The Outbreak of the American War

The contrast between the events detailed in the last few chapters on the one hand, and other those which occurred in the nine years  preceding the Peace of Amiens, must strike the most casual reader very forcibly. Where, in those earlier years, was that splendid daring with which Captain Rogers led his men to victory, that dogged obstinacy which brought Captain Anthony successfully out of three fights against a heavy superiority of force within two years, that self-sacrificing zeal which animated Captain Dyneley in his great exploit at Dominica, enabling him to accept the whole burden of the risk which the merchants declined, and so to save a rich island for the British crown?

The evil days on the Falmouth Station had passed away like a dream, and if they are here recalled, it is but with the object of claiming for the Headquarter Staff, and for the officers themselves, full credit for the patient labours which had destroyed the evil practices and created the better spirit. None but those who have shared in the labour of controlling a large body of subordinates can fully appreciate the difficulty of carrying out even such changes of practice as are generally accepted as necessary and reasonable. There is among every large body of men an inertia which only time and patience can overcome. The individual can be moved, but the mass as a whole declines to stir. So it is when rules not specially distasteful are enforced ; but when the new regulation cuts at the root of ancient privilege, when it strikes off a profit which by long prescription is regarded as a right, then a number of forces come into opposition more powerfully than the dead weight just mentioned, and the administrator finds his judgement and discretion subjected to a heavy strain.

Therefore, to have enforced· the new rules, and not only that, but to have evolved and called out a spirit so different from that which existed on the Falmouth Station ten years before, was an achievement of which the Postmaster General and the Secretary might well feel proud. The conduct of the Packets had been increasingly brilliant, and when the year 1812 began they were in a state of discipline and ardour which would have done  credit to any naval force.

It was well that their condition was so good, for the time was at hand when they were to be put to a fiercer test than any which the French Privateers had been able to apply. There were still old men at Falmouth who could remember how the Packets fared in the first American War, and who knew well that the Privateers of Boston or Newport were ten times more formidable than those of Nantes or of Bordeaux. The national belief in the superiority of British pluck to that of any other country would scarcely hold against sailors of our own race; and, as a matter of fact, it is well known that the American cruisers, both national and private, were largely manned with picked men from the British navy, driven by the somewhat harsh and inconsiderate treatment which was too prevalent in our ships to take service with a power which at least fed and paid them well, and treated them with reasonable consideration.

The temptations offered by the Americans to the trained sailors of English ships had always constituted one of the greatest difficulties of the Packet captains, any one of whom had lost at different times numbers of his best men by desertion. Probably many of the sailors who thus deserted their flag rejoined it on the outbreak of war ; but it is certain that a great number remained in their adopted service, arguing, perhaps, in some confused way, that a war between two sections of the English race which only a generation ago were one united power was of the nature of a civil war, in which there was no question of treason, but every man might take sides according to his judgement.

Whether they salved their consciences with sophistries or not, yet there they were ; and the knowledge of this fact was alone sufficient to convince My Lords the Postmaster General that an enemy very different from the French was at hand. It was indeed but few even of the officers who formed this conclusion could have anticipated such desperate fighting as actually occurred, or could have looked to the little Packets for such splendid conduct as they showed, in what, if the truth must be admitted, was not the brightest period of British naval history.

The war broke out in June, 1812, but it was not until September that any one of the Packets was brought to action.

On the 15th of that month the “Princess Amelia”, three days out from St. Thomas on her homeward voyage, was brought to action by the Privateer “Rossie of Baltimore”, Commodore Barney. The “Princess Amelia” was commanded by Captain Moorsom, a brave and energetic officer of a family well known in our naval annals, both then and since. The “Rossie”  carried ten 12-pounders, in addition to a long 9-pounder mounted on a traverse. The “Princess Amelia” had but six guns – she should have carried eight ; the cause of the deficiency is not explained – of which at least four were only 6-pounders, the others 9-pounders, and she carried twenty-eight men and boys as against ninety-five upon the Privateer.

There are but scanty details of the fight. The “Rossie” which had chased the Packet for several hours, and had not answered the private signal, came within range at 6 P.M.

