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The General Armstrong

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The island of Faial1 in the Azores (a small group of islands located in the North Atlantic off the coast of Portugal) is a convenient place for ships to renew their supplies while crossing the Atlantic ocean. Today the harbour of Horta is full of yachts relaxing either before or after crossing the major portion of the 'pond'2, but during the long years of the Napoleonic wars it was a quiet roadstead that could provide water and provisions to the British warships that were blockading most of the coast of Europe. When Napoleon's empire collapsed in the spring of 1814 only the British and United States remained at war. Horta was declared a neutral port so it was not that strange that a small American privateer, the General Armstrong, lay at anchor when a squadron of three British men of war sailed into the bay. The events that followed this chance encounter may well have changed history forever.

The Background

The situation between the United States and Great Britain had been uneasy from the time the United States was granted its independence. Britain was involved in open combat against Napoleon and was straining its resources to maintain a blockade against almost the entire coast of Europe. The British Navy's need for large crews resulted in a system of forced enlistment either by court sentence or merely impressing any likely subject who happened to be at the wrong place while a ship was recruiting.

American ships were engaged in trading with both Britain and her enemies and as a neutral party the US ships sailed in and out of France with impunity. In an effort to stop any violation of the blockade, a law was passed that required all American ships to enter a British port for inspection before proceeding into any other European port. The French government responded with a law that allowed any ship that sailed from a British port to be seized as soon as it entered French waters. This all came to a head on 22 June, 1807, when - after the HMS Leopard fired into the USS Chesapeake on the high seas, killing three crewmen, wounding another 18 and Impressing another four as deserters from the Royal Navy) - the US government passed the Embargo Act. This Act made it illegal for any American ship to trade with either government, and closed American ports to European Ships.

The British presence in Canada was seen as a real threat to the young United States and with the number of troops engaged in Europe there was a real possibility that this could also be removed. In 1812 the United States declared war on Great Britain. The exact cause, details of the battles and the outcome of this war are still hotly debated by the decedents of each side.

The Privateer

It was the custom for governments to issue licences, or 'letters of marque', for private ships to arm themselves and attack the merchant ships of their enemies on the high seas. The reward for the risk was that the owners and crews could sell whatever ships and cargo they captured and divide the profits. The line between a 'privateer' and an outright pirate were thin and often crossed when an unwary neutral ship crossed paths with a hungry privateer. Many famous and infamous captains sailed at one time or another with a letter of marque - these include Sir Francis Drake, Henry Morgan and Jean Lafete. The latter sailed from the bayous of Louisiana but carried licences from a few of the revolutionary governments of Central and South America.

The topsail schooner General Armstrong was probably built in the style of a 'Baltimore clipper': a very fast design that had a narrow hull and extremely large sails mounted on two masts. Once at sea she would use her speed to avoid any warship, even the smallest of which carried far more cannons and could almost certainly win a toe-to-toe3 fight. However, the merchant ships that sailed around the world carrying supplies and produce to and from Britain's colonies were her prey. As was common in her day the General Armstrong carried eight cannons and mounted four on each side that fired a nine-pound iron ball. She also had a large cannon mounted on a special carriage that could be swung to face the enemy on either side and could fire a 24-pound iron ball. The crew nicknamed this gun 'Long Tom'.

The command of the General Armstrong was given to Samuel Chester Reid. Captain Reid's father had been a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy who was captured in 1780 while participating in a raid against New London, Connecticut. As an officer he was given his parole under the supervision of Judge Chester of Norwalk, Connecticut. It is apparent that, soon after, he was enamoured by the judge's daughter Rebecca; they were married and son Samuel was born in 1783. Samuel joined the US Navy as a powder monkey4 and worked his way up to midshipman aboard the Baltimore during the 'quasi-war' with France.

The British Squadron

The British squadron had been assembled to carry veteran troops and supplies from the recent campaigns on the Iberian Peninsula to the Caribbean island of Jamaica where Admiral Cockburn was planning attacks on the gulf coast of the United States:

The Ship of the Line

The largest of the British ships was the 74-gun ship of the line Plantagenet. Built at Woolwich in 1803, she carried two full decks of cannon as well as those carried on her upper decks. While serving in American waters Captain Robert Lloyd was transferred to her command. He had previously had temporary command of the frigate Guerriere and he reported two men had escaped to Long Island from his ship. His opinion on these deserters were certainly not tempered when he learned that the Guerriere, under the command of Captain Decres, was defeated and destroyed by the American frigate Constitution that had slipped through the blockade. Captain Lloyd was the senior officer of the squadron at Faial and therefore had overall command.

