First-Hand Reports of the U. S. Hornet’s Adventures–All of which Occurred after the Treaty of Peace

By Mary Bowden, Researcher, UT Bound Newspaper Archive

February 15, 2016

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I. Reported in New York on July 3, 1815, printed by the New Jersey Centinel of Freedom

The armed brig Tom Bowline, captain Carlton, which sailed from this port on the 13th of January last, in company with the Hornet and Peacock, arrived at Sandy Hook this morning, from a cruise in the southern seas, with the following piece of interesting intelligence:

The Hornet, capt, Biddle, off the Island of Tristian de Cunha, on the 24th of March, fell in with the British sloop of war Penguin, capt. Dickinson, rated at 18 and carrying 21 guns, being one gun and thirty men more than that of the Hornet.  An action of 22 minutes ensued, when the Penguin struck, having 17 killed, including the captain and boatswain, and 28 wounded.  The loss of the Hornet was one marine killed and 11 wounded, among which was capt. Biddle, who received a shot through his neck after the surrender.  An officer with dispatches from the Hornet is passenger on board the Tom Bowline.

The Tom Bowline hove in sight of the Hornet the morning after the engagement; when capt. Biddle, in consequence of the shattered condition of his prize, suffered her to go down.

The brig left the Hornet on the 12th of April, at which time nothing had been heard of the treaty of peace; and the next day spoke the [U.S.S.] Peacock.

We have been favoured with the following extract of a letter from an officer on board the sloop of war Peacock, off Tristan de Cunha, April 10, 1815.

The Hornet separated, in chase, two days out and we only fell in, off here, a few days since.  We were delighted to hear of her good fortune, so superior to our own–she had captured, two days previous, H. B. M. brig Penguin, after and action of 22 1/2 minutes.  The Penguin was fitted out by admiral Tyler, at the Cape of Good Hope, expressly to take the privateer Young Wasp, who had captured an Indiaman in that neighborhood, and landed the prisoners, and was supposed to have brought her prize here to strip her and refresh.  The P. was commanded by captain Dickenson, a distinguished young man in their chronicles; and it appears, from some of his papers, of respectable connections, and a great favorite in the navy.–Admiral Tyler loaned him 12 marines from the Medway, and was very minute in his instructions, and gave, to a degree, in his injunctions upon Dickenson, as to the manner of engaging the privateer, to get close enough was the great consideration–what a man seeks earnestly he is almost sure to find, and capt. D. supposed he had   the Wasp, when he only saw the Hornet, a vessel considerably smaller in all her dimensions, and decidedly inferior in her armament to the privateer.   The Hornet, on perceiving that the brig bore up for her, laid all aback; the brig came stern on, lest the H. might discover her guns and be off, and brushing close alongside of her, fired a gun and run up her St. George.  An entire broadside from the Hornet, every shot of which told, opened the eyes of John Bull upon a Yankee man of war, just what they had been wishing for ever since they left England.  In 20 minutes the P. had her foremast over the side–her bowsprit in two pieces–her broadside nearly driven in–20 men killed, including the captain and one of lord Nelson’s boatswains and 35 wounded, including the 2d lieut, 2 midsn. and masters’ mate &c.  The Hornet, untouched in her hull, was severely cut up in her rigging, especially about her main and foretopgallant masts, her mizzen being a vast deal too low for British gunnery–one marine killed– the captain and 1st lieutenant, Conner, (severely) and eight others wounded.  The Penguin was not so long as the Hornet on deck by 2 feet, but had more keel, more bam, thicker sides, and higher bulwarks–had be their own account, 132 men at quarters, and mounted 16 32 lb carronades, and 2 long 12s on her gun deck, 1 12 on a pivot upon her forecastle, a light carronade on her capstan, and swivels in both her tops.  Her officers ascribed their misfortune entirely to the superiority of the men belonging in the Hornet, have repeatedly said they would be glad to try it again with her if the Penguin was manned with such men.  Now these gentlemen left England last September, and the prisoners are as stout, fine looking fellows as I ever saw.  One fact, which is provable, is worth all speculation in such an inquiry.  One fact, which is provable, is worth all speculation in such an inquiry.  On examining her guns after the action, a 32lb carronade on the side engaged was found with its tompion [plug] as nicely putty’d and stopped in as it was the day she left Spithead!  Dickenson, towards the close of the fight, told his first lieutenant M’Donald, that ‘them fellows are giving it to us like h—- we must get on board’–and on being asked by Biddle why he did not, as there never had been a better opportunity, he said ‘he did try but found the men rather backward–and so you know concluded to give it up!’  After M’Donald had repeatedly called out that they had surrendered, and Biddle had ceased his fire, two fellows on board the Penguin fired upon him and the man at the wheel–Biddle was struck on the chin, and the ball passing round the neck, went off through the cape of his surtout–wounding him however severely, but not dangerously; the man escaped, but the ruffians did not, for they were observed by two of Biddle’ marines, who levelled and laid them dead upon the deck at the instant.  It seems to me these fellows grow worse instead of improving by the war, and the further you catch them from hence the worse they fight.  We are off to-morrow to the eastward and you will probably not hear from us again till the cruise is either knocked up and we in Bombay or accomplished and the Peacock in her native port.”

