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What It Was Like To Be Shot Up By ‘old Ironsides’

July 2024
6min read

The fascinating contents of a newly discovered document of the War of 1812

THE AMERICAN frigate Constitution is preserved in Boston, where she was built and where she was launched in October 1797. She was one of a series of six splendid frigates built to defend American shipping on the high seas, and her adventurous life included some of the most dramatic actions of the war between Britain and America. The British claimed the right to stop and search American ships for deserters, and the United States resented this claim to act as a sort of universal policeman. War was declared against Britain on June 18, 1812. The Constitution , captained by Isaac Hull, went to sea in the July and in August fought and defeated the British frigate Guerrière, which the British had themselves taken from the French. While the Constitution ’s cannonballs found their mark, the British ones seemed to bounce off the hard timbers of the American ship, and she won her nickname of Old Ironsides in that action.

In 1813, with the British blockading the Eastern American ports, Capt. Charles Stewart was transferred to the Constitution and managed to sneak her out of Boston on December 31, 1813. She was back in Boston for a refit at the end of 1814 and went to sea again in December of that year. The Constitution headed for Madeira and encountered two British warships, the frigate Cyane and the sloop Levant . She managed to defeat the Cyane and then the Levant; later a British squadron tried to intercept but only managed to recapture the Levant. The Constitution , with the Cyane in tow, made it back to the States—and to news of the end of the war.

In the course of unrelated research I am doing for a book about the county of Cork in Ireland, I was given access to the papers of Richard Roberts of the Royal Navy, born in Cork in 1803 and best known as captain of the Sirius , which, in 1838, was among the first steam vessels to cross the Atlantic. In looking through Roberts’s papers, I came on three very tattered foolscap pages written in a hand other than Roberts’s and much older than any of the other material, which runs from the late 1820s on. I do not know how Roberts came to have them, though if he went to sea at the age of twelve or thirteen, he might just have been starting his naval career then. A glance at the old document showed that it was a log of a ship named Cyane and that it ended with an account of a naval battle. Today, when sailing ships have engines to get them out of trouble, a firsthand account of fighting a ship powered by sail alone must have a special fascination. I put paper into my typewriter and began to read and summarize and transcribe. The story thus unfolded to me just as it had to the unfortunate Cyane , and the ending came as an equal surprise. Cyane did not mean anything to me, but Constitution did, and I had the thrill of almost seeing Old Ironsides in action.


The first date in the Cyane’s log is Monday, February 13,1815. It was fine with a light breeze, and the ship was in Gibralter Bay. The crew was painting and readying her, getting bread on board from the Victualling Office, finally weighing anchor and sailing on Thursday the fifteenth. On the seventeenth the sailors stood in to the land and anchored in Tangier Bay for a few hours, during which time they took on fresh vegetables and four bullocks. On Saturday the eighteenth they sailed in company with the Levant , saw a sail and gave chase, lost sight of land, mustered the men at Quarters, and scaled the guns. Guns then were still massive iron cannons, muzzleloaders all of them. On the nineteenth, while still placidly sailing along with the Levant , the captain “mustered ship’s company by Divisions and read the Articles of War.” The frigate’s midday position was Lat. 34° 11′,Long. 9° 21òW. The crew test-fired the great guns and small arms and, though the winds are described as moderate and the weather fine, had the fore topmast sailyard carried away and replaced; they also lost the fore topmast studdingsail boom.

The next day, Monday, February twentieth, was squally with a fresh breeze. They replaced the lost boom. Then, in the afternoon—and now I copy the Cyane’s log word for word:

