Constitution vs. Guerriere: A Doctor’s Log, War of 1812
Two hundred years ago this month, a first major sea engagement of the War of 1812 took place in the Atlantic about 600 miles east of Boston.
August 19 dawned cloudy with freshening breezes, and for the crew of the USS Constitution, another day isolated on the sea. At 2 pm, though, a sail was spotted to the south. An hour later, as Constitution closed in, the other vessel’s outline became a frigate. Captain Isaac Hull cleared the decks for action. The surgeon, Dr. Amos Evans, carefully arranged his sinister-looking instruments in the cockpit.
The cannon fire started suddenly. Amid the din and fog, the British ship’s mizzenmast soon toppled, slowing her down considerably. Constitution surged across her bow and let loose first one raking broadside, then turned for another. The ships collided, the British frigate’s bowsprit tangling in Constitution’s rigging.
Constitution’s first lieutenant, Charles Morris, and her marine lieutenant, William Bush, were shot down—“Mr. Morris first jumped on the Taffrail with an intention of boarding her and was instantly wounded in the parieties of the abdomen,” Evans wrote in his journal. Bush rushed in after and immediately took a musket shot to the face.
|Constitution v. Guerriere became a favorite theme.|
The battle ended quickly as the captain of the HMS Guerriere surrendered. But Dr. Evans’ work was just getting underway. He was soon joined by his British counterpart and side by side they worked in Constitution’s cramped cockpit, kneeling over writhing and groaning men, cauterizing wounds, setting bones, and amputating limbs. One gunner recalled a man who had his leg amputated say simply, “You are a hard set of butchers.”
The surgeons worked through the night. Even as they attended to the wounded, in the morning they looked up to see the Guerriere as it gave its last gasp. The American crew got all the prisoners of war off and set the enemy ship ablaze. She soon blew up spectacularly.
Then it was a matter of getting everyone to shore. Nine days later, a lookout sighted Boston lighthouse. By August 31 they had anchored there. Recorded Evans:
As we passed Long Wharf were saluted with huzzas by a great concourse of people from that place and the different Merchant vessels. Commander Decatur… came on board… and the vessel was crowded all day with citizens – boats surrounded us, huzzaing, &c.
How to reconcile the long, tedious days at sea with the sudden violence of battle, and the crowds and celebration on shore? More from routine than necessity, Evans still began each journal entry ashore with the weather:
September 5. – Wind from N & E—cold rain. Were honoured with a superb dinner at Faneuil Hall by the citizens of Boston to-day. Much order and decorum were preserved on the occasion. Several excellent Patriotic toasts drunk… In the Gallery, fronting the President’s chair, was a model of the Constitution Frigate with her masts fished and the Colours as they flew during the action… A band of musick played in the Gallery, and every toast was honored by several guns from the street.
September 27 – Walked around town with Lt. Contee & saw many pretty girls, coming from & going to church. Cool & cloudy in the evening…
By October 2, a Boston theatre had adapted the surprise victory for the stage in a short piece called “Guerriere & Constitution.” It ran after the main show, The Foundling of the Forest. Evans bought his ticket and afterward pronounced the new work “a very foolish, ridiculous thing.”
There was an election that fall, too. Marylander Evans received “very disturbing news” reports from home of the outcome for Congress: “What a farce! And what miserable dunces the people are to be so easily gulled! … I am sick of this rascally world.”
Still Evans returned to his duties on the Constitution. Back at sea he conducted experiments to determine the ocean’s currents, and savored simple pleasures. On November 19 he wrote, “Eat the albacore caught yesterday. I found it an excellent fish.”