Twelve Naval Captains - Molly E. Seawell

Isaac Hull



The American navy has produced many men great in the handling of sailing-ships; but no more capable seaman ever trod the quarter-deck than Isaac Hull. In all of his achievements his faculty of handling his vessel, whether great or small, to the utmost 'possible advantage, was the most considerable factor in his success; and his tremendous popularity with seamen, who were always eager to ship with him, came from their conviction that in time of stress and danger they had a born sailor to look out for them.

Hull was the son of a Revolutionary officer, and was born at Derby, Massachusetts, in March, 1775, shortly before the affairs at Lexington and Concord. His father was taken prisoner and died on one of the Jersey prison ships, and Isaac was adopted by an uncle, General Hull. The means and station of the Hull family were such that a liberal education was within the lad's reach, and he was destined for a course at Yale College. But he early developed a passion for the sea; and his uncle, seeing the boy's determined bent, concluded to let him carry it out. The Continental navy had passed out of existence, and the reorganization did not take place until 1797-98, so that a naval career was not open to him at the start. General Hull, however, did the next best thing possible for the boy, by sending him to sea in a fine ship owned by a friend of the Hull family. Isaac proved himself capable and industrious from the start, and by the time he reached his twenty-first birthday was in command of a small vessel. The desire to hold a commission in the regular navy possessed him, and in March, 1798, he got a fourth lieutenant's commission, which was dated on his twenty-third birthday.

His first cruise was made in the ship in which he was afterward to win such splendid renown,—the Constitution. She was then commanded by Captain Samuel Nicholson. He remained in her for more than two years, and thus became thoroughly familiar with the great frigate,—a knowledge he was eventually to put to good use. In 1800 she was the flagship of Commodore Talbot, in the West Indies, and Hull was her first lieutenant. Commodore Talbot and the captain of a British frigate on that station were friends, and the American and British captains would often discuss the sailing qualities of their respective frigates, the British ship being a good sailer as well as the Constitution. At last a sailing-match was agreed upon, the captains wagering a cask of wine on the result. The two frigates started with a fresh breeze at sunrise, and the contest was to last until the sunset gun was fired. Hull sailed the Constitution, and his seamanship on that day of friendly rivalry was scarcely inferior to that which he displayed when Admiral Broke's squadron of five ships was hounding him on an August day, twelve years after. The Constitution  could easily leg it at an eleven-knot gait, with a tolerable breeze, and was almost unapproachable on a wind; but that day, under Hull's skilful handling, she outdid herself, and beat her opponent by several miles. Hull kept the crew on deck the livelong day, and the seamanlike manner in which he beat the English frigate, which was also remarkably well sailed, won the admiration even of his opponents. Hull was too great a seaman himself to underrate either British skill or pluck, and many years after it is told of him that, speaking with a very steady old boat-swain, the man remarked, "The British, sir, are hard fellows on salt water."

"I know that, they are a hard set of fellows, sure enough," was Hull's emphatic reply.

Hull saw no very brilliant service during the hostilities with France in 1799 4800, but he cut out a French letter-of-marque in the harbor of Port Platte, Hayti, in a very handsome manner. He armed a small vessel, the Sally, with men from the Constitution, ran into the harbor in broad daylight, landed a company of marines, who spiked the guns of the fort and carried off the French letter-of-marque in fine style.

In 1802 Hull went to the Adams, of twenty-eight guns, as her first lieutenant. The Adams was one of the fastest frigates that ever floated, and Hull was the man to get the most out of her. She was sent to the Mediterranean at the beginning of the Tripolitan troubles, and in her patrol of the Straits of Gibraltar in all weathers, and her blockade of Tripoli in the dangerous winter season, her first lieutenant splendidly sustained the reputation he had brought from the Constitution  with him, as one of the ablest seamen in the navy. He would carry more sail than any other lieutenant in the squadron would have carried, and would make sail when most ships scarcely showed a rag of canvas.

