Sunday, March 22, 2015

Anatomy of a PENGUIN

By now I know you’re all brimming with anticipation of tomorrow’s announcement – tomorrow being PENGUIN DAY,  the 200th anniversary of Hornet’s capture of HMS Penguin in the last regular naval action of the War of 1812.  We plan to use the anniversary to make several major announcements about the USS HORNET Project, one of which is particularly fitting for the occasion.
But to jump the gun a little bit, and give you all some food for thought in advance of tomorrow’s anniversary – here is the event, again, in the words of Hornet’s own crew.  Like my last entry I must credit Mr. McKee with his excellent book “A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession” for the journal excerpts.

By March 21, Hornet had arrived in the vicinity of the squadron rendezvous - the remote South Atlantic island of Tristan da Cunha.
Yep - way the hell out in the middle of nowhere.  At the time fewer than half a dozen people lived there, and thanks to the infrequency of Royal Navy ships in the area, American privateers and Navy ships alike began making the islands a regular stopping point.

Officers and crew waited anxiously for their first vision of land since leaving New York, but a strong misty gale had sprung up and Captain Biddle ordered the ship hove to in order to avoid an unwanted landfall in low visibility.  Finally the weather abated and at 5 pm on the evening of March 22nd Hornet’s lookouts spotted Tristan's distinctive volcanic peak.
Exactly what you would expect a volcano in the middle of the ocean to look like.
 By half past 8 the next morning, Hornet arrived a mile off the island’s north side and launched her first cutter to scout the watering place.  The boat returned at 10 am, greeted with a sharp cry from the forward lookout.
There, in the distance, was the unmistakable profile of a warship – by all appearances a brig – approaching the island from the southeast and preparing to pass its southern side.  The wind was a stiff breeze from the south-southwest, and to prevent losing sight of her Biddle filled away and stood eastward and southward on the wind until the stranger was again in sight, then hove to in order to let him approach.  As she altered course toward Hornet, few onboard had any doubt of her character.  She was a Royal Navy brig, about the same size as Hornet, and everyone was ready for a fight.  Midshipman William Skiddy recorded the experience that followed:

"We hove to and was getting dinner (it was duff day) while she was running down.  The duff was hardly swallowed when the drum beat to quarters.  
Duff - once a week, and much anticipated.  Ask any  Navy Sailor when burger or pizza day is - they know what's important!
"This required but a few minutes, and all was ready for action and every eye watching the stranger.  He soon luffed to on our weather quarter about pistol shot off, hoisted the British flag and gave us a gun.  This we did not notice, waiting for him to shoot ahead more. 

"He now gave us the first broadside, and as soon as their guns flashed ours were in operation, and in five minutes I perceived the blood running from his scuppers a stream; and, as he almost stopped firing, our little captain ordered us to cease. 

"The enemy, thinking we were disabled, renewed his fire, and of course we soon convinced him of his mistake.  He then, as a last alternative, ran his bowsprit between our main and mizzen masts, with the intention to carry us by boarding.

"I was stationed with the first lieutenant in the third division on the quarterdeck (three after guns on each side) and was now commanding this division, the first lieutenant having been severely wounded at the commencement and carried below.  The jib halyards being shot away, the foretack was hauled down to veer the ship.  The enemy was now past us, and all hands called to repel boarders.  We were then hand to hand, and the enemy were soon driven back.  We were now on the enemy’s bows, and it required all the exertions of our captain and officers to prevent our men from boarding them.  Had they gone, the enemy would have suffered very much.  Their men were now (hearing the cry from us to board) running below and left their first lieutenant alone on the forecastle.  Many muskets were levelled at him, but were prevented by our officers from firing on so brave a man.  He then asked our leader, the second lieutenant, Newton, the name of the ship and was answered “U.S. Sloop Hornet” when he waved his sword and walked aft.

