The Essex takes the Alert
By Everett Titsworth Tomlinson
The frigate USS Essex painted by Joseph Howard (1789 - 1857), Circa 1799
The Essex, under the command of Captain Porter, got to sea from New York, not long after the departure of Com. Rodgers, and went first to the southward. She'made several prizes early, destroying most of them, and receiving the prisoners on board. The weather now compelled the Essex to run to the northward. When a few weeks from port, a small fleet was approached at night, which was immediately understood to be enemies. The English ships were steering to the northward, before the wind, and the Essex was stretching towards them, on an easy bowline, and under short canvass. The night had a dull moon, and it. wanted but an hour or two to day-light. As the Essex drew near, it was perceived that the English were sailing in very open order, with considerable intervals between them, and that the convoying ship, a large vessel, was some distance a-head, and of course to leeward.
As it was the intention of Captain Porter to preserve the weather gauge, until he ascertained who and what the convoy might be, he stretched in towards the stern most ship of the strangers, which he spoke. At this time, the people of the Essex were at their guns, with every thing ready to engage, but keeping the men on deck concealed, and having their lower porls in. After some conversation with the first vessel, it was ascertained that the fleet consisted of a few transports, under the convoy of a frigate and bomb-vessel, when Capt. Porter determined to get alongside of the former, if possible, and to carry her by surprise. With this view, the Essex shot a-head, leaving the first vessel, apparently without exciting her suspicions. On ranging up close a-beam of a second, some further discourse passed, when the Englishman so far took the alarm, as to announce an intention to make the signal of a stranger's having joined the fleet. It became necessary, therefore, to throw aside disguise, and to order the transport to hail out of the convoy, under the penalty of being fired into. This was done quietly, and seemingly without attracting the attention of the rest of the fleet, which, of course, passed to leeward. On taking possession of her prize, the Essex found her filled with soldiers, and so much time was necessarily consumed in securing the latter, that the day dawned, and it became inexpedient to renew the attempt on the convoy. The frigate was said to be the Minerva, 36, and the troops in the convoy amounted to about 1000 men. About 150 were taken in the prize.
A few days after this success, the Essex made a strange sail to windward. At the moment, the frigate was disguised as a merchantman, having her gun-deck ports in, top-gallant masts housed, and sails trimmed In a slovenly manner. Deceived by these appearances, the stranger came running down free, when the American ship showed her ensign and kept away, under short sail. This emboldened the stranger, who followed, and having got on the weather quarter of his chase, he began his fire, setting English colours. The Essex now knocked out her ports, and opened upon the enemy, who appears to have been so much taken by surprise, that after receiving one or two discharges, his people deserted their quarters, and ran below. In eight minutes after the Essex had begun to fire, the English ship struck. On sending Lieut. Finch (1) on board to take possession, the prize proved to be his Britannic Majesty's ship Alert, Capt. Laugharne, mounting 20 eighteen-pound carronades, and with a full crew. Mr. Finch found seven feet of water in the Alert, and was obliged to wear round, to keep her from sinking.
|Engraving of the USS Essex in War of 1812 from "Our Country In War" by Murat Halstead (1898)|
The Alert was the first vessel of war taken from the English in this contest, and her resistance was so feeble as to excite surprise. It was not to be expected, certainly, that a ship carrying eighteen-pound carronades, could successfully resist a ship carrying thirty-two-pound carronades, and double her number of guns and men; but so exaggerated had become the opinion of British prowess on the ocean, that impossibilities were sometimes looked for. As it is understood that only a part of the Essex's guns bore on the Alert, the manner in which the latter was taken, must be attributed to a sudden panic among her people, some of whom were executed for deserting their quarters, after their exchange. The officers appear to have behaved well. The Alert had but three men wounded, and the Essex sustained no injury at all.
Capt. Porter, with the addition made by the crew of the Alert, had many prisoners, and as he was apprised of their intention to rise, in the event of an engagement, he felt the necessity of getting rid of them. He accordingly entered into an arrangement with Capt. Laugharne, to convert the Alert, which was a large ship bought for the service, into a cartel, and to send her into St. John's. This project, so fa\curable to the American interests, was successfully accomplished; and it is due to his character to say, that the officer in command at Newfoundland, Admiral Sir J. T. Duckworth, while he protested against the course, as unusual and injurious to a nation like England, which had so many cruisers at sea, by depriving her of the chances of recapture, honourably complied with the conditions entered into by his inferior.
The Essex continued to cruise to the southward of the Grand Banks. On two occasions, she fell in with enemy's frigates, and at one time was so hard pressed, as to be reduced to the necessity of making every preparation to carry one by boarding in the night, since, another English vessel of war being in company, an engagement in the usual manner would have been indiscreet. The arrangements made on board the Essex, on this occasion, are still spoken of with admiration by those who were in the ship, and there is great reason to think they would have succeeded, had the vessels met. By some accident, that has never been explained, the ships passed each other in the darkness, and shortly after, the Essex came i nto the Delaware to replenish her water and stores.
