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Wasp v Reindeer, 1814

Theodore Roosevelt's The Naval War of 1812 contains the following stirring account of an action between an American and a British sloop. Actually the rather purple prose of this extract is not quite typical for the whole book, in which the events on the high seas and the great lakes are described in a dispassionate and objective manner.



The third of the new [American] sloops to get to sea was the Wasp, 22, Captain Johnston Blakely, which left Portsmouth [New Hampshire] on May 1st, with a very fine crew of 173 men, almost exclusively New Englanders; there was said not to have been a single foreign seaman on board. It is, at all events, certain that during the whole war no vessel was ever better manned and commanded than this daring and resolute cruiser. The Wasp slipped unperceived through the blockading frigates, and ran into the mouth of the English Channel, right in the thick of the English cruisers; here she remained several weeks, burning and scuttling many ships. Finally, on June 28th, at 4 A.M., in lat. 48° 36' N., long. 11° 15' W., while in chase of two merchant-men, a sail was made on the weather-beam. This was the British brig-sloop Reindeer, 18, Captain William Manners, with a crew of 118, as brave men as ever sailed or fought on the narrow seas. Like the Peacock (British) the Reindeer was only armed with 24 pounders, and Captain Manners must have known well that he was to do battle with a foe heavier than himself; but there was no more gallant seaman in the whole British navy, fertile as it was in men who cared but little for odds of size or strength. As the day broke, the Reindeer made sail for the Wasp, then lying in the west-southwest.

The sky was overcast with clouds, and the smoothness of the sea was hardly disturbed by the light breeze that blew out of the northeast. Captain Blakely hauled up and stood for his antagonist, as the latter came slowly down with the wind nearly aft, and so light was the weather that the vessels kept almost on even keels. It was not till quarter past one that the Wasp's drum rolled out its loud challenge as it beat to quarters, and a few minutes afterward the ship put about and stood for the foe, thinking to weather him; but at 1.50 the brig also tacked and stood away, each of the cool and skilful captains being bent on keeping the weather-gage. At half past two the Reindeer again tacked, and, taking in her stay-sails, stood for the Wasp, who furled her royals; and, seeing that she would be weathered, at 2.50, put about in her turn and ran off, with the wind a little forward the port beam, brailing up the mizzen, while the Reindeer hoisted her flying-jib, to close, and gradually came up on the Wasp's weather-quarter. At 17 minutes past three, when the vessels were nor sixty yards apart, the British opened the conflict, firing the shifting 12-pound carronade, loaded with round and grape. To this the Americans could make no return, and it was again loaded and fired, with the utmost deliberation this was repeated five times, and would have been a trying ordeal to a crew less perfectly disciplined than the Wasp's. At 3.26 Captain Blakely, finding his enemy did not get on his beam, put his helm a-lee and luffed up, firing his guns from aft forward as they bore. For ten minutes the ship and the brig lay abreast, not twenty yards apart, while the cannonade was terribly destructive. The concussion of the explosions almost deadened what little way the vessels had on, and the smoke hung over them like a pall. The men worked at the guns with desperate energy, but the odds in weight of metal (3 to 2) were too great against the Reindeer, where both sides played their parts so manfully. Captain Manners stood at his post, as resolute as ever, though wounded again and again. A grape-shot passed through both his thighs, bringing him to the deck; but, maimed and bleeding to death, he sprang to his feet, cheering on the seamen. The vessels were now almost touching, and putting his helm aweather, he ran the Wasp aboard on her port quarter, while the boarders gathered forward, to try it with the steel. But the Carolina captain had prepared for this with cool confidence; the marines came aft; close under the bulwarks crouched the boarders, grasping in their hands the naked cutlasses, while behind them were drawn up the pikemen.

As the vessels came grinding together the men hacked and thrust at one another through the open port-holes, while the black smoke curled up from between the hulls. Then through the smoke appeared the grim faces of the British sea-dogs, and the fighting was bloody enough; for the stubborn English stood well in the hard hand play. But those who escaped the deadly fire of the topmen, escaped only to be riddled through by the long Yankee pikes; so, avenged by their own hands, the foremost of the assailants died, and the others gave back. The attack was foiled though the Reindeer's marines kept answering well the American fire. Then the English captain, already mortally wounded, but with the indomitable courage that nothing but death could conquer, cheering and rallying his men, himself sprang, sword in hand, into the rigging, to lead them on; and they followed him with a will. At that instant a ball from the Wasp's main-top crashed through his skull, and, still clenching in his right hand the sword he had shown he could wear so worthily, with his face to the foe, he fell back on his own deck dead, while above him yet floated the flag for which he had given his life. No Norse Viking, slain over shield, ever died better. As the British leader fell and his men recoiled, Captain Blakely passed the word to board; with wild hurrahs the boarders swarmed over the hammock nettings, there was a moment's furious struggle, the surviving British were slain or driven below, and the captain's clerk, the highest officer left, surrendered the brig, at 3.44, just 27 minutes after the Reindeer had fired the first gun, and just 18 after the Wasp had responded.

Both ships had suffered severely in the short struggle; but, as with the Shannon and Chesapeake, the injuries were much less severe aloft than in the hulls. All the spars were in their places. The Wasp's hull had received 6 round, and many grape; a 24-pound shot had passed through the foremast; and of her crew of 173, 11 were killed or mortally wounded, and 15 wounded severely or slightly. The Reindeer was completely cut to pieces in a line with her ports; her upper works, boats, and spare spars being one entire wreck. Of her crew of 118 men, 33 were killed outright or died later, and 34 were wounded, nearly all severely.

Comparative force:
Wasp: 509 tons, 11 broadside guns, 315 lbs weight of metal, 173 men, 26 lost
Reindeer: 477 tons, 10 broadside guns, 210 lbs weight of metal, 118 men, 67 lost

It is thus seen that the Reindeer fought at a greater disadvantage than any other of the various British sloops that were captured in single action during the war; and yet she made a better fight than any of them (though the Frolic, and the Frolic only, was defended with the same desperate courage); a pretty sure proof that heavy metal is not the only factor to be considered in accounting for the American victories. "It is difficult to say which vessel behaved the best in this short but gallant combat." (Cooper ii 287). I doubt if the war produced two better single-ship commanders than Captain Blakely and Captain Manners; and an equal meed of praise attaches to both crews. The British could rightly say that they yielded purely to heavy odds in men and metal; and the Americans, that the difference in execution was fully proportioned to the difference in force. It is difficult to know which to admire most, the wary skill with which each captain manoeuvred before the fight, the perfect training and discipline that their crews showed, the decision and promptitude with which Captain Manners tried to retrieve the day by boarding, and the desperate bravery with which the attempt was made; or the readiness with which Captain Blakely made his preparations, and the cool courage with which the assault was foiled. All people of the English stock, no matter on which side of the Atlantic they live, if they have any pride in the many feats of fierce prowess done by the men of their blood and race, should never forget this fight; although we cannot but feel grieved to find that such men - men of one race and one speech; brothers in blood, as well as in bravery - should ever have had to turn their weapons against one another.

The day after the conflict the prize's foremast went by the board, and, as she was much damaged by shot, Captain Blakely burned her, put a portion of his wounded prisoners on board a neutral, and with the remainder proceeded to France, reaching l'Orient on the 8th day of July [1814].


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