Monday, August 19, 2013

Hull's Victory ~ the History

Already I am deviating from my stated intentions for this blog! Yes, it was meant to be solely on music, and specifically on music for dancing; yes, it was meant to contain nothing but descriptions of favorite tunes; yes, it was meant to serve as a guide to those who have done a dance and are now trying to track down a recording of the music used for the dance. But, as today is the 201st anniversary of the event commemorated by one of my very favorite dances - namely, Hull's Victory - I could not resist posting some information about the event itself. I hope to do another post soon on the actual music and dance, which are both magnificent and delightful! All that being said: for those of you who are interested (and have not heard all this already!), here is the history behind the dance Hull's Victory.

The victory commemorated by this dance took place within the first few months of the War of 1812. The United States declared war on England in response to the numerous insults to and violations of  America’s freedoms at sea. When British ships came upon an American vessel, they took the liberty to board and inspect it. Many times some of the American sailors would be taken and forced to serve in the Royal Navy, which was ever in need of more men to operate its vast fleet. Also, at that time England was at war with France, and so tried to restrict trade between France and the U.S. This was not at all agreeable to the American merchants, whose living was made by trading with other countries.

As the war was brought on primarily by issues at sea, it was fought primarily at sea as well. It must be noted that this war was no small thing to undertake; the American fleet was relatively small and fairly recently organized, while the Royal Navy was large and powerful, even considered by some to be invincible. Though there were many instances over the course of the war in which the American ships distinguished themselves in battle, our focus is on Captain Hull and the USS Constitution.

Isaac Hull was born in Shelton, Connecticut, in the year 1773. His father was a lieutenant in the Revolutionary War, and his grandfathers had been sea captains for many generations. As Isaac himself also loved the sea, it was only natural that he too should have his career on the ocean. Beginning as a cabin boy, Isaac grew in skill and experience in handling ships. He entered the American navy upon its organization in 1798, and by the beginning of the war had received numerous promotions which placed him as captain of the USS Constitution. The Constitution was a well-built frigate, solid and strong, usually carrying forty-some cannons and a large, highly trained crew. Commanded by Captain Hull, it was a most formidable foe in battle!

Before Hull’s celebrated victory actually took place, however, another incident worth mentioning occurred. As the Constitution was sailing to New York to meet up with the rest of the squadron, she was pursued by five British ships. This chase, lasting three days, is notable for the fact that it took place in a dead calm, during which none of the ships could properly sail! However, Captain Hull was an experienced sailor and leader, and used his knowledge to keep the Constitution  moving away from her deadly enemies. Some of the measures taken included wetting the sails in order to get the most advantage from what little wind there was, lightening the ship by dumping a large supply of drinking water overboard, and kedging, which was a slow yet effective method of towing. At last, the ship was prepared as though for a violent squall. Seeing this, the British vessels did likewise, and were entirely clueless when the Constitution made her escape under cover of the storm, which was, as Captain Hull had expected, quite mild. The  American ship escaped to Boston, leaving her pursuers far behind. They gave up the chase early the next morning. This incident tested the maneuverability of the ship, the strength of the crew, and the capabilities of the captain, all of which passed the test with flying colors.

The Constitution set off from Boston shortly afterward, and on August the 19th, 1812, met the British frigate HMS Guerriere, which signaled an invitation to a duel. This invitation was readily accepted, and the battle began. The British Captain James Dacres ordered the Guerriere to begin firing early, and continued firing as the two ships grew nearer. These shots did very little to the Constitution, which was held ready for action but did not return fire. It seems that the American crew was not quite convinced that holding back was the right thing to do, for they repeatedly inquired of Captain Hull whether it was about time to begin. The answer remained no until the frigates were brought close together, “within less than a Pistol Shot”, and Captain Hull gave the long anticipated command to fire upon the opposing ship. This order was instantly obeyed. The American cannons, loaded with 24-pound balls and grapeshot, did immense damage to the Guerriere, taking out a mast within the first few volleys. Soon the British vessel was struggling to remain afloat. Meanwhile, an astonished British sailor observed the 18-pound balls fired by the Guerriere to be actually bouncing off the thick oak hull of the Constitution, crying out in surprise, “Huzzah! Her sides are made of iron!” Thus, the Constitution was given the nickname of “Old Ironsides”.

The battle lasted only a half hour after the Constitution began firing, ending with the surrender of the Guerriere. Very few Americans had been injured in the conflict, with a total of seven killed and seven wounded. The British crew did not fare so well, having fifteen killed and sixty-three wounded. Among the wounded was Captain Dacres, who was helped aboard the victorious ship by Captain Hull. Some time before the war, the two men had met and had made a wager of a hat on the result of them possibly meeting in battle. When Dacres offered his sword in surrender, Hull refused to take it, saying “No, no, I will not take a sword from a man who knows so well how to use it; but I’ll  trouble you for that hat.”

The night was spent in trying to keep the Guerriere afloat as a prize vessel, but the effort was in vain. The ship was a hopeless wreck, having endured the powerful fire from the Constitution and even colliding with it at one point. After removing all the people from the Guerriere, she was set on fire and sank into the sea.

The Constitution returned to Boston, and was welcomed with enthusiastic excitement by the people. The captain and crew were given awards and prize money. Parties were given and the newspapers overflowed with praise. In celebration of this grand victory, poems and songs have been written, as well as a dance which we still enjoy today!

In closing, it has been said that the victory of Old Ironsides over the Guerriere had no real effect on the outcome of the war, which continued for another two years. However, it did have a great impact on American morale, giving the people hope that more battles, and eventually the war itself, could be won. This is in fact what happened, for though certainly not all aspects of the war went well, the many other sea battles won by the Americans, like Hull’s victory, proved to the world that the Royal Navy of England could no longer be considered invincible.

Written by Zoe Quinn in January 2013

Researched in August 2012
"The Naval War of 1812" by Theodore Roosevelt, 1882


Belley Family said...

Yay!!! I finally "found" both of your blogs,Zoe!What FUN!:)

Andrew Wong said...

It's always great to know the history behind a dance, and Hull's Victory certainly has a very colorful past.
I appreciate your research and for writing so excellently.
I've subscribed to your blog(s) and hope to see more posts in the future!

Andrew Wong

Zoë Quinn said...

Hello, m'dear JERB! Good to hear from you - thanks for commenting!

Andrew, many thanks for your encouraging comment! By the way, I intend to post a review (favorable, of course!) of your Stately Steps DVD on this blog at some point in the near future. You all did excellently on it!