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WAR OF '12.

W. H. Macy

Flag of Our Union
Vol. 24, No. 25 (Jun 19, 1869)
pp. 396-397

[Written for The Flag of our Union.]



      The leading incidents of the following strange but veritable story of the sea were gathered during a visit, some twenty years ago, to that most delightful and unique watering-place, Nantucket. My informant, a stalwart representative of the ocean-chivalry of that goodly island, was an eye-witness and an actor therein. Old Father Time has dealt gently with him, and his powers of memory as to details are still unimpaired by the wear and tear of more than seventy-five years; while his eye kindles with all the fire of early manhood, as he poises his heavy cane, throws his weight upon one leg, bent to fit the "clumsy-cleet," while the other foot is thrown back, as if feeling for the "harp'neer thwart," and thus fights over again his battles with leviathan, or dwells, with a zest which no distance of elapsed time can diminish, upon this and other episodes of the stirring "war-time." I have taken the liberty of throwing the original oral statements of the eloquent veteran into a more literary and connected form, though not at all to the improvement of the unvarnished tale, could all my readers hear it, as I have, from his own lips.

      The sunlight of a fine tropical morning glittered upon the broad expanse of the beautiful ocean, which, in its lower latitudes at least, is worthy of its name of Pacific, lighting up with its earliest beams the hazy, distant outline of Albemarle Island, and bringing out in strong relief the sterile face of Roca Redonda in the foreground of the picture, standing like an outlying sentinel from the main body of the group known as the Galapagos, the "Enchanted Islands" of the early Spanish discoverers. The heavy dews, which serve in some measure to compensate for the scarcity of rain in this part of the world, were quickly dispelled before its influence; the mist exhaled from the slumbering ocean, and revealed the horizon-line to seaward, broken in the northern board by the sturdy but graceful proportions of the little ship Ruth Ann, sitting as on a sea of glass, the lazy canvas hanging from her clumsy yards, and the heavy rigging about her mastheads looming out of all proportion to the diminutive, rusty hull. She is a fair specimen of the Yankee "Cape-Horner" of the date to which the reader is expected to carry his mind backward, the year of grace eighteen hundred and thirteen, and the second of the famous "war-times." But little more than two hundred tons burden, the Ruth Ann is fully equipped as a ship with three square-rigged masts, shrouded and back-stayed like a modern vessel of three times her tonnage, with quite as much hoist in the nape of her topsails, but with little to boast of in the squareness of her yards, for the sufficient reason that her masts are stepped so near together as to allow scarcely room to brace them up, short as they are. This fact, together with the tumble in build of her top-sides, and the heavy, old-time arrangement of her projecting channels, crowded with a system of ponderous dead-eyes and lanyards, gives her a pinched-up and lumbered appearance, in striking contrast with that of the spacious and graceful clipper of to-day, in which the perfection of airy neatness and strength is so happily combined. The old galliot style of marine architecture was adhered to in the lines of her stern and counters, while her cutwater, guiltless of any ornamental head, was little more than a rude, perpendicular post that appeared to have been dropped endwise over the bows. She boasted quarter-bulwarks, extending as far as the mainmast; but forward of this, a mere openwork of rails and stanchions afforded a view of what was going on inboard. A still better one may be obtained if we assume the privilege of a story-teller and climb in on deck, making ourselves at home with the ease and facility which are known to characterize all mariners in their casual encounters at sea.

      All hands are astir on board the Ruth Ann, and the practical, unromantic operation of washing down decks is going forward, as indeed was apparent from the movements of a seaman in the main-chains, swinging a cumbrous draw-bucket into the air with a jerk, to be caught by another seated astride the main-rail. The first lookouts of the morning have already taken their stations aloft, searching the horizon with eager eyes, for we are "on the ground" where the welcome alarm denoting the presence of the huge spermaceti whale may be expected at any moment. The inspiring cry of "Look sharp, there, and raise 'em up!" is thrown skyward from the strong lungs of a tall, gaunt, amphibious specimen under a broad-brimmed hat, who has just swung one leg out of the companionway, and planted the naked foot thereof in a puddle of sea-water dashed from a deck-bucket, and appears to revel like a duck in the cool element. This is no less a personage than Captain Gardner, the reigning potentate and skipper of the gallant Ruth Ann – Hercules Gardner – especially and emphatically Hercules – though why his sponsors, who were highly respectable members of the Society of Friends, had christened him after a barbarous heathen god, had ever been a mystery to himself, as well as to all his neighbors. But, being himself somewhat of a backslider from the faith of his ancestors, he was well content, and indeed rather proud of his name; though he had a vague idea that it must have been something else during his babyhood. But here he was, a grown-up Hercules; he was no myth, whatever his redoubtable namesake might have been. Little he knew of Cretan wild boars or Lernean hydras, but in numerous encounters with the sea-monsters of the Pacific he had proved himself a "high-killer," and, on this particular morning, he was especially sharp-set, and eager to grease his lance.

