The Irish in the American Navy
during the War of 1812-15

From A History of the Irish Settlers in North America by Thomas D'Arcy McGee

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Chapter XIV.

The Irish in the American Navy during the War of 1812-15—Origin of the War—Captain Boyle's Cruise—Captain Blakely—Commodores Shaw, MacDonough, and Stewart

THE war had its origin in aggressions which had become intolerable. American seamen were pressed and American ships searched in British waters and on the high seas, at least a thousand times, before President Madison sent his "war message" to Congress, and when at last war was proclaimed, the favorite motto of many a ship was "Free Trade and Sailors' Rights."

The West Indian waters, being the confine of the two fleets, was the scene of some of the first and fiercest of the sea-fights of this war. One of the most memorable of these was the action fought between Captain Boyle's ship, the Comet, (twelve guns and one hundred and twenty men,) and three British vessels, convoyed by a Portuguese ship-of-war. The Portuguese ship carried twenty thirty-two pounders; the British, twenty guns between them. By superior sailing and manoeuvring, the Comet cut off the British ships, and disabled them one by one. Two of them he carried as prizes into Pernambuco, the third foundered, and the Portuguese retreated under cover of the night. On the same cruise, Captain Boyle captured the British ship Aberdeen, of eight guns, and two others of ten guns each. He then returned to the United States, escaped the British squadron in the Chesapeake, and reached Baltimore in safety. Captain Boyle was of Irish birth, but his after career is unknown to us.[1]

An Irishman, Captain Leavins, of the trading schooner Santee, of Charleston, being captured at sea, in August, was sent in his own vessel, under charge of a British crew, to Bermuda. Rising singly on them at night, he wounded two badly, and compelled the other three to work the vessel back to Charleston, where he arrived amid universal acclamations.[2]

Captain Johnston Blakely was born in Seaford, County Down, Ireland, in October, 1781. His father soon after emigrated to this country; but in South Carolina, the family died, one by one, leaving young Blakely alone in the world. While at school, in 1799, the orphan had the additional misfortune to lose the remnant of property left him, and, in 1800, a friend of his family procured him a midshipman's warrant. In 1813, he served in the Enterprise, and, in the beginning of 1814, was promoted to the command of the Wasp. Soon after, he fell in with the British ship Reindeer, in latitude 48° 36' north, and, after an action of nineteen minutes, captured her. The American loss was twenty-one killed and wounded, the British, sixty-seven. In August, 1814, he captured a British merchant-ship under convoy, and, on the first of September, the Avon also struck her flag to him. Before he could take possession of the Avon, a fresh British ship arrived, and Blakely, whose ship was somewhat damaged, was obliged to sheer off. This is the last authentic account of him. His ship was spoken off the Azores, and was supposed to have foundered at sea. All else is only conceit and conjecture. "But whatever may have been the fate of Blakely," says Dr. Frost, "this much is certain, that he will, to use his own expression, ' be classed among those names that stand so high.' The lustre of his exploits, not less than the interest excited by those who remember how, in his very boyhood, he was left, without a single being around him with whom he could claim kindred blood,—how, by his merit, he obtained friends, and conferred honor on that country which was not only his parent, but has become the parent of his only child,—and how, last of all, he perished,—God only knows where and how,—has all given to his character, his history, his achievements, and his fate, a romantic interest, marking the name of Blakely for lasting and affectionate remembrance."[3]

One more fact (and it is a great one) we have to connect with his name. The Legislature of North Carolina, in December, 1816, "Resolved unanimously, That Captain Blakely's child be educated at the expense of this state; and that Mrs. Blakely be requested to draw on the treasurer of this state, from time to time, for such sums of money as shall be required for the education of the said child."

