Thursday, August 23, 2012

USS Constitution ("Old Ironsides") and Guerriere. Was it a fair fight?


The sea battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere occurred 19 August 1812, exactly 200 years ago.  It was   a great morale booster for the young American republic, occurring so soon after America became independent of Britain.

But was it  a fair fight?


Compare the size and armament of the respective ships.  

The Constitution was 1576 tons and carried 44 guns with 950lb of broadside (ammunition). The Guerriere was 1092 tons and was rated as 38 guns, with 526lb of broadside.

The Constitution had a complement of roughly 450 including 55 Marines and 30 boys, as compared to the Guerriere's 272.

The Constitution's 24-pound cannonballs felled the Guerriere's mast, which turned the British ship into a sitting duck; while the British vessels' 18-pound cannonballs had trouble penetrating the Constitution's hull. 

It doesn't look like a very equal struggle.  However Britain had been waging war with France for some nine years and British ships had considerably more experience of sea warfare than the Americans. Despite the diference in size and armament of the respective frigates, the British captain considered it an equal struggle ; accordingly, it was a traumatic defeat for British sea power.

But here's the kicker:


A sailor's memoirs of the struggle record how one cannonball seemed to slightly penetrate the ship, before dropping into the sea.  The sailor then called out the quote that would give the Constitution its nickname, "Huzzah, her sides are made of iron!  See where the shot fell out!"

The hull of the "USS Constitution" was made of Georgia live oak sandwiched between two layers of white oak, and was 21 inches thick.  The Guerriere had been built in France, using European oak of poorer quality than the Georgia oak, which tipped the scale of the conflict in favor of the American.

It was a tradition that when a ship was captured in battle, it would retain the name it had before the capture.  The British navy had captured the Guerriere from the French.  It never became an American vessel because it burned and sank immediately after the battle with USS Constitution.

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