English Marksmanship

Battles between the United States’ ships and those of the English continued after the peace had been declared–it was difficult to contact a ship until it had made a home port.  There were three United States’ ships away from home:  the Peacock, in the South Seas, and the Hornet and Constitution, closer to home.  Following is the account of the battle of the U. S. Constitution and the two British ships, the Cyane and the Levant, as reported by the Richmond Enquirer on June 28, 1815.

  1.  Account of the battle of the U. S. Constitution with the Cyane and Levant, on February 20, 1815

“The Cyane  was first discovered at the distance of three or four leagues, the Levant, captain Douglass, the senior officer, being to leeward.  The first signal from the Cyane was, that it was an American sloop of war–afterwards, when they came within four miles of the Constitution, and the course was so altered that she discovered her broadside, she made a signal that it was a heavy American frigate, superior to one of them, inferior to both.  The signal from the Levant to her consort was to join company.  The Constitution was not able to prevent their junction.  The action was invited on the part of the Constitution, by firing a signal shot across the bow of theCyane.  The two vessels cheered and fired their broadsides; after receiving both, she returned it.  And such was the eagerness of the men to fire, that the whole broadside was fired, when the word was given, at the same instant.  In commencing the action, there was perfect silence on board the Constitution–the cheers were returned when the ships surrendered.  The weight of shot fired by the British ships, was superior by about ninety pounds, taking the shot at their nominal weight, tho’ it was found on weighing some of the English shot that came on board, that they weighed full 32 lbs. while the Americans of the same rate, only weigh 29 lb.–the action was so close that their carronades had their full power.  One of their shot came through the side of the ship, killed one, and wounded four men, and lodged in the galley; another killed 2 men in the waist, went through a boat in which two tigers were chained, and lodged in the head of spar in the chains.   In the action of the Guerriere, the Constitution was hulled three times, in that with the Java four times, and in this engagement thirteen times.  The British ships were fully officered and manned with picked men; & fired better than they have usually done in their engagements with our ships.


  1.  The last sentence of the previous article,  “The British ships . . . fired better than they have usually done in their engagements with our ships,”  does not understate the matter.  Many, even in England, did not understand how the American ships could triumph over the masters of the ocean.  One Englishman complained as early as 1813, in a letter to the Lord of the Admiralty (reprinted in the Mercantile Advertiser on August 28, 1813).

“To Lord Melville

Scarcely was your Lordship returned to rest from the fatigues of your electioneering campaign, when Mr. Madison gave you an opportunity of signalizing your prowess by sea as well as by land.  The British Navy at your command, amounted to nine hundred and ninety-nine sail, of every possible variety of form and force, and costing the nation annually about twenty millions of money!  Mr. Madison could reckon on his side, 6 stout frigates, besides four sloops of war!  Such were the odds when your Lordship was first called on to contend with him for the Empire of the Ocean!  What are the glorious results?  After a nine months continuance of hostilities, Mr. Madison has captured or destroyed three of our frigates in single combat, while your Lordship has the proud satisfaction of boasting that there still remain nine hundred and ninety-six ships of war at your absolute disposal.  Mr. Madison has increased his navy only one half, while such has been the vigor and wisdom of your Lordships Administration that, contrary to all reasonable expectation, you have lost not quite one in three hundred!  Brag, says the proverb is a good dog, but Holdfast is a better.  Let Mr. Madison brag of his petty gains, while to your Lordship belongs the gratification of contemplating your immense savings!  What are three small frigates to a great nation like our own.  As to the crews killed off (as the late ingenious Mr. Windham used to express it) Lloyd’s fund will take care of their widows and children, and the Chest at Greenwich will be saved the payment of so many pensions.–But alas! want of space renders me incapable of doing ample justice to your Lordship’s naval glory.  Parliament, I trust, will record its opinion, and posterity may read on some future monument erected to your Lordship in Guildhall:  ‘Sacred to the memory of Robert Lord Melville; during whose administration the British Navy, after having annihilated all the maritime powers of Europe, and witnessed the successive triumphs of a Howe, a Vincent, a Duncan, and a Nelson, was trice compelled to strike its Flag to an American Commodore!'”

Later in 1813, the American Daily Advertiser made this report in its issue of September 20, 1813:

“September 15: From New London — “On Monday the British ships fired above 200 shots at a hogshead placed on the deck of a captured smack.  They apparently fired very bad, as the hogshead and the sloop survived their best endeavors to destroy them.”

On May 16, 1814, the National Advocate reported this from Savannah: “The Savannah Republican, speaking of the capture of the Epervier by the U. S. Peacock, says — “The damage done to the two vessels in this action, forms a most surprising contrast; for whereas the Epervier is literally cut to pieces in sails, rigging, spars, hull, &c. the Peacock was in a situation to commence another action of the same kind immediately.  Not a single shot did she receive in her hull, masts, or sails, when on the other hand the Epervier received upwards of 50 shots in her hull, several of which are between wind and water.  All her boats were shot to pieces; and her foremast very much crippled.”  Also in 1814, the Halifax Acadian Reporter, reprinted by the Baltimore Patriot, July 30, 1814, made this complaint:  “If nothing short of repeated drubbings will teach our men the use of gun powder and shot, the oftener our ships meet the Americans, the better.  British seamen can stand killing, among themselves, well enough; it is only how to kill their enemies, at a little distance off–that they require to be taught.”

The battle between the Hornet and the British Penguin occurred on April 12, 1815, here reported by the Baltimore Patriot, July 5, 1815:  “the Hornet, captain Biddle, had captured and destroyed in those seas, the British sloop of war Penguin, rating 18 guns, but mounting 1 more than the H. and had 30 more men.–Our loss was one seaman killed, and 12 wounded; among the latter, our first lieutenant, wounded in the thigh and arm. British loss, the captain and first lieut. and nearly half the crew killed and wounded; the Penguin’s foremast shot away, and nearly 40 shot holes in her hull.”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden