Constitution vs. Java

"Four months after Captain Hull's great victory over the Guerriere in August, 1812, the Constitution was in another sea and had another captain. The ship had sailed south and was now off the coast of Brazil. William Bainbridge had succeeded Isaac Hull in command.

It was almost the last day of the year. Chilly weather, no doubt, existed in Boston from which Constitution had sailed; but mid-summer warmth was present in those southern waters. It certainly felt warm enough to the men on deck, who were "spoiling for a fight," when the look-out aloft announced two sails.

U.S.S. Constitution Painting
U.S.S. Constitution

The sailors who had been lounging about the deck sprang up and looked eagerly across the waves, as the cheerful "Sail ho!" reached their ears.

Soon they saw that one of the vessels was coming their way as fast as her sails could carry her. The other had sailed away in another direction.

The vessel that was coming was the HMS Java, a fine British frigate. As she drew near she showed signals. That is, she spread out a number of small flags each of which had some meaning, and by which British ships could talk with each other. Captain Bainbridge could not answer these, for he did not know what they meant. So he showed American signals, which the captain of the Java could not understand any better.

Then, as they came nearer, they hoisted their national flags, and both sides saw that they were enemies and that a fight was at hand.

Captain Bainbridge was not like Captain Hull. He did not wait until the ships were side by side, but began firing when the Java was half a mile away. That was only wasting powder and cannon balls, but they kept on firing until they were close at hand, and then the shots began to have an effect.

A brave old fellow was the captain of the Constitution. A musket ball struck him in the thigh as he was facing the deck. He stopped his pacing, but would not go below. Then a copper bolt went deep into his leg. But he had it cut out and the leg tied up. And he still kept on deck. He wanted to see the fight.

Hot and fierce came the cannon balls, hurtling through sails and rigging, rending through thick timbers, and sending splinters flying right and left. Men fell dead and blood ran in streams, but still came these heralds of death.

We must tell the same story of this fight as of the fight with the Guerriere. The British did not know how to aim their guns and the Americans did. The British had no sights on their cannon and the Americans had. That was why, all through the war, the British lost so heavily and the Americans so little. The British shot went wild and the American balls flew straight to their mark.

You know what must come from that. After a while, off went the Java's bowsprit, as if it had been chopped off with a great knife. Five minutes later her foremast was cut in two and came tumbling down. Then the main topmast crashed down from above. Last of all, her mizzen-mast was cut short off by the plunging shot, and fell over the side. The well-aimed American balls had cut through her great spars, as you might cut through a willow stick, and she was dismantled as the Guerriere had been.

The loud "hurrahs" of the Yankee sailors proved enough to call the dead to life. A wounded man, whom everyone thought dead, opened his eyes and asked what they were cheering about. "The enemy has struck," he was told. The dying tar lifted himself on one arm, and waved the other round his head, and gave three feeble cheers. With the last one he fell back dead.

But the Java's flag was not down for good. As the Constitution came up with all masts standing and sails set, the British flag was raised to the stump of the mizzen-mast. When he saw this, Bainbridge moved his ship to give her another broadside, and then down came her flag for good. She had had all the battering she could stand.

During the battle, Constitution had lost only 34 men killed and wounded, while Java had lost 150 men. The Constitution was sound and whole; the Java had only her mainmast left and was full of yawning gashes. Old lronsides had a new feather in her cap.

Like the Guerriere, the Java was hurt past help. It was impossible to take her home, so, on the last day of 1812, the torch was put to her ragged timbers and the flames took hold. Quickly they made their way through the ruined ship. About three o'clock in the afternoon they reached her magazine, and with a mighty roar the wreck of the British ship was torn into fragments. To the bottom went the hull. Only the broken masts and a few shattered timbers remained afloat.

Such is war, a thing of ruin and desolation. Of that gallant ship, which two days before had been proudly afloat, only some smoke-stained fragments were left to tell that she had ever been on the seas, and death and wounds had come to many of her men.

After her fight with the Java, the Constitution had a long, weary rest. The ship was much rotten in her timbers, and she was brought home and rebuilt. Then the ship went sailing again, under Captain Charles Stewart, but it was more than two years after her last battle before she had another chance to show what sort of a fighter she was.

It is a curious thing that some of the hardest fights of this war with England took place after the war was at an end. The treaty of peace was signed on Christmas eve, 1814, but the great battle at New Orleans was fought two weeks afterward. There was no ocean cable then to send word to the armies that all their killing was for no good since there was nothing to fight about.

It was worse still for the ships at sea. Nobody then had ever dreamed of a telegraph without wires to send word out over the waste of waters. Thus, it was that the last battle of the Constitution was fought nearly two months after the war was over.

The good old ship was then on the other side of the ocean, and was sailing along near the island of Madeira, which lies off the coast of Africa. For a year she had done nothing except to take a few small prizes, and her stalwart crew were tired of that sort of work. They wanted a real big fight with plenty of glory.

One evening Captain Stewart heard some of the officers talking about their bad luck, and wishing they could only meet with a fellow of their own size. They were tired of fishing for minnows when there were whales to be caught.

"I can tell you this, gentlemen," said the captain, "You will soon get what you want. Before the sun rises and sets again you will have a good old-fashioned fight, and it will not be with a single ship, either." I do not know what the officers said after the captain turned away. Very likely some of them wondered how he came to be a prophet and could tell what was going to take place. I doubt very much whether they believed what he had said.

At any rate, at about 1 o'clock the next day, February 20, 1815, when the ship was gliding along before a light breeze, a sail was seen far away in front. An hour later a second sail was made out, close by the first. And when the Constitution got nearer it was seen that they were both ships-of-war. It began to look as if Captain Stewart was a good prophet, after all.

It turned out that the first of these was the small British frigate Cyane. The second was the sloop-of-war Levant. Neither was a match by itself for the Constitution, but both together they thought themselves a very good match. It was 5 o'clock before the Yankee ship came up within gunshot. The two British ships had closed together so as to help one another, and now they stripped off their extra sails, as a man takes off his coat and vest for a fight.

Six o'clock passed before the battle began. Then for fifteen minutes the three ships hurled their iron balls as fast as the men could load and fire. By that time the smoke was so thick that they had to stop firing to find out where the two fighting ships were. The Constitution now found itself opposite the Levant and poured a broad side into her hull. Then Constitution sailed backward—an odd thing to do, but Captain Stewart knew how to move his ship stern foremost—and poured her iron hail into the Cyane. Next, the ship pushed ahead again and pounded the Levant until that lively little craft turned tail and ran. It had enough of the Constitution's iron dumplings to last a while.

This was great sailing and great firing, but Captain Stewart was one of those seaman who knew how to handle a ship, and his men knew how to handle their guns. There were never better seamen than those of Old Ironsides. The Levant was now out of the way, and there was only the Cyane to attend to. Captain Stewart attended to her so well that, just forty minutes after the fight began, her flag came down.

Where now was the Levant? She had run out of the fight; but she had a brave captain who did not like to desert his friend, so he turned back and came gallantly up again.

It was a noble act, but a foolish one. This the British captain found out when he came once more under the American guns. They were much too hot for him and once more he tried to run away. He did not succeed this time. Captain Stewart was eager to fight, and sent a barrage after him that his flag swiftly came gliding down, as his comrade's had done.

Captain Stewart had shown himself a true prophet. He had met, fought with, and won two ships of the enemy. No doubt his officers after that were sure they had a prophet for a captain.

That evening, when the two British captains were in the cabin of the Constitution, a midshipman came down and asked Captain Stewart if the men could not have their grog.

"Why, didn't they have it?" asked the captain.

"It was time for it before the battle began."

"It was mixed for them, sir," said the midshipman.

"But our old men said they didn't want any 'Dutch courage,' so they emptied the grog-tub into buckets.

The Englishmen stared when they heard this. It is very likely their men had not fought without a double dose of grog.

We have not finished our story yet. Like a well-written letter, it has a postscript. On March 10th, the three ships were in a harbor of the Cape de Verde Islands and Captain Stewart was sending his prisoners ashore, when three large British men-of-war were seen sailing into the harbor.

Stewart was nearly caught in a trap. Any one of these large frigates was more than a match for the Constitution, and here were three in a bunch. But, by good luck, there was a heavy fog that hid everything but the highest sails, so there was a chance of escape.

Captain Stewart was not the man to be trapped while a chance was left. He was what was called a "wide-awake." There was a small chance left. He cut his cable, made a signal to the prize vessels to do the same, and in ten minutes after the first British vessel had been seen, the American ship and its prizes were gliding swiftly away.

On came the British ships against a stiff breeze up the west side of the bay. Out slipped the Yankee ship along the east side. Captain Stewart set no sails higher than his top sails, and these were hidden by the fog so the British lookouts saw nothing.

Only when Stewart got his ship past the outer point of the harbor did he spread his upper sails to the breeze, and the British lookouts saw with surprise cloud of canvas suddenly bursting out upon the air.

Now began a close chase. The Constitution and her prizes had only about a mile head start. As quickly as the British ships could turn, they were on their track. But those were not the days of the great guns that can send huge balls six or seven miles through the air. A mile then was a long shot for the largest guns, and the Yankee cruisers had made a fair run of it.

But before they had gone far, Captain Stewart saw that the Cyane was in danger of being taken, and signaled for her to move and take another course. She did so and sailed safely away. For three hours the three big frigates hotly chased the Constitution and Levant, but let the Cyane go.

Captain Stewart now saw that the Levant was in the same danger, and he sent her a signal to move as the Cyane had done. The Levant did so, and sailed out of the line of the chase.

What was the surprise of the Yankee captain an his men when they saw all three of the big British ships turn on their heels and set sail after the little sloop-of-war, letting the Constitution sail away. It was like three great dogs turning to chase a rabbit and letting a deer run free.

The three huge monsters chased the little Levant back into the island port, and there for fifteen minutes they fired broadsides at her. The prisoners whom Captain Stewart had landed did the same from a battery on shore, and yet not a shot struck her hull; they were all wasted in the air.

Lieutenant Bullard, who was master of one of the British war ships, hauled down his flag. He thought he had seen enough fun, and they might hurt somebody if they kept on firing. But what was the chagrin of the British captains to find that all they had done was to take back one of their own vessels, while the American frigate had gone free.

The Constitution and the Cyane got safely to the American shores, where their officers learned that the war had ceased more than three months before. But the country was proud of their good service and Congress gave medals of honor to Stewart and his officers.

That was the last warlike service of the gallant Old Ironsides, the most famous ship of the American Navy. Years passed by and her timbers rotted away, as they had done once before. Some of the wise heads in the Navy Department, men without a grain of sentiment, decided that she was no longer of any use and should be broken up for old timber.

But if they had no love for the good old ship, there were those who had, and the poet, Oliver Wendell Holmes, came to the rescue with his poem, which saved the ship.

There was no talk of destroying the Old Ironsides after that. The man that did it would have won eternal disgrace. She still floats, and no doubt she will float, as long as two of her glorious old timbers hang together.

 

Excerpted From A 1902 School Book, Edited



Contact Information & Address:

U.S.S. Constitution 
Navy Yard, Charlestown, MA 
617.242.5601 
nps.gov

 

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Navy Yard, Charlestown, MA 
617.242.5670 
ussconstitutionmuseum.org


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