–The Peacock returned to New York on October 30, 1815.

II. The Hornet, following its capture of the Penguin, still in company with the Peacock, had the following adventure, beginning off the Cape of Good Hope, April 27, 1815.  The account is taken from the Connecticut Gazette of August 16, 1815, as reprinted from the National Intelligencer.

Thursday, 27th April, 1815 

At 7 P.M. the Peacock made a signal for a strange sail bearing S. E. by s.  We immediately made all sail in chase.   Friday 28th, commenced with light breezes and pleasant weather, all sail set in chase; at sun down we had neared the stranger considerably, when it fell perfectly calm and remained so during the whole of the night; the stranger ahead and could just discern his topsails out of the water.——-At day light the sail not to be seen from the deck; at 5 A. M. a breeze sprung up from the N. W.  we immediately crowded all sail, in order if possible to get sight of the chace again; soon after descried him standing to Northward and Eastward on a wind.  Saturday 29th, at 3/4 past 2 P. M. the peacock was about 10 miles ahead of the Hornet, we observed Capt. Warrington approaching the stranger with much precaution; we therefore took in all our larboard steering sails, set the stay sails, and hauled up for the Peacock, still under impression the sail in sight was an English Indiaman, and from the apparent conduct of the commander of the Peacock, we were under an impression (as the ship looked very large) that Capt. W. was waiting until we came up with him in order to make a joint attack.  At half past 3 P. M. the Peacock made the signal, that the chase was a line of battle ship and an enemy; our astonishment may easily be conceived; we took in all steering sails and hauled upon the wind, bringing the enemy upon our lee quarter, about 3 leagues distance; the Peacock on his weather bow, and apparently not more than 3 miles from the enemy; at sun down the enemy bore E. 1/2 S., the Peacock E. by N.; we soon perceived the enemy sailed remarkably fast, but the Peacock left him running off to the eastward.  The enemy continued by the wind, and evidently in chace of us; at 6 loosed the wedges of the lower masts; at 8 we discovered the enemy weathered upon us fast, and that there was every appearance he would, if not come up with us, continue in sight all night.  It was  thought necessary to lighten the ship; at 9 we cut away the sheet anchor, and hove overboard the cable, a quantity of rigging, spars, &c.—- At half past 9 scuttled the ward room deck to get at the kentledge; hove overboard about 90 pieces, weighing about 50 tons.  At 2 A. M. tacked ship to the southward and westward, which the enemy no sooner discovered than he tacked also.   At day light he was within shot distance, on our lee quarter; at 7 A. M. he hoisted English colors and a Rear Admirals flag at his mizzen top gallant mast head, and commenced firing from his bow guns, his shot over-reaching us about one mile.  We therefore commenced again to lighten the ship, by cutting away our remaining anchors and throwing overboard the cables, cut up the launch and hove it overboard, a quantity of provision, with more kentledge shot, capstan, spars, all rigging, sails, guns, and if fact every heavy article that could possibly tend to impede the ship’s sailing. The enemy continued to fire very heavy and in quick succession, but his British thunder could neither terrify the Yankee spirit or diminish Yankee skill, or compel us to show him the Yankee stripes, which must have irritated him excessively. None of his shot as yet had taken effect, although he had been firing for near four hours incessantly, his shot generally passing between our masts.  We thought at this period we discovered we were dropping him, as his shot began to fall short; this stimulated our gallant crew to fresh exertion.  At 11 A. M. his firing ceased, and the breeze began to freshen, we discovered the enemy was again coming up with us fast, which induced a general belief he had made some alteration in the trim of his ship.  At meridian, squally and fresh breezes; wind from the westward.–Sunday 30, fresh breezes and squally; the enemy still gaining on the Hornet.  At 1 P. M. being within gun-shot distance, he commenced a very spirited and heavy fire with round and grape, the former passing between our mass, and the latter falling all around us.  The enemy fired shells, but were so ill directed as to be perfectly harmless.  From 2 to 3 P. M. threw overboard all the muskets, cutlasses, forge, &c &c. and broke up the bell; also cup up the top gallant forecastle.  It was now our capture appeared inevitable; enemy three fourths of a mile on the lee quarter, pouring his shot and shells in great numbers all around us–continued to lighten the ship, by heaving every thing overboard that could either be of service to the enemy, or an impediment to the Hornet’s sailing.  The men were ordered to lay down on the quarter deck, in order to trip ship, and to facilitate the ship’s sailing.  At 4, one of the shot from the enemy struck the jib-boom, another struck the starboard bulwark, just forward of the gangway, and a third struck on the deck, forward of the main hatch, on the larboard side glanced off and passed through the foresail.—At half past 4, we again began to leave the enemy, and to appearance, by magic–set the larboard lower steering sail, the wind drawing more aft.  At 5, the enemy’s shot fell short.  At 6, fresh breezes–the enemy’s hull down in our wake.  At 7, could just see his lower steering sail above the horizon; from 8 to 12, descried him at intervals, with night glasses.  At day light, discovered the enemy astern of us, distant 5 leagues–At 9 A. M. the enemy shortened sail, reefed his topsails and hauled upon a wind, to the eastward, after a chace of 42 hours.  During this tedious and anxious chace, the wind was variable, so as to oblige us to make a perfect circle round the enemy.  Between 2 and 3 o’clock yesterday not a person on board had the most distant idea that there was a possibility of escape.  We all packed up our things, and waited until the enemy’s shot would compel us to heave to and surrender, which appeared certain.   Never has there been so evident an interposition of the goodness of a Divine Father–my heart with gratitude acknowledges his supreme power and goodness.   On the morning of the 28th it was very calm and nothing but murmurs were heard throughout the ship, as it was feared we should lose our anticipated prize–many plans had been formed by us for the disposal of our plunder.  The seamen declared they would have the berth deck carpeted with East India Silk, supposing her an Indiaman from India, while the officers, under the impression she was from England, were making arrangements how we should dispose of the money, porter, cheese, &c. &c.   Nothing perplexed us more than the idea that we should not be able to take out all the good things before we should be obliged to destroy her.  We were regretting our ship did not sail faster, as the Peacock would certainly capture her first, and would take out many of the best and most valuable articles before we should get up–(this very circumstance of our not sailing as fast as the Peacock, saved us in the first instance from inevitable capture–for when Captain W. made signal for the sail to be an enemy of superior force, we were four leagues to windward.)

