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
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
"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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