only lasted 20 minutes from the first shot to the last.  Without boring you with the entire letter I’m inserting only his casual mention of his Marines.

“At this moment an officer, who was afterwards recognized to be Mr. McDonald, the 1st lieutenant and the then commanding officer, called out that they had surrendered.  I directed the marines and musketry-men to cease firing, and, while on the taffrail asking if they had surrendered, I received a wound in the neck.  The enemy just then got clear of us, and his foremast and bowsprit being both gone, and perceiving us wearing to give him a fresh broadside, he again called out that he had surrendered.  It was with difficulty I could restrain my crew from firing into him again as he had certainly fired unto us after having surrendered.”

Obviously Captain Biddle’s wound wasn’t serious because he was healthy enough to write the letter, right?  But this same newspaper also included a more personal letter from a fellow Naval officer from the USS Peacock, who had joined Hornet two days after the battle.  This fella was obviously impressed, not only with Biddle but his crew.

“An entire broadside from the Hornet, every shot of which told, opened the eyes of John Bull upon a Yankee man of war, just what they had been wishing ever since they left England.  In 20 minutes the P. had her foremast over the side- her bowsprit in two pieces, her broadside nearly driven in- 20 men killed including the captain and one of lord Nelson’s boatswains and 35 wounded, including the 2d lieutenant, 2 midshipmen and masters’ mate, &c.  The Hornet, untouched in her hull, was severely cut up in her rigging, especially about her main and fore-top gallant masts, her mizen being a vast deal too low for British gunnery – one marine killed, the captain and 1st lieutenant, Conner, (severely) and eight others wounded.”
Copy of an original article about the Battle, including Biddle's official report.

Got the picture?  The Hornet’s crew kicked some serious ass!  But the best line follows.

After Mr. M’Donald had repeatedly called out that they had surrendered, and Biddle had ceased his fire, two fellows on board the Penguin, fired upon him and the man at the wheel – Biddle was struck on the chin, and the ball passing round the neck, went off through the cape of his surtout wounding him, however, severely, but not dangerously; the man escaped: but the ruffians did not, for they were observed by two of Biddle’s marines, who leveled and laid them dead upon the deck at the instant.

No wonder the fella was impressed!  Captain Biddle was tough enough to get shot in the neck “severely” and still maintain command, and the Hornet’s Marines were damn good marksmen to boot.

I reckon this newspaper article proves what we already know.  Don’t mess with a ship’s Marines or you’ll end up “dead upon the deck in the instant”.

Semper Fidelis, Joe Holt

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