"Our ship, in shooting ahead, carried away his bowsprit, tore away all our mizzen rigging, and the enemy lay across our stern.  Our captain was standing on the arms chest aft, speaking to them, when their foremast fell along the lee waist.  The marines in the foretop clung, with their muskets, to the rigging as the mast fell, and, as soon as down, jumped forward, fired, and wounded our captain, the ball passing through his neck.  They undertook to rake us with their bow guns, then opposite our stern.  I was standing in one of the stern ports (being open), looking directly at them and only about twelve feet off.  We were then all hands aft to prevent their boarding, and I certainly expected to see many of us fall at this fire.  Had those guns been well directed, many of us must have been killed; but fortunately, at this very moment, the sea lifted our ship’s stern, and the balls went under the counter in the water.  

"Our ship now came round on the other tack, and I played my division of guns into them, raking them fore and aft.  They again cried quarters, and our captain ordered us to cease.

"She proved to be H.B.M. Sloop of War Penguin, Captain Dickinson, who was killed during the action by a ball through the heart… They reported fifteen men killed and twenty-eight wounded… We had one killed and eleven wounded and all in the after division (my division).  The poor fellow that was killed was a six-foot marine that was firing over my head, and the first I perceived was his brains on my shoes, and in turning I observed the top of his skull taken off by a ball.  As he was much in the way, I shoved him through one of the ports overboard.  The first lieutenant was also wounded standing by me.  I carried him out of the way of the guns and had him sent below.  The most painful was the heartsickening sight (after the fight) of all those poor fellow who only a few minutes ago were well and joyful and now all mangled by different kinds of balls and splinters.  Groans were heard from all quarters.  We were now employed getting the prisoners on board, unbending and bending sails, repairing rigging, replacing as soon as possible all damages.  This called us from the dying groans of the wounded.  The surgeons were all employed amputating limbs and dressing wounds.  The prize taken in tow, and night veiled the dismal scene.  Several died during the night and were committed to the deep without any ceremony.  Captain Dickenson [of the Penguin] was buried the day after with the honors of war, his own officers and marines officiating…

"When our little captain was wounded a man from one of my guns pulled off his old checked shirt, tore it in strips, took hold of Captain Biddle, and wound this round his neck.  He then holding his bandage himself, was asked by one of our officers if he thought himself much hurt, when he replied, “No, no, give it to the damned rascals!”  This shot was fired, recollect, after they had once given up.  After the action was all over, the doctor came to the captain (who was still at his post, holding onto his neck) and asked him if he would go down and have his wound dressed?  The captain answered that, if he had got through with the rest, he believed he would go, and then we heard that the ball had passed through his neck and out through his coat collar behind.