She was flying Spanish colours ; but Captain Moorsom, suspecting her nationality, ordered a shot to be fired at her, whereupon she immediately hoisted the Stars and Stripes, crossed the Packet’s stern, and fired a broadside as she did so. The action immediately became warm, and the first ten minutes proved that the Americans were masters of their weapons. Within the first half-hour four or five of Captain Moorsom’s crew were hit. At half-past six the master, Mr. Nankivell, was shot through the head. Twenty minutes later Captain Moorsom himself was killed by a grape-shot which pierced his left breast. The command devolved on Mr. Ridgard, the mate, who was himself badly wounded and on looking round he discovered that out of the complement of the “Princess Amelia” consisting only of twenty-eight hands, three were killed, and no less than eleven wounded, for the most part seriously, So that the crew was already reduced to half its number, while the enemy were as five to one. Mr. Ridgard reluctantly concluded that all had been done which was possible to save the Packet. Accordingly the mail was sunk, and at seven o’clock the “Princess Amelia” hauled down her colours.

Such was the first action fought by the Falmouth Packets during the American war, a rough forecast of what was to come, justifying anxiety about the immediate future. For Captain Moorsom was one of the ablest of the Post-Office commanders. His ship and crew were in high condition ; and yet the accounts of his last fight showed that the event was never doubtful, though his high courage led him to prefer dying on his own quarterdeck to surrendering his trust, even to a crushing superiority of force.

In November of the same year a fight upon a greater scale took place, one indeed which was perhaps the most memorable of all those in which the Packets were engaged. Many of the actions described in these pages are out of the common but a few stand forth from among the rest, marked by quite exceptional circumstances of bravery and devotion. Among these few the action of Captain James Cock in the “Townshend” on November 22nd, 1812, stands first, though unsuccessful.

The “Townshend” was armed somewhat more heavily than the “Princess Amelia” having on board eight 9-pounder carronades, with a long gun of similar calibre used as a chaser. Her crew was also slightly larger, numbering twenty-eight men and four boys. She was within a few hours of dropping her anchor at Bridgetown, Barbados, when the first light of morning revealed two strange vessels cruising in company at no great distance.

These vessels proved to be two American Privateers, the “Tom”, Captain Thomas Wilson, and the “Bona”, Captain Damaron. The former was armed with fourteen carronades, some 18 and some 12-pounders, as well as two long 9-pounders, and carried a hundred and thirty men. The latter had six 18-pounders, with a long 24- pounder mounted on a traverse, and a crew of ninety men. 

This enormous preponderance of force was greatly increased in effective power by being divided between two opponents. A single vessel might be crippled by a lucky shot ; but if good fortune rid the “Townshend” of one antagonist in this way, there still remained the other to be reckoned with, more powerful in every way than herself.

If ever circumstances justified surrender after a short resistance, they were present in this case. It  might even be thought that resistance was a useless sacrifice of life ; but such was not Captain Cock’s view. He held it to be his plain duty not only to keep the mails out of the hands of the enemy which could be done effectually by sinking them at any moment – but to use every means in his power to preserve them for their proper owners, and not to abandon hope of delivering them at the agent’s office in Bridgetown until every chance of doing so was gone. Now there were still two chances in his favour ; first, that he might hold out until the noise of firing attracted some of the British cruisers which were probably in the immediate neighbourhood, and if that chance failed, he might run the “Townshend” ashore on some shoal of the coast now in sight where the Privateers could not follow him. Both these chances were desperate enough ; but Captain Cock saw his duty clear before him, and cared nothing for the consequences. All his preparations were quickly made, and every man was at his post before the Privateers came within range, which they did about 7 A.M.

At 7.30 A.M. the “Tom” had placed herself abeam of the Packet to larboard, while the “Bona” lay on the starboard quarter, and both their broadsides were crashing into the “Townshend” at pistol shot distance, all three vessels running before the wind. This lasted till eight o’clock. The Americans, as was usual with them, made great use of “dismantling shot” i.e. chain and bar shot ; the effect of which upon the rigging of the “Townshend” was most disastrous. It was not long before her sails were hanging in ribbons, and her spars greatly damaged ; and in some momentary confusion from this cause the “Tom” seized an opportunity of pouring in her boarders, while the “Bona” redoubled her fire, both of great guns and of musketry, to cover their attack.