In 1803 he got his first command, the little schooner Enterprise, which he exchanged, after a short time, with Decatur, who brought out from America the Argus, a handsome sixteen-gun brig, lately off the stocks. In the Argus  he took an active part in the bombardment of Tripoli, and manifested his usual steadiness and coolness. Commodore Preble, wishing to examine the harbor as closely as practicable during the bombardment, trusted to Hull's seamanship to get him the best view possible, and reconnoitered one night in the Argus. It came near being the end of the vessel and all on board, by one of those accidents against which skill and courage avail nothing. A heavy shot struck the brig's bottom, and raked it for several feet, ripping the plank out as it went. Had it gone an inch deeper, the ship's bottom would have been out; but the gallant brig and her brave company were saved for great services to their country.

After the reduction of the Barbary powers Hull returned home, and in 1806 he reached the rank of post-captain. He was then thirty-one years old, short and stocky, but military in his bearing, prompt and decided in his manner, kind to his men, but a firm disciplinarian. He was singularly chivalrous to women, and treated the humblest woman with the highest respect.

In 1811 Hull got the Constitution, and with her, Lieutenant, afterward Commodore, Charles Morris, a lieutenant worthy of such a captain. In the celebrated chase of the Constitution  the following year, scarcely less praise is due to Morris, then her first lieutenant, than to Hull.

The Constitution's  first duty was to take a large amount of specie to Holland, in payment of interest on a debt due by the United States. From thence she proceeded to Portsmouth, England.

By that time it was known that war was imminent, and Hull kept his ship prepared for action at a moment's notice. It seemed at one time as if the Constitution  would fire the first gun of the conflict in an English port. The Havana, frigate, lay close to the Constitution, and one night a man from the American frigate jumped overboard and swam to the Havana, where he was taken aboard. Next morning Hull sent a boat with Morris, to ask the man's surrender. '.'pie British captain declined to give him up, say-in, that the man swore he was a British subject. As the British navy made laws for the navies of the world in those days, the Americans had to submit with a very bad grace. But compensation was at hand. A man from the Havana, seeing the turn of affairs, jumped overboard and swam to the Constitution. He was welcomed on board, one may be sure, and when the Havana's lieutenant sent after him, Hull coolly announced that the man said he was an American citizen, and therefore would not be given up. The British captain had to be satisfied with this answer. But there was some expectation that an attempt would be made to seize the man by force. Meanwhile Hull concluded to change his berth, the Havana and her consort being a little too near; so he picked up his anchor, and dropped down to leeward a mile or two. The Havana promptly followed him. Hull then thought it likely that he would be attacked before morning, and made his preparations accordingly. The ship was cleared for action, the cabin torn out of the way, the battle lanterns lighted, and the men sent to their quarters at the tap of the drum. Hull, full of fire and determination, said to the men,—

"My lads, are you ready for a fight? I don't know but what this frigate is after us. Are you ready for her?"

The reply was a rousing American cheer. Even some men who were in irons joined in the cheering, and contrived to get a message to the captain asking to be released during the time of the expected fight, that they might do their duty. This was done, and amid the greatest enthusiasm the guns were cast loose. It was noted that the men took hold of the gun tackles as if they meant to jerk the guns through the ship's side. Lieutenant Morris, passing along the batteries, told the men that if the ship had to fight, it would be in their quarrel, and he hoped they would give a good account of themselves. The reply of these gallant tars was, "Let the quarterdeck look out for the colors, and we will look out for the guns."

Some hours having passed, with the Constitution  plainly ready for a fight, without any demonstration from the British frigate, Hull determined to lift his anchor and sail for France. The men responded with a loud groan to the boatswain's call to man the capstan bars, and, sailor-like, were acutely disappointed that they got off without a chance to show what the ship could do.

