On August 19, 1812, the crew of the USS Constitution caught sight of the British HMS Guerriere at sea off Nova Scotia. The American vessel would soon win its nickname, Old Ironsides.
Captain Isaac Hull of the Constitution and Captain James Dacres of the Guerriere were eager for a fight.
Hull, a native of Derby, Conn., had spent much of the prior month searching for a battle in which he could put the Constitution to work. His first encounter with a British squadron resulted in a slow-motion chase out of New York in light wind. The Constitution finally pulled from her pursuers by lowering her boats and having seamen pull the frigate by towing it. Hull also using kedging, a technique where a small boat carried the Constitution’s anchor ahead of it, dropped it and allowed the ship to pull itself forward by hauling in the anchor line.
With this escape from superior forces behind him, Hull was eager for a better match-up. And then he encountered Guerriere.
The two ships approached each other, and the Guerriere began firing at the Constitution while it largely sailed out of range. As one shot bounced off the hull of the Constitution, a seamen reportedly gave her the nickname that would last until this day. “Huzza,” he shouted, “her sides are made of iron!”
A relatively one-side fight followed. The Constitution, with a tougher hull, more and bigger guns and a better captain, quickly bested the Guerriere. During a 35-minute battle, Old Ironsides shot the Guerriere to pieces with her masts crashing on her decks.
With little choice, Dacres signaled surrender and struck his flag. With the British sailors transferred to the Constitution, Hull tried to keep the Guerriere afloat so that he could tow it home as a prize. But he had no hope of success. He ordered the vessel torched and he sailed toward Boston.
Hull had no practical reason to return to port, but he wanted the American public to learn of his victory. He thought it would shore up support for the war, which had proceeded badly for the American side. A defeat against the formidable Royal British Navy was welcome news.
The Constitution would go on to win four battles against British ships during the war. The battles had an immaterial effect on Britain, with its enormous navy. But the victories had a huge emotional impact, both in England and America. The Times of London summed it up after the defeat of the Guerriere:
It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, after, what we are free to confess, may be called a brave resistance, but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. … how important this triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war. Never before in the history of the world did an English frigate strike to an American.
The newspaper went on to suggest that Dacres should have perhaps gone down with his ship rather than surrender.
The Times was using a bit of hyperbole, as British ships were lost to American’s during the Revolution. Technically, though, it was an unprecedented blow that did much to bolster American morale.
Dacres would go on to face court martial for the loss of his ship, and he was cleared of any wrong doing. Hull, facing family pressures, would request and receive a transfer to run the Washington Navy Yard.
This story was updated in 2022.