THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (Dec. 23-Dec. 29)
Old Ironsides vs. the Java
The U.S. frigate Constitution is cruising the South Atlantic off Brazil when she encounters the HMS Java on Dec. 29. The 44-gun Constitution, known as “Old Ironsides” after defeating the British frigate HMS Guerriere in August, is one of the six original U.S. frigates built under the Naval Act of 1794.
The Java, a 38-gun frigate of the same class as the Guerriere, is commaned by Captain Henry Lambert, Royal Navy. Lambert cuts loose with a broadside when William Bainbridge, the Constitution’s commander, hails the British ship. Constitution’s rigging is severely damaged but the U.S. frigate answers Java with a series of her own broadsides.
A cannon ball from Java wrecks the Constitution’s steering wheel — known as the helm — and Bainbridge (twice wounded in the battle) orders the crew to steer Old Ironsides manually using the ship’s tiller.
Java’s bowsprit gets entangled in the Constitution’s rigging allowing Bainbridge to continue raking the British ship with cannon fire. After two and half hours of firing, Bainbridge sails out of range to make emergency repairs, returning an hour later to confront the ruined Java. Unmanageable and with most of the crew wounded, the Java surrenders.
Bainbridge determines the Java is too damaged to seize as a prize, so he orders the British ship burned — after transferring her crew to his vessel and ordering Java’s wheel salvaged and put on the Constitution.
Java is the third British frigate to fall to an American frigate, so the British Admiralty orders all its frigates to steer clear of the heavier American ships and not tangle with them one-on-one. Only the massive ships of the line or a squadron of warships are henceforth permitted to attack U.S. frigates.
Still afloat at age 215, the Boston-built USS Constitution today remains the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel.
Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Naval Warfare, Skills and Training, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Traditions. Tags: frigate, Naval War of 1812, Navy, USS Constitution vs. HMS Java, War of 1812 Bicentennial.