Category Archives: Famous Ships
On occasion combat at sea during the Age of Sail could be a display of sailhandling virtuosity, or a tour de force of surprise, which caused the enemy to strike with little bloodshed. More often than not, however, ship to ship combat resembled nothing so much as two drunks having at each other with pool cues in a parking lot.
The October 6, 1779 engagement between HMS Quebec and the French frigate, Surveillante, off Ushant was much more the latter than the former. Continue reading
On the morning of October 22, 1812 the USS Vixen, a brig armed with twelve 18-pound carronades, departed its base at St Mary’s, Georgia, for a 30-day cruise raiding British commerce in the Caribbean. Vixen was commanded by 32 year old George Washington Reed, youngest son of George Washington’s adjutant general and had a crew of 110.
The crew was fairly uneventful from a combat and prize money point of view and on November 22, Vixen was homeward bound and two days out of St Mary’s. Then the adventure started.
We’ve observed on several occasions that many of the incidents in novels set during the Age of Sail are heavily influenced by actual events. In most cases, the novel’s protagonist expands on the accomplishments of the actual character. In Ramages’s Diamond, Lord Ramage manages to turn the battery later known as HMS Fort Diamond into a combat multiplier that enables his mini-squadron consisting of his frigate, a prize frigate, and a prize sloop to snap up a French convoy and its escorts.
Alexander Kent, on the other hand, perhaps feeling that the actual event was too improbable, actually downplays Nelson’s use of one Spanish ship of the line as a bridge to board and take a second, larger Spanish ship of the line and has Richard Bolitho use a friendly brig as a bridge to board and take a French frigate.
Every once in a while, though, the novel’s protagonist makes out worse than the actual character.
Sir Henry came from a family with a seafaring tradition and went to sea in 1800 at age 14 aboard the 32-gun frigate, HMS Maidstone. And being the son of Admiral Duncan gave him the internal patronage he needed to rise quickly in rank. He was already a lieutenant by his father’s death in 1804 and was quickly appointed commander in November 1804. He was promoted to post rank while serving under Admiral Sir Cuthbert Collingwood in 1806.
By the time our story takes place in 1813, he was a 27 year old captain of seven year’s seniority commanding the HMS Imperieuse, a 38-gun frigate previously commanded by Lord Cochrane and which was formerly the Spanish Medea taken as a prize when Captain Graham Moore’s squadron seized the Spanish treasure fleet on October 5, 1804.
On October 4, 1744 a British fleet led by HMS Victory carrying the flag of Admiral John Balchen encountered a ferocious storm in the Western Approaches of the English Channel. The fleet was dispersed with all ships arriving in port save Victory. A search was mounted. Captain Thomas Grenville, HMS Falkland, landed at Guernsey to replenish his supplies and discovered that wreckage from Victory had washed up there. This led to the belief that Victory had struck Black Rock, part of the Casquets, during the night and gone down with all hands.
Now Victory has been found.
Success breeds complacency. Few things are more devastating to an effective military than a long period without significant challenge. The US Army discovered this brutal lesson in Korea. The British Navy discovered this in the War of 1812.
By 1812 England had been at war nearly constantly for nearly 40 years. While British arms on land weren’t always victorious, indeed they suffered more than their share of debacles, the Navy had establish an estimable record of success against all odds and had achieved not only tactical supremacy but psychological ascendancy over it’s European foes.
This invulnerability was shattered in July 1812 when the USS Constitution beat the HMS Guerriere to a shambles in a 35-minute engagement that left 21 British sailors dead and 57 wounded. This was followed by the loss of HMS Macedonian in October and of HMS Java in December. To a Navy and a public used to victories in single ship engagements, this was an earth shattering development.
The pattern continued until June 1, 1813 just outside Boston Harbor.
Earlier I noted how many, if not most, of the actions described in naval fiction actually have deep roots in the history of the Age of Sail. In that initial essay I pointed out how Richard Bolitho’s action in To Glory We Steer of boarding an enemy ship by using another ship as a bridge was actually less remarkable than the historical event, Captain Horatio Nelson of the 74-gun HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent using the 80-gun San Nicholas as a bridge to board and take the 112-gun San Josef.
I came across another instance in this description of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novel, Desolation Island.