Hull returned to the United States, and in June, 1812, war was declared. The Constitution  was at Annapolis, where she had been newly coppered, and where a sloop-of-war was also being fitted out. A report got about, among the Constitution's  crew, that men were to be drafted from her to the sloop-of-war. This created great dissatisfaction. The men, nearly all native-born Americans, although new to the ship, were proud of her, and had a superstitious faith in her good fortune and were devoted to their captain. Their complaints became almost mutinous, when Hull appeared among them and assured them that not a man should be taken out of the ship. This pacified them, and on the 14th of July, 1812, they sailed for New York, to join Commodore Rodgers's squadron. About four o'clock on the morning of July 19th, the cry rang through the ship that the American squadron was sighted; but as day broke, it was found that the Constitution  was almost surrounded by a British squadron under Admiral Broke, one of the finest seamen in the British navy. It consisted of the Africa, sixty-four; the frigates Shannon and Guerriere, of thirty-eight guns each (with the last the Constitution  was to have it out, yardarm to yardarm, that day month); the light frigates Belvidera  and Eolus; and two small vessels. By sunrise it fell almost calm, and it seemed as if the glorious frigate would have to lie where she was, to be eaten up by her enemies as soon as the wind rose.

But Hull and Morris were men of resource, and while fully prepared to go down fighting, if necessary, they knew a way of getting off even without a wind. All the spare hawsers in the ship were bent together, and to a kedge anchor which was put in a boat, sent ahead half a mile, and let go. The crew, at a signal, clapped on, and walked away with the ship. Before she lost the impetus gained by rousing on the one kedge, another one was carried ahead *and let go; and so she progressed at the rate of about three knots an hour. At first the British were amazed to see her trotting off without a wind; but they soon found out what was going on, and put all the available boats in the squadron to towing the Shannon after the Constitution. The Shannon, however, could not make much headway, as Hull had mounted stern-chasers in the cabin, and fired on the British boats whenever they came within range.

The Shannon, however, was coming up on the starboard, while the other ships were towing, kedging, and sending their boats ahead with sweeps, to surround the gallant frigate. The Guerriere, too, was nearing her on the port quarter, and men less resourceful than Hull and his officers would have despaired of escape. But just then a light breeze struck the ship, the sails were trimmed, and the ship came by the wind beautifully. This brought the Guerriere  nearly within gunshot, and she roared out her broadside; but the Constitution's  people continued hoisting up their boats with as much coolness and steadiness as if the cannonade were no more than bird-shot. For an hour the Constitution  legged it at a lively rate; but about ten o'clock it fell calm, and the wearisome and tedious method of kedging was again resorted to. The British put nearly all their boats on the Shannon, but in spite of numbers the American frigate managed to keep just out of gunshot.

Every device known to seamanship was used to increase the distance between the frigate and her pursuers. Her sails were wet down fore and aft, several thousand gallons of water were pumped out of her, the boat's falls were kept in hand to run the boats up, and every cat's paw was taken advantage of with the finest possible seamanship. Yet so hopeless did her chances seem that Admiral Broke had a prize crew told off, to take her into Halifax! Neither Hull nor his officers or men contemplated for a moment giving up the frigate. Hull knew his ship; he had a remarkably capable set of officers, and his ship was so well manned by intelligent Americans that it was said in a very little while after they had enlisted the crew could have sailed and fought the ship without their officers.

About two o'clock the Belvidera  got within range and began to throw her broadside; but Hull, after returning a few shot, devoted himself strictly to keeping his ship away from her enemies. All day the British ships used every method that skill could devise to get at the Constitution, but were able neither to overhaul her nor to close with her. At eleven o'clock at night a breeze sprang up which lasted for an hour, when it died away. During that night neither the Constitution  nor her pursuers kedged, the crews on all the ships being too exhausted; but no officer or man on the Constitution  went below. The officers lay down at their stations, and the sailors slept at their guns, with their rammers and sponges at their sides.

With daylight came wind enough to keep the ships moving, and at sunrise the sight was singularly beautiful. The summer sea was faintly rippled by a long, soft swell, and the sun shone with unclouded splendor. The five pursuing ships, as well as the Constitution, were clouds of canvas, from rail to truck, and all six were on the same tack. Including the six men-of-war, eleven sail were in sight. The British squadron had been joined by the Nautilus, brig, and the rest were merchantmen. During the morning an American merchant ship was observed approaching. The Constitution, seeing the ship was unaware of her danger, hoisted an English ensign and fired a gun at her,—which induced her to run away from her supposed enemy.