The Frigate

Captured after the battle of Copenhagen the Rota was a 38-gun frigate, having a single full deck of cannon as well as those on her upper decks. The Rota was under the command of Captain Philip Somerville.

The Brigs

One of the smaller vessels in the squadron, the 18-gun brig Carnation had only two masts and all her guns were mounted on her upper deck. She had been built in 1813 in Southampton with her design based on the brig Cruizer. She was under the command of George Bentham who, although addressed as captain out of respect, probably held the official rank of commander.

The Calypso was a sister ship of the Carnation that was built in 1802 at Deptford. Her commander was Thomas Groube.

Built in 1806 at Dartmouth the Thais was another 18-gun brig, though she was slightly different in design and was under the command of Edward Scobell.

The Events

23 July, 1814

The town of Horta was still celebrating the end of the war against Napoleon when the Calypso and Thais arrived and their officers joined in with local people at the festivities.

9 September, 1814

The British squadron departed Horta after purchasing some £2,700 worth of supplies and provisions.

By coincidence on the night of this same day, on the other side of the Atlantic the privateer General Armstrong slipped past the British fleet that was guarding the port of New York City.

26 September, 1814

After her crossing, the General Armstrong was running low on water and had decided to enter the port of Horta to renew her supplies. After meeting with the American council ashore they approached the Military Governor to request the necessary water and the Governor consented that they could spend 24 hours in port to attend to their needs, even though they were a private ship and not entitled to the rights of a commissioned warship.

As the afternoon wore on, the sails of the brig Carnation appeared over the horizon, headed for the harbour. Following behind was the Rota and finally the huge Plantagenet. The wind was falling and there were still some 19 hours remaining for her stay so the Americans watched and trusted that the port's neutrality would be honoured. Captain Reid who, due to the wind, was unable to escape with his vessel's superior speed, decided to shift his anchorage to a spot close under the castle of Santa Cruz. The Carnation began lowering her boats to inspect the stranger.

Here, the accounts of the surviving Americans, the official reports of the British, and the observations of the Portuguese Governor begin to differ. As might be expected, both combatants colour the events to bolster their own moves and the observers ashore lacked the necessary knowledge of ships to clarify fully. This report strives to be as objective as possible with the information available and will, from time to time, give both sides of the story.

The First Encounter

Most accounts agree that the Carnation lowered four boats that began rowing toward the American privateer. In fear that the British intended to board the General Armstrong with the intent of either capture of the ship itself or to try to seize some of her crew as deserters, Captain Reid warned them to keep off or he would fire into the boats. The boats came nearer and Captain Reid himself took over the job of aiming 'Long Tom' and commenced firing into the boats. The British returned to their ship with two men dead and another seven wounded. One British report states that the only approach to the General Arnold was the Plantagenet's pinnacle, and the action of the American schooner in getting underway made it impossible for the boat to stay clear of the schooner. Both these reports agree on the number of casualties. It should be noted here that all vessels who enter a foreign port are required to go ashore and register with the harbour master. Both the British and Americans had a council ashore whose job it was to keep track of the traffic in the port, and to make official requests or protests to each other. The radical design of the Baltimore clipper itself would be sufficient for any experienced sailor to identify her as an American ship at this time.

After getting his squadron safely anchored Captain Lloyd sent a note ashore claiming that the Americans had violated the neutrality of the port and demanded that all the 'pirates' be arrested immediately and he be personally allowed to inspect them because he was sure that the two men who had deserted from the Guerriere were part of the crew - he felt it likely that several British subjects had also joined the schooner. The Governor refused and asked that Lloyd respect the neutrality of Portugal. Lloyd threatened to open fire on the privateer even if it meant knocking down half the town, and afterwards he would use his squadron to blockade Horta as an enemy harbour. The Governor refused to allow even the force of the squadron to insult his country's independence.

