Constitution and the Guerriere, The [Laws A6]
DESCRIPTION: Captain Dacres of the Guerriere expects to defeat the Americans as easily as Britain has defeated the French. Captain [Isaac] Hull's Constitution, however, easily defeats the British ship
EARLIEST DATE: 1813 (LOCEphemera rbpe 1130150a)
KEYWORDS: sea war battle ship
Aug 19, 1812 - the 44-gun Constitution defeats and captures the 38-gun Guerriere
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MA,MW) Britain(Scotland(Aber))
REFERENCES (19 citations):
Laws A6, "The Constitution and the Guerriere"
Thompson-Pioneer 49, "Constitution and Guerriere" (1 text)
Colcord, pp. 130-132, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text, 1 tune)
Harlow, pp. 184-186, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text, 1 tune)
GreigDuncan1 43, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (2 texts)
Friedman, p. 291, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text)
Scott-BoA, pp. 108-110, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-ABFS, pp. 507-509, "Constitution and Guerriere" (1 text, 1 tune)
Lomax-FSNA 21, "Yankee Doodle Dandy-O" (1 text, 1 tune)
Botkin-NEFolklr, pp. 544-546, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text, 1 tune)
Shay-SeaSongs, pp. 161-164, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text, 1 tune)
JHCox 60, "The Constitution and the Guerriere (Hull's Victory)" (1 text)
Boswell/Wolfe 30, pp. 54-55, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
Stout 75, pp. 97-98, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text)
Darling-NAS, pp. 159-161, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text)
Silber-FSWB, p. 286, "The Constitution and Guerriere" (1 text)
DT 362, CONSTGUR*
ADDITIONAL: Alfred M. Williams, _Studies in Folk-Song and Popular Poetry_, Houghton Mifflin, 1894, pp. 21-23, "The Constitution and the Guerriere" (1 text)
C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 309. "The Constitution and Guerriere" (1 text)
Warde Ford, "Proud Dacus and Captain Hull (Captain Hull and proud Dacus)" [fragment] (AFS 4202 A4, 1938; tr.; in AMMEM/Cowell)
LOCEphemera, rbpe 1130150a [some words illegible], "The Constitution and Guerriere" ("We often have been told"), John Lane (New York), 1813; also rbpe 22802500, "The Constitution and Guerriere" ("It ofttimes has been told")
LOCSinging, as102370, "Constitution and Guerriere" ("I often have been told, that the British seamen bold"), L. Deming (Boston), no date
cf. "The Constitution and the Guerriere (II)" (subject)
cf. "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20]
cf. "Iron Merrimac" (subject)
cf. "Yankee Tars" (subject)
Lo a Frigate
NOTES: Despite the alternate title "Yankee Doodle Dandy-O," this is obviously not to be confused with "Yankee Doodle." The tune is, in fact, related to "The Bonnie Lass of Fyvie-O (Pretty Peggy)"; some copies call it "The Landlady of France"; Williams says that "It is set to a very lively and emphatic air, called, indifferently, The Landlady of France and The Bandy-Legged Officer, from the coarsely comical words which George Colman the younger had written to it." [LOCEphemera rbpe 1130150a and rbpe 2280250 have the tune as "Landlady of France" - BS]
The United States declared war on Britain in 1812 due to British behavior at sea (impressing seamen off American ships -- for which see e.g. "The Chesapeake and the Shannon (I)" [Laws J20] -- and stopping American ships bound for the continent, among other things). Under ordinary circumstances, the Americans could not hope to beat Britain -- but, just as in the Revolutionary War, Britain had other things on its mind. In this case, Napoleon. Most of the British navy had to stay near France to combat the possibility of invasion. As a result, the Americans decided to send out their tiny navy -- only five frigates, though they were high-quality ships, and some smaller vessels -- to protect their merchant ships against such British ships as were operating out of Halifax and Newfoundland. In the end, most of the American fleet would end up bottled up in port.
Before that could happen, though, the Constitution went out commerce-raiding (July 12, 1812). It very nearly ended up being a short trip. Despite their preoccupation with France, the British had one significant task force in the Americas, built about the ship of the line H.M.S. Africa (Bormenam, p. 81; Hickey, pp. 93-94). That fleet came upon Constitution, but the wind died before they could engage, and the Constitution managed to get away by kedging her anchor plus putting as many men as possible in longboats to row her away (Fitz-Enz, pp. 11-14). Constitution made it to Boston, then set out again (Borneman, p. 84; Fitz-Enz, p. 14, comments on their survival against Africa, "Having outsailed or, to put it bluntly, outrowed the enemy, Captain Hull and his men were looking for a fight"). She then met the Guerriere, one of the ships from the Africa fleet now operating on her own.