All day the chase continued; but the Constitution  showed a clean pair of heels, and was slowly, though steadily, widening the distance between herself and her pursuers. In the afternoon a heavy squall with rain came up. The Constitution  took in her sails, which induced the British ships to do the same. But as soon as she was hid by the curtain of falling rain, she made sail upon her stout masts, that carried her along at a rattling gait. In about an hour the weather cleared, when it was seen that the Belvidera, the nearest vessel, was far astern, the others were more distant still, the Africa being hull down. The chase was still kept up during the whole of that night, but at daylight next morning the British ships were almost out of sight, and about eight o'clock they hauled their wind and gave up the contest.

Not only had the noble frigate escaped from her enemies, but she had done so without losing a gun, an anchor, or a boat. She was ready at any moment of the chase to go into action, and the steadiness, coolness, and precision of her maneuvers were never surpassed. This chase is one of the glories of the American navy,—not merely because of the escape itself, but by reason of the sea-manlike manner in which it was accomplished.

Shortly after, the Constitution  ran the blockade and got into Boston, to hear the news that she had been captured I

The delight of the people at the escape of their favorite frigate was unbounded. Hull was hailed as a hero; but with characteristic modesty he ascribed most of the credit of his escape to his officers and crew, both in his official report and a published card.

Having had an intimation, however, that it was in contemplation to give the ship to Bainbridge, in virtue of his superior rank, and without waiting for orders, which might be just what he did not want, Hull sailed eastward as soon as he had watered and victualled his ship. On the afternoon of the 19th of August, just one month to a day after he had first been chased by the Guerriere, he ran across her again, and both ships prepared to fight it out, with the greatest spirit imaginable.

Captain Dacres, of the Guerriere, and Hull were personal friends, as many of the American and British captains were in those days, and there was a standing bet of a hat between them on the result in case their two ships ever came to ex-changing broadsides. The Guerriere  was an extremely fine French-built frigate, carrying fifty guns,—the Constitution  carried fifty-four and her broadside was much the heavier. In men, the Constitution  had also the advantage of the British ship, but the damage inflicted by the Constitution  was far in excess of her superiority in men and metal. On the Guerriere's  great mainsail was inscribed in huge red letters,

"All who meet me have a care,

I am England's Guerriere."

The two ships were looking for each other, when on the 19th of August, about ten o'clock, a sail being reported off the port bow, a midshipman was sent aloft to try and make her out. All hands were hoping the stranger was the Guerriere, when Hull called out with animation,—

"What do you think she is?"

"She 's a great vessel, sir. Tremendous sails."

"Never mind," coolly replied Hull, turning to the boatswain. "Mr. Adams, call all hands. Make sail for her."

Before the boatswain's pipe was heard, the men came tumbling up on deck, even the sick turning out of their berths. Hull, in his official report of the battle, says: "From the smallest boy in the ship up to the oldest seaman, not a look of fear was seen. They went into action giving three cheers, and requesting to be laid alongside the enemy." When the call to quarters was heard through the ship, the men went to the guns dancing. Sail was crowded on, and soon it was seen that the stranger was the Guerriere. She had hauled her wind, and lay with her topsails aback, gallantly waiting for her enemy. Her officers and crew prepared to meet the Americans with the spirit of British seamen. There were ten Americans in the crew who came to Captain Dacres and told him they could not fight against their own country. The captain magnanimously told them to go below, and assist in the cockpit with the wounded.

As soon as the Constitution  got within range, the Guerriere  let fly her batteries, firing the star-boar& guns, then wearing and giving the Constitution  her port guns. The Constitution  came on, yawing at intervals to prevent being raked, and occasionally firing one of her bow guns. Three times Lieutenant Morris asked permission to fire a broadside, and each time Hull answered, "Not yet." At last, when within fifty yards of the Guerriere, the moment had come. Hull spoke a few stirring words to his people.

"Men!" he said, "now do your duty. Your officers cannot have entire command over you now. Each man must do all in his power for his country. No firing at random. Let every man look well to his aim. Sailing-master, lay her alongside."

