Tuesday, November 8, 2011

USS Hornet

Figure 1: USS Hornet pursued by HMS Cornwallis, 28 April 1815. Artwork depicting the British 74 gun ship Cornwallis (at left) chasing the US sloop of war Hornet in the South Atlantic, as the latter's crew throws overboard spare spars, guns and other items in an effort to increase her speed. Courtesy of Mr. Beverly R. Robinson, March 1937. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: US Hornet (1805-1829). Rigged model of a brig, made circa 1812. Hornet was converted from brig to ship rig in 1811. Courtesy of the Anderson Galleries, New York. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: Action between USS Hornet and HMS Peacock, 24 February 1813. Artwork depicts Peacock's mainmast collapsing at the close of the engagement. Courtesy of Mr. Beverly R. Robinson, March 1937. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Captain James Lawrence, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Hornet and USS Chesapeake. Engraving of the medal authorized by the United States Congress in honor of Captain Lawrence's 24 February 1813 victory in the action between USS Hornet and HMS Peacock. The Congress ordered a gold version of the medal and requested that the President present it to his nearest male relative. A silver version was presented to each commissioned officer who served under him in Hornet. The engraving was published in Lossing's "Field Book, War of 1812," page 700. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: Captain James Lawrence, USN (1781-1813). Stipple engraving by David Edwin, after Gilbert Stuart, printed with a line engraving by Francis Kearny depicting HMS Peacock sinking after she was captured by USS Hornet, under Lawrence's command, on 24 February 1813. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 6: Master Commandant James Lawrence, USN (1781-1813). Oil on wood, 28.5" x 23.5," by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), Boston, circa 1812. Painting in the US Naval Academy Museum Collection. Bequest of George M. Moffett, 1952. Official US Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 7: USS Hornet captures HMS Penguin, 23 March 1815. Colored lithograph by S. Walters , after a sketch by William Skiddy, depicting the two sloops close aboard during the engagement, which took place in the south Atlantic off Tristan d'Acunha. Note that the erroneous date of 23 January 1815 appears on the print. Courtesy of the US Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland. Beverly R. Robinson Collection. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 8: USS Hornet in action with HMS Penguin, 23 March 1815. Halftone reproduction of an artwork by Carlton T. Chapman, depicting the capture of HMS Penguin by USS Hornet off Tristan da Cunha, in the south Atlantic. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 9: Lithograph of USS Hornet by Imbert, published in "The Sailors Magazine" March 1830. It depicts Hornet foundering off Tampico, Mexico, on 29 September 1829. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 10: USS Hornet (1805-1829), at top, and the schooner USS Grampus (1821-1843). Sketches of hulls and rigging (with the latter out of scale to the hulls), by William A.K. Martin, circa 1843 or later. Both vessels, which were lost at sea with all hands, are depicted flying their National Ensigns upside down, a sign of distress. US Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

USS Hornet was a 440-ton brig sailing ship that was built by William Price of Baltimore, Maryland, and was commissioned there on 18 October 1805. She was approximately 106 feet long and 31 feet wide and was armed with 2 12-pounder “long guns” and 18 32-pounder carronades. Carronades were short smoothbore cast-iron cannons that were used primarily as short-range weapons. The long guns were positioned forward for use when chasing an enemy.

After being commissioned, Hornet patrolled America’s Atlantic coastline until 29 March 1806, when she was ordered to join a small US Naval squadron that was protecting American shipping in the Mediterranean from pirates. Hornet then returned to the United States and arrived at Charleston, South Carolina, on 29 November 1807 and was soon decommissioned there.

Hornet was re-commissioned on 26 December 1808. She transported General James Wilkinson to New Orleans, patrolled off America’s eastern coastline, and carried dispatches to Holland, France, and England. Hornet then was sent to the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, DC, to be rebuilt and re-rigged as a sloop of war. This conversion took place between November 1810 and September 1811.

At the start of the War of 1812, Hornet was assigned to Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron. She captured the privateer Dolphin on 9 July 1812, but the prize ship Dolphin was recaptured by the British while en route back to the United States. By the middle of 1812, Hornet (now under the command of Master Commandant James Lawrence) had been cruising in the Atlantic for nearly four months, sometimes escorting the big frigate USS Constitution. But by early January 1813, Hornet was on her own and spent most of January blockading the Brazilian port of Bahia. While blockading Bahia, Hornet managed to keep the British sloop of war Bonne Citoyenne in port while also capturing several British merchant ships that were sailing nearby.