      "The current hain't set us off much through the night, Mr. Hussey," he said, addressing his mate, who was wading ankle-deep, with his trousers rolled up at the bottom, overseeing a platoon of scrubbers, who seemed inclined to rest on their arms to listen to the opening speech of royalty. "There's old Rock Dunder about the same distance off, and we couldn't be in a better spot to see whales. If there was a stake drove down here, I'd get out a hawser and tie her up to it. I wouldn't be partick'ler about scrubbing her off very nice, for I think we shall grease her up again before night."

      "I hope we shall, sir," answered his executive, "Fleet forward there with your brooms! Wash down, boatsteerers, as fast as you can. I reckon I'll go to the masthead myself, and see if I can't scare up something before breakfast."

      "If they aint there, they aint any where," pursued Hercules. "Took nine hund'ed barrels here when I was in the Sukey, and never put out the fires. Couldn't get casks fast enough to put it in. Shovelled bread overboard by the cart-load; knocked the bungs out of molasses casks, and let her run out of the scuppers; filled her chock to the beams, and blocked her right bang up to the deck with turpin. Dragged out some of 'em, all alive and kicking, when we got into Oldtown. Here we are on the old ground, with Rock Dunder for a landmark, and we can stow the chart and quad'ant away in the ground-tier, till the current drifts us out of sight of it again. One old square-head will make us up to a thousand barrels, and we ought to get him to-day. Doughnuts! Doughnuts! " he continued, raising his voice for the benefit of all hands, those aloft, as well as the deck-washers. "D'ye hear there? A barrel of flour to make into doughnuts, as soon as the next whale goes into the pots!"

      The welcome announcement was received with a general grin of satisfaction, for it was a time-honored custom on board Nantucket ships to treat the crew with an extensive batch of this truly Yankee luxury, to be fried in the oil of the whale which made up the "thousand-barrel fare." Much weight was attached to a matter of this sort, which might seem trifling to a landsman; it was a sort of festival, in a small way, and served to mark and commemorate an epoch of some importance in the history of a long voyage.

      Having thrown out this liberal promise as an incentive to vigilance, Hercules fell into his accustomed march fore and aft his little quarter-deck, indulging in further reminiscences of greasy luck on past voyages, which took the form of a monologue, being addressed to no one in particular, after his mate had gone aloft.

      The brooms and swabs had done their duty for the day, and been returned to their places; the deck-buckets hung up in line; the huge land-tortoises, horribly ugly to look at, but savory to the palate, had subsided into their comfortable corners about the main-deck; the shining face of the steward protruding from the cabin door, reported, "Breakfast ready, sir!" and the captain's face was upturned to repeat the call to Mr. Hussey, when it was anticipated by the cry of –

      Sa-a-il ho!" and the word "Breakfast!" at his tongue's end, was changed to the formal interrogatory:

      "Where away?"

      "Off the lee beam, sir," was the answer.

      "Which way is he headed?"

      "On the same tack with us."

      "That's Josh Folger, I suppose. He's been in-shore, turpinin'. I don't believe he's got anything since we spoke to him last. Is he b'ilin'?"

      "No, sir; nor it's not Folger, either," answered the first officer, confidently.

      "How do you know?"

      "It's a sloop chasing a brig, sir."

      This phrase was well understood as being derisively applied to a barque, a class of vessels at that time outlawed by Nantucketers, who were, in the full sense of the word, "square-rigged sailors." It settled the question at once as regarded Joshua Folger, who was in command of the Reliance, a sister ship to the Ruth Ann, and fitted by the same owner.

      "He has got more wind down there than we have," continued Mr. Hussey, "and is working up fast towards us."

      "Well, come, breakfast!" cried Captain Gardner. "We shall have a fresh breeze ourselves within an hour or two, I think. Keep a sharp eye on that fellow, Nathan," he continued to the other man at the masthead. "These is war-times, you know."

