On August 2, 1812, the USS Constitution set out north from Boston in search of British merchant ships to raid. Instead they found the HMS Guerriere, a frigate in the British Navy, on its way to Nova Scotia for repairs. The ships spotted each other at about 5 p.m. on the 19th. The Guerriere, firing broadsides, shot first, and the Constitution, shooting from its forward guns, soon followed, although both ships were relatively ineffective. By an hour later, the Constitution had closed the distance, and both ships began firing broadsides. The Guerriere sustained much heavier damage, due to the Constitution’s superior guns and thicker hull and to the fact that the Guerriere was already in poor condition and needed repairs.
As a result of these broadsides, the Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell overboard, dragging in the water and preventing the ship from maneuvering. This allowed the Constitution to fire a raking broadside that did even more damage. But as the Constitution came around to rake again, the rigging of its mizzenmast got tangled with the Guerriere’s bowsprit. Both ships prepared boarding parties, but the sea was too rough for either to cross, so they began firing muskets at each other.
Eventually, the two ships broke apart, but the Guerriere’s foremast and mainmast snapped off; not long after, its bowsprit broke too, rendering the ship completely useless. The Guerriere fired a shot in the opposite direction from the Constitution, signaling its surrender. The captain of the Constitution brought the survivors of the Guerriere onto his ship then sank the Guerriere, as it was too destroyed to bring back.
From the fight, the Constitution suffered 7 killed and 7 wounded, compared to the Guerriere’s 15 killed and 78 wounded. As the British Navy was unrivaled at that point, the Constitution’s victory proved to be an important morale booster for the Americans. In fact, the Constitution later became the inspiration for Oliver Wendell Holmes’s famous 1830 poem “Old Ironsides.”
Read more about the battle between the Constitution and the Guerriere here or here, or view the Constitution‘s casualty report on Fold3. You can also find other stories from the war in Fold3′s War of 1812 collection.