Thursday, December 4, 2008

History: Prince de Neufchatel vs. Endymion, War of 1812

History gives us context. History provides landmarks and paints broad pictures from which we may, with discerning minds, form our opinions and shape our worldview.

I build historic model sailing ships out of bits of wood. Years ago I was at a meeting of the Great Salt Lake Ship Modeling and Research Society when Ken Harris, our President, read a letter he had received from a good friend. He said that men, real men, have art in their blood; and they release it by making things with their hands. The ship modeler shares, for a time, the decks and spars of bygone sailors, pulled from the pages of history.

So I have an affection for maritime history. One of the ships I built is the Prince de Neufch√Ętel, an American privateer during the war of 1812. I learned a little bit about this vessel from George Coggeshall's 1861 publication, History of the American Privateers. This book has since passed out of copyright and can be had in its entirety at Google Books, for those interested.

Here I reproduce an excerpt from the book, regarding one of the Prince's naval battles. Not only is the history recorded, but we get a glimpse into the life and character of an early nineteenth century American hero. Of particular interest to me is the excellent prose in which this story is related, quite different from the terse and sterile language that we have become accustomed to in later years.

Following this excerpt, entitled "Note to Page 241," I have provided a few photos of my model. Read on!

Note to Page 241

Since the first edition of this work appeared, I have received a more particular account of the desperate battle fought between Captain John Ordronaux, of the privateer The Prince of Neufchatel, of New-York, with five British barges belonging to the English frigate Endymion, off Nantucket, on the 11th of October, 1814; by which it will be seen that under all the circumstances, it was the hardest fought naval engagement and the most conspicuous victory achieved during the war.

It was a contest waged against a force more than three times superior numerically; advancing in separate divisions under the cover of night, and assisted by the presence of a heavy frigate, while at the same time, and as a most serious obstacle of a successful defence, Captain Ordronaux was encumbered with thirty-seven British prisoners, who were refractory and all ready for revolt.

He was therefore obliged to handcuff his prisoners, and confine them in the hold just before the action.

He had recently manned so many prizes that he had left only thirty-three men, including officers and marines at quarters, when simultaneously attacked by five British barges, manned with one hundred and eleven men, beside the before-mentioned thirty-seven prisoners confined below, who were striving to get loose from their manacles, and unite themselves to their fellow countrymen.

Fearing that the British frigate would attack the privateer with her boats, Captain Ordronaux made the following preparation for the contest, beside the usual number of muskets, pistols, boarding-pikes and sabres, belonging to his vessel: He had made a large augmentation of fire-arms taken from sundry British prizes during the cruise, so that his gun-room was literally filled with these implements of death and destruction. He accordingly took the precaution before night to have some two or three hundred muskets and pistols loaded and placed in a position to grasp at a moment's warning.

The loaded pistols were put into baskets and placed behind the bulwarks, so that when the strife should commence, it would not be necessary to reload these weapons. He had also his shot-lockers all filled with heavy shot, to throw into the enemy's boats, and stave in their bottoms, if brought to close quarters, when he could not use his carriage-guns.

Being thus prepared, the brave Captain waited with the most intense anxiety for the approach of the enemy: it was about nine o'clock, the night being dark, they heard the sound of oars at a distance, silently approaching. In the obscurity they could not see the boats of the enemy; a few shot were fired from the Neufchatel in the direction of the sound, to draw a shot from his adversary, with a view to ascertain his position, and how he meant to attack, but the ruse did not succeed.

Captain Ordronaux had no intention of running away from the fight, nor did he mean that the enemy should, when once engaged in the deadly strife, it being well understood by all on board that rather than surrender to the enemy the privateer should be blown up. Such was the condition of things at the commencement of the action.

The Neufchatel lying at anchor, was now fully prepared to receive the enemy, who approached with five barges in the following order, namely, one on each side, one on each bow, and the other under the stern. A warm action then took place with muskets, pistols, sabres and boarding-pikes. The enemy were promptly met and repulsed, and in about twenty minutes many in the boats cried out for quarters, which were granted to those amidships. The men in the two barges under the bows of the privateer, however, succeeded in gaining the forecastle, when Captain Ordronaux, with two or three of his faithful followers, discharged one of his main-deck guns, loaded with canister shot and bags of musket balls. This gun was trained upon the forecastle, which had the effect of killing and wounding great numbers of the enemy, and of driving the remainder overboard. In this discharge he unfortunately wounded several of his own men. The five barges which attacked the privateer contained at the commencement of the action one hundred and eleven men, including officers and marines. One barge was sunk with forty-three men, of whom two only were saved. Three boats drifted off from alongside, apparently with no living soul on board; one was taken possession of. She contained thirty-six men at the beginning of the action, of whom eight were killed and twenty wounded, and eight uninjured.

