Aug 14

Today in Naval History: The Capture of the U.S. Brig Argus by H.M Brig Pelican

Tuesday, August 14, 2018 10:15 AM


Two hundred and five years ago today, on 14 August 1813, the U.S. Brig Argus, under command of Captain William H. Allen, fought her final battle with the HMS Pelican off the coast of England during the War of 1812. During the early-morning battle, Allen’s right leg was shot off, but he remained on station until fainting from a loss of blood. As Pelican‘s men boarded, Argus struck her colors. Allen died four days later.

Writing about the incident in the May 1939 issue of Proceedings, Prof. Wilbur E. Apgar gave a thorough summary of the events. His summary is excerpted here.

The amazing lack of concern on the part of the British for the outcome of the War of 1812 with the United States is often noted in the literature of England at the time. For instance, we find in Brenton’s work The Naval History of Great Britain (published in London in 1837), which covers the years 1783-1836, a total of 65 chapters, yet only three deal with the American conflict! The London Times daily devoted two, three, or more pages to the war with Napoleon which was then raging on the continent, while the far distant struggle in America and the infrequent duels on the sea rated but a small fraction of one column.

From this preoccupation with European affairs the English people were suddenly awakened in the summer of 1813 by the appearance in the English Channel of an American brig seemingly bent on sinking or burning every carrier of British commerce. This took place a century and a quarter ago this summer, yet only recently has come to light material which makes possible a more accurate account than has hitherto been available.

The Argus, in 1813, carried as captain, William Henry Allen, who had lived through most of our early naval history.[1] Entered as midshipman in 1800, he had served as sailing master and third lieutenant in the Mediterranean wars with the pirates. His was the most dramatic role in the Chesapeake-Leopard affair in 1807.[2] As Decatur’s first in the frigate United States, he won distinction for the excellence of his gunnery. He had served on most of the famous old vessels which formed our early navy. These were the George WashingtonPhiladelphiaJohn AdamsConstitutionChesapeakeUnited States, and lastly the brig Argus which has as just a claim to renown as any of the larger frigates. . . .

Brig Argus Sketch

Pen and ink sketch of the U.S. Brig Argus, James Lawrence Esqr. Commander 1st April 1811 (NHHC Photo)

For several days adverse winds prevented the Argus from getting to sea, but the ambassador kept busy by acquainting himself with Fulton’s latest invention, which was to make possible the firing of a cannon under water! Probably the inventor was glad to make use of the opportunity to interest such a well-known person in his scheme.

There arrived, however, the sailing orders for the Argus, and at last on June 18 the ship was unmoored and allowed to sail out of the Narrows aided by the tide. Here they were becalmed for a few hours, during which the passenger ate the last meal he was really to enjoy until he set foot on French soil! Then there sprang up a fresh breeze and the Argus was off on one of the most remarkable single-handed exploits in our naval history.

The sailing orders from the Department, dated June 5, 1813, certainly contained a large order for that portion of the cruise following the safe delivery of Mr. Crawford at a port in France. This is, in part, what the captain read:[5]

In whatever way you may effect the first object of your destination, you will then proceed upon a cruise against the commerce and light cruisers of the enemy, which you will capture and destroy in all cases; unless their value and qualities shall render it morally certain that they may reach a a safe and not distant port. Indeed, in the present state of the enemy’s force, there are very few cases that would justify the manning of a prize; because the chance of reaching a safe port are infinitely against the attempt, and weakening the crew of the Argus might expose you to an unequal contest with the enemy.

It is exceedingly desirable that the enemy should be made to feel the effects of our hostility, and of his barbarous system of warfare; and in no way can we so effectually accomplish that object, as by annoying and destroying his commerce, fisheries, and coasting trade. The latter is of the utmost importance, and is much more exposed to the attack of such a vessel as the Argus than is generally understood. This would carry the war home directly to their feelings and interests, and produce an astonishing sensation.

The results of the cruise justified the Secretary of the Navy in all of the above suppositions, with the exception that instead of carrying to the British people a barbarous type of warfare, Captain Allen exhibited the highest ideals and the best sportsmanship toward all the noncombatants. For this he was and still is honored in England, even more than in his own country.

. . . .

The actual number of captures made by the Argus between July 23 and the end of her career on August 14 is most difficult to determine. No one list is complete. English and American historians differ as usual. Even Lloyds’ lists are incomplete and in questionable order due to the slowness with which news traveled. The nearest we can come to a complete story is by accepting the notations in the journals of the surgeon of the Argus, Dr. James Inderwick. The existence of these journals has been known for but a comparatively short time. One is in the possession of the New York Public Library[8] and the other two are in the collection of Mr. Paul C. Nicholson, of Providence, Rhode Island.