In what force the boarders came on this occasion we are not told, but as the crew of the “Tom” consisted of one hundred and thirty men there is no improbability in supposing that they numbered fifty or sixty. Captain Cock, moreover, having a foe on either quarter, could not bring the whole even of his handful of men to meet them, but must leave a sufficient number to work the guns, which were keeping the “Bona” at a respectful distance. He may perhaps have had twenty men at his back in this hand-to-hand fight ; but each one of them acquitted himself so well that after a fierce tussle the Americans were driven back to their own ship. This success was only won by the loss of four of Captain Cock’s best hands, who received disabling wounds in the fight.

Thereupon both Privateers resumed the cannonade, maintaining the positions which they had taken up at the commencement of the action, and for another„ hour the “Townshend” endured the fire of her enemies’ heavy guns, the courage of her commander and crew remaining as high and stubborn as ever.

The Packet was now so much shattered that she could with difficulty be handled. Again and again the “Tom” bore down upon her, and hurled fresh boarders up her sides. Time after time Captain Cock led his wearied men to meet them, and each time drove them back.

In these repeated close fights the Cornishmen met with heavy losses, Mr. Sidgman, master of the “Townshend” being killed, and six more sailors, making ten in all, desperately wounded. His crew was now so reduced in numbers that it was with the greatest difficulty that Captain Cock could continue to serve the guns, and at the same time to collect sufficient men to meet the constantly recurring boarding attacks. It was plain that this situation of affairs could not last. There was no sign of succour on the sea, and when Captain Cock looked aloft, he could not but admit that in the crippled condition of his ship, all chance of running her ashore was gone. The “Townshend” was in fact a mere wreck. Her bowsprit was shot in pieces. Both jib-booms and head were carried away, as well as the wheel and ropes.

Scarcely one shroud was left standing. The Packet lay like a log on the water, while the Privateers sailed round her, choosing their positions as they pleased, and raking her again and again.

Still Captain Cock held out. It was not until ten o’clock, when he had endured the attack of his two powerful enemies for nearly three hours, that he looked about him and recognized that the end had come. There were four feet of water in the hold, and the carpenter reported that it was rising rapidly. The Packet was in fact sinking. Nearly half the crew were in the hands of the surgeon. The rest, exhausted and hopeless of success, had already fought more nobly than even he could have foreseen, and were now being uselessly sacrificed.

Still Captain Cock’s pride rebelled against surrender; and as he saw the colours he had defended so well drop down upon the deck, it is recorded that he burst into tears.

There lies before the writer a faded yellow scrap of paper on which one of the American captains recorded in generous terms his opinion of his foe. It runs as follows:

“I do certify that Captain James Cock, of the Packet brig Townshend, captured this day by the private armed schooners Tom and Bona, did defend his ship with courage and seamanship, and that he did not strike his colours until his vessel was perfectly unmanageable and in the act of sinking. 

Sd., Thomas Wilson, on board the Townshend, November 22nd, 18I2″ 

Subjoined to this certificate is a statement of the force of the Privateers, as given above. The loss of the “Townshend” has already been indicated ; that of the Privateers Captain Cock was allowed no opportunity of ascertaining. He believed, however, that it was heavy, and he mentions positively that the “Tom” the larger of the two, had received so much injury in her spars, sails, and rigging, that it was the intention of her captain to put back to port to refit.

When the Americans took possession of “Townshend” they found her so literally a wreck that they could make no use of her ; and they therefore resolved to set her on fire, sending the crew, whom they did not wish to retain as prisoners, ashore in their own boats. Against this decision Captain Cock protested vehemently, pointing out the inhumanity of exposing so many wounded men to the perils of a voyage in boats which were so much shattered as to make it extremely doubtful whether they could reach the land. Finally, he was permitted, in exchange for a bill for £1200, to resume possession of his ship, after it had been plundered of everything of value. His unwounded men set to work with a will, plugged the shot holes, held the leaks in check, and at 7 P.M. the “Townshend” dropped her anchor in Carlisle Bay.

There her injuries were repaired as far as the imperfect appliances of the dock-yard permitted, and shortly after the New Year she set sail for England, still in a rather crazy state.

