Dec 2

This month in USS Constitution History…

Thursday, December 2, 2010 3:26 PM



With the victory against the HMS Guerriere still looming in the hearts and minds of the American people, USS CONSTITUTION was once again called upon to protect the open seas against the British Royal Navy. USS CONSTITUTION departed from Boston, MA on the 27th of October 1812 with the Frigate Essex and the Brig Hornet under the Command of Commodore William Bainbridge to “harass the enemy and to afford protection to our commerce, pursuing that course, which to your best judgment may…appear to be best.”

On the morning of the 29th of December two unknown sails were spotted while off the coast of Sao Salvador, Brazil. Believing that the larger of the two ships to be a British Ship of the Line; Commodore Bainbridge steered his ship to the South East to avoid being trapped between them and the coast. As the unknown ship drew closer, it was determined to be the British frigate HMS Java under the command of Capt. Henry Lambert and both ships set a course South East with the Briton on Constitutions’ larboard quarter. Once the HMS Java had closed to within 1000 yards, Commodore Bainbridge ordered his 24-pounders to commence firing, aiming at the rigging in attempts to slow or even stop her. The enemy ship continued to close the distance, commenced firing at Constitution causing severe damage to her spars and rigging, and wounded Commodore Bainbridge in the thigh. It appeared the enemy ship was about to pull ahead and cross Constitution’s bow for a devastating rake when Commodore Bainbridge let loose an effective broad side and changed course in the smoke. A second attempt was again made to cut across Constitution’s bow for a raking maneuver and again was thwarted. On the third attempt to gain ground on Constitution, Commodore Bainbridge was prepared for all but what actually happened. As the enemy ship closed the distance she took up position behind Constitution and unleashed a devastating raking broadside from stern to bow which destroyed Constitution’s helm, took out all four helmsmen, and again wounded Commodore Bainbridge in the thigh. 

With the helm of Constitution destroyed and the fear of another raking maneuver it had to be a very trying time for Commodore Bainbridge. He gathered his thoughts and with the assistance of a midshipman, he began issuing orders to set up a jury-rigged steering system to allow Constitution to remain in the fight. He sent men down to the tiller room, located in the aft end of the berth deck behind the wardroom and had personnel stationed throughout the decks to allow for passage of orders for direction changes. The enemy ship, seeing the Constitution sailing steadily off, assumed she had enough and turned toward her to “finish her off.” Commodore Bainbridge took a chance and allowed the British frigate to close to within range of the 32-pounders. This risk paid off in the end. By 2:40PM the enemy’s bowsprit cap, Jib boom, and head sails were shot away. 

The advantage slowly shifted from the Briton to the USS Constitution in the next few moments. The enemy’s shots were becoming less accurate and with her head sails shot away, made the enemy ship less maneuverable. At 3:35PM a miss-judgment by the Briton caused her to run what was left of her bowsprit into Constitutions mizzen rigging which allowed Bainbridge to unleash a full broadside of Constitution both from her guns and the Marines stationed on the fighting tops. This action caused the main topmast to be severed just above the cap and fall to the decks. Captain Lambert was also mortally wounded at this time by an American sharpshooter. 

Once the ships were separated, Constitution had the advantage and performed two more raking maneuvers on the Briton and took position on her larboard beam. The Briton, not giving up just yet, fired the remaining three to five operational guns. The fight continued until approximately 4:55PM when HMS Java’s mizzen mast was shot away nearly at the deck. 

Silence reigned by 5:00PM. Commodore Bainbridge believed the Briton to have surrendered and sailed some distance to perform repairs to the ship before assuming control of the Briton. However, Bainbridge was deceived, having not yet surrendered and now under the command of First Lt. Henry Ducie Chads, the Briton prepared for further fighting by rigging an make-shift staysail hung between the fore mast and bowsprit to assist in control of the ship. The British Ensign was then raised to signify she was still in the battle but when it was noticed that Constitution was moving for yet another devastating raking broadside; Lt. Chads wisely lowered their ensign to signify surrender. 

The HMS Java suffered somewhere between 22 and 60 deaths and 101 wounded while the USS Constitution only suffered 9 deaths and 25 wounded. Reluctantly, being in enemy waters and given the condition of both the ship, along with the condition of Commodore Bainbridge himself, it was determined that the best course of action was to set the HMS Java ablaze rather then attempt to tow her home. Once the prisoners were loaded onto the Constitution, a course was set for Sao Salvador where she met with the Hornet. 

Once USS Constitution reached port the prisoner offload commenced and it is stated that Commodore Bainbridge came to Capt. Lambert and returned his sword telling him, “I return your sword, my dear sir, with the sincere which that you will recover, and wear it as you have hitherto done, with honor to yourself and your country.”Capt. Lambert died on the evening of the 3rd of January 1813.

The battle against the HMS Java proved to be a turning point for the ways the British Navy approached battles at sea. From that point on, British ships were no longer authorized to face American Heavy Frigates one on one. They must face them with squadron size. This is another example of how the American idealism and ingenuity prevailed in the designing and building of the USS Constitution and her five sister ships. In the face of possible defeat, the ship and her crew pulled together and became the successor.

  • CDR Bullard


    “He sent men down to the tiller room, located in the aft end of the berth deck behind the wardroom…” These men were Marines; a great example of America’s sea services cooperating in victory.

    Interesting notes: While the British Admiralty forced an operational change (engaged in squadron strength only), strategically it probably would have had little impact if they had not. We know one British ship captain (P. B. V. Broke) ignored it outright in engaging Chesapeake, and even when they did follow the directive it only paid off 50% of the time (PRESIDENT was capured 4:1, CONSTITUTION later defeated when outnumbered 2:1, though both opposing ships were considerably smaller). The sheer size of the Royal Navy was the factor. Still a great battle, where the “Yankee Tar” finally earned (grudging) respect from the Royal Navy.

    When I took CONSTITUTION out on a turnaround in Summer 2007, I had the absolute honor of having direct descendants of both Commodore Bainbridge and Lieutenant Chads aboard. I have a picture of the three of us together somewhere…

    Great post!

    “Number 70”

  • Jim Valle

    Cdr. Bullard offers a tantalizing little aside concerning the frigate President’s facing four to one odds at the time of her capture. Under the command of Stephen Decatur the President attempted to slip out of New York on a blustry night in December, 1814. Due to a navigational error she struck on Sandy Hook Bar and strained her hull. Shortly thereafter she was chased by a British squadron consisting of three frigates and a ship-of-the-line. Normally a fast sailer, the President could not make her best speed due to her damaged hull and was overtaken by the fastest of the British frigates, HMS Endemiyan, 36. Several broadsides were exchanged before Endemiyan hauled off having sustained considerable damage. By now the President was leaking badly and, with the rest of the British squadron coming up, Decatur decided to strike his flag. President was taken into the British service and sailed for a year before routine drydocking revealed that she had a broken keel. Endemiyan was considerably smaller than the President and if she had been alone the United States Navy would have scored another famous victory.