In the meanwhile, the Constitution was not idle. Remaining at Boston a short time after his celebrated chase, Capt. Hull sailed again on the 2nd of August, standing along the land to the eastward, in the hope of falling in with some of the enemy's cruisers, that were thought to be hovering on the coast. The ship ran down, near the land, as far as the Bay of Fundy, without seeing any thing, when she went off Halifax and Cape Sable, with the same want of success. Capt. Hull now determined to go farther east, and he went near the Isle of Sables, and thence to the mouth of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to intercept vessels bound to Halifax or Quebec. Here two prizes, of little value, were taken and burned. On the morning of the 15th, five sail were made, one of which was a sloop of war. The Constitution gave chase, and the enemy soon set one of his vessels, a prize brig, on fire. The chases now separated, and the sloop of war being to windward, the Constitution followed a ship, which turned out to be an Englishman, already a prize to an American privateer. This vessel had been spoken by the sloop of war, but the appearance of the Constitution prevented her recapture. A brig was next chased to leeward, and proved to be an American, with a prize crew on board. She was retaken, and sent in. The remainder of the vessels escaped.
Surrender of General Hull
By William Cullen Bryant
Siege of Detroit by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster (31 December 1850 – 24 April 1938)
General William Hull, the Governor of Michigan, was appointed commander in the west, and was ordered to be in readiness to invade Canada in the event of war. He seems to have understood clearly enough the preparations and resources needed to give to such a project any promise of success; but, unfortunately for himself, accepted his appointment without waiting for the assurance of the Government that his counsel should be heeded and his necessities provided for. He marched from Ohio with about two thousand men, chiefly militia, more uncontrollable and insubordinate, even, than troops of that class usually are. When the declaration of war reached him he crossed the Detroit River, a few miles below Detroit, with the avowed purpose of taking Fort Maiden, and issued a proclamation assuring the inhabitants of protection, but declaring that no quarter would be given to those who should be found fighting in company with the Indians. Had the Government taken the precaution to advise him of the declaration of war a few days earlier, and before the news of it could have reached Canada, Hull's first step might have had a different issue. But for the want of such advices the first step was the enemy's, not his; the fort at Michilimackinac was taken by surprise and compelled to surrender, and that first success decided the hesitating Indian tribes to join their large force to that side which promised to be the stronger. It was the fear of these savages that a few days later so influenced Hull and brought about the disastrous opening of the war.
A detachment sent out under Major Thomas B. Van Home to guard a supply train was defeated by an overwhelming force of English and Indians at Brownstown. But another, under Lieutenant-colonel James Miller, sent to open communication with the base of supplies at Raisin River, found an ambuscade at Maguaga, and after a gallant fight of two hours routed the enemy, who took to their boats. Nearly a hundred Indians lay dead on the field, and the English lost about fifty men.
Captain Nathan Heald, in command of Fort Dearborn, where Chicago now stands, was ordered by Hull to abandon it and join him at Detroit. Heald promised the friendly Indians the property in the fort which he could not take away; but in the night he destroyed the fire-arms, gunpowder, and liquor, the articles they most wanted. On the morning of August l0th he set out, with fifty soldiers, accompanied by several families. As they moved down the shore of the lake they were suddenly attacked by a large band of Indians posted on a low range of sand-hills at a point now within the city limits. A battle ensued, in which the women fought as bravely as the men. After heavy losses, including a wagon-load of twelve children, who were all tomahawked by one Indian, the survivors surrendered, and of these all the wounded were scalped (The British Colonel Proctor, at Maiden, had offered a premium for American scalps.)
Plan Detroit and Fort Lernoult, Circa 1792. From the National Archives
On the 10th, General Isaac Brock crossed Detroit River with over two thousand regulars and Indians, and demanded the surrender of that city, to which Hull had retreated. Hull, who had about eight hundred and fifty men, half his force having "been detached on distant expeditions, made admirable arrangements for a stubborn defense; but at the moment when the conflict was expected to begin he hung out a white flag, and surrendered.
Brock, in demanding surrender, had declared he could not restrain his allies, the Indians, from rapine and murder in case the place should be carried by assault. Hull did not believe he could depend upon the militia for any serious, much less for any desperate, fighting, and he knew that the officers had entered into a conspiracy for his deposition from command. This mutual lack of confidence gave small promise of successful defense, and, if unsuccessful, he dreaded the fate that might await the women and children of the town, among whom were a daughter of his own and her children. In this stern conflict between the sense of soldierly duty and the feelings of a humane man and a father, the soldier yielded. Whether right or wrong, the act of the soldier could not be forgiven, and the popular clamor demanded a victim for the loss, not only of Detroit, but of the whole Northwest territory, and the failure to invade Canada. Hull was tried by court-martial, and condemned to be shot. Though his crime was compared, in the heated temper of the time, to Arnold's treason, he was nevertheless pardoned by Madison, in consideration of his past services.1 The President could hardly do less than grant his life to a man left in so terrible ;i position by the neglect of the Government; their own fault was acknowledged in permitting the Secretary of War, Eustis, to resign his office.
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