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Cruise of the Gun-Brig "Argus"

Submitted by Jim Mathews

On June 18, the Brig "Argus" escaped the British Blockade of the New England coast under the command of a Lieutenant Allen.  "Argus" carried aboard as a passenger, a Mr. Crawford, a Georgia Patriot, and the newly appointed Minister to France from the United States.  The "Argus" shaped her course from New York to L'Orient, France where the Minister was safely discharged, as her primary mission directed, and then her young commander turned the bowsprit of the ten gun Brig into the English Channel in search of possible mischief against the British Lion.

  She (the "Argus") was almost immediately within the broad channel of British Commerce, and within sight of the white cliffs of Dover, she took and burned several British Merchant vessels.  In a period when prizes taken from an enemy could be condemned in a friendly port and sold for prize money to enrich the pockets of the "jackies" aboard the tiny "Argus" it was difficult indeed to fire, these captured vessels. However, all hands well understood that the "Argus" was thousands of miles from America, and their only recourse was to burn their captures, and bear the disappointments.  In addition the size of the crew of the "Argus" did not bear the consideration of detaching prize- crews to take the captured ships back to America, and rob the "Argus" of her ability to remain on station to harry the British sea commerce.

  After cruising for a time in the English Channel, and doing significant damage there, she decided to shift her cruising ground, before elements of the British Home Fleet found her with far heavier and better armed cruisers.  She had well sustained herself in rations and fresh water taken from the burned prizes, and Captain Allen now turned to the St. George's Channel and the Irish Sea, gained by sailing around Land's End, to further continue his depredations against the sea trade of England. He was now on the cruising ground to which the Naval Hero Paul Jones had carried the Stars and Stripes almost three and a half decades previously, and he was determined to do similar damage to the enemies of the U.S.

  For a month he continued his attacks on merchant ships here in this rich stretch of sea, until the British shipping magnates read with great trepidation the daily reports of the damage the "Argus" was doing to the merchant marine of the British Isles, i almost every British newspaper. Insurance rates soared to ruinous heights, and ships were held in port for fear of the audacious Yankee who was bringing to the British shores, the horrors of war, similar to the previous activities of a predecessor in the former Revolution.  British warships plowed the chops of the English and St. George's Channels, diligently searching for this American upstart, but the wily Captain Allen and his tiny charge were not to be found.

  In the late evening of the 13th of August, nearly two months after beginning her cruise, the "Argus" had found a British vessel sailing from O'Porto, Portugal with a cargo of wine.  The captured ship was routinely burned as the others, but the crew of the "Argus" managed to broach the wine cargo, and smuggled significant amounts back aboard the "Argus" as well as imbibing deeply in the hold of the British ship before setting it afire.  Once the wine-ship was fully alight, the "Argus" moved away under easy sail, but the flaming ship, attracted the attention of the HMS "Pelican" a brig-sloop, and she came down under full sail to determine the situation.  She saw "Argus" moving away and immediately gave chase.  Captain Allen allowed the "Pelican" to come up with "Argus" intending to add this warship to his list of British vessels taken and burned.  Captain Allen, had a great faith in his crew and his ship, and he was ready for this conflict.  He had often declared that "Argus" would never run from a ship of equal strength, and when he was offered the gage of battle he was eager and prompt to accept.  However, he was, unfortunately, ignorant of the half-intoxicated condition of his crew from the vast quantities of wine imbibed from the now distant burning prize!!!!!!!

  Day was just breaking and in the gray morning light "Pelican" came alongside.  On the 14th of August, at six o'clock in the morning, "Pelican" opened the conflict with her thirty-two pound carronades. These weapons were known in the British Navy as "smashers" since although they were both short-ranged and very light weapons as compared with a long nine or long twelve, they threw a prodigious ball at short ranges and were capable of severe damage when used with consideration of their other shortcomings.  "Argus" replied with spirit, and a sharp cannonade was soon underway. Four minutes after the first gun had fired, Captain Allen was struck by a round shot which took off his left leg.  His officers rushed to him and urged him to the cockpit where he could be at least bound up, but he resisted, saying he desired to remain on deck and fight his ship.  With his back to a mast he gave his orders and encouraged his crew, until he finally fainted from a fearsome loss of blood, whereupon he was carried below.

  The loss of their Captain so early in the fight was enough to discourage most crews, but the officers of the "Argus" carried on the fight with skill and energy.  Twice the "Argus" was swung into a raking position—a tactic designed to take advantage of the weakest part of the ship's structure, and pour broadside fire into either the bow or the stern to "rake" the length of the enemy ship.  However, both times the gun crews failed to seize the advantage, and both times the "Argus" fell off.

  "They (the gunners) seemed to be nodding over their guns," said one American officer after the battle.  The "Pelican" however showed no such signs of hesitation, and pursued the "Argus" with vigor.  "Pelican's" fire was rapid and well directed, and she moved with deliberation around her adversary which indicated not only that a seaman commanded her, but also a crew that was well-trained at both maneuvering their ship, and pursuing offensive action.  At last "Pelican" secured a position under the stern of "Argus" and lay there pouring destructive broadsides into her, until finally the American ship was forced to strike her colors. Just forty-seven minutes after the first gun bellowed out it's challenge, the battle came to an end.  The crew loss on the "Argus" amounted to six killed and seventeen wounded.

  This action was the most discreditable of the war for the Americans.  In this action, the Americans were simply outfought.  Both ships were very nearly equal in both armament and size.  "Pelican" possessed slightly the heavier metal, but in contrast, the "Argus" was seen to be slightly more nimble in close action.  It was also stated by those who had seen the phenomenon, that the gunpowder used by "Argus" was bad.  It had been taken out of one of the prizes to replenish the depleted magazine stores.  In proof of this poor quality of powder, one of the American officers stated that many shot striking the side of "Pelican" were seen to merely fall into the water, while still others, penetrating the enemy's skin, did little further damage.  All this, however, does not alter the fact that "Argus" was taken in a fair fight, and fairly beaten.

  Of this class of ships in the American navy, only one name shines out, in the annals of sea combat -- the "Lucky Enterprise."   All of her sister brigs, "Nautilus", "Vixen", "Siren", and the loss of the "Argus," above described, were taken.  Of all these ships mentioned, save "Enterprise," of course, only "Argus" was able to defend herself, the others being forced to yield to overwhelming superior force.

"Bluejackets of 1812", Willis J. Abbot, Dodd, Mead and Co., New York, NY, 1887.

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