The Guerriere freely went into battle with the Constitution, apparently in the belief that the Americans didn't know how to handle ships. Her Captain Dacres was even more aggressive than most (Fitz-Enz, p. 19). This was a bad move. Although the Constitution had only slightly more guns, it was a much better-built ship, and had been rebuilt just before hostilities had begun (Fitz-Enz, p. , and its weight of broadside was significantly larger; few frigates had long guns (that is, guns capable of firing a ball over long distances) heavier than an 18-pounder, but the Constitution had many 24-pounders -- a weight typical of ships of the line (Pratt,pp. 8, 36). Paine, p. 120, says, the Constitution initially had fully 30 of these ship-killers and 20 32-pounders carronades -- short-range guns designed to kill people more than ships No wonder some charged that the ship was really a ship of the line!). According to Mahon, p. 57, the Constitution had a broadside of 684 pounds, the British of 556 -- and the American ship had 456 crew to 272 on the British frigate. The British sailors probably were more experienced -- but they simply weren't very numerous.
The American ship-handling was in fact imperfect (Borneman, p. 86), which meant that the two ships actually came in contact for a time, but the Guerriere was quickly dismasted; eventually she surrendered and proved so badly damaged that she had to be burned (Fitz-Enz, p. 23).
Supposedly Dacres and Hull remained friends for the rest of their lives, because Hull had arranged for his men to rescue Dacres's prize Bible, a family heirloom (Fitz-Enz, p. 23) .
The Constitution would win additional battles in the War of 1812, but this was the only victory for skipper Isaac Hull (1773-1843), who afterward requested and was given a shore command (Mahon, p. 59).
The ""Captain Hull" of the Warde Ford version is of course the aforementioned Isaac Hull (1773-1843), who commanded the Constitution during the battle. "Dacus" is James R. Dacres (1788-1853), the commander of the Guerriere. Lest he be thought incompetent, it should be noted that he obtained command at a very young age, and would later in the war capture the Leo. He was really more of a "test case" for the British belief that their seamanship (so demonstrated at Trafalgar) made them inherently better than the Americans. Though he would later blame his defeat on the fact that his vessel was an inferior ship captured from the French (Borneman, p. 88).
The "super frigates" did cause a significant reaction on the British side; in addition to the Constitution, the ship United States had easily dealt with the Macedonian (Hickey, pp. 94-96). The British questioned whether the American ships could really be called frigates rather than ships of the line (Hickey, p. 98), and caused the British to design heavy frigates of their own and to order their frigates to avoid American frigates if possible (Hickey, pp. 99). They also gave their light frigates orders to stay out of one-on-one engagements (Mahon, p. 59).
It's fortunate for the Americans that their ships were successful, because they weren't cheap. According to Heidler/Heidler, p. 196, the Constitution's "final price of $302,718.84 represented a 260 percent cost overrun from original appropriations."
The victory was very important in American politics. To that point, the Americans had done very badly in the war, being utterly defeated on the Canadian front (see, e.g., "Brave General Brock" [Laws A22] and "The Battle of Queenston Heights"). The Constitution's victory, while of no real significance, is credited with helping President James Madison to re-election in November 1812. It was a very close thing; had Pennsylvania gone for De Witt Clinton, Madison would have been turned out of office, and there was genuine concern that he *would* lose there (Hickey, p. 105)
It has several times been stated that this song goes back to an 1812 broadside. I suspect, however, that that may be a reference to this piece, and at one time I listed 1812 as the earliest date for this song. But the only prints of that period which I have located are in fact copies of "The Constitution and Guerriere (II)." I have therefore changed the date to the earliest instance which I am sure is this ballad.. - RBW
Last updated in version 3.2
- Borneman; Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Harper Collins, 2006
- Fitz-Enz: Colonel David Fitz-Enz, Hacks, Sycophants, Adventurers, & Heroes: Madison's Commanders in the War of 1812, Taylor, 2012
- 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)
- Hickey: Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, University of Illinois Press, 1989, 1995
- 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, Houghton Mifflin, 1997
- Pratt: Fletcher Pratt, A Compact History of the United States Navy, third edition revised by Hartley E. Howe, Hawthorn Books, 1967
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