We all calculated our fortunes were made, but alas, ‘we caught a Tartar.’  During the latter part of the chase, when the shot and shells were whistling about our ears, it was an interesting sight to behold the varied countenances of our crew.  They had kept the deck during all the preceding night employed continually in lightening the ship, were excessively fatigued, and under momentary expectation of falling into the hands of a barbarous and enraged enemy.  The shot that fell on the main deck, (as before related) struck immediately over the head of one of our gallant fellows who had been wounded in our glorious action with the Penguin, where he was lying in his cot very ill with his wounds;  the shot was near coming through the deck, and threw innumerable splinters all around this poor fellow, and struck down a small paper American Ensign which he had hoisted over his head–destruction apparently stared us in the face, if we did not soon surrender, yet no officer, no man, in the ship shewed any disposition to let the enemy have the poor little Hornet.  Many of our men had been impressed and imprisoned for years in their horrible service, and hated them and their nation with the most deadly animosity, while the rest of the crew, horror-struck by the relation of the sufferings of their ship-mates, who had been in the power of the English, and now equally flushed with rage, joined heartily in execrating the present authors of our misfortune.  Capt. Biddle mustered the crew and told them he was pleased with their conduct during the chase, and hoped still to perceive that propriety of conduct which had always marked their character, and that of the American tars generally, that we might soon expect to be captured, &c.  Not a dry eye was to be seen at the mention of the capture; the rugged hearts of the sailors, like ice before the sun, warmed by the divine power of sympathy, wept in unison with their brave commander.   About 2 o’clock, the wind which had crossed us, and put to the test all our nautical skill to steer clear of the enemy, now veered in our favour (as before stated) and we left him.  This was truly a glorious victory over the horrors of banishment and the terrors of a British floating dungeon.–Quick as thought, every face was changed from the gloom of despair to the highest smile of delight, and we began once more to breathe the sweets of liberty–the bitter sighs of regret were now changed, and I put forth my expressions of everlasting gratitude to him, the supreme Author of our being–who had thus signally delivered us from the power of the enemy.”  

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.