John Shaw, a native of Mountmellick, emigrated in 1790 to Philadelphia, being then seventeen years of age. In 1798, in the quasi French war, he was appointed to command the armed schooner Enterprise, with a crew of seventy-six men. In six months, his schooner captured eight French privateers, or letters of marque. In 1801, peace was concluded with the French Directory, and Mr. Shaw retired with the grade and half-pay of lieutenant. In 1806, when Burr was fitting out his secret expedition in the Ohio valley, he got command of the United States flotilla before Natchez, and, when that conspiracy exploded, was appointed by Jefferson to the command of the navy yard at Norfolk, Virginia, with the rank of post-captain. In the war of 1812, he ranked as commodore, and commanded, for a year, the United States squadron in the Mediterranean. After the war, he had charge of the navy yard at Charlestown, and died in September, 1823, at Philadelphia. Mr. Fenimore Cooper speaks of him as "second to none on the list of gallant seamen with which the present navy of the Republic commenced its brilliant career,"—as personally, "a man of fine presence, beloved by those who served under him."

Thomas McDonough, brother to James, mentioned in the war of Independence, was distinguished in 1805, in the attack on Tripoli. He was the second man to board the Turkish frigate with Stephen Decatur, who was, by his mother, half Irish. He was promoted to the rank of first lieutenant of the Siren, and, in 1806, displayed great spirit at Gibraltar in retaking, out of the British boats, some impressed American seamen. In 1812, he was ordered to Lake Champlain, and in 1814, the British ships built on the Canadian side being ready for a descent on New York, he prepared to meet them. McDonough had under him the Saratoga, twenty-six guns; the Eagle, twenty; Ticonderoga, seventeen; the Preble, seven; and ten galleys with sixteen guns,—in all, eighty-six. The British force mounted ninety-five guns, headed by the frigate Confiance, a powerful ship. On the eleventh of September, the two fleets met at eight in the morning, and at noon McDonough was completely victorious, having taken the frigate, and captured or sunk all the remaining vessels, with the exception of some small galleys which escaped. New York and Vermont voted to the victor large tracts of land, and Congress caused a gold medal to be struck in honor of the event. He married and settled in Middletown, Connecticut, where he died of consumption, in 1825. His grave is in the little cemetery of that quiet town, and the river of ''steady habits" flows soothingly before the resting-place of the commodore.

Commodore Charles Stewart was born of Irish parents in Philadelphia, July 28th, 1718, and was the fourth commodore that Ireland gave to America. In 1798, he entered the service as lieutenant to Commodore Barry, and distinguished himself, in 1800, in the quasi French war. In the West Indian waters, Stewart captured several French craft, and in 1802, was made commander of the Siren. Like Decatur and McDonough, he won his first laurels at Tripoli, and his chief reputation in the war of 1812-15; having got charge of the Constitution in 1813, and the same year destroyed the British brig Pictou, and schooners Catherine and Phoenix, in the West Indies. In 1814, his ship being refitted, he captured, off the Bermudas, the Lord Nelson; off Lisbon, the Susan; and in February, 1815, in the West Indies, took, in the same engagement, the British Ship Cyane of thirty-four, and Levant of twenty-one guns. Honors were showered upon him, on his return home, and the various states vied with each other in their presentations. From that period he has been employed, as Barry was before him, in superintending the construction of new ships, at Philadelphia, Norfolk and elsewhere. The love of Ireland, which he has so often manifested, seems likely to be hereditary in his family.[4]

Among the officers of the second rank, in this war, Decatur bestowed especial praise on Lieutenant Gallagher, and Perry, on Purser McGrath, who commanded the armed Brig "Caledonia," in the memorable battle of Lake Erie. In the same engagement Lieutenant Conklin gave satisfaction, as commander of the schooner "Tigress."

The total number of British vessels captured during this war was 1551—an unanswerable proof of the bravery, skill, and activity, of the American naval commanders.

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[1] "Sketches of the Late War," (Rutland, Vt.,) 1815, p. 330.

[2] "Sketches of the Late War," p. 441.

[3] Frost's Lives of the Commodores, p. 272.

[4] His daughter, married in Ireland, is the author of some fine Irish poetry.