|Capture of USS President|
|Part of the War of 1812|
The Capture of USS President.
|United Kingdom||United States|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Commodore John Hayes||Commodore Stephen Decatur|
|1 razee, HMS Majestic (58), 3 frigates, HMS Endymion (40), HMS Tenedos (38), HMS Pomone (38)||1 frigate, USS President (44)|
|Casualties and losses|
1 frigate damaged|
1 frigate captured|
The capture of USS President was the result of a naval action fought at the end of the War of 1812. The frigate President tried to break out of New York Harbor, but was intercepted by a British squadron of four frigates and was forced to surrender after a battle with HMS Endymion.
At the time of the battle Commodore Stephen Decatur commanded President. In 1812, while in command of the frigate USS United States, he had captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian in a famous action. After his return, the British instituted a strict blockade of the American coast.
In 1813, Decatur tried to break out of New York in United States and USS Macedonian (which had been taken into the United States Navy), but encountered a powerful British squadron which drove him into New London, Connecticut. To lighten the two frigates sufficiently to tow them far enough up-river to be safe from British cutting-out expeditions, they were effectively hulked, or demilitarized.
Decatur tried to break out in United States in early 1814, but turned back when he feared that pro-British local civilians (the so-called Blue light federalists) were burning lights to alert the blockaders. Decatur and the crew of United States were transferred to President, which had been refitted in New York. (The crew of the Macedonian were transferred to the Great Lakes.)
On 13 December 1814, President and some smaller warships (the sloops-of-war USS Peacock and USS Hornet, and the schooner-rigged tender USS Tom Bowline) were in New York Harbor, preparing to break out past the British blockade to embark on cruises against British merchant shipping. The British squadron blockading New York consisted of the former ship of the line Majestic which had been razeed i.e. cut down to a single deck to create a heavy frigate, and the frigates HMS Endymion, HMS Pomone and HMS Tenedos. They were under the overall command of Commodore John Hayes, who was captain of the Majestic.
On 13 January, a blizzard blew up from the north-west. The British ships were blown off their station, to the south-east. Decatur determined to take advantage of the situation by breaking out with President alone. (He may have been accompanied by a merchant brig, also named Macedonian, carrying extra rations as a tender, but the brig does not feature in any subsequent events.) The plan was that the smaller warships would break out later and rendezvous with President off Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic.
Decatur immediately met with disaster. He had ordered harbor pilots to anchor boats to mark the safe passage across the bar at the mouth of the harbor, but they failed to do so properly. President grounded on the bar and remained stuck there for almost two hours, enduring a pounding from the wind and heavy sea. It was claimed that by the time the frigate worked free it was heavily damaged, with some copper had been stripped away from the hull; the masts twisted and some of them "sprung" i.e. had developed long cracks; the hull was also twisted and "hogged" i.e. the bow and stern had sagged. However, no keel or hull damage was found when the ship was surveyed following her capture and return to Britain. Although her accompanying vessels headed for safety, it was impossible for Decatur to return to port as the gale was still blowing and he was forced to put to sea. He headed east, keeping close to the Long Island shore before heading south-east.
Once the gale had abated, the British regrouped. Realizing that American ships might have taken the opportunity to leave port unobserved, Hayes left Tenedos to watch the Sandy Hook passage and headed north to watch the Long Island passage, rather than head back to the harbor entrance. At dawn on 14 January, they sighted President. Decatur immediately turned down-wind and tried to gain speed by lightening his ship by throwing stores and boats overboard and pumping out drinking water, but the damage he had received on the bar had fatally slowed the President.
After Majestic had fired some ranging shots which fell short, Pomone overtook her and led the pursuit but Tenedos appeared unexpectedly to the south and Hayes sent Pomone to investigate. As afternoon wore on, the wind eased to a breeze and Endymion, under Captain Henry Hope, overtook Majestic and overhauled the President.