On January 18th at 1 P.M. a large schooner came in sight, about four miles away on the larboard bow. When first seen, the schooner was laying-to ; but she made sail in chase almost immediately, and at 2.30 P.M. hoisted English colours. At 3 P.M. the stranger was within half a mile ; and was seen to be hauling down the English ensign and hoisting the Stars and Stripes. At the same time she fired a gun across the “Townshend’s” bows, a summons to which Captain Cock replied with his full broadside, running up his own colours to the main-peak as he did so. Half crippled as she was, the “Townshend”  was in for it again.

The Privateer hung on the wake of the Packet, yawing every few minutes so as to deliver her broadside. Captain Cock on his part, not choosing to risk the loss of ground, kept a steady course, and confined himself to the use of his chasers, those long brass nine-pounders – “Post-Office” guns as they are still called by the old sailors at Falmouth – which had so often served the Packets in good stead. With these two pieces he kept playing upon the following enemy with such good effect that at 3-30 P.M. he had the satisfaction of seeing her foreyard rattle down. There was some confusion on her decks in consequence of this disaster, and Captain Cock, seizing the opportunity to drive home the blow, gave the word to yaw, and delivered his full broadside of round and grape-shot with such precision as did great injury to the enemy’s spars and rigging, then hauling to the wind again, resumed practice with his stern guns.

The excellence of the Cornish gunnery had done its work, and by 4 P.M. the Privateer was observed to be dropping fast astern. In another quarter of an hour a severe squall came on, and the vessels parted. When the enemy was last seen she was laying-to, her sails hanging in every direction, and her crew employed in knotting the shrouds and backstays and repairing the running rigging. So, in a manner beyond all praise, ended this cruise of the “Townshend” a glorious incitement and example to all the other Packets on the Falmouth Station.

Great as was the satisfaction at Lombard Street when Captain Cock’s story became known, there was yet an admixture of less pleasurable feeling. It was already perfectly clear that the Packets were in greater danger than at any previous time, unless, indeed, in the first American war. Already two had been captured by squadrons of frigates, one by the famous Commodore Rogers, the other by the almost equally well-known Captain D. Porter, each of whom commanded a force against which it would have been madness to resist. And now two accounts were to hand of fights with Privateers and in both, though the resistance of the Post-Office commanders was even desperately gallant, the force of the enemy had proved irresistible. However, where the spirit of the officers and men was so high, My Lords could not doubt that they would give a good account of themselves ; and just at this time an incident occurred which, though not very important in itself, served to show that audacity was sometimes the safest of all policies.

The “Lady Mary Pelham”, Captain Stevens, was on her voyage to Malta, when at daylight on October 15th a large brig was seen standing across the bows of the Packet. She was evidently a Privateer, and a powerful one. Captain Stevens felt no doubt that if it came to a fight his vessel would be over-matched, and he resolved accordingly to play the game of bluff, relying, as he said on the “Pelham’s’ good looks.” The “Lady Mary Pelham” though her force was no greater than that of any other Packet, had in a remarkable degree the appearance of an eighteen-gun brig, and this resemblance was increased by Captain Stevens’ conduct. For instead of manifesting any desire to escape, he showed by all his actions the greatest readiness for a fight, and hauling up, waited to receive his enemy. The Privateer came on in doubt, and Captain Stevens, playing his part boldly, fired a gun across her bows as soon as she came within range, and ordered her to heave to. On this the enemy, convinced that she had encountered a British cruiser, hoisted English colours, and made all sail to escape. Captain Stevens desired nothing more than to let her go and resumed his course without any effort to stop her. The very celerity with which he did this aroused suspicion on board the strange vessel, which hoisted French colours and fired several guns, whereupon Captain Stevens, with unabated impudence, hauled up and waited for her again. This second demonstration of readiness for action convinced the stranger, which went her ways and troubled the “Lady Mary Pelham” no more.

In the following month an important service was rendered to the colony of Demerara by Captain Kirkness, commanding the Packet “Queen Charlotte” a service recalling in some degree the patriotic conduct of Captain Dyneley at Dominica six years before.

The “Queen Charlotte” was lying in Georgetown harbour in the month of November, waiting for her mails, and Captain Kirkness from the deck of his ship could see hanging about the entrance to the port a suspicious-looking vessel. He made his observations quietly, and, having satisfied himself about the matter, took his boat, went on shore, and demanding an audience of the governor, General Carmichael, informed him that an American Privateer was cruising outside the harbour.

