FIRST WAR CRUISE (1812)

 

Displayed below are the images of USS Constitution and her people during the period July-September 1812, as recorded down through the years, arranged in approximate chronological order of the event or person depicted. Undatable, general, images are grouped at the end. Where appropriate, commentary is provided to put the image in context and evaluate its accuracy.

U. S. Navy

Short, rotund Captain Isaac Hull scored the first major American victory of the War of 1812 when, in USS Constitution, he fought and defeated HMS Guerriere on 19 August 1812 at a point some 600 miles east of Boston. Unlike some of the later American victors, he fought a graceless fight that owed more to his ship's larger size and heavier guns than to his tactical skill. Nonetheless, through clever report writing he made it appear that victory had come in just a half hour of skilled shooting against an opponent of at least equal power, and thus became the best-known of the ship's captains..

Like his contemporary captains, Hull entered the Navy in 1798 as a Lieutenant and spent the Quasi-War with France as an officer in Constitution. In the Barbary War, he commanded one of the "small boys" in Preble's squadron and performed well, if not notably.

After the War of 1812, Hull commanded several squadrons, two Navy Yards, and did a term on the Board of Naval Commissioners. He died in Philadelphia on 13 February 1843 and is buried in that city's Laurel Hill Cemetery.

Isaac Hull was awarded a gold medal and prize money by the Congress for his victory, as well as honors from the state and municipal levels. A sidewheel steamer and four destroyers have since been named in his honor.

Gilbert Stuart

Captain William Branford Shubrick, ca. 1831. As a Lieutenant under Captains Hull and Bainbridge, he participated in the victories over HMS Guerriere (19 August 1812) and HMS Java (29 December 1812). The son of a Colonel in the Continental Army, he survived to become one of the first Admirals in the U. S. Navy.

 

This is an 1885 lithograph by W. Hoogland, based upon a work by Michel Felice Corne done shortly after Constitution was chased by a British squadron in the waters off New Jersey in July 1812. Her pursuers included a line of battle ship (at left, in distance) and four frigates, all of which ultimately failed in their effort.

 

U. S. Navy

A latter-day portrayal of Constitution's being chased by a British squadron off the New Jersey coast in July 1812. The cat-and-mouse game continued for more than two days before the big American frigate was able to draw clear. The artist correctly shows the ship's boats with "bright" gunwales and no waterlines, but apparently was unaware that not all her boats were painted white. In order to identify individual craft at a distance, when two or more were of identical design, they were differentiated by being painted different colors.

 

Courtesy Tom W. Freeman, all rights reserved

A 2001 rendering of the chase by Tom W. Freeman, entitled "Catch Me If You Can." The glassiness of the sea on this occasion is particularly well done.

 

U. S. Navy

Almost immediately after his return to Boston following the battle, Captain Hull commissioned Michel Felice Corne of Salem to create four paintings depicting significant moments in the event. This first one shows the ships meeting, Constitution closing the distance slowly under topsails and jib while Guerriere waits in the distance, her main topsail backed.

 

USS Constitution Museum

Michel Corneís 25-year-old deaf mute student, George Ropes, in 1813 followed his mentorís lead in a quartet of paintings of the battle. This first one essentially copies Coneís first, although the positions of the ships have been reversed. Too, Ropes omitted the billowing topgallant sails but added the fore staysail and spanker. The sea is remarkably similar in the two paintings.

 

U. S. Navy

HMS Guerriere's mizzenmast goes by the board, as depicted in the second of a series of four paintings by Michel Felice Corne commissioned by Captain Isaac Hull. Note that, by Hull's direction, Constitution is to Guerriere's larboard, a position disputed by his purser, Thomas Chew. Hull's purpose in this evidently was to preclude any queries regarding any collision resulting from the mast going by the board to starboard, as might have resulted had the painting accurately depicted the situation, and as happened. (Neither of Hull's reports include mention of either collision that actually occurred.)

 

USS Constitution Museum

Ropesí version of Guerriereís loss of mizzenmast obviously was based on information received from Purser Chew, for it depicts the first collision with the British frigate on Constitutionís larboard side. Ropes also shows a national ensign at the mizzen , whereas Corne depicted a second jack. The fact of this moment in the battle would be lost to public knowledge for more than 170 years.

 

Courtesy Ken Grant, all rights reserved

This late 1990s painting by a British artist depicts that moment, about twenty minutes into the battle on 19 August 1812, when USS Constitution shot away HMS Guerriere's mizzen mast. Two collisions and the loss of both remaining masts later, and the Briton became the first frigate ever to lose to an American and the first frigate defeat the British had suffered in nearly a decade. The significant thing about this painting and the one to follow is that they show the American frigate on the Briton's starboard side, contrary to the way Captain Isaac Hull had them shown in a series of paintings by Michel Felice Corne late in 1812. Possibly, Hull did not wish to lead anyone to wonder if there had been a collision, for he had made no mention of either of those that occurred in his reports.

Courtesy Ken Grant, all rights reserved

Another view of Guerriere's loss of her mizzen, by the same artist. Note, particularly, his effort to show the disparity in size between combatants, a fact overlooked by most artists in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

 

Courtesy Ken Grant, all rights reserved

Yet another view of the Constitution-Guerriere collision by Ken Grant, done in 2004.

U. S. Navy

A popular lithograph by Abel Bowen of Constitution, late in 1812, to capitalize on the frigate's sudden popularity. Overall, it is a better-than-average depiction of this type.

 

U. S. Naval Academy

The third of the Corne paintings for Captain Hull depicts the falling of Guerriereís fore and main masts as Constitution seeks to maintain her position close aboard on her foeís starboard bow. The written record is silent on this point.

 

U. S. Navy

Corneís fourth painting shows Guerriere firing a gun to leeward in token of surrender. Although this scene appears to follow the previous one by only moments, the sky has darkened dramatically in recognition of a setting sun Note that Constitution is missing both her spanker gaff and boom, and her only ensign now flies from lower rigging.

 

USS Constitution Museum

For his third depiction of the battle, George Ropers did a mirror image of his mentorís fourth, evidently having decided there was another moment he preferred to record.

 

USS Constitution Museum

Ropesí final picture is of Guerriere on the verge of blowing up, two of her guns evidently "cooking off." Constitution makes sail to insure being clear of that crucial moment, with more sail provided by the artist than she could have carried in her then-damaged state.

 

The two sides of the Congressional gold medal awarded Isaac Hull for his victory. The flattering bust of Hull was engraved by John Reich, and gives no hint of his rotundity. The obverse legend reads "Peritos Arte Superat Jul. MDCCCXII Aug, Certamiine Fortes" and, below, "Isaacus Hull;" the other side, "Florae Momento Victoria" and "Inter Const. Nav. Amer. Et Guer. Angl." The medal is about 2 Ĺ inches in diameter.