The conflict between the United States and Great Britain, known as the War of 1812, was less than three months old when the success the U.S. Navy had achieved in independent cruises and individual ships actions began to make an impact on decisions made at home and abroad. On September 9, 1812, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton issued cruising orders to three squadrons under the commands of Stephen Decatur Jr., John Rodgers, and William Bainbridge. The three large American frigates, President, United States, and Constitution led each squadron. In accordance with Secretary Hamilton’s orders, Bainbridge, with Constitution and the sloop of war Hornet, chose his own hunting grounds to cruise against British shipping, sailing toward Cape Verde Islands and then southwest to Brazil. While Hornet watched for enemy merchant vessels off São Salvador, Brazil, Constitution cruised southward along the coast until she encountered the British frigate Java.
Both frigates were manned by well-trained crews and led by skilled captains. The larger American ship carried a few more guns than her opponent, but the most significant difference was the weight of shot from Constitution – the American frigate’s long guns being 24-pdrs, compared to the 18-pdrs of Java. The action commenced shortly after 2:00 p.m. at close range, and each captain maneuvered his ship to gain the coveted ‘raking’ shot, a broadside down the length of the opposing ship where it could do the most damage. Java, Lieutenant Henry Chads commanding, achieved the first rake, placing his ship across Constitution‘s stern, killing and wounding several sailors. Bainbridge fought back and maneuvered the American frigate into several broadside exchanges that destroyed the British ship’s masts and sails, leaving her immobile and at the mercy of her U.S. Navy opponent. Just over three hours after combat began, Java struck her colors, and the Americans set fire to their capture after evacuating the British crew. Constitution‘s victory was complete. Her success and those of her sister ships led the British Admiralty to issue standing orders the following July for Royal Navy frigate captains to avoid single ship combat with the superior U.S. Navy frigates.