By late afternoon, Endymion and President were exchanging fire using their bow- and stern-chase cannon respectively. By nightfall, the Endymion had closed to President's quarter, where Decatur could bring no guns to bear. Endymion was a very fast ship and her Captain, Hope, yawed to fire a broadside into President's quarter, before turning again to follow and regain his position. The Long Island shore was too close for Decatur to steer northwards to put the Endymion astern.
After Endymion had repeated this maneuver for the third time, causing considerable loss aboard President, Decatur abruptly turned to starboard to cross Endymion's bows. He had mustered boarding parties in case the British were taken by surprise, but Endymion also turned to starboard and the two ships headed south, exchanging broadsides. Decatur had no time to batter the British vessel into surrender, as the other three British ships would almost certainly be in range before long, so his gunners fired high into Endymion's rigging, seeking to disable her, using chain shot and "dismantling shot" (bars of iron linked by a ring), while the British gunners fired low into the hull of the President. However, the shooting was poor on both sides while it is claimed the President's powder was defective.
At 7.58pm, President struck, hoisting a light in her rigging to signify her surrender. Endymion hove to and commenced repairs to her rigging. Captain Hope was unable to take immediate possession of his prize as he had no boats available that would "swim". Seeing Endymion hove to, Decatur attempted to escape, making sail at 8.30pm and running downwind. Endymion completed her hasty repairs and got under way at 9.05pm. In the meantime both Pomone and Tenedos were closing on President and by 9.05pm, Pomone had caught up, firing two broadsides at President, after which Decatur once again indicated his surrender.
During the whole fight, the President lost 24 men killed (including three of the frigate's lieutenants), and 55 wounded, including Decatur who had been wounded by a splinter. The British lost 11 killed and 14 wounded, all aboard HMS Endymion.
The damaged Endymion and President sailed in company to Bermuda. They encountered a violent storm that dismasted both. However, both reached safety. Official notification of the end of the war came soon afterwards. The British took the President briefly into the Royal Navy as HMS President but broke up the badly battered ship in 1818. They later built a Fourth Rate frigate, which they also named HMS President, as an exact copy of the American vessel.
The British press noted the good conduct of both British and American captains and sailors, though they caused some ill-feeling by claiming that Endymion had defeated President in a straightforward stand-up fight. President had had a crew of 447 and a broadside of 828 pounds against Endymion's crew of 346 and broadside of 664 pounds. In 1847 the British Admiralty authorized the issue to any still surviving crew from Endymion of the Naval General Service Medal with clasp "ENDYMION WH. PRESIDENT".
The British briefly held Decatur and his crew prisoner in Bermuda. After their release, a court martial board acquitted Decatur, his officers and his men of any wrongdoing in the surrender of President. Decatur was quickly appointed to command an American squadron dispatched to the Mediterranean to protect American merchant ships against corsairs. He was later mortally wounded in a duel, the cause of which lay in a pre-war quarrel.
The smaller American ships still in New York sortied before hearing of the capture of the President, and reached the rendezvous off Tristan da Cunha. The Hornet sank the British brig of war HMS Penguin before Peacock joined her. The two American ships then mistook the British ship of the line HMS Cornwallis for an East Indiaman. The Hornet narrowly escaped after jettisoning all her guns and most of her stores. The Peacock subsequently captured several British merchant ships in the Indian Ocean until receiving confirmation that the War had ended.
- List of sailing frigates of the United States Navy
- List of ships captured in the 19th century
- Bibliography of early American naval history
- Forester, p.142
- Military History online article
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- Forester, p.206
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- Forester, p.209
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Stringer & Townsend, New York |Cooper, James Fenimore]] (1856). History of the Navy of the United States of America. OCLC 197401914. http://books.google.com/books?id=WK3mWOlYYNsC.
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G.P. Putnam's sons, New York]. The Naval War of 1812 or The History of the United States Navy during the Last War with Great Britain (3rd ed.). OCLC 133902576. http://books.google.com/books?id=Fb1CAAAAYAAJ.
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