It so happened that General Carmichael had that day received letters from Berbice, informing him, on the authority of a captured merchant captain, that the “Rattlesnake” a Privateer which had made herself extremely notorious since the outbreak of the war, was on her way to Demerara with the design of intercepting the Cork fleet, which was expected to arrive in Georgetown from day to day. He had, moreover, information of another powerful Privateer, which, a day or two before, had engaged a well-armed merchant vessel for three hours, and which had since captured several smaller craft within sight of the shore. Both these vessels were known to be heavily armed and manned. The “Rattlesnake”, carried sixteen 9-pounder carronades, two long nines, and her “Long Tom” mounted on a traverse, was no less than a 42-pounder. If her consort carried an equal weight of metal, the two, acting together, could easily scatter the Cork fleet.

General Carmichael stated these facts to Captain Kirkness, and appealed to him to do whatever might be in his power to hold the Privateers in check, and so provide for the safe arrival of the expected fleet, there being at the time no British ship of war at his disposal. Captain Kirkness undertook the adventure willingly. There was, indeed, no other course, unless he was prepared to stand by idly while the Privateers swooped down and worked their will on the coming merchantmen. He received on board a large party of troops, with some volunteers from the militia ; and aided, as Captain Stevens had been, by his Packet’ s “good looks” sallied out to meet the feet.

The two Privateers were sighted as soon as the “Queen Charlotte” left the harbour ; but by some curious hesitation, a most unusual quality in Americans, they did not attack, but hung on the wake of the Packet, as if believing her too strong for them, until she met the fleet ; and then, recognizing that their opportunity was lost, they bore away on another tack, and were not seen again.

The credit due to Captain Kirkness for this  exploit is not lessened by the fact that the enemy hung back from action, for this was a stroke of luck on which he could not have calculated. He risked a fight against overwhelming odds for the – “Rattlesnake” alone could have blown the “Queen Charlotte” out of the water- and by his courage and audacity saved the merchants of this country and of Demerara from very serious losses, which nothing but his interposition could possibly have averted.

Time has dealt hardly with the records of the Falmouth Service, and the historian, anxious to do justice to the memory of every officer whose conduct was distinguished, searches in vain among the brown and dusty papers for full reports of many a stubborn fight. Eighty years of neglect have broken frequent gaps in what might have been a continuous story. As a rule the Post-Office actions were not reported either in the Gazettes or in the public press; and thus it happens that when the original letters are not forthcoming, the details of the whole story are irretrievably lost.

Such is the case with Captain Hartney’s fight in the “Montagu” on February 1st, 1813. Captain Hartney had on board no less than £16,000 in bullion, a fact of which the Privateer him may have got wind. At any rate she fought which attacked with great obstinacy. The battle raged for three hours within pistol-shot, till at last the Americans sheered off, in the very nick of time, for the Falmouth men had fired away the whole of their grape, canister, and double-headed shot, and had only a few round shot left. So ended triumphantly what was evidently a gallant fight, about which we would gladly know more than the scanty record tells.

In June the “Duke of Montrose”, Captain Blewitt, was in mid-Atlantic, outward bound for Halifax, when, on the 9th of that month, she encountered an American Privateer of superior force. The crew of the “Duke of Montrose” were in a high state of training, having succeeded, about five months previously, in beating off the assault of a similar craft, which they repulsed after an action of six hours, never having allowed her to close with them during the whole of that long period. The confidence in themselves and in their officers which they won on that occasion stood them in good stead now; and, as they watched the onset of their powerful adversary, every man was cool and confident of success.

At noon the schooner was closing fast on the Packet, and at 12.30 P.M. she fired three guns. Captain Blewitt, thinking that the enemy would shortly close, ordered the gunners to reserve their fire until it could be delivered with more effect; but the Privateer had no intention of coming to meet the broadside at short range, and Captain Blewitt, seeing that she hung back, bore up, gave her his stern guns, and then, hauling across the schooner’s bows, raked her with his starboard guns, and wore again with the intention of closing, pouring in the fire of his larboard guns as they came to bear. Thus, while the “Duke of Montrose” had received only a single broadside, every gun that she carried had been fired into the Privateer at short range, and the execution must have been deadly. At 1.45 P.M. the schooner ran down and endeavoured to grapple the Packet, but the fire of the Cornish gunners was too well directed, and she sheered off again to a safer distance. Half-an-hour later she ceased firing and tacked to the eastward, whereupon Captain Blewitt tacked to the westward and resumed his voyage in the best of spirits.