      And that was nearly all that either of them knew about the matter; for the ship had sailed from home before the formal declaration, though collision with Great Britain had been expected for some time. Now and then flying rumors had reached their ears of the progress of the struggle, and of the presence of English men-of-war in the Pacific, but little that was direct or reliable. It was said that English whalers had sailed for this cruising-ground, commissioned also to take prizes, and formidably armed and manned for that purpose; but no such unwelcome visitors had been seen. Just enough was known to excite suspicion of any new-comer, and such this stranger undoubtedly was.

      The skipper's morning meal was swallowed in less time than would have been the case under ordinary circumstances, and, slinging his own favorite spy-glass to his neck, he mounted the rigging to reconnoitre in person. The breeze was freshening, and the clumsy little ship was gathering headway under its impulse; but she was no racer, and though the captain himself had the seaman-like weakness of bragging a little upon his vessel, the more candid Mr. Hussey was accustomed to boast, jokingly, that she hadn't seen anything the voyage that couldn't beat her, and that when close-hauled, she would "make three bobs at a head sea, and then swing off and go round it." The barque must be dull, indeed, if the Ruth Ann could escape from her on this point of sailing, and a careful scrutiny through the telescope made the captain more suspicious and fidgety, as it satisfied him that she was in every way his superior.

      Already broad on the lee bow, and eating up to windward at a rate that left no doubt as to her sailing qualities, it was apparent that a few tacks would enable her to overhaul the ship, if, indeed, such was her intention. Trimmed sharp under all the canvas that would draw, she was making rapid way through the water, and Nathan testified that she had set her royals since he had been looking at her, and while the captain was below.

      "'Tisn't Josh Folger, that's a sure thing," soliloquized the captain, with his eye at the telescope. "Nor 'tisn't anybody else that we've ever seen before on this ground. I can't tell much about him until he's hull up, but I don't like the look of him much, and, if he really wants to speak us, I can make him show his hand, if I can't get away from him. Put her round on the other tack, Mr. Hussey," he continued, hailing the deck, and still keeping his glass directed at the barque, while the manoeuvre was being performed. The after sails swung and filled, but before the order "Let go and haul!" was given, the stranger's jibs were shivering, and he came round like a top, heading nearly up in the wake of the chase. No more sail could be made on the Ruth Ann, as she carried nothing above topgallant-sails, and was now doing her best.

      "He's after us, sure enough," said Hercules, as he descended to the deck. "He may be an innocent spouter like ourselves, but if he's a privateer, or a letter o' marque, it's all up with our v'y'ge before many hours. He can't be a regular man-o'-war, with that finback rig."

      "If he's a British whaler, we are ready to fight," said his mate.

      "Fight him! Yes, we might, if he would give us a chance at close quarters, but if he is armed, he won't do that. He'll just lay off, long darts, and bore us through and through, and we can do nothing but sit still and take it. He's a Britisher, no doubt, and a large vessel, as I judge by the space between his masts when he hove in stays."

      Many were the anxious glances directed off the lee quarter during the next two hours, and all sorts of conjectures were made among the crew as to the character of the stranger rapidly and steadily gaining upon them. All were, of course, interested in the cargo; indeed, the whole of each seaman's worldly wealth was under the narrow deck on which he trod, and it was hard to contemplate the probability of being obliged to surrender it, with no chance to strike a blow in defence – to say nothing of his after-fate in the dreaded prison-hulks of England, which old Revolutionary traditions had rendered so notorious. Most of the crew were natives of Nantucket, and all had sailed from home in the ship; for at that period there was little inducement or opportunity for desertion on the Pacific side of Cape Horn, and ships returned from long voyages with the original muster-roll nearly unbroken.

      "Mightn't it be a Yankee man-o'-war?" inquired a youngster, hopefully.

      "Not with that gaff topsail aloft," returned another of more nautical experience.

      "But she might alter her rig for a disguise," suggested the first speaker.

      "So she might. That's well thought of, and it would be just like Porter to do that, if he is round in these seas, as the rumor runs. But the craft isn't big enough; for the story goes that he is in a frigate, either the Essex or the Chesapeake. But just look how he is overhauling us! You can see his hull now from the deck."

      "There goes the old man aloft again for another squint at him. He has forgotten all about that big whale that he was so sure of when he first turned out this morning."

      "Ay, he'd give us all the flour in the hold for doughnuts, if he could make the Ruth Ann travel as fast as the fellow down there."