"One of our men on board the Penguin picked up a hat on the quarterdeck in which he found a man’s head that had been shot off.  He very deliberately pulled the head out, looked at it saying, “Matey, you don’t now require a hat,” put it on his own head and dispatched the other overboard.  I have seen him with this hat on often in New York.  The sailors were also looking out for the legs amputated, that they might get some shoes and stockings, as the doctor did not take the trouble to pull them off.  One very remarkable occurrence, and that was one of the English midshipmen, a young man who sat on the wardroom table, smiling and talking and joking with one of his wounded shipmates near him who had lost a leg, while the doctor amputated one of his legs, without the least emotion.  When it was off, “Never mind,” said he, “Bond (his messmate wounded), we will soon get on sticks and have fun with the girls yet.”  This poor fellow was on crutches when removed on board the Tom Bowline with the other prisoners, took cold, and had his leg amputated a second time by their own surgeon.  Poor fellow, he died.  Bond I often met at St. Salvador, Brazil."
Hornet kept Penguin towing astern all night and into the next day.  Crews worked to salvage what they could from her shattered wreck.  Captain Biddle ordered a carved penguin cut from the ship’s side as a gift for his father.  Carpenters plugged more than 100 shot holes beneath the waterline in an attempt to slow her flooding as other crewmembers stripped her hold of stores and supplies.  Damaged as she was, with only one mast and so far from a friendly port, there was no hope of bringing her in as a prize.  By the second night the wreck had been stripped, and at 2 am on March 25th, Biddle ordered her scuttled and the tow cable cut.
As the sun began to rise only a few hours later, two sail were spotted approaching from the northeast, and by all appearances these were men of war as well.  Biddle ordered Hornet cleared for action just in time to make out the distinctive signal flags of Peacock’s coded number.  Warrington had arrived, returning to the island after having been driven off by a gale some days earlier.
Taking stock of the situation on resuming command of his fragment of the squadron, Warrington ordered the prisoners from Penguin’s crew into Tom Bowline, which would sail for Brazil to parole them before proceeding home with the good news of Hornet’s victory.  Hornet and Peacock would remain at the rendezvous and await the arrival of Decatur in President before proceeding west around the Cape of Good Hope and into the Indian Ocean.
Despite his wound, Biddle took advantage of the short calm to dash off his official after action report, addressed to Stephen Decatur – still ostensibly his commanding senior.  It is modest, yet brimming with enthusiasm that, at times, hints at sticking it to the commander he so detested.  It reads:
U. S. Sloop Hornet, off Tristan d'Acunha, March 25 1815.
Sir—I have the honor to inform you, that on the morning of the 23d inst. at half past ten, when about to anchor off the north end of the island of Tristan d'Acunha, a sail was seen to the southward and eastward, steering to the westward, the wind fresh from the S. S. W. In a few minutes she had passed on to the westward, so that we could not see her for the land.  I immediately made sail for the westward* - and shortly after, getting in sight of her again, perceived her to bear up before the wind. I hove too, for him to come down to us. When she had approached near, I filled the main-topsail, and continued to yaw the ship, while she continued to come down, wearing occasionally to prevent her passing under our stern.  At 1, 40 P. M. being within nearly musket-shot distance- she hauled her wind on the starboard tack, hoisted English colors, and fired a gun. We immediately lulled too, hoisted our ensign, and gave the enemy a broadside. The action being thus commenced, a quick and well directed fire was kept up from this ship, the enemy gradually drifting nearer to us, when at 1- 55m, he bore up, apparently to run us on board. As soon as I perceived he would certainly fall on board, I call cd the boarders, to as to be ready to repel any attempt-to board us At the instant, every officer and man repaired to the quarter-deck, where the two vessels were coming in contact, and eagerly pressed me to permit them to board the enemy ; but this I would not permit, as it was evident, from the commencement of the action, that our fire was greatly superior, both in quickness and in effect. The enemy's bowsprit came in between our main and mizzen rigging, on our starboard side, affording him an opportunity to board us, if such was his design; but no attempt was made. There was a considerable swell on, and as the sea lifted us ahead, the enemy's bowsprit carried away our mizzen shrouds, stern davits- and spanker boom- and he hung upon our larboard quarter.  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 into us after having surrendered. From the firing of the first gun, to the last time the enemy cried out he had surrendered, was exactly 22m. by the watch.  She proved to be his B. M. brig Penguin, mounting sixteen 32 lb. carronades- two long 12's, a 12 lb carronade on the top-gallant forecastle, with swivels on the cap-stern, in the tops. She had a spare port forward, so as to fight both her long guns of a side.  She sailed from England in September last.  She was shorter upon deck than this ship, by two feet- but she had a greater length of keel, greater breadth of beam, thicker sides, and higher bulwarks, than this ship, and was, in all respects a remarkably fine vessel of her class. The enemy acknowledge a complement of 132 ; 12 of them supernumerary marines- from the Medway, 74.— They acknowledge, also, a loss of 14 killed and 28 wounded ; but Mr. Mayo, who was in charge of the prize, assures me that the number of killed was certainly greater.  It is a most pleasing part of my duty to acquaint you, that the conduct of Lieuts. Conner and Newton- Mr. Mayo- acting Lieut. Brownlow of the marines, sailing-master Romney, and the other officers, seamen, and marines, I have the honor to command, was, in the highest degree, creditable to themselves, and calls for my warmest recommendation. I cannot indeed do justice to their merits.
I have the honor, &c
                                                                                   J. BIDDLE.

* Biddle’s report says he stood westward, while the ship’s log records her standing eastward to glimpse the stranger – a much more probable course given the winds.  The error too, is probable and even understandable, when the reader remembers that the author was recovering after being shot through the neck two days before.

Hornet’s voyage was not yet complete, and we’ll follow her on the remainder of her cruise in later posts.
For now, stay tuned, and at 2:02 pm eastern tomorrow – the 200th anniversary of Penguin’s surrender, I’ll have the privilege to post our announcements about the new Hornet.


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