Military Wiki
USS Argus (1803)
Configuration of typical brig
Name: USS Argus
Laid down: 12 May 1803
Launched: 21 August 1803
Fate: Captured, 14 August 1813
General characteristics
Type: Brig
Tonnage: 299

94 ft 6 in (28.80 m) gun-deck

77 ft (23 m) keel
Beam: 28 ft 2 in (8.59 m)
Draft: 12 ft 8 in (3.86 m)
Propulsion: Sail
Complement: 142 officers and enlisted

• 2 × 12-pounder guns
• 16 × 24-pounder carronades

• 2 × 18-pounder guns
• 14 × 32-pounder carronades

USS Argus was a brig in the United States Navy during the First Barbary War and the War of 1812. Her keel was laid down as Merrimack on 12 May 1803 at Boston, Massachusetts, by Edmund Hartt; renamed Argus on 4 June 1803; and launched on 21 August 1803.

First Barbary War

Though no document recording the date of her commissioning has been found, Argus set sail from Boston on 8 September 1803. She put into Newport on the 18th in some unspecified state of distress and remained there for 10 days. The brig returned to sea on the 28th, set a course for the Mediterranean Sea, and arrived at Gibraltar on 1 November. There, her first commanding officer, Lt. Stephen Decatur, relinquished command to Lt. Isaac Hull and assumed command of Hull's former ship, USS Enterprise. She made a brief cruise to the east and then returned to Gibraltar to watch the Moroccans while the rest of Commodore Preble's squadron sailed east to blockade Tripoli. During the early part of 1804, she cruised the western Mediterranean in an unsuccessful search for a Tripolitan cruiser reportedly operating in that area. In March 1804, she received orders to join the rest of the squadron off Tripoli.

Blockade of Tripoli

She arrived at Tripoli in company with USS Constitution and Enterprise on 19 June, but left the blockade late in the month to join a neutral ship at Syracuse and escort her back to Tripoli with supplies for the captive officers and crew of the frigate USS Philadelphia which had been taken by the Tripolitans after she had run aground on an uncharted reef off that port the previous October.

Argus resumed her blockade duties on 7 July. At that point, Preble began preparations for a shore bombardment. Heavy weather, however, postponed the action until early August. On 3 August, the squadron moved in to provide long-range support for the gunboats and mortar boats actually engaged in the bombardment. The bombardment was considerably less damaging to the defensive works protecting Tripoli than hoped for, though the American gunboat crews boarded and carried several of the Tripolitan vessels sent out to engage them. The squadron conducted another ineffectual bombardment of Tripoli on the 7th; and, two days later, Commodore Preble embarked in Argus to reconnoiter Tripoli harbor. During that mission, shore batteries fired upon the brig, and she was struck below the waterline by a single shot. Fortunately, the shot did not pass all the way through her hull; and she remained on station off Tripoli following the attack. On 28 August, the squadron conducted a third bombardment of the defenses of Tripoli in which its guns inflicted severe damage. A week later, on the night of 4 September, Argus was among the ships that escorted the ill-fated fire ship USS Intrepid to the entrance of Tripoli harbor. When Intrepid blew up prematurely, Argus remained there to pick up survivors, but none had appeared by sunrise when she mournfully returned to her blockade station.

Battle of Derna

Through the winter of 1804 and 1805, the brig alternated between blockade duty off Tripoli and periods in port at Malta and Syracuse. In the spring of 1805, Argus participated in one of the more celebrated episodes of American naval history, the capture of Derna. During the preceding months, she had made several voyages to Egypt in support of Consul Eaton's efforts to raise a force of men to take Derna in conjunction with the deposed pasha. After a march of over 600 miles (970 km) across the desert in what is now known as Libya, the polyglot army — there were only 10 Americans in the whole force — arrived at Derna on 25 April 1805. Argus had met the army a day or two earlier at the Bay of Bomba to provide provisions. Now, she made preparations to provide bombardment assistance for the landward assault.

The "American" force launched its attack on 27 April. Argus and USS Nautilus anchored about half a mile (800 m) to the eastward of the fortifications. The Tripolitans opened fire almost immediately upon Argus and upon USS Hornet, anchored quite a bit nearer than her two consorts. By 2:45 that afternoon, gunfire from the ships silenced all of the guns in the city. A desperate charge led by Lt. Presley O'Bannon, USMC, managed to carry the gun batteries by storm and breathed new life into the assault. After hoisting the American flag over the battlements, he ordered the already loaded captured guns to be turned on the town. By 4:00 that afternoon, the entire town had fallen to Eaton's army, and the enemy fled to the hinterland. The capture of Derna has been immortalized in the words of the Marines' Hymn, "... to the shores of Tripoli."

Eaton's mixed force held the town until almost the middle of June. However, after Eaton's and O'Bannon's victory, a Tripolitan army, which had been sent to reinforce the town, arrived and began preparations to retake Derna. There, Argus remained offshore to provide gunfire support in the defense of the town throughout the occupation of Derna. When the Tripolitans finally assaulted the town on 13 May, Argus joined in the fray and enabled the defensive forces narrowly to beat back the charging enemy troops. Argus guns wreaked havoc among the enemy forces during their headlong retreat. Between that time and early June, the Tripolitans made a few more half-hearted approaches during which Argus long 12-pounders (5 kg) came into play. However, things remained relatively quiet, for negotiations with the pasha in power were already underway. On 11 June, orders arrived to evacuate Derna as negotiations had been concluded. The troops and the deposed pasha were embarked in Constellation that evening, and the American ships quit the area.

