Sunday, May 06, 2007

Yankee Ingenuity and Perseverance


USS Constitution July 16th 1812



In this day of quick fixes and 24 hour news cycles on cable and network television there seems to be no time to work through a difficult problem and the answer is usually to just give up a go do something else no matter what the consequences may be. There was a time though when pride and dignity in your country was a common feeling and men and women would go to great lengths to preserve those ideals through self sacrifice and good old “Yankee ingenuity”.

I am reminded of a story I once read and I went back to gather all the details for this particular post. It was July in the year of 1812 and war had just been declared with Great Britain. The American warship USS Constitution a 44 gun frigate, one of the original six frigates built in the 1790s had been dispatched from Washington DC to meet up with the American squadron to the north that would be coming from New York City. On her travels to the north her Captain was Isaac Hull and her Lieutenant was Charles Morris with a crew of about 300 men. The USS Constitution bristled with 24 pounder brass guns with a couple of 32 pounder iron carronades. The Constitution had already shown distinguished service in the Mediterranean as the flagship under Commodore Edward Preble against the Tripolian pirates. The Constitution was now assigned to meet up with her sister frigates the USS President, USS Congress to fight the vastly superior sea forces of British Navy. The Constitution was to meet up with her squadron to draw away the British Navy ships from the coast and sea lanes so American merchant ships could return to port without being captured by the British.

Great Britain and France had been locked in mortal combat for the last couple of years and Great Britain had decided to confiscate American shipping and impress American sailors into the British Navy during this war with France so Americans could not sell the raw materials that Napoleon desperately needed to continue with his war with Europe and Great Britain.

The USS Constitution under Captain Isaac Hull was a tight ship; the men were well trained and ready for the fight. On the way up the coast Captain Hull spied sail, large sail, obviously men of war and he believed that these ships were the American squadron he was to meet up with. As the ships began to close he hoisted the signal flags for recognition and no recognition signal was returned. Captain Hull and LT. Morris then saw other sail behind the ones she was signaling to and realized that this was no American squadron at all. Those ships were British frigates and behind them were more frigates and a British Navy 74 gun ship of the line HMS Africa. Well, needless to say the Constitution was outgunned and needed to exit out this situation immediately. Captain Hull ordered to make sail immediately and the crew went about manning the sails for maximum speed. Then it happened as things always do, the breeze that had slowly propelled the mighty American warship into this trap had suddenly died and they as well as their British adversaries lay dead in the water.

It took some consultation between Captain Hull and his officers but Charles Morris came up with the idea of putting the boats into the water row and tow the Constitution out of range of the British guns. They lowered the boats into the sea and began to row. This was working and the British saw the scheme and began to employ the same to catch up with the Americans. The British brought boats from the other frigates and now had two fully rigged frigates in tow chasing down the Constitution. Captain Hull ordered that a 24 pound cannon and a 32 pound carronade be brought aft and part of the railing was moved and the ships carpenters went about the work of installing the cannon in place in case the British got too close they could fire on the British boats.

The Americans could see that the British had the advantage because of the other boats they had brought from the other frigates and knew they had to come up with another plan. Again Captain Hull and LT. Morris came up with some pure “Yankee Ingenuity”. They rigged the anchors with long ropes and all the cables they had. They then had the men in the boats row the anchors out ahead of them as far as the ropes would allow. The boats then dropped the anchors and the men on the ship wound the rope in with the capstans moving the ship ahead at a wonderful pace, far ahead of what the British could do with their towing with the boats. This gave the Constitution the edge they needed and they pulled ahead of the British and finally after this three day chase a wind came along enough to take advantage of the lead that the Constitution already had and they sailed away from the British with all hands working as one.

This would have been a complete humiliation for America and her Navy if the British had captured or sunk the Constitution at the very beginning of the war. Captain Hull and every American Navy fighting man onboard realized this too and they worked as hard as they could and they used every opportunity to employ their Yankee ingenuity and perseverance to escape and actually claim victory. After this chase the British officers later conceded that this was “the most elegant ship handling and seamanship they had ever witnessed”. The Constitution went on to sink one of those British frigates that had been in pursuit of her that day in a very famous battle with the HMS Guerriere. In that famous battle the USS Constitution earned the nickname “Old Ironsides”. Huzzah!

The men on the USS Constitution never gave up; they never said "the war is lost". The brave and gallant men of this US Navy ship fought on against overwhelming odds and became icons in American Navy tradition and the American fighting spirit. We are in desperate need of those men and their beliefs today when we hear leaders in our government that are ready to surrender at all cost.

The Constitution and the Guerriere

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote this poem on September 16th 1830 when she was being considered to scrap and is largely credited for saving this mighty and proud American fighting ship.