      The remark was true enough, and Captain Gardner was fully sensible of his own impotence in command of a craft which was neither fitted to fight nor run. He was not at all reassured by the nearer view which he now obtained of the barque. She appeared to be full four hundred ton, and though her arrangement of davits and whale-boats told of honest, legitimate business in these seas, there was no certainty but that she might combine with it another to which our own countrymen were much addicted at that period, though even then stigmatized by many moralists as a sort of legalized piracy. His long head, and above all his heavy quarter-galleries, as he drew near enough to observe these points, were most scrupulously English; and the anxious skipper already fancied he could detect evidence that his bulwarks were pierced for several guns, though he would of course manage, as far as possible, to disguise his warlike character until within sure range.

      "Hoist the gridiron!" was the next order that came from aloft. "Let's see what answer he'll make to that."

      Up went the stars and stripes at the ship's gaff, blowing out proudly in the increasing breeze, and the responsive signal of the same nationality was seen to rise almost immediately on board the barque. But this proved nothing; for if an armed vessel of any description, she would of course be provided with other flags than her own lawful one; and if a defenceless whaler, she was no Yankee, whatever bunting she might show. Our knight of the harpoon was too old a bird to be caught with chaff, and resolute to dodge his pursuer at the last possible moment, he gave the word, "Ready about!" as the barque bore directly abeam, and with the same result as before.

      Ere the evolution was completed, the stranger followed suit, and the situation became more exciting, as the conviction forced itself upon every one on board that matters must soon draw to a crisis. There was no hope of escaping a craft whose superior sailing qualities were so apparent, and for several hours the chase continued in the same manner, Hercules tacking his little craft whenever he judged his position most favorable for so doing, and his persistent neighbor gaining with rapid strides at every board. So entirely had the attention of all hands been absorbed in the chase, that scarcely a glance had been cast to the windward. The increase of wind had been very gradual, and the weather in the vicinity of this group of islands is ever moderate and serene, a subject of little or no anxiety to the mariner.

      Already had the barque approached so near as to set at rest all doubts as to his character and armament, for he could be seen making preparations to show his teeth, as if certain of his prey. Already had the irate but powerless Gardner made up his mind to the worst, satisfied that he must haul down his ensign as soon as the barque should hoist the hated cross and open fire upon him. Gnashing his teeth at the prospect, he drove the joints of his telescope together, as if conscious that the instrument would be of no further use to him, and wheeling suddenly round, his lips parted, and he stood transfixed for a moment, with his gaze riveted off the weather beam. Utter astonishment seemed to have suspended his breath.

      "Mast head there!" he roared, as soon as he found his powers of speech. "Where's your eyes? Don't you see this fellow coming down before it? Little more and he'd have run us down. It doesn't matter much, after all," said he, doggedly; "our voyage is up, anyhow, and one Britisher could have done for us as well as both."

      By this time the eyes and attention of every man were directed to windward; for there, driving swiftly down upon them, and rolling majestically before the following sea, was a large ship, with unmistakable warlike marks about her in the squareness of her yards and the press of studding-sails she was carrying, while, as she swung a little from her course, a whole tier of black muzzles could be seen peeping from her gundeck, and the banner of St. George flaunted saucily out from her peak.

      "We may as well haul the mainsail up now, and heave to," growled Hercules. "But I won't though, until I'm forced to. I'll make one of them speak me, either with gun or trumpet."

      And the Ruth Ann stood sturdily on, starting neither tack nor sheet, though apparently sandwiched, as it were, between the frigate and the armed whaler, who had also hoisted the British flag. There was little choice between Scylla and Charybdis; the gauntlet must be a short one, at best.

      Down came the heavy man-of-war, heading for the little ship as if determined on giving her the stem," with no more compunction than she would have shown to a Malay pirate. But Hercules, disdaining to strike the flag of his country until summoned, remained as immovable as his own favorite "Rock Dunder." Suddenly a yaw was observed; the cloud of studding-sails collapsed, and came down by the run with magic speed; the frowning broadside swung fairly into view, bringing her helpless victim directly under its heavy battery; the report of a blank cartridge pealed out over the sea ahead of the unfortunate whaler, as the main-topsail of the frigate swung in against its towering mast, and an officer in British uniform appeared on her quarter with a speaking-trumpet, through which the words came down loud and clear.

      "Ship ahoy! Back your head-yards and lie to under my lee!"