“Modte Breeze. V. Hazy all sail set. At 1 exercised Great Guns and Small Arms. At 1.20 Saw a Strange Sail North. Made compass Signal N. W. to the Levant at that time. Hauld down to leward in Studg Sails and hauld the Wind on the Stard Tack in Chase, the Stranger appeared to be a Square rigged Vessel, steering to the Southward. At ¼ past 2 made the Chase out to be Ship [ie, a three master] and shortly after a Ship of War, and at about ½ past 2 to be a Frigate. Made the Private Signals which not being answered at ¼ past 2 Bore up to join the Levant then on a Wind on the Starbd Tack to Leward, Hull Down the Stranger bearing NE at 5 or 6 miles. Observed her to make all Sail in chase of us. Cleared Ship for Action. Made Signals nos. 3,11,377 to the Levant with Guns, observed signals on board the Levant but could not distinguish them. Found the Stranger gaining upon us. Made all possible Sails. Shortly after the Stranger fired his Bow Guns at us, we steering the most direct course to join the Levant, she at the time Working to Windward under all Sail at ¾ past 4 shortened Sail to Topsail, Top Gallt [gallant] Sails and Foresail. Spoke the Levant. When finding it was Captain Douglas’ intention to engage the Ships Companies cheered. Hauled the Wind and Set the M[ain] Sail keeping always about ½ Cables length astern of the Levant. The Stranger hauled up a little and Set his M Sail and Spanker. Found we could not gain the wind of him, again spoke the Levant when both ships bore up with a view of prolonging the Engagement until Dark, at 5.10 bore up haul’d the Wind on the Starbd Tack up Mainsail. The Stranger hauling up likewise and hoisted American Colours—Discovered his force, viz 15 long Guns on the Main Deck 8 on the Quarter Deck and 4 on the Forecastle of a side, hoisted our Colours. At 5.30 the Enemy being about 1/3 of a Mile or rather more, tried the range of his Shot and immediately commenced the Action, his position being [illegible] on the Cyane’s Starbd beam. Both Ships returned his fire, the Levant holding an advantagious position on the Enemy’s Bow, Braced Sharp up and endeavoured to close on the Quarter of our adversary observing our Shot frequently fall Short whilst he held a decided Superiority by his long Guns cutting our rigging and sails to pieces. Found by our Manouevering that we had neared him as his Musquet Balls began to fall on Board, at the same time we suffered greatly in our rigging and Sails his fire being greatly superior in consequence of some of our Guns being disabled. At about 40 minutes past 6 the Levant appeared to be keeping away, and thinking it might be with an intention of Wearing, We immediately found we had not a brace or bowling left except the Starbd Fore braces but the Levant being at this time exposed to a heavy raking fire, the enemy having filled across her, the Cyane was brought to the Wind on the Larbd Tack with everything aback for the purpose of covering the Levant, renewed the Action and continued it as long as the Guns would bear, lost sight for some time of the Levant in the Smoke. Shortly afterwards the firing ceased for a Short time, discovered the enemy had wore and was standing for the Cyane and soon after commenced firing his Starbd Guns, Turned the Hands up to refit the rigging, rove new braces etc [some loss of legibility here on a tear]. After the Clearing up of the Smoke found the Levant was returning to leward. Tried to get the Cyane before the wind to close her but could not—owing to the crippled State of the rigging and situation of the Sails, they layeing flat aback and driven so entangled in the wreck of the Mizen Mast and not being able to get it down and Jib and Foresail totally useless and before we could effect it the Enemy had taken a position on our Quarter weather Hail, the Ship at this time totally unmaneageable with most of the Standing and all the running rigging Shot away, Sails much shot and torn, all the lower Masts and several of the Yards badly Wounded particularly the Main and Mizen Masts, fore and Mizen Topmasts and Fore T.G. [top gallant] Mast, Cross Jack yard, M(main) T.G. yard, Spanker Boom abd Gaffs and Mizen Staysail Gaff. A number of Shot in the Hull and Nine or Ten between Wind and Water. Six guns disabled by the Enemy’s Shot, drawing of Bolts and starting of chocks etc and Starbd F. Topsail shot and clew of the Sail shot away, the Enemy holding a position in which the Ship was exposed to his Broadside with not more than 3 or 4 Guns to bear upon him. The Levant at this time nearly two miles directly to leeward and still going before the Wind, The Enemy to all appearance having Sustained but little damage and being in full command of the Ship. Thus situated and no opportunity of refitting the rigging so as to get the Ship under command, further resistance was considered as useless against such a Superior force a light was therefore Shewn and at 7 o’clock the Colours Struck. Shortly afterwards an Officer came on Board when it was found we were captured by the United States Ship of War Constitution Captain Charles Stewart mounting 52 Guns long 24 Pns and 32 Pd Carronades with compliment of 472 Men at the commencement of Action. On my quitting the Cyane the Levant nearly out of sight to the Leward

—Alfd L. Strangeways.”

In an hour the Constitution cut the rigging and sails of the Cyane to pieces.

WE HAVE , of course, far more detailed accounts of the action from the American side but perhaps none so vivid. From a trim fighting ship the Cyane was quickly reduced to a drifting hulk, guns put out of action and with masts, rigging, and sails so broken and shot up that the ship was uncontrollable. Yet to the modern reader, the most remarkable omission in the log is that no details are given of the sailors killed and injured, though the very human term wounded is used of damaged yards (the crossbars from which the sails hang).

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