The Constitution  came up into the wind in gallant style, and as she fell off a little, the Guerriere, an antagonist worthy of the great frigate, ranged alongside. The Constitution  let fly every gun in her starboard batteries at short range, and the shock was like an earthquake. Every timber in the frigate trembled like a leaf. When the smoke cleared away, it was seen that this terrific broadside had made destruction on the British ship. Her mizzen-mast had gone by the board, her mainyard had been shot from the slings and a momentary confusion reigned on her decks. The effect of their first broadside was so encouraging to the Americans that before firing another gun they gave three thundering cheers. The English officers spoke afterward of the extra ordinary enthusiasm of the Americans, which was a part of the fury of their attack.

When the cheers had subsided, Hull called out, "My lads, you have made a brig of that craft; "to which the sailors shouted back, "We'll make a sloop of her soon, sir; "and in a little while the foremast went by the board. The Guerriere  then swung round, and, being almost unmanageable, got into a terrible position for raking. Her officers and men fought with undiminished valor, and when the ensign was shot away, another one was nailed to the stump of the mizzen-mast. On the Constitution  the halyards were shot away, and the flag became entangled in the splinters of a shattered yard. A sailor sprang aloft and nailed it to the mast, and both ships continued the action without thought of surrender.

The Guerriere, however, was plainly getting the worst of it. Most of her fire was directed to the masts and spars of the Constitution, while several shot that struck the frigate's hull rebounded into the water. At this the sailors cheered.

"Huzza!" they cried. "Her sides are made of iron! Huzza for Old 'Ironsides'!"

Then some one on the Constitution, pointing to the captain, cried,—"Hull her, men! Hull her!"

The sailors, catching the pun, roared out,—"Hull her! Hull her! Yes, we'll hull her!"

Hull, who had grown very stout, and was short withal, was standing on an ammunition box, while shot flew thick and fast around him. Leaning over to give an order, his knee breeches, which were very tight, burst from knee to hip. The men shouted with laughter; but it was no time to repair such damages, and Hull finished the battle with his trousers hanging in rags.

It was not to last long. The mainmast soon followed the other masts, and in thirty minutes from the time the Constitution's  first broadside had been fired, the Guerriere  lay, a helpless hulk, rolling in the trough of the sea, that washed into her shattered main-deck ports.

Her masts and spars having gone by the board, she swung round, so that she lay perfectly help-less, while every gun in the Constitution  raked her. The men could see the whites of each other's eyes, and the gleam of the teeth as they fought. Captain Dacres had been badly wounded, while standing in the hammock nettings cheering his men on, a vast number of officers and men killed and wounded, and the Guerriere's  decks ran with blood. But even in these dreadful circumstances not a man or boy on the British ship faltered; and when it was plain to every eye that resistance was over for the proud Guerriere, one of her powder boys was heard to shout to another confidently,—

"Work away there! Huzza! She'll soon be ours!"

Her captain saw that it was time to stop the useless slaughter, and a gun was fired to lee-ward, which signified surrender. But her men refused to haul down the jack they had nailed to the stump of the mizzen-mast, and not until Captain Dacres stepped into the Constitution's  boat did the brave men and boys of the Guerriere  acknowledge themselves beaten. It was, indeed, an idea almost impossible for them to grasp, that a crack British frigate should have been whipped in fair fight by an American; but it is easily understood when it is remembered that they were men of the same stock,—for the Constitution  was wholly manned by native-born Americans, who came justly by that genius for fighting at sea which is the common heritage of the Anglo-Saxon race.

As Captain Dacres came over the side of the Constitution, Hull met him with the cordiality of a friend and shipmate instead of the air of a conqueror. He gave the British captain a hand, saying, with the greatest friendliness,—

"Dacres, I see you are hurt Let me help you."

As soon as Captain Dacres reached the Constitution's  deck, he attempted to hand his sword to Hull, who said,—

"No, no, I cannot take the sword of a man who knows so well how to use it; but—I'll thank you for that hat!"

The business of transferring the prisoners then began. It was seen at once there was no hope of saving the Guerriere, and it was determined to remove everything of value and then blow her up. The damages to the Constitution  were repaired in an hour. She had lost seven men killed and seven wounded. The Guerriere  had lost seventy-nine in killed and wounded.