. . . .

August 1 found the Argus in an extremely dangerous situation yet one touched with a bit of comedy. On that day the brig entered the River Shannon shortly after sighting the first lighthouse on Loop Head. Captain Allen had penetrated 9 or 10 miles into Ireland when he[11] “Brought too a brig called the Fowey from Limirick to Portsmouth with Pork for the Government.” The brig was set afire with the Argus remaining near, but on-shore winds carried the burning vessel into the breakers and beached her. Dr. Inderwick mentions that the shore was lined with inhabitants, but what he could not see was the extinguishing of the flames by the excited Irishmen and the feasts which ensued as the remains of the 200 tierces and 138 barrels of pork were spirited into the homes of the neighborhood. The English papers rather dryly suggest that the good people of Ireland aided the American in keeping the government from receiving that particular shipment of good meat!

That evening the safety of the open seas was sought, but the type of activity we have just described is highly reminiscent of the work of John Paul Jones, and the similarity has often been remarked by naval historians.

. . .

At last on Monday, August 9, the raiders learned that the British were so alarmed that all possible means were being employed in order to effect their capture. They learned of this through the capture of two vessels and the speaking of a third which had just put out from Cork two days before. The London Times was not able to publish an account of the incident until the 18th. Then it was stated[14] that the ship Barbados and the brig Alliance, Cork to Limerick, had sailed with the Russian ship Jason, in company with others for their destination. Sunday some of the vessels put into Kinsale, but the three named continued on, to meet the Argus as we have seen. Naturally the Jason was allowed to proceed, but the other two being government vessels were destroyed, at about ten at night.

The Argus had now entered on the last full week of her career. How it was to end we hope none of that brave crew could foresee, but they did learn from the crews of the last two captures that the hornet’s nest they were stirring up was at last beginning to buzz. A sloop named the Jalouse, carrying twenty-two 32-pounders, had been sent out from Cork five days before with orders to end the depredations of the American. She was not destined to carry out these orders, but another would.

The crew of the Argus may have thought that they had worked hard before in their lives, but for the next few days they would have need for the greatest endurance possible for human beings. In addition to the added activity which more rapid captures necessitated was the burden of more English crews on board. Surgeon Inderwick states at this time that they were[15] “Much incommoded with Prisoners.” To meet the overcrowding, a ship was needed which could be used as a cartel. This was acquired the next day, but under circumstances which might well have ended the cruise right then and there.

. . . .

August 11 found the lone raider busy with the greatest accomplishment of her entire history. On this day just six prizes were made! This is a record which this writer has been unable to find duplicated by any ship of any class during the entire War of 1812! On the 10th the presence of the great Antigua Fleet was mentioned, and it was in part of this that the Argus operated so successfully on Wednesday the 11th.

Kimball Argus Burning commerce

Argus burning British ships. From The naval battles of the United States in the different wars with foreign nations by Horace Kimball, 1857.

. . .

The last day of the Argus’ career as a raider was Friday, August 13. Three prizes were taken that day;[21] the Baltic, a large brig, one of the West Indies fleet, laden with sugar and bound for Dublin; a sloop laden with deal boards; and lastly the Belford. The Baltic and the Defiance were burned during the morning, while the sloop’s cargo was thrown overboard to make use of her as a cartel. She was sent away with the prisoners, apparently at about the same time that the Belford was captured.

The last of the above-named prizes brought to an end the work of the daring American, but what a climax! The Belford was bound from Dublin to London laden with a precious cargo of linens. In England the value set on the 16,500 pieces on board was 100,000 pounds, but in the United States her cargo would have brought so much more, that $1,000,000 was set as her real worth. Around midnight she was burned, and it was these flames that enabled H.M. Pelican brig to locate the American marauder after which she had been sent.

Capture of U.S. Brig Argus, Commander William H. Allen, by H.M. Brig Pelican, Commander John F. Maples, 14 August 1813

Capture of U.S. Brig Argus, Commander William H. Allen, by H.M. Brig Pelican, Commander John F. Maples, 14 August 1813 (NHHC Photo)

The engagement between the Argus and the Pelican is too well known to warrant a detailed account here. As Captain Allen’s life ended with that of his ship, the concise account of Captain Maples of the Pelican follows:[22]

I saw a vessel on fire, and a brig standing from her, which I soon made out to be a cruiser. Made all sail in chase, and at half past five [a.m.] came alongside of her—she having shortened sail and made herself clear for an obstinate resistance—when, after giving her three cheers, our action commenced, which was kept up with great spirit on both sides forty-three minutes, when we lay her alongside, and were in the act of boarding when she struck her colors.