Unhappily his elation was short-lived, for on the following morning Commodore Rogers in the United States frigate “ President” passed that way. Resistance against such a force as the “President” possessed was out of the question. The mails were sunk, and the “Duke of Montrose  surrendered.

Commodore Rogers treated his prisoners with very honourable forbearance and liberality. He would not permit them to be plundered of the least trifle, and informed Captain Blewitt that he proposed to send him, with all his crew and passengers, back to England in their own ship, on condition that they would enter into a contract to send the Packet back to America with an equal number of American prisoners in England. This agreement, drawn up in the most binding terms, was subscribed “upon our sacred honour by all the persons concerned; and the “Duke of Montrose” having on board a single American officer, arrived at Falmouth towards the end of June. It then  appeared that in the view of the British Government the agreement was contrary to law; and as it had been notified to the American Government that exchanges of prisoners on the high seas would not be recognized as valid, the whole transaction was declared void ; the “Duke of Montrose” was restored to the Post-Office, the officers and crew were told that they might resume their duties without being exchanged, and the American officer was sent back to his own country empty-handed.

The story is not a pleasant one ; and while the action of the Government may have been strictly warranted by the notification made to the United States, yet the transaction smacks overmuch of the methods of a sharp attorney, and one cannot but regret that the generous confidence of Commodore Rogers was not met in the same spirit.

It is impossible to describe, even with the fulness of the official records, every action which took place during this war; and yet where all were gallant there is some injustice in making a selection. One would willingly linger over the story of how Captain Elphinstone in the “Manchester” fought the “York Town” through a whole day, and did not surrender till his last round of ammunition had been fired ; of how Captain White in the “Princess Charlotte” beat off an unknown American vessel in three separate actions extending over four days, during the whole of which time the enemy kept in company ; or of Captain Caddy’s plucky conduct when the “Governor Tompkins” a Privateer of ten long 9-pounders, a long 24-pounder on a traverse, and ninety-nine men, captured his Packet, the “Mary Anne” after a fight in which the latter was reduced to a mere wreck.

These fine stories must be summarized ; but one fight which occurred about this time takes rank among the greater actions of the Falmouth Service, and deserves a fuller description.

The “Express” Captain John Quick, sailed from Rio de Janeiro on March 23rd, 1813, having on board, in addition to the mails and despatches, about £20,000 in specie. There seems to have been something in the smell of specie which attracted Privateers, for the “Express” which had made her outward voyage without sighting any suspicious vessel, encountered near the Cape Verde Islands the “Anaconda” an American Privateer, carrying sixteen long 9-pounders, and a hundred and twenty men. This formidable adversary chased the “Express”, and, after a long pursuit, brought her to action. Unfortunately no account has been preserved of the details of the fight. We are told that it lasted for an hour at close quarters, and it is clear that the cannonade during that hour must have been very fierce, for the record says that “the Packet’s sails were cut in pieces fore and aft, the main and foremast very badly wounded, the main-topmast shot away, the fore-topsail yard shot away, the foreyard badly wounded, the main and forestay shot away, the main and fore-rigging very badly cut, the braces fore and aft and the topsail-sheets shot away, all the rigging fore and aft in a most shattered condition, four of the starboard guns dismounted (the Express carried only eight), several shot between wind and water, three feet and a half of water in the hold, and the Packet actually sinking”.

To such a condition had Captain Quick’s ship been reduced before he judged it consistent with his honour to surrender. And this in face of a Post-Office regulation, never yet repealed, which instructed him that “the idea of resistance, except against Privateers of the smallest class, must be abandoned” So far from abandoning, resistance, this gallant captain fought his ship till she was sinking under him, and would certainly have gone down carrying her brave defenders with her had the surrender been delayed a few minutes longer.

Such is the spirit in which the Falmouth men fought their losing battles, earning glory if they could not reach success.

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