Argus continued to cruise the Mediterranean until the summer of 1806. She returned to the United States at the Washington Navy Yard on 13 July and was laid up there in ordinary until 1807. At that time, she was fitted out at the Washington Navy Yard and began a series of cruises along the Atlantic coast of the United States to enforce Jefferson's Embargo. Those cruises lasted into 1813 after America's entry into war against Britain. During one cruise between 8 October 1812 and 3 January 1813, she captured six valuable prizes and eluded an entire British squadron during a three-day stern chase. Through clever handling, she even managed to take one of the prizes as she was fleeing from the overwhelmingly superior English force.

War of 1812

The capture of USS Argus occurred during the War of 1812. The brig USS Argus had been audaciously raiding British merchant shipping in British home waters for a month, when intercepted by the heavier British Cruizer class brig-sloop Pelican. After a sharp fight during which Argus's captain, Master Commandant William Henry Allen was mortally wounded, Argus surrendered when the crew of the Pelican were about to board.


The Argus had broken out of New York Harbor on 18 June 1813, eluding the British blockade. The mission was not warlike to begin with; it was to deliver William H. Crawford to his post as Minister to the First French Empire. The Argus arrived at Lorient in Brittany on 11 July, disembarked Crawford and put out to sea again three days later to begin raiding British shipping in the English Channel and Irish Sea. During the next month, Argus captured nineteen ships. Rather than weaken his crew by sending the captured ships to American, French or neutral ports under prize crews, Allen set most of the captured ships on fire. The intense operations exhausted the crew of the Argus.[1]

The shipping losses soon caused insurance rates for merchant shipping to be greatly increased. The Admiralty sent orders to all available ships to hunt down the Argus. Pelican had just arrived in Cork in Ireland, having escorted a convoy from the West Indies, and immediately put to sea again on 10 August. Pelican's captain was Commander John Fordyce Maple, an officer who had joined the Royal Navy aged twelve years old in 1782, two years before William Henry Allen was born.[2]

On 13 August, the Argus took two final prizes. One of them was from Oporto in Portugal and was carrying wine. It is suggested by both American[1] and British[3] historians that the crew of the Argus looted some of the cargo, and that their debauched state affected their performance during the coming battle. As with the Argus's previous captures, the prize was set on fire, but Pelican was near enough to sight the smoke from the burning vessel, and make for it.

Battle and capture

At 5 a.m. on the morning of 14 August, the Argus and Pelican sighted each other 5 leagues (about 15 miles) west of St. David's Head. The Argus was the faster but more lightly armed vessel (with eighteen 24-pounder carronades and a 12-pounder chase gun, against the Pelican's sixteen 32-pounder carronades, and one 12-pounder long gun and two 6-pounder long guns)[4] and Allen could have escaped. Instead, he accepted battle. The wind was from the south, giving the Pelican the advantage of the windward position. Allen sailed westward on the starboard tack (i.e. with the wind to port) and opposed his port side battery to the Pelican's starboard battery.[1]

Four minutes after the first broadsides were fired, Allen lost a leg. His First Lieutenant was also badly wounded, and the Argus's rigging was badly cut up. The Pelican tried to cross the Argus's stern to deliver raking fire but the Argus's Second Lieutenant, William Howard Allen (not related to the commander), threw his sails aback to slow the American brig and instead raked the Pelican.[1] This did not fatally cripple the British vessel, and the two brigs continued to exchange broadsides, with the Pelican now to leeward. After four more minutes, the rigging of the Argus was too badly damaged for the Americans to prevent the Pelican from crossing the stern of the Argus and delivering several raking broadsides.

Finally, three quarters of an hour after the action began, the two vessels came into contact, with the bow of the Argus against the quarter of the Pelican. As British boarding parties mustered but before they could board the Argus, the Americans surrendered.


The Pelican and Argus went in to Plymouth. Allen died there of his wounds a week after the battle. He was buried with full military honours. The rest of the crew, including sailing master Uriah P. Levy, was taken prisoner and held in England for the duration of the war.

Unusually for the War of 1812, the American gunnery in this engagement was comparatively ineffective (although Pelican's sides were "filled with grapeshot" and two carronades had been dismounted).[4] British gunnery was "at least of the standard which had brought victory in a hundred victories against the French.[5] Allen's decision to accept battle against a heavier opponent stemmed from confidence gained while he was the First Lieutenant of the USS United States at the time she captured HMS Macedonian. Following promotion he had said that he could "take any British 22 gun sloop of war in ten minutes."[6]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Roosevelt, 1882 p.114
  2. Dye, 1994 p.150
  3. Forester, 1956 p.134
  4. 4.0 4.1 Roosevelt, 1882 p.115
  5. Forester, 1956 p.135
  6. James (1824), vol.6, p. 221.


  • Smith, Joshua M. "'So Far Distant from the Eyes of Authority': Jefferson's Embargo and the U.S. Navy, 1807-1809," in William B. Cogar, ed. New Interpretations in Naval History: Selected Papers from the Twelfth Naval History Symposium (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1997), 123-138.
  • Dye, Ira (1994). The Fatal Cruise of the Argus: Two Captains in the War of 1812. ISBN 1-55750-175-0. , Book
  •    (2006
    University Press of Florida,). Uriah Levy: Reformer of the Antebellum Navy. pp. 299,. ISBN 0-8130-3004-8.
  • Forester, Cecil Scott. The Age of Fighting Sail: the story of the naval War of 1812. pp. 296. ISBN 0-939218-06-2. , Book
  • [[William James (naval historian)
    Richard Bentley, London, |James, William]] (1837). The naval history of Great Britain, 1793 - 1827...Volume 6. pp. 586.
     , E'Book

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