The Second Lieutenant of the frigate, (F. Ormond, who was not injured,) three midshipmen, two of whom were severely wounded, with one master's mate also wounded, were permitted to come on board. The remainder of the prisoners (fifteen seamen and marines) were kept astern all night in the launch — after taking out the arms, oars, etc., the commander being afraid to trust them on board, having only eight men fit for duty.

After the battle was over, it was found that six of the privateer's crew were killed, and nineteen wounded, beside Mr. Charles Hilburn, a Nantucket pilot who was stationed at the helm during the action; it is stated that he was several times wounded, and finally killed by the enemy. The British in this action acknowledge a loss of thirty-three killed, thirty-seven wounded, and thirty prisoners.

During the hottest part of the engagement the prisoners in the hold were loudly cheering their countrymen to continue the fight, and constantly striving to break loose, while Captain Ordronaux and his First Lieutenant, Mr. Millen, were obliged to watch their prisoners, and guard every point to prevent a recapture from the enemy.

The brave Captain, though wounded, could not be attended by the surgeon, for this gentleman was also wounded in the fight, and unable to assist those who were suffering; so that through this long and dreary night, Captain Ordronaux and his First Lieutenant, Mr. Millen, were obliged to keep guard at each hatchway, with pistol in hand, to prevent the prisoners from breaking loose, while his own poor fellows were lying about the deck, suffering from their wounds, with no one to attend them, or even to give them a drink of cold water.

Thus passed this awful night of painful anxiety. I will leave the reader to imagine the anxious feelings of Captain Ordronaux, and his faithful followers, during the long and sleepless night, surrounded by the dead and wounded, with mingled sounds of groans and curses of those who were wallowing about the deck, while the frigate at a distance was seen burning port fires, and sending up signal rockets for her barges to return.

He also feared that at the break of day the frigate would bear down upon them, and thus defeat all that he had gained in this eventful struggle. At last the morning dawned upon these weary, battle-stained watchers, who had passed the dreary night without once leaving their posts. The colors of the Neufchatel were still flying, though her decks were in an awful condition. Some thirty or forty men lay dead and wounded in every condition of mutilation, while the broken arms and implements of warfare scattered around told how desperate had been the struggle on that bloodstained deck; and now had arrived the most difficult part of Captain Ordronaux's duty. As has been stated, he had but eight men fit for duty after the termination of the action; all his prisoners were to be paroled and landed under the eye of a numerous enemy. He was, therefore, obliged to employ five or six of his men in a large launch, and at the same time to keep up an appearance of strength to deceive his adversaries. He was, therefore, obliged to resort to stratagem to carry out his plan.

Accordingly, he had a sail hung up abaft the main hatches, to serve as a screen, wherewith to conceal the quarter-deck. After this was done, he kept two boys there, one beating the drum, the other blowing the fife, and tramping heavily about the deck, to make the enemy believe that a large number of men were stationed there at quarters, to enforce his orders. Thus while the attention of the enemy was drawn off from his enfeebled state, sixty-seven of the prisoners were passed over the side into the launch, and transported to the shore, where they were placed in the possession of the United States Marshal.

He also landed his own wounded men, that they might be better attended to, and receive more medical assistance than could be given them on board of the privateer. And thus after having landed all his prisoners, except some five or six, who had been paroled, these being young and active he retained on board to assist his crew in weighing the anchor, and navigating his vessel to Boston.

In this adroit management, Captain Ordronaux displayed a vast deal of cool, deliberate judgment, as well as uncommon tact in disposing of his numerous prisoners, and hiding his own weakness in point of numbers.

He showed himself a great tactician, and, like General Jackson, knew how to avail himself of every advantage for enabling a small force to compete successfully with a large one.

A near relative of Captain Ordronaux has furnished the writer of these pages with the brave Captain's journal, the original parol given by the English in their own handwriting, and many other valuable papers and documents, which clearly establish the truth of this unparalleled victory.

I shall, therefore, make no apology for thus discharging my duty to the memory of a distinguished fellow-citizen, by communicating these facts in full. I think it will be conceded on all hands that Captain Ordronaux evinced as much bravery and tact in disposing of his prisoners after the battle, as in defending his vessel against the enemy during the severe conflict. There are many men who can fight bravely, but few who can manage as well as he did, to profit by and secure the fruits of a glorious victory.

On his arrival at Boston, a large number of patriotic merchants and other citizens proposed presenting the brave Captain with a sword and a vote of thanks for his gallantry, but the unaspiring modesty of the heroic Ordronaux begged, through his friends, that it should not be done.

For, so far from coveting applause, his unassuming, retiring disposition, led him to shun publicity of every kind, and often prevented him from receiving that just share of public approbation which his merit so richly deserved; so that the world knows but little of the gallant deeds of this distinguished nautical hero.

The following are photos of the starboard profile, the forecastle, the deck view, and some details.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I like your story. It was fun to read.