The Second Encounter

A dozen or so boats were assembled and manned by about 400 sailors and marines from the squadron. Again the British account differs, stating that it was in fact seven boats and 180 men. Each of the boats had a small cannon mounted in its bows5. After spending a few hours organising themselves for the attack they began to pull for the privateer around midnight. The night sky was shattered by the gunfire from the boats and the replies from the schooner. First 'Long Tom', with its greater range and power, and the smaller cannon joined in. Two of the boats were sunk by the cannon fire and the others received a severe battering. Finally, at about 0200 hours, the boats reached the General Armstrong. Captain Reid took control over part of the crew to defend the back of the schooner while his first lieutenant took command of the crew at the front. Reid managed to keep anyone from boarding at his end of the schooner but at the bow the British managed to swarm aboard shouting 'no quarter' as they came. In the fierce hand-to-hand fighting all three of the American lieutenants were killed or wounded. The schooner was in real danger of capture when Reid led his men the length of the deck and managed to drive the British back into their boats. Bloody and weary, the survivors made their way back to the squadron. This did nothing to dispel Captain Lloyd's rage.

The Following Morning

As dawn came to the harbour, its surface was littered with wreckage, abandoned boats and the bodies of the dead. The British squadron still laid at anchor in the roadstead while, huddled under the walls of the castle, the General Armstrong sat defiantly between her anchors. Realising the hopeless odds facing them and now knowing that there could be no relief from any outside force, Captain Reid ordered the dead and wounded be taken ashore while he remained with a picked number of the crew to do what they could in the attack that was sure to come. Soon, the Carnation was underway with her gun ports open. Once again the schooner's guns barked in protest, and yet another battle was underway. After a short fight the brig's fore topmast was shot through and the Carnation withdrew to make repairs. Long before noon the Carnation once again approached the battered General Armstrong and Captain Reid realised that with the almost unlimited resources of the squadron his privateer would never be able to leave Horta. Reid ordered his schooner to scuttle and the remaining crew to go ashore. As the British arrived, the schooner was set on fire.

Captain Lloyd sent another letter ashore demanding once again that he be given any British subject who might be found among the crew and that the rest be immediately arrested or forced to leave the island lest they commit crimes against the British subjects who lived on the island. Once again the Governor refused. The crew of the General Armstrong took refuge in an abandoned convent which was a good defensible position where they waited to defend themselves at all costs. That attack never came.

The Aftermath

Captain Lloyd had had enough of these stubborn Yankees6 and after burying his dead he had his ships sail a blockade of the port until the Calypso and Thais arrived. Rather than depart for Jamaica immediately (as he had been ordered) he had to send two of the brigs back to England, filled with the severely wounded. The bottom line is that the battle of Faial delayed the squadron's departure by at least three weeks. It is probably significant that the mission of the squadron was to bring troops and supplies to Jamaica where the assault force was forming to attack the city of New Orleans. History tells us that Andrew Jackson and his army arrived at the city barely four days before the attack. Had the British forces arrived first it is quite likely that the city would have fallen with only token resistance. Even though the battle was technically fought after the treaty had been signed, it is unlikely that the British would have given back control of the Mississippi river had they secured it.

Of the 90 men on the General Armstrong, two were killed (including one of the lieutenants) and seven were wounded. Of more than 2,000 men in the British squadron, estimates range from 210 killed and 140 wounded down to 34 dead and 85 wounded. The Portuguese account places the figure at about 130 killed and 130 wounded, 50 of them seriously.

The battle was highly celebrated as a great victory in the United States, even though the General Armstong had been lost; her crew had, after all, been saved from capture by the British. Samuel Reid was given the rank of sailing master in the US Navy. The flag during the war was marked by 15 stars and 15 stripes, signifying the 15 states that existed at the start of the war. By the end of the war the number of states had swelled to 20 and it became clear that adding stripes at that rate would soon make the flag look very strange. It was Samuel Reid who suggested that the number of stripes be set at 13 for the original colonies and only a star would be added for each new state. This custom is still used today. Reid went on to serve as harbourmaster for the port of New York were he made many important innovations.

1In accounts of the time the island's name is spelled 'Fayal.'2More properly, the North Atlantic Ocean.3The nautical equivalent of 'head-to-head', deriving from the times when ships' prows extendered forward underwater for ramming purposes, appearing like giant feet.4 Young boys who carried bags of gunpowder to the cannons when the ship was fighting.5The bow is the front of the boat.6We hasten to add that this was his personal feeling and not those of the author or editors.

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