The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 7: September 2007


“Old Ironsides” On The Lakes

By Commander Tyrone G. Martin, U. S. Navy (Retired)

(with research provided by Dr. Gary M. Gibson)

The War of 1812 was eight months old when USS Constitution arrived in Boston in late February 1813.  In those months, she had made two war cruises during which she narrowly eluded pursuit by a British squadron and defeated two Royal Navy frigates in single ship actions.  Congress had awarded her captains, Isaac Hull and William Bainbridge, gold medals and the crew had received $100,000 in prize money.  It was a heady time.

Amidst the celebrations, “Old Ironsides’” tars – for thus was she now addressed – learned that growing activity had been taking place on the Great Lakes.  Commodore Isaac Chauncey had been sent in September to Lake Ontario from his post in New York to establish, by new construction and conversion, a naval force on that body of water.  To arm it and provision it, the New York Navy Yard and the ships there were virtually stripped clean.  On 5 March 1813, looking ahead to the opening of the lakes after winter’s freeze, Chauncey reported to Navy Secretary William Jones that he would need 300 sailors and 200 Marines to man his squadron fully.  In the coming sailing season, he expected to establish control of Lake Ontario, and then move on to repeat the process on Lake Erie.  Jones altered the Commodore’s plan by ordering Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry from Newport, Rhode Island, to report to Chauncey, as theater naval commander, and then take charge on Lake Erie.  The resources at Newport furnished only 100 men with which to man the second squadron.

In response to Chauncey’s need for men, the Secretary ordered rendezvous opened in the major port cities.  Commodore Bainbridge, with Constitution undergoing repairs and now also commandant of the navy yard opened one in Boston on 30 March.  During the following two weeks, only one man signed up – then deserted.  Service on the Lakes was anathema to deep-water sailors.  They would not knowingly sign up for the duty.  (In the months ahead, the Navy would authorize extra pay as an inducement, but there was no immediate lure.)  Bainbridge, on his own recognizance, on 18 April took the bull by the horns and ordered 100 of Constitution’s sailors and junior officers to Chauncey at Sackets Harbor.  On the 27th, he sent another 50.  (Jones later approved this action.)  These men hiked across Massachusetts and half of New York, generally “camping out” every night, before turning north for their destination.  Wagons accompanied them carrying their duffle and providing respite for those needing it.  Nearly all had reached the base by 11 May, when Chauncey brought his force back from assaulting York.  Three men had failed to complete the journey: one, a warrant officer, had died; the other two apparently deserted.  Most of these seasoned veterans – they probably were the most experienced combat sailors in the Navy – were taken into Chauncey’s squadron, but 50 were sent on immediately to Perry.

Chauncey still wasn’t satisfied, and sent out a call for more men.  In Boston, Bainbridge dredged another 100 men from Constitution, Siren, and the local gunboats.  Ninety-four of these arrived at Sackets Harbor in late June.  What with men received from the other ports, in July another 260 men were transferred to Perry at Presqu’ile.  Perry received his last detail on 4 August, when Lieutenant Jesse Duncan Elliott appeared with a finial hundred petty officers and seamen.

Despite concerted efforts, it has not been possible to identify all of the “Constitutions” transferred to the Lakes, thanks mainly to the absence of any Bainbridge muster roll.  Of those retained by Chauncey, the bulk was at first assigned either to General Pike or to Madison.  Later, most were transferred to Superior.  None are known to have been lost in combat.   On the other hand, it is possible to gain an appreciation of the Constitutions’ contribution to the victory on Lake Erie, where individual responsibilities were more narrowly defined than involvement in any of the several attacks made by Commodore Chauncey on Ontario’s shores.

Midshipmen John L. Cummings and Dulaney Forrest, together with Seamen William Edwards and William Johnson, served in Niagara.  Cummings had joined Constitution after the Guerriere fight; Forrest had been present in both the frigate’s actions to date, in charge of #1 long gun.  Seaman Edwards had been 2nd captain of #1 long gun, while Johnson may have been shotman on #3.  Cummings was wounded in the Erie action.  Forrest reportedly had a close call when stunned by a grape shot while standing near Perry.  He quickly recovered, however, and asked Perry’s permission to keep “the one that didn’t” as a souvenir.  Forrest may have been “high scorer” among midshipmen in this war: at its end, he had amassed three silver medals and shared in over $350,000 in prize money.

Lawrence has at least a half dozen men from Constitution on board for the battle.  Seaman John Smith, who had been sponger on the frigate’s #12 24-pounder was killed in action that day while serving as a gun captain.  Seamen William Johnson (another one!) and Jesse Williams each were wounded.  Williams had been on the frigate’s #2 carronade on her forecastle.  Seamen John Barnes and William Dawson also were present; they had been gun crewmates of Smith and Johnson in the earlier ship.  The sixth man was Seaman James D. Hammond, who had survived a hail of British shot in the Java fight.  A member of the #12 carronade crew on that occasion, he had had six of his mates killed and four wounded.  His luck continued in Lawrence, where he became one of only nine men in the crew to be whole when she ceased fire.  Of those nine, five subsequently were promoted meritoriously; most had been Constitutions a few months previously.

Farther down the line of battle, Seamen Ezekiel Hatch and John Saunders, both former carronade gunners, served in Caledonia while Peter and Samuel Dunn, James Gardner, and Thomas Jones were in Trippe.  Newly promoted John H. Packett, Jr., had command of Ariel, while Seaman Samuel Parsons sailed in Scorpion.  Packett had commanded #8 long gun under Bainbridge in the Java fight.

With war’s end about six months later, the lakes squadrons largely went out of business.  Fourteen of the ex-Constitutions had died from various causes during the inland duty.  Two had deserted.  Of the remaining men identified, thirty-one were transferred back to the salt water navy in March 1815.  Twenty-one of these went to the liner Independence and the sloop of war Erie, both units of Commodore Bainbridge’s squadron for the brief Algerine War.  One man remained at Sackets Harbor until 1816; another into 1825.  All the others were discharged from the ships and service to find their own ways home.

In naval battles of the early nineteenth century, it was often the case that a relatively few men accomplished significant deeds.  With their service in Constitution and then on the Lakes, it would be difficult to discover a small group of men who achieved more toward the outcome of the war than the Constitutions who fought and defeated two enemies on the high seas and then found themselves once again facing an enemy across smoking cannon hundreds of miles inland on fresh water.  Among the landlubbers that undoubtedly were in Perry’s squadron, these men proved unparalleled experience.

Commander Martin was the 49th captain of Constitution.  For more information about the ship, see The Captain's Clerk