The most logical reason for the British success seems to be the loss of the commander of the Argus at the end of the first five minutes of fighting. His left leg was shattered, but he was only persuaded to leave his post when he became faint from loss of blood. Lieutenant Watson took command, only to be carried below unconscious soon after from the effect of a grazing blow on the head by grape shot. Thus command fell to Second Lieutenant William Howard Allen [of no relation to Captain Allen] who carried on the fight until Lieutenant Watson regained consciousness and returned to the deck.

For many years the most credited reason for the loss of the Argus was taken to be the fact that quantities of captured wine had been smuggled aboard from a prize, and when the action took place the crew were in no condition to fight. This story was accepted by James Fenimore Cooper[23] and also by Theodore Roosevelt.[24] Use of more recently discovered material had tended to reduce the emphasis on this unsavory explanation of defeat. In his recent history Captain Knox makes no mention of it,[25] neither did Mahan.[26]

Despite this all historians agree that the gunnery should have been better on a ship commanded by the officer so highly commended for his excellent gunnery on the United States frigate in the capture of the Macedonian. When the number of captures described above is taken into consideration it would then appear that fatigue must have played a large part in reducing the efficiency of the crew. But whatever the cause the result remains that both the famous little brig and her brave commander were lost, for Captain Allen died four days later in Mill Prison Hospital, Plymouth, whence the Argus had been sent under a prize crew.

Despite the loss to our Navy Mahan sums it up in this manner:[27]

From the broad outlook of the universal maritime situation, this rapid succession of captures is a matter of more significance than the loss of a single brig of war. It showed the vulnerable point of British trade and local intercommunication.

British home commerce had been attacked where it could be least defended, and since this was before the period of the railroad the importance of this coasting trade was much greater than it is today.

Commander William H. Allen, USN.

Commander William H. Allen, USN (NHHC Photo)

Soon after Allen’s death the following polished compliment was published in the London Naval Chronicle,[28]

Throughout [August 14-18] he bore his suffering with that manly, determined fortitude and composure which might be expected of a brave and gallant officer, and never once complained of pain; but his mind constantly dwelt on the loss of his ship, which he regretted in the most feeling and manly manner. In person he was about six feet high, a model of symmetry and manly comeliness, and in his manner and conversation a highly finished and accomplished gentleman.

But one more act could be performed by the generous captors—burial with full naval honors. This was so graciously done that an uninformed visitor would have found it difficult to tell which nationality was being mourned. It was, therefore, just seven days after the encounter that the funeral procession moved slowly away from Mill Prison Hospital toward St. Andrew’s Church. It consisted of two companies of royal marines, with their band, the officers and crew of the Argus, eight captains of the Royal Navy as pallbearers, together with other officers and a retinue of townspeople.

The coffin was covered with a velvet pall, upon which was laid the ensign under which the action had been fought together with the hat and sword of the late captain. The service was read by the vicar in the church, following which was burial in the old churchyard beside the body of Midshipman Delphy who had preceded his commander in death the day before.

It was here that the citizens of 1813 placed the two young Americans, not far from the resting place of Admiral Blake’s heart, and amid the memorials of British sailors of all the centuries.[29]

The original monument erected to Allen by the townspeople of Plymouth 125 years ago may still be seen as part of the doorway of the old Prysten House. This commemorative doorway, which was restored by the U. S. Daughters of 1812 and dedicated with an elaborate ceremony on Memorial Day, 1930, bears this significant name, “The Door of Unity.”

[1] A biographical sketch of Allen appeared in The Portfolio, Third Series, Vol. 3, No. 1, January, 1814.

[2] United States Naval Institute Proceedings, August, 1937, pp. 1150-61.

[5] American State Papers—Naval Affairs, I, 375.

[8] Edited and published in the New York Library Bulletin, by V. H. Paltsits, under the title, “Cruise of the U. S. Brig Argus in 1813.”

[14] London Times, August 18, 1813.

[15] Inderwick Journal, August 9.

[21] Ibid., August 13.

[22] London Naval Chronicle, London, 1813, Vol. 30, p. 246.

[23] Cooper, J. F., History of the Navy of the United States, London, 1839; II, 309.

[24] Roosevelt, Theo., The Naval War of 1812, I, 256.

[25] Knox, Capt. D. W., A History of the U. S. Navy, N. Y. 1936, p. 100.

[26] Mahan, Capt. A. T., Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, II, 216-220.

[27] Ibid.

[28] The Naval Chronicle, London, 1813, Vol. 30, p. 181.

[29] The London Times, May 27, 1930.

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