Constitution and Java
By Jim Mathews
Upon the victory which graced the action of the USS Constitution against HMS Guerriere, Captain Hull relinquished command of the "Constitution" to Captain Bainbridge. After a short refit the "Constitution" and "Hornet" left Boston on the 26th of October, 1812 and shaped their course at once for the south. "Hornet" was assigned to blockade duty at the port of San Salvadore on the coast of Brazil to prevent the departure of a British warship HMS Bonne Citoyenne (18) which was in that port with a cargo of specie for England.
"Constitution" continued her cruise alone and she had not far to go in order to find an enemy well worthy of her metal. Three days after parting with the "Hornet," two sail were made, well inshore. One of the vessels so sighted seemed to make for the land, as though anxious to avoid the American ship; while the other came about, and made her course boldly toward the "Constitution."
It was about nine o'clock on a bright December morning that the "Constitution" encountered the strange vessel, which bore down upon her. A light breeze sufficient to enable both vessels to maneuver, was blowing, but the surface of the ocean was as placid as a lake in the summer. The build of the stranger left no doubt of her warlike character, and the bold manner in which she sought the meeting with the American ship convinced Captain Bainbridge that he had fallen in with an enemy. The "Constitution" did not for a time meet the enemy's advances in kind. Back of the advancing frigate could be seen the low, dark coastline of Brazil, into whose neutral waters the Englishman could retreat, and thus gain protection, if the conflict would seem to go against him. Bainbridge determined that the coming battle should be fought beyond the possibility of escape for the vanquished, and therefore gradually drew away as the stranger came on. By noon the two ships were close enough together for their flags to be seen, and Bainbridge set his colors, and displayed private signals. The enemy did the same and though his signals were unintelligible, the flag that fluttered at the masthead was clearly the flag of Great Britain. Bainbridge continued his retreat for an hour longer, then being far enough from land, took in his mainsail and royals, and tacked towards the Englishman.
By this time the strange sail which had been sighted in company with the English ship had disappeared. The low-lying coast of Brazil had sunk below the horizon. From the deck of "Constitution" nothing could be seen but a vast circle of placid water, and the English frigate about a mile away to the windward, bearing down to open the fight. The drums beat, and the crew went quietly to their quarters. This was no longer the raw, untrained crew that had joined the ship some months before. They were veterans now with the victory over the HMS Guerriere under their belts and fresh in their remembrance, and now animated with a desire to add to their trophies the strange vessel then in sight. As the enemy, which proved to be the HMS Java (38), Captain Lambert, drew nearer, she hauled down her colors leaving only the jack flying.
The Englishman's action in hauling down his ensigns puzzled Captain Bainbridge, who sent a shot as an order that they be raised again. The response came in the form of a heavy broadside, and the action opened.
In the light wind that was blowing, the enemy proved the better sailer, and soon forged ahead. His object was to cross the bows of the American ship and get in a raking broadside,----the end aim of most of the naval maneuvering of the day------with his main battery of 18 pound long guns. By skilful handling of his vessel, Bainbridge avoided the Englishman's intent; and the fight continued broadside to broadside.
The firing of both ships was rapid and well directed, and after a half hour of hot contest the "Constitution" was seriously crippled by the carrying away of her wheel, by a well-aimed shot from the enemy ship. This action was also responsible for wounding Captain Bainbridge who had a copper bolt driven deep into his thigh.
Having no control over her rudder "Constitution's" head fell off the wind, her sails losing their drive and the British ship moved rapidly into an advantageous position. Hastily, the Americans rigged tackles to the rudder-post between decks, and a crew of the frigate's jacks were detailed to work the improvised helm.
"Constitution" now under control again delivered her first raking broadside which did terrible execution along the gun-deck of the "Java". The two ships then ran before the wind at half-pistol shot range exchanging heavy broadsides. At this game the Constitution was overwhelming "Java" with her 44---24 pounder guns in her main battery as opposed to "Java's" 38---18 pounders, and the English Captain determined to "close and board" in the dashing and fearless way that had made the British Navy the terror of all maritime peoples. "Java: bore down on "Constitution" and struck her on the quarter; the British ship's long jib-boom tearing it's way through the American ship's rigging.
On contact, however, "Java's" jib-boom, mizzenmast and bowsprit so damaged by the "Constitution's" gunners, gave way and the mizzenmast fell crashing through the maindeck. The "Constitution" separated and and wore ship. She now lay yardarm to yardarm with "Java" pounding the smaller ship with her heavier batteries. "Java's'" maintopmast went by the board and she was without her "fighting tops" which were so valuable in bearing on the enemies crew. The "Java" came on again intending to board and again she was put off by the heavy broadside of the "Constitution" this time killing Captain Lambert and wounding his premier, LT. Chads.
"Java" continued to fight fiercely under the command of her first Lt. but soon saw the loss of their foremast and finally the mainmast under "Constitution's" relentless gunfire. "Java" was now a mastless hulk lying in the ocean swell. The "Constitution" stood off to make some minor repairs and when she returned to take her prize Captain Bainbridge was surprised to see a jury foremast with sail rigged and "Java's" tattered ensign flying from the stump of her mizzenmast. The British ship was pumping heavily and hoped for a incautious moment to give "Java" another chance to grapple and board. Such was not to be, as Constitution under perfect control moved down to within no more than two hundred yards, and lay rocking gently in the swell, her guns run out and loaded waiting for the "Java" to decide the action. "Java's" flag came down as the "Constitution" ranged alongside and the battle was over.
"Java" proved to be a rich prize, as she was one of the best of the English frigates, and had been fitted up for the accommodation of the governor general of Bombay, General Hislop, and his staff. "Java" was too badly cut up to save, and her having lost 48 dead and one hundred and five wounded to "Constitution's" twelve killed and twenty wounded crowded the Constitution with a large number of extra men and taxed her accommodation and her medical capability to the limit. "Constitution" spent three days transferring men and supplies between ships with the only two small boats left from the conflict. On the third day "Constitution" fired the "Java" hulk and bore away for San Salvadore where she discharged her American prisoners under parole not to serve further against the United States. This was the final warfare on the ocean for the year 1812 between the two belligerent nations. The honors were largely in the possession of the U.S. Navy a fact which gave the new country a new feeling of victory and confidence for the remaining years of the war.
Return to table of contents