The last voyage of the USS Argus
The naval part of the War of 1812 is best remembered for the titanic clashes between large frigates, such as the USS Constitution’s defeat of HMS Guerriere or HMS Shannon’s capture of the USS Chesapeake. But this was a war involving less powerful warships too. One such vessel was the 300-ton brig USS Argus. Built in 1803, and originally named USS Merrimack, she took part in both the First Barbary War and the American occupation of Derna in North Africa. When the US declared war on Britain in 1812, she was based in New York.
In June 1813, under the command of William Henry Allen, Argus was ordered to slip out of the Hudson River and deliver a diplomat, William Crawford to his post as US representative to Napoleon’s court in Paris. The brig was known as a swift ship and it was hoped that she would be able to evade the Royal Navy squadron blockading the port. This she did, depositing the new ambassador on the quayside at the French port of L’Orient a month later. Having resupplied, she slipped out once more, and began a campaign of commerce raiding in British waters. Thanks to her superior speed, and the large number of available targets she captured nineteen merchant ships over the next month. She adopted a practice of setting fire to her victims rather than taking them as prizes because the compliment of the brig was too few to provide crews for so many vessels. But it was this practice that was to lead to her downfall.
News that such an efficient commerce raider was on the loose had finally reached the ears of the Admiralty, who rushed extra warships to the scene. One of these was an 18-gun brig, HMS Pelican under the command of Captain Maples. Early on the morning of the 12th of August 1813 she spotted the tell-tale column of thick smoke on the horizon that marked the latest of the Argus’s victims going up in flames. Rushing to the scene, she saw her American opponent sailing away and gave chase.
The two ships were very similar. The American ship was a little smaller and carried two less guns, but had the slightly larger crew. The Pelican, however was the better armed ship, as she mainly carried 32 pounder carronades, while the Argus had 24 pounders, a fact that would not become apparent to the Americans until after the action began. The Argus was the faster of the two and could have simply sailed away, but Captain Allen had no intention of running. He had previously served as first lieutenant of the frigate USS United States when she had captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian the year before. Brimming with confidence, he elected to fight. Unfortunately for the Argus in that previous action it had been the American ship that had enjoyed superior firepower, while in this action the reverse was true.
The two ships battered each other with broadsides for about twenty minutes, during which time the Pelican’s bigger guns inflicted more damage. Worse still for the Americans, Captain Allen was badly wounded early in the action and taken below, leaving her first lieutenant in charge. The British were lucky not to lose their own commander in the battle, when Maples was hit by a spent musket ball that was stopped when it struck a metal button on his waistcoat.
Seeing that her opponent’s masts and rigging were badly damaged, the British commander manoeuvred his ship into a position from where he could rake the Argus in the stern without her being able to reply. After a few such crippling broadsides, he then came alongside and personally led his crew as they boarded their opponent. By now the Argus had also lost her first lieutenant, along with many of the crew, and after a brief period of resistance she surrendered.
The battle had been hard fought on both sides but superior firepower and the skill of Captain Maples in out-manoeuvring his damaged opponent had won the day. Losing her experienced captain so early also contributed to the defeat. The USS Argus was taken into Plymouth, where Captain Allen later died of his wounds. He was buried with full military honours in St Andrew's Churchyard, Aveton Gifford, Devon, where his grave remains to this day.