Constitution’s “Trojan Horse”
Of all the “forgotten wars” in the history of the United States, the undeclared Quasi-War with France (1797-1801) likely ranks at the top of the list. A sea war, the young United States put its untested, brand-new war ships into the Caribbean to protect American merchant shipping from the depredations of French privateers. USS Constitution, commanded by Captain Silas Talbot and first Lieutenant Isaac Hull, sailed for the West Indies in September, 1799. April 1800, found Talbot sailing Constitution near Puerto Plata harbor, observing the British Sandwich, now a French letter of marquee, loading. Talbot aimed to capture the vessel and prevent her cargo from going to France. Constitution was too big to enter the harbor but the lucky capture of the Sally, an illegal American trader, gave Talbot the “Trojan horse” he needed to cut-out the Sandwich.
On May 10th, LT Hull took command of the Sally and sailed with Marine Captain Carmick and Lieutenant Amory and about 90 men. At noon the next day, Hull and crew – a few were on deck, disguised as common sailors (as was Hull), the rest, crammed below awaiting their orders to attack – approached the Sandwich. Laying the Sally’s starboard bow alongside, Hull let go the anchor and gave the order to board. According to Capt. Carmick, the crew “went on board like devils, and it was as much as the first lieutenant and myself could do to prevent blood being spilt.” Capt. Talbot of Constitution commended all involved: “They ran alongside the ship, and boarded her, sword in hand, without the loss of a man…At the moment the ship was boarded, Agreeably to my plan, captain Carmick and lieutenant Amory landed with the marines, up to their necks in water, and spiked all the cannon in the fort, before the commanding officer had time to recollect and prepare himself for defence.” The land and sea action was carried off in 30 minutes. By that evening, the Sandwich, which had been down-rigged, was re-rigged and ready to sail from the harbor.
Unfortunately, the Sandwich was later deemed an unlawful prize for Constitution as she had been taken in the neutral Spanish harbor of Puerto Plata. But it was not a total loss – two important events had occurred with the expedition. The cutting out of the Sandwich was the earliest land/sea joint operation between the new United States Navy and the newly re-established United States Marine Corps. This campaign, although of short duration, would set the stage for the next 200+ years for highly efficient and successful joint operations of the Navy and Marines all over the world. Capturing the Sandwich was also considered by Isaac Hull, in his long and successful Navy career, to be his first glorious adventure. He had succeeded in replicating his father’s exploit in the American Revolution – to board and capture an armed vessel. He was so proud of this achievement that he had Capt. Talbot’s commendatory letter printed into broadside format and when, later in life, someone asked for a souvenir or biographical information, Hull provided a copy of the broadside. He also had the moment captured on canvas by the esteemed Boston painter, Robert Salmon in the oil “Cutting out of the privateer Sandwich at Puerto Plata, 11 May 1800”, which today hangs in the Boston Athenaeum.