The naval history of Great Britain:
from the declaration of war by France in 1793 to the accession of George IV
On the 23rd of February, the British 18-gun brig-sloop Epervier, Captain Richard Wales, (sixteen 32 and two 18 pound carronades,) cruising off cape Sable, captured, without opposition, the American privateer-brig Alfred, of Salem, mounting sixteen long 9 pounders, and manned with 108 men; the British 38-gun Junon, Captain Clotworthy Upton, in sight about ten miles to-leeward.
On his way to Halifax with his prize, Captain Wales discovered that part of his crew had conspired with the late crew of the Alfred, to rise upon the British officers, and carry one, if not both vessels, into a port of the United States. As the readiest mode to frustrate the plan, Captain Wales persevered against a gale of wind, and on the 25th arrived at Halifax; when he immediately represented to the commanding officer of that port, the insufficiency of the Epervier's crew for any service, and, in particular, his doubts about their loyalty, from the plot they had recently been engaged in. However, the affair was treated lightly, and on the 3rd of March the Epervier, without a man of her crew being changed, sailed, in company with the Shelbourne schooner, for the "protection" of a small convoy bound to Bermuda and the West Indies.
Having reached her outward destination in safety, the Epervier on the 14th of April sailed from Port Royal, Jamaica, on her return to Halifax; and, as if the reputation of her officers and of the flag she bore was not enough for such a crew as the Epervier's to be intrusted with, the brig took on board at Havana, where she afterwards called, 118000 dollars in specie.
On the 25th of April the Epervier sailed from Havana, in company with one of the vessels, an hermaphrodite brig bound to Bermuda, which she had convoyed from Port Royal.
On the 29th, at about half past seven in the morning, latitude 27º47' north, longitude 80º7' west, a ship under Russian colours, from Havana bound to Boston, joined the Epervier, then steering north-by-east, with the wind about east-south-east. Shortly afterwards a large ship was discovered in the south-west, apparently in chase of the convoy.
At nine the Epervier hauled her wind on the larboard tack, so as to keep between the latter and the stranger, whom we may at once introduce as the United States ship-sloop Peacock, of 22 guns, (twenty 32-pound carronades and two long 18-pounders,) commanded by master Commandant Lewis Warrington.
No answer being returned to the brig's signals, the English ensign and pendant which the Peacock hoisted did not remove the suspicions of her being an enemy; and accordingly the Epervier made the signal to that effect to her convoy.
At forty minutes past nine the Peacock, who had had approached rapidly on account of the wind having veered to the southward, hauled down the English colours, and hoisted the American flag at almost every mast and stay. At ten o'clock, when within half gun-shot of the Epervier, the Peacock, edged away as if to bring her broadside to bear in a raking position. This the brig evaded by putting her helm up, until close on the Peacock's bow, when she rounded-to and fired her starboard guns. With this their first discharge, the three after most carronades became unshipped by the fighting-bolts giving way.
The guns were soon replaced; and, having, when she got abaft the beam of her opponent, tacked and shortened sail, the Epervier received the broadside of the Peacock, as the latter kept away with the wind on the larboard beam. Although the first fire of the American ship produced no material effect. a continued discharge of star and bar shot cut away the rigging and sails of the brig, and completely dismasted her. Just as the Epervier, by a well directed fire, had brought down her opponent's fore-yard, several of the carronades on the larboard side behaved as those on the starboard side had done, and continued to upset, as often as they were placed and discharged.
In the midst of this confusion, the main boom, having been shot away, fell upon the wheel, and the Epervier, having had her head-sails all cut to pieces, became thrown into a position to be raked; but, fortunately for her, the Peacock had too much head-way, to rake her with more than two or three shots. Having by this time shot away the brig's main topmast, and rendered her completely unmanageable, the Peacock directed the whole of her fire at her opponents hull, and presently reduced the Epervier's three waist guns to the disabled state of the others. At eleven o'clock, as if the defects in the fighting-bolts were not enough were not a sufficient disaster, the breaching-bolts began to draw.
[had the Epervier's carronades been previously fired in exercise, for any length of time together, the defect in the clinching of her breeching-bolts ( a defect common to the vessels of this and the smaller classes, nearly all of them being contract built) would have been discovered, and perhaps remedied.- James's Naval Occurrences page 344]
There being no immediate remedy here, an effort was made to get the brig round, in order to present a fresh broadside to the enemy; but it was found impracticable, without falling on board the Peacock. As a last resource, therefore, and one which the British seamen are generally prompt to execute, Captain Wales called the crew aft, to follow him in boarding; but these gentlemen declined a measure so fraught with danger.
The Epervier, having now one gun only wherewith to return the fire of her antagonist's eleven; being already with four and a half feet [of] water in the hold, and her crew falling fast beneath the heavy and unremitting fire of the Peacock, no alternative remained but to strike the colours, to save the lives of the few remaining good men in the vessel.
This was done at five minutes past eleven, after the firing had lasted an hour; during three quarters of which the vessels lay close together, and during more than half of which, owing to the defects in the brig's armament, the successful party had it all to himself.
Besides the damages already detailed, the Epervier had her fore-rigging and stays shot away, her bowsprit badly wounded, and her foremast cut nearly in two and left tottering, and which nothing but the smoothness of the water saved from falling. Her hull, as may be imagined, was pierced with shot-holes on the engaged larboard side, both above and below the water.
The brig's loss, out of a crew of 101 men and a passenger, and sixteen boys, amounted to eight killed and mortally wounded, and fifteen wounded severely and slightly, including among the former her very gallant first lieutenant, John Hackett; who, about the middle of the action, had his left arm shattered, and received a severe splinter-wound in the hip, but who yet would hardly suffer himself to be carried below. Captain Warrington's boasts, with reason, that that the Peacock's principal injury was the wound in her fore-yard. Not a shot, by his account, struck the ship's hull; and her loss, in consequence, out of a crew of 185 picked seamen, without a boy among them, amounted to only two men wounded, neither of them dangerously.
A statement of comparative force would, in this case, be next to a nullity; as how could we, with any shew of reason, confront eight carronades that overset the moment they were fired, with ten carronades that remained firm in their places to the last.
For any damage that such a vessel as the Epervier could have done to her, the Peacock might almost well have fought with the unarmed Russian ship that has just quitted the former's company, and then have boasted, as Captain Warrington did, how many shots the Peacock placed in her antagonist's hull, and how free from any she escaped in her own.
Had the Epervier been manned with a crew of choice seamen, equal in personal appearance to those received out of the Chesapeake and Argus, after they had been respectively carried by boarding, we might some faith in captain Porter's assertion, that British seamen were not so brave as they had been represented.
But, shall we take the Epervier's crew as a sample of British seamen? As well might we judge of the moral character of a nation by the inmates of her jails, or take the first deformed object we meet, as the standard of the size and shape of her people.