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A Frigate Battle through Enemy Eyes

May 2, 2022 | By J. Travis Moger, PhD
Editor's Note: On May 10, 2022, Naval History and Heritage Command will commemorate the 225th anniversary of the launch of the first of the U.S. Navy's six frigates (United States), which began the new United States Navy. The launch of the frigates is a significant moment in both U.S. Navy and American history,  and the U.S. Navy's earliest heroes, achievements, and traditions are part of the six frigates story.

            At dawn on Sunday, October 25, 1812, HMS Macedonian, a 38-gun frigate under Captain John S. Carden, was cruising the Atlantic between the Azores and Cape Verde Islands, when a lookout called out, “Sail ho!” The vessel on the horizon was USS United States, a 44-gun frigate commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, hero of the 1804 raid on Tripoli Harbor. Four months earlier, the United States had declared war on Great Britain in the name of free trade and sailors’ rights, thus starting the War of 1812. Now two warships of the belligerent nations bore down on each other for a duel at sea.

            The commanders knew each other well. Earlier in the year, before the commencement of hostilities, Macedonian and United States had shared an anchorage for several weeks in Norfolk, Virginia, where the officers exchanged visits aboard each vessel. Carden allowed his men no liberty, fearing that the American sailors in his ship, especially those pressed into service, would desert once on their native soil. The British captain, however, went ashore and socialized at the home of Stephen Decatur and his wife Susan. The two officers were said to have wagered a beaver hat on the outcome of a future contest between their ships should they meet in combat.

            Months later as the two frigates met in battle, Macedonian held the weather gage or windward position. To maintain this tactical advantage, Carden steered a long, angling intercept course toward United States. At 9:00 am, the ships stood a mile apart. The American vessel fired first, but the rounds fell short, as did the reply from her adversary’s battery. Macedonian then maneuvered for her opponent’s “larboard quarter” or port side, which brought the ships closer. The British used their 18-pounder long guns, because the distance was too great for Macedonian’s short-range carronades. Over the next hour, the rate of fire increased as the opponents closed with each other.

            Given the disparity between the two frigates, the outcome was predictable if not inevitable. The United States had a larger crew and more powerful 24-pounder main guns with greater range than the Macedonian’s 18s. Decatur skillfully maneuvered his ship to stay beyond the reach of the British cannon fire while using his own to devastating effect. The United States shot away Macedonian’s mizzenmast and the tops of her two other masts. Her rigging was in pieces and several guns had been disabled, leaving Macedonian unable maneuver or fight effectively. By the end of the two-hour ordeal, more than a third of her crew had become casualties with 36 killed and 68 wounded. United States, which had suffered only moderate damage, now shot ahead to make repairs. From this position, the American frigate would be able to rake the British ship, firing down the length of the vessel with impunity—the naval equivalent of flanking one’s enemy. Seeing that his own vessel was “a perfect wreck” and defenseless, Carden struck his colors and surrendered to his Yankee foe. Three cheers went up from the sailors in United States.

            Years later, a British seaman named Samuel Leech described the scene from the Macedonian in his memoir, published in 1843 under the title A Voice from the Main Deck. Leech lost his father when he was three years old. After shifting from the care of one family member to another, he shipped out aboard the Macedonian at the age of twelve in pursuit of adventure. As a powder boy on a gun crew, he ran gunpowder cartridges from the magazine to his assigned cannon on the main deck. From this vantage, he witnessed the carnage inflicted by the American frigate.

            The sights and sounds of war were new and terrible to the young seaman. The incoming fire was so loud that Leech mistakenly thought the roar came from guns in another part of his own ship. He reported hearing “a strange noise . . . like the tearing of sails, just over our head,” which he soon realized was the wind of cannonballs whizzing above. Incoming shot struck with such speed that damage appeared without an apparent cause:

I was busily supplying my gun with powder, when I saw blood suddenly fly from the arm of a man stationed at our gun. I saw nothing strike him; the effect alone was visible; in an instant, the third lieutenant tied his handkerchief round the wounded arm, and sent the groaning wretch below to the surgeon.
Powder boy carrying cartridges
Powder boy carrying cartridges
Powder boy carrying cartridges
Powder boy carrying cartridges
Powder boy carrying cartridges
Photo By: Courtesy Photo
VIRIN: 220502-N-PB234-001

Leech had no time to gawk at the gruesome scenes around him. As powder boys fell, he struggled to keep multiple guns supplied with cartridges. Soon his own cannon was knocked out of action. A piece of the gun’s muzzle was shot away, and when the ship rolled the barrel struck an upper beam with such force that it jammed in place. He described the American “grape and canister shot . . . pouring through our portholes like leaden rain, carrying death in their trail.” As the cries of the wounded echoed throughout the ship, Leech recited the Lord’s Prayer to ease his fear of dying.

            Sailors had to keep the decks clear for fighting, so they unceremoniously threw the dead and mortally wounded into the sea. A man named Aldrich lost a hand, then another round tore open his abdomen, revealing his intestines. Judging his situation hopeless, his shipmates tossed the unfortunate fellow overboard still alive. A goat, kept by the officers for her milk, met the same fate when she lost both her hind legs.

            The end of the battle came as a great relief to Macedonian’s crew, despite the shame of surrender. “Suddenly, the rattling of iron hail ceased,” Leech recalled. “We were ordered to cease firing. A profound silence ensued, broken only by the stifled groans of the brave sufferers below.” Most of the officers and men, now prisoners of war, transferred to United States to await their fate. (No record exists of Carden giving Decatur a beaver hat for losing the bet, if there ever was one.) Leech stayed behind with a few others to help the surgeon care for the wounded, as an American officer took command of the stricken vessel.
Engagement between the American Frigate United States and the English Frigate Macedonian Surrendered after 17 Minutes of Fighting
Engagement between the American Frigate United States and the English Frigate Macedonian Surrendered after 17 Minutes of Fighting
Engagement between the American Frigate United States and the English Frigate Macedonian Surrendered after 17 Minutes of Fighting
Engagement between the American Frigate United States and the English Frigate Macedonian Surrendered after 17 Minutes of Fighting
Engagement between the American Frigate United States and the English Frigate Macedonian Surrendered after 17 Minutes of Fighting
Photo By: Naval History and Heritage Command
VIRIN: 220503-N-NH130-001

            The British reacted with astonishment at the loss of his majesty’s ship, which mirrored the defeat of HMS Guerriere by USS Constitution two months prior. The First Secretary of the Admiralty, John W. Croker, warned his officers of the American frigates’ size and strength: “though they may be called Frigates, [they] are of a size, Complement and weight of Metal much beyond that Class, and more resembling Line of Battle Ships.” He took the unprecedented step of ordering his frigate commanders not to engage their American counterparts in single-ship combat. In this way, the upstart U.S. Navy, tiny in comparison to the British fleet, earned the grudging respect of the most powerful navy in the world.
Further Reading: 
Leech, Samuel. With an introduction and notes by Michael J. Crawford. A Voice from the Main Deck: Being a Record of the Thirty Years’ Adventures of Samuel Leech. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999