Hornet and the Peacock, The
DESCRIPTION: "King George says [to the Peacock] 'To America go / The Hornet, the Wasp is the British king's foe.'" However, the Hornet defeats the Peacock: "The Peacock now mortally under her wing / Did feel the full force of the Hornet's sharp sting/"
EARLIEST DATE: 1939 (Eddy-BalladsAndSongsFromOhio)
KEYWORDS: sea battle
1760-1820 - Reign of George III of Britain
1812 - Battle between the U.S.S. Hornet and the H.M.S. Peacock off the coast of South America. The American ship won
FOUND IN: US(MW)
REFERENCES (2 citations):
Eddy-BalladsAndSongsFromOhio 107, "The Peacock that Lived in the Land of King George" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
cf. "The Loss of the Hornet" (songster text about the same ship; Forget-Me-Not-Songster, p. 33; Roud V850)
NOTES [747 words]: What seems to be the most widely distributed text of this ballad runs, "The peacock that lived in the land of King George / His feathers were fine and his tail very large / He spread out his wings like a ship in full sail / And prided himself on the size of his tail... The hornet doth tickle the British bird's tail." Hornet and Wasp were American ships.
The Hornet was an 18-gun sloop with a complement of 144 men. Even before this battle, she had had a busy war; she was one of four ships (President, Congress, Argus, and Hornet) which on June 23 encountered the British Belvidera in the first naval conflict of the war, although the Belvidera escaped the trap (Utt, p. 65-66). Hornet's next voyage had her accompany the famous U.S.S. Constitution, but the two had separate off Bahia, where Captain Bainbridge of the Constitution ordered the Hornet to blockade the British Bonne Citoyenne. The Hornet stood guard from December 13, 1812 to January 24, 1813, but then had to flee when a British ship of the line, the Montagu, showed up (Heidler/Heidler, p. 243). She went out prowling for other prey.
The battle between U.S.S. Hornet and H.M.S. Peacock was strange. The Hornet was commanded by James Lawrence, a brash young officer barely in his thirties. On February 24, 1812, still cruising off Brazil, the 18-gun Hornet spotted H.M.S. Espiegle, another 18-gun ship, off Brazil (Borneman, p. 112).
Before the two ships could engage, another 18-gun brig, H.M.S. Peacock, showed up. Peacock, unlike Espiegle, wanted to fight. It was a bad decision; although nominally equivalent in strength to the Hornet, the American ship's guns were mostly 32-pound carronades (Utt, p. 194), which gave the Hornet a big edge in firepower at short range (although she was almost helpless at long). Plus the Peacock was a spit-and-polish ship, nicknamed "the yacht" becaue her captain William Peake kept her in such fine shape (Utt, pp. 194-196)-- but had neglected to properly train his crew for battle.
Peake apparently did not recognize the difference between discipline and actual training; he clearly thought he had a great ship and crew.The Peacock headed straight for the Hornet (there is a map on pl 195 of Utt, showing both ships approaching almost head-on), and paid for it; Peacock had to strike her colors after only a quarter of an hour, and Peake was killed (Utt, p. 196). And she was so badly damaged that Lawrence quickly abandoned the prize and took off Peacock's crew. (According to Pratt, p. 82, the Peacock sank even before the crew could get off. Mahon, p. 123, notes that the only three Americans who died in the battle were drowned on the Peacock as she sank.)
Through all this, the Espiegle sat behind the bar where she had hidden before the battle. The Hornet had taken some damage to her rigging, and was crowded with men from the Peacock; the Espeigle surely would have had a good shot at winning a single-ship battle -- and of course could have really helped Peacock had she come out earlier. But she didn't come out, and her Captain Taylor was court-martialed. The first court convicted him; a second court could not prove dereliction and so reversed the sentence, but he lost seniority (Utt, p. 197)
Lawrence's reward -- which he felt was overdue -- was a promotion to full captain (Utt, p. 199). That also meant he was due command of a frigate. The frigate he received (Borneman, p. 113) was the ill-fated U.S.S. Chesapeake (for its story, see the notes to "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]).
The Hornet would have one more big adventure in the War of 1812. In 1815, under the command of James Biddle, she was one of a small fleet blockaded in New York, but she and two other ships managed to run the blockade. In a hard battle fought after the war ended, she captured the H. M. S. Penguin, which then was scuttled. (Heidler/Heidler, pp. 243-244).
The Hornet was lost with all hands in 1829, but her success caused several later American ships to carry on her name. The loss of the ship seems to have been commemorated in a song, "The Loss of the Hornet" (Roud V850), found in the Forget-Me-Not Songster, but this does not seem to have made it into tradition.
Colonial-Dames-AmericanWarSongs, pp. 44-45, has another Hornet song, "The 'Hornet,' or Victory," beginning "Rejoice! Rejoice! Fredonia's sons rejoice" (Roud V17245), but I see no hint of it in tradition. - RBW
Last updated in version 6.1
- Borneman; Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Harper Collins, 2006
- Heidler/Heidler: David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, editors, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, 1997 (I use the 2004 Naval Institute Press edition)
- Mahon: John K. Mahon, The War of 1812, 1972 (I used the undated Da Capo paperback edition)
- Paine: Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World: An Historical Encyclopedia, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
- Utt: Ronald D. Utt, Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy, Regnery History, 2012
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