Then on 24 February 1813, while still sailing off the northern coast of South America, Hornet sighted the slightly smaller brig-rigged sloop of war HMS Peacock. Both ships probably saw each other at approximately the same time and closed for battle. At 1620, Peacock hoisted her colors and so did Hornet. By 1725, both ships were within range to exchange broadsides. Peacock, under the command of Captain William Peake, tried her best, but Hornet was more maneuverable and her gunnery was much more accurate than Peacock’s. Hornet’s guns swept Peacock’s decks and were rapidly blowing the ship to pieces. Within fifteen minutes, after having lost her commanding officer and seven other men killed or mortally wounded, Peacock gave up. The British ship had six feet of water in her hold and was cut to pieces in both her hull and masts. Some British sailors hoisted the Union Jack from her mainmast upside down, a signal of distress. But shortly after that, Peacock’s mainmast collapsed and fell overboard. Both Hornet and Peacock anchored after that and every attempt was made to save the British ship, but HMS Peacock sank soon after the end of the short confrontation. Hornet, which had lost only one man during the battle, took aboard Peacock’s survivors and then went about repairing her own damages. Because of the British survivors, Hornet was now badly overcrowded, so she sailed back to the United States and arrived at Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, on 19 March 1813.

Upon her return to the United States, Hornet’s commander, Master Commandant James Lawrence, was promoted to full captain and the US Congress authorized that a medal be made in honor of Captain Lawrence’s victory over HMS Peacock. Two months after the battle, Captain Lawrence took command of the frigate USS Chesapeake, which was preparing to go to sea at Boston, Massachusetts. Chesapeake left port on 1 June 1813 and immediately engaged the Royal Navy frigate HMS Shannon in a fierce battle. Unfortunately, Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded by small arms fire and, as he was being taken below to the doctor, he uttered the famous words: “Don’t give up the ship.” Chesapeake was soon overwhelmed by British boarders and the ship had to give up. Captain James Lawrence died of his wounds on 4 June, while Chesapeake was being taken to Halifax, Nova Scotia, by her captors. His body was later repatriated to New York for burial. However, Congress still ordered that a gold version of Lawrence’s medal commemorating his victory over HMS Peacock be struck and requested that the president of the United States present it to his nearest male relative. A silver version of the medal was also presented to each commissioned officer who served under Lawrence on board Hornet.

Although the United States Congress ratified the Treaty of Ghent on 18 February 1815, thereby ending the War of 1812 with England, this news took a long time to reach ships at sea. So during the late morning of 23 March 1815, when Hornet (now under the command of Master Commandant James Biddle) sighted the British brig-sloop HMS Penguin off Tristan d’Acunha island in the south Atlantic, neither ship was aware that they were at peace.

The two sloops approached each other on roughly parallel courses, with Penguin to windward. Hornet and Penguin opened fire on each other at roughly 1340, exchanging broadsides, with Hornet firing to starboard and Penguin to port. After fifteen minutes, Hornet let loose a devastating broadside that killed Penguin’s commanding officer and many of her crewmen. Penguin’s bowsprit then caught in Hornet’s rigging and, as the two ships separated, the British ship’s bowsprit broke away, taking her foremast with it. Penguin was totally disabled and what was left of her crew surrendered to Hornet shortly after 1400. After the battle ended, the US schooner Tom Bowline and the US sloop of war Peacock arrived on the scene as Penguin began to sink. After Penguin sank, her surviving crewmembers were sent to Rio de Janeiro aboard Tom Bowline while Hornet and Peacock remained in the area for about three more weeks.

Hornet and Peacock then headed for the East Indies, still unaware that the war had already ended. On 27 April 1815, while sailing to the East Indies, both ships sighted HMS Cornwallis, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line. The two American ships mistook Cornwallis for a merchant ship and decided to attack. But after discovering their error, both ships retreated. However, Cornwallis saw the American ships and decided to give chase to Hornet. Hornet tried her best to get away from the giant British warship, but Cornwallis was beginning to gain on it. So Hornet’s skipper, James Biddle, gave the order to throw almost everything overboard to lighten the ship to gain more speed. Soon spare spars, boats, nearly all of her guns and ammunition, anchors, cables, some ballast, and a lot of other equipment went over the side. Through Biddle’s skillful seamanship and Cornwallis’ poor gunnery, Hornet picked up speed and got away. Now defenseless, Hornet returned to the United States and arrived at New York City on 9 June 1815.

After the war, Hornet went on a cruise to the West Indies and then was sent to Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1818. After making another trip to the Mediterranean in 1819, Hornet returned to the United States. She was based at Key West and Pensacola, Florida, to assist in ending piracy in the Caribbean Sea. Hornet captured the pirate schooner Moscow on 29 October 1821 off the coast of Santo Domingo and continued patrolling the Caribbean for several more years.

Hornet left her base at Pensacola on 4 March 1829 and set course for the coast of Mexico. She was never heard from again. On 27 October 1829, the commander of the US Navy’s West Indies Squadron received information that USS Hornet had been dismasted in a gale off Tampico, Mexico, on 29 September 1829 and had foundered with the loss of all hands. It was a sad end to one of the finest ships in America’s young Navy.