Mar 23

USS Hornet Captures HMS Penguin, 23 March 1815

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 12:01 AM


Though the United States had ratified the 24 December 1814 Treaty of Ghent on 18 February 1815, thus formally bringing the War of 1812 to an end, this information took a long time to reach ships at sea. Thus, in the late morning of 23 March 1815, when the U.S. sloop-of- war Hornet, under Master Commandant James Biddle, sighted the British brig-sloop Penguin (of similar size and force) off Tristan d’Acunha island in the south Atlantic, neither vessel was aware that their two nations were now at peace.

The two sloops approached each other on roughly parallel courses, Penguin to windward, and opened fire at about 1:40 p.m. They exchanged broadsides (Hornet firing to starboard, Penguin to port) for some fifteen minutes when the British commanding officer was mortally wounded while attempting to run down his adversary. Penguin’s bowsprit then caught in Hornet’s rigging and, as the two separated, broke away, taking with it her foremast. Disabled and very much the worse off from American gunfire, the British warship surrendered shortly after 2 p.m. She was too badly damaged to save, and her crew was sent to Rio de Janeiro in the U.S. schooner Tom Bowline, which arrived on the scene in company with U.S. sloop-of-war Peacock soon after the battle.

Hornet and Peacock remained in the vicinity for about three more weeks, then sailed for the East Indies, still unaware that the war was over. While en route on 27 April they sighted HMS Cornwallis, a 74-gun ship of the line, and mistook her for an East Indiaman. A long chase ensued when they discovered their error. By skillful seamanship, assisted by the British ship’s poor gunnery, the two Americans escaped. However, Hornet had thrown overboard her spare spars, boats, nearly all of her guns and ammunition, and other equipment and supplies to gain speed. She thus was obliged to return to the U.S., arriving at New York on 9 June 1815.

  • Jim Valle

    The Hornet and her commander were indeed lucky. No less than five small American warships were forced to surrender after being outsailed by heavier British men-of-war during the War of 1812. These included the Viper(12), the Vixen(14), the Rattlesnake (14),The Frolic(22) and the Syren(16). Virtually all of these vessels had been run to ground after throwing guns, spars, and stores overboard. None of the commanding officers was penalized as they were judged to have done everything in their power to save their vessels and to have acted with coolness and composure in the face of the enemy.

  • Ronald Rowe

    My g.g.grandfather was a member of HMS PENGUIN crew, returned to Cornwall, England where the surviving crew were court martialled. All concerned were acquitted and no charges pursued. I would like to know what happened to the crew after they were taken prisoner, their stay in Rio de Janeiro and their return to England. Does anybody know the whereabouts of any records or accounts? It all makes for a very romantic story.