Old Ironsides

Ay, tear her tattered ensign down!
Long has it waved on high,
And many an eye has danced to see
That banner in the sky;
Beneath it rung the battle shout,
And burst the cannon's roar;
The meteor of the ocean air
Shall sweep the clouds no more.

Her deck, once red with heroes' blood,
Where knelt the vanquished foe,
When winds were hurrying o'er the flood,
And waves were white below,
No more shall feel the victor's tread,
Or know the conquered knee;
The harpies of the shore shall pluck
The eagle of the sea!

Oh, better that her shattered bulk
Should sink beneath the wave;
Her thunders shook the mighty deep,
And there should be her grave;
Nail to the mast her holy flag,
Set every threadbare sail,
And give her to the god of storms,
The lightning and the gale!

Oliver Wendell Holmes

9 comments:

SusieQ said...

JG, this a very fascinating story about Old Ironsides,...and so well written. You should really consider a writing career.

Yankee ingenuity, indeed! I loved the anchor solution. But why didn't the British do likewise as they had in the first instance?

There are probably all sorts of solutions to problems we face as a country both with this war and with other problems. But for every possible solution there is probably a law in place that would impede it.

The WordSmith from Nantucket said...

Great account, Jennifer. Thanks for the history reminder.

Marie's Two Cents said...

Great Post Jenn,

I sure am glad you are around to remind us of History :-)

I have to agree with Suzie, you may want to take up a writing career, you sure are good at it.

J_G said...

Thanks everyone, this is something I am very passionate about. Sometimes I feel as though I was actually there.

To answer your question Susie; the Brits finally caught onto what those darn Yankees were doing but by then it was too late and the Constitution had gained quite a lead due to the way the Yankees were working together.

LT. Charles Morris remarked later in his autobiography that "every advantage of perseverance should be employed... even when the chances of victory seem long”.

Obviously there is much more to the story of the US Navy and our exploits of the time. The thing that spurred the American crews to such voracity in fighting the Brits was an incident that happened just before the war when the USS Chesapeake (another one the original six frigates) was being deployed to the Mediterranean for patrol duty. The British had a Frigate sitting off of the coast of Virginia and they signaled the Chesapeake to stop to be searched for British Navy deserters. Having one man of war submit to search by the man of war of another country was tantamount to war. Well the American captain refused at first to submit to the search but the crew of the Chesapeake was new and not very well trained and she was burdened with heavy cargo for the long deployment and very slow to answer the helm. The Brits opened fire with a hellish broad side on the Chesapeake and forced the US Navy ship to submit to the search. This was a great humiliation to the Americans and they vowed that every last man would go down fighting if that is what had to be done instead of being humiliated in that manner again.

It’s hard to put every thing you would like to include in the post in order to keep it interesting and brief and still include the important facts. My biggest problem is feeling like I bore people and put them to sleep with my obscure stories.

patterns of ink said...

Great post. I like George M. Cohen and this song. I'll figure out how to put music on one of these days. Years ago, our school did a "Patriotic Program" every spring. We used both this song and this poem in those programs. Have you seen the video that goes with "America the Beautiful" that's being passed around now? It's great. Nice job. I'm going to come back and read it again.

Mike's America said...

There are so many of these great stories of American "can do" and heroism that we're not being told anymore.

Thank you Jennifer for this reminder.

We didn't get to be the world's lone superpower by giving up when the going got tough.

J_G said...

Tom, I emailed you from my yahoo email with some basic instructions for background sounds. I really love that song and I remember seeing the old movies on Sunday afternoon after church. Yankee Doodle Dandy and Sergeant York with Gary Cooper (oh my, Gary Cooper!) I haven’t seen the video you are talking about yet. Send me the link if you have it.

Mike, the story of our fighting spirit and Yankee ingenuity runs deep for me. I learned those things from my Father and from my own experiences. These songs and stories are things that have affected me since childhood. The children of today are not being taught about the American spirit and I am so angry about that. Our education system exists in most parts of country now as places where children learn to become wards of the state.

I’m going to go up to Boston this summer and hopefully my college professor friend will accompany me, we were supposed to go last summer but some things came up and we couldn’t go. I’m going to have my flag flown over the USS Constitution and hopefully I’ll have it back for 4th of July for my big BBQ and all American cookout this summer again. You can have your flag flown over her if you send it there. Flags

SusieQ said...

Is that James Cagney singing? Makes me want to get up and dance around.

J_G said...

Yes Ma'am, it's James Cagney alright from the 1941 film "Yankee Doodle Dandy". I had to shut it off for a while but if you would like a copy let me know.