      "Ay, ay!" answered Captain Gardner, giving the necessary order to his mate, but still keeping the flag floating aloft in a sort of sullen defiance, because he had received no direct orders to lower it.

      Again the naval officer hailed:

      "What ship is that?"

      "The Ruth Ann, of Nantucket, sperm whaler," was the reply, more emphatic than respectful.

      With a bow of acknowledgment and a wave of his trumpet, the officer answered:

      "This is the United States ship Essex, and – "

      "David Porter, by thunder!" yelled Hercules, dashing the spy-glass which lay near at hand into fragments against the mizzenmast, in his excitement at the sudden revulsion of feeling.

      "Have the goodness to haul down your colors!" was hailed rather sharply from the frigate. "Be quick about it, if you please! I will explain afterwards."

      "Ay, ay, sir! Down with that flag, quick! Gaff and all, if David Porter wants it! Say the word, and we'll chop the mizzen-mast right out of her!"

      The delight and exultation of the Ruth Ann's crew may be imagined, at finding themselves, instead of prisoners of war, under the protection of one known by reputation of every American, since his early career before Tripoli; whose strange adventures on his present cruise had lost none of their marvelous character by repetition, for many-tongued Rumor had not been idle; and whose whole biography reads, even to this day, like the very romance of naval history.

      "I shall take possession of your ship for the present," said Porter, "and Captain – "

      "Gaar'ner – Her-cle-ees Gaar'ner."

      "Captain Gardner will please send a part of his crew on board the frigate as a blind. I will send a prize-crew on board." And down came the quarter-boat of the Esses, with a middy and a crowd of seamen following her down the side, while the bulk of the whaler's crew were quickly transferred to the man-of-war.

      "You will please hoist this English flag over your own as a temporary arrangement, captain," said the middy who boarded the ship as pretended prize-master.

      "Certainly, certainly," said the skipper. "Commodore Porter's orders, of course; but what does it all mean?"

      "It means," answered the young officer, with an amused smile, "that your friend down under the lee is the Warwick, letter-of marque, mounts ten guns, and is fitted to take other prizes besides whales. In short, she is both harp'neer and buccaneer, as one may say. We have chased her before, and she is rather fast for us; but if this thing is well managed he will put his own neck into the noose this time."

      "I see! I see!" was the delighted response. "Here he comes now, right into it."

      For meanwhile, the unconscious victim of this clever ruse de guerre had made his last tack, and was stretching gallantly up towards the Essex and her supposed prize, with the British flag triumphantly flying, and expecting a generous share in the distribution of the plunder. Hauling up his courses as he passed the Ruth Ann, he stood boldly on, unsuspicious of the trap so cunningly set for him, and luffed under the frigate's lee quarter, within hail.

      "Is Captain Sampson on board the Warwick?" inquired Porter, politely.

      "He is, sir," answered the personage himself, a little surprised that his own name and that of his ship were so well known to the king's officer.

      "This is his majesty's ship Acasta. Have you any intelligence of the Yankee frigate Essex?"

      "Yes, sir," said Sampson, eagerly. "I was chased by him a week ago, and "——

      "Come on board at once. Bring your log-book and journals with you, if you please."

      The order was promptly obeyed, and the deception was so admirably sustained, that not until he was comfortably seated in the cabin of the Essex, and bis log book, with other valuable information, in Captain Porter's possession, was he informed that the Warwick was a prize, and already manned with a Yankee crew. His astonishment and impotent wrath may be imagined, when he stepped on deck again, and looked aloft and then to leeward. The American flag was floating over all three vessels, and the Nantucketers were returning in high glee to their own ship. But one of their whaleboats still lay alongside, and Hercules Gardner, a couple of inches taller than his wont, trod the deck of the frigate with the stride of a conqueror, as if in command of the whole fleet.

      "I kind o' thought it, all along, Mr. Hussey," said the skipper, the next day, after the "doughnut-whale" lay securely chained alongside, and all hands were jolly over the good liquor which had so lately formed a part of the Warwick's stores, a parting present from her chivalrous captor. "I might ha' known that David Porter would be in the right place just at the right time. It went ag'in the grain with me to see the Ruth Ann with the cross hoisted over the stars and stripes, but it was a smart trick, and she would soon have worn her bunting that way in sober earnest, if it had not been for David Porter – here's luck to him!"


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: False Colors:; An Incident of the War of '12.
Publication: Flag of Our Union.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 24, No. 25 (Jun 19, 1869)
Pages: 396-397