The Constitution  lay by the Guerriere  all night, and the Americans worked like Trojans to save the belongings of the prisoners. Hull asked Captain Dacres if everything of value had been sent him out of the Guerriere's  cabin. Captain Dacres replied that a Bible, his wife's gift, had been left behind. Hull immediately sent a boat after it. Captain Dacres, in his report to the Admiralty, said:. "I feel it my duty to state that the conduct of Captain Hull and his officers to our men has been that of a brave enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent our men losing the smallest trifle, and the greatest attention being paid to the wounded."

After working all night the morning of the 20th of August saw the brave but unfortunate Guerriere  made ready for her ocean grave. A slow match was applied to her magazine, and the Constitution  bore away. About three * miles off she hove to, while her officers and men, together with those of the doomed frigate, waited breathlessly for the explosion. As the fire gained headway, a dense volume of smoke formed over her. Some of her guns had been left shotted, and as the fire reached them, they began to go off, their sullen boom over the sea sounding like the death-knell of the gallant ship. Presently the flames reached the magazine. Streams of light, and a roar that seemed to shake the deep, followed; a mass of wreckage flew skyward; the Guerriere  was no more.

There was great uneasiness felt on board the Constitution  in regard to the large number of prisoners she carried. There were not enough handcuffs in the ship for the whole British crew, and the Americans felt a manly unwillingness to handcuff any of the men who had fought them so bravely. But it was noted that from the start the prisoners and their captors behaved well, the American and British sailors sitting around the fok'sle together, spinning yarns, exchanging tobacco, and chumming quite amicably.

Hull made for Boston, and on his arrival there was greeted with the wildest enthusiasm. The people were beside themselves with joy. Before this a British ship had been deemed invincible, and the knowledge that one of these great ships, with a captain and crew worthy of her, had struck to an American captain who had never before handled a frigate in action, was gratifying to the national pride. Hull, to his great discomfiture, was seized, as he stepped upon the dock, and carried on the shoulders of his admirers to his destination. A grand banquet was given to him *and his officers in Faneuil Hall. Congress had a medal struck in his honor, and gave swords to the officers and a handsome sum in prize money to the crew. So great was Hull's popularity that the commissioners of the navy would not have taken the ship away from him, had he asked to retain her, but with true magnanimity he gave her up to Bainbridge. Hull knew that Bainbridge was justly entitled to her, and he was not the man to withhold anything from a brother in arms. Bainbridge therefore took her, and went out and captured the Java.l

Hull was actively, though not brilliantly, employed during the rest of the war, but did not get afloat again, as there were more captains than frigates. In 1813 he married a beautiful girl, the daughter of a clergyman. She had laughed at his pretensions when he was only a lieutenant; but after his great cruise she said, when she knew it would be repeated to Hull, "How delightful it must be to be the wife of a hero!" He took the hint, and soon after they were married.

Hull's subsequent career was one of honor and usefulness. He was a great hater of idleness, and often said, "Idleness will soon bring any man to ruin." He had fine commands, both ashore and afloat, and hoisted his broad pennant over several splendid squadrons. In 1836 he commanded the Mediterranean station. At Gibraltar he found his old friend Dacres, then an admiral, also in 'command of a squadron. The two met with delight. Admiral Dacres showed Commodore Hull the greatest attention, and at a splendid dinner given, in his honor on the British flagship the admiral told Mrs. Hull, who was present, the story of the saving of his wife's Bible. Later, both of them having been detached from their squadrons, they were in Rome for a winter together, and were inseparable. Admiral Dacres was a remarkably tall, thin man, while Commodore Hull was somewhat the size and shape of a hogshead; and the wags had infinite amusement over the queer figures of these two heroic men.

On Commodore Hull's retirement he made his home in Philadelphia. He always wore his uniform, and as he walked the streets every hat was doffed to him, and the salute was courteously returned. The end came in February, 1843. His last words were, "I strike my flag,"—words that he had never before had occasion to utter. He was a devout Christian, and during his whole life he honestly lived up to the requirements of a just and pious manhood.