’HEADERS HISTORY: Capt. Orne and the HMS Guerriere

Mark Hurwitz
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On Aug. 19, 1812, the crew of the USS Constitution saw a vessel in the distance. It was the HMS Guerriere. The Guerriere had been stopping American merchant vessels at sea and impressing their sailors.

The USS Constitution was the larger of the two vessels, boasting a larger crew, a thicker hull and six more guns. Even if the commander of Guerriere, Capt. James Dacres, knew he was outgunned and outmanned, he was still eager for a fight, telling others on board that if he became the first British captain to capture an American vessel, he would “be made for life!”

Considering it unjust to compel Americans to fire on their own countrymen, Dacres granted the 10 impressed American sailors aboard the Guerriere permission to stay below deck during the sea battle.

One of these Americans was Marblehead resident Capt. William Orne. Orne was in command of the brig Betsey when it was captured by the HMS Guerriere.

Constitution vs. HMS Guerriere

It was during this sea battle that the USS Constitution got its nickname, “Old Ironsides.”

To the amazement of Dacres and his crew, the 18-pound iron cannonballs launched from the Guerriere bounced off the USS Constitution’s 24-inch, triple-layered hull, which was made of white oak and live oak sheathed in copper forged by Paul Revere.

A painting donated by the Speiss family to the town depicts the battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere. The painting hangs in Abbot Hall’s auditorium. CURRENT PHOTO / WILLIAM J. DOWD

A British sailor aboard the Guerriere supposedly yelled out during the sea battle, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” Thus, the Constitution was christened “Old Ironsides.”

After several minutes of intense bombardment, the mizzenmast fell over the starboard side of the Guerriere and impaired its ability to maneuver. Within minutes, Guerriere’s bowsprit became entangled with Constitution’s mizzen rigging, and the two interlocked ships rotated clockwise. As both ships prepared boarding parties, sharpshooters in the mast tops rained down musket fire on each other. 

Dacres was wounded during the battle, and on the deck of Constitution, Lt. William Bush was shot. He later became the first U.S. Marine Corps officer to die in combat.

During the battle, the ships tore free of each other. Fifteen minutes after Guerriere’s mizzenmast fell, its foremast snapped and carried the mainmast with it. 

The HMS Guerriere was now a crippled vessel full of splintered wood and dying men. 

Realizing the hopelessness of the situation, the captain of the HMS Guerriere surrendered to the crew of the USS Constitution.

After discovering several feet of water in the hold of the Guerriere, the crew of the Constitution realized it could not be salvaged as a prize. That afternoon, the crew of the Constitution set the ship on fire, and it disappeared beneath the waves.

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