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The General Armstrong
and the War of 1812

Privateer RAMBLER in the Pearl River, ChinaSeptember 26, 1814.  The neutral Portuguese port of Fayal (Faial) in the Azores.  The American privateer, the GENERAL ARMSTRONG is taking on water and supplies. Three British men-of-war suddenly appear in the harbor.  Crews from His Majesty's Ships Plantagenet, Rota and Carnation attempt to board the American ship.   The British commander, Robert Lloyd, seems to irrationally delay his mission: to join the flotilla assembling in the Caribbean for the Battle of New Orleans. He loses over 200 men attacking the ARMSTRONG (to 2 Americans) and, even after the privateer is scuttled, wanted to pursue the American crew on land on the Azores and "demanded two men, who, he said, deserted from his vessel when in America" from a letter by a British eyewitness on shore on the Portuguese Azores on September 26, 1814. From "A Collection of Sundry Publications and other Documents in relation to the attack made during the late war upon the Private Armed Brig General Armstrong of New York". New York, John Gray, 110 Fulton Street, 1833.

 

The story of this privateer became a widely known subject of illustration,  poetry and song in the USA of the 1800s
Click on items below to see larger images and more commentary
Click here to see a larger image and real more about this print A hand-colored Nathaniel Currier print (before he joined with Ives), circa 1830s. 
A lithograph.  Source unknown. Click here to see a larger image
Click here to see a larger image Title page from an 1893 edition published in Boston
Sheet music from 1843, "The Yankee Boy"

The fourth from the last stanza reads,

"In all of those troubles I had to be there,
Imprest and in prison in Battles to share
In the Brig General Armstrong I was in Fayal
Where by scores British seamen had to fall."


Library of Congress, American Memory Collection

Click here to see the fulltext at the Library of Congress
Why a ship named "The General Armstrong?" John Armstrong, Jr. (1758-1843) and his father were both delegates  to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania, 1787-88.  He became a general in the U.S. Army at the beginning of the War of 1812. Shortly thereafter, he was named Secretary of War in the Cabinet of President James Madison.  At this time the corporation which built The General Armstrong met in New York and adopted his name for their ship.
However in August of 1814,  John Armstrong, as Secretary of War, was blamed for the British capture and burning of the nation's capital, Washington, D.C.   In retirement, he engaged in literary pursuits.  He died in Red Hook, N.Y., April 1, 1843, and is interred at Rhinebeck Cemetery, Rhinebeck, N.Y. Armstrong County, Pa. is named for him. (See also his biography at The Columbia Encyclopedia at the wonderful Bartleby.com.)


There's also a more extensive Bibliography on the American Privateer The General Armstrong from the Library of Congress.

 

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                                Here are 3 accounts of the Fayal Battle:

From John Van Duyn Southworth, 1904-1986 (used with permission), Age Of Sails: war at sea, New York, Twayne Publishers, 1968: While the peace negotiations were in progress, Britain was preparing the greatest blow of the war. This was to be an attack on New Orleans, to seize control of the mouth of the Mississippi and provide the basis of a British-dominated Indian territory west of the Appalachian Mountains. A formidable fleet and a vast army headed by Sir Edward Packenham were sent to make sure that the conquest could not fail.

Inadvertently, the American privateer General Armstrong did much to spoil the British plans. On September 25, 1814, this little ship, commanded by Captain Samuel Reid, was lying peacefully in the neutral harbor of Fayal, in the Azores, when three British warships appeared: Plantagenet (74 guns), Rota (38), and Carnation(18), Captain Lloyd, in command of the three had every good reason to leave the little privateer alone. The laws of neutrality demanded it. More important, he was under orders to rendezvous at Fayal with the frigates Thais and Calypso and then proceed directly to the Louisiana coast, where the buildup for the invasion was about to begin. Nothing so unimportant as the elimination of a privateer should be allowed to jeopardize this mission.

Captain Lloyd thought otherwise. He hated privateers and could not pass up an opportunity to capture or destroy one. Four well-manned boats from the Carnation tried to sneak up on the General Armstrong and take her quietly by assault. They were quickly spotted. Captain Reid himself aimed the Long Tom that sent them back, battered and with their crews decimated.

Click here for a larger image

Night battle of the Privateer Brig "General Armstrong" of New York
From a painting by Emanuel Leutze (who also painted "Washington Crossing the Delaware").  We are in search of a better copy of this painting shown here from an old book plate.

Very well! Now came twelve cannon-armed barges from Rota and Plantagenet. Again the Long Tom spoke, but the barges kept on coming, firing their own guns as they approached. They reached the privateer s side, and the British tars and marines went swarming up onto the deck, crying No quarter! No quarter! Kill the pirates! That cry was a mistake for it drove the Armstrong s crew into a battle of desperation. The boarders were forced over the side and driven off, their boats and thirty-four dead.

If boats and barges couldn't t do it, ships could! The Carnation ran out her guns and moved into range. Three hours later, she moved out again, her main topmast down, her bowsprit shattered, and fifteen of her men dead.

But the string had run out. All three of the ships were coming in now, bent on annihilating the saucy little privateer. Captain Reid was a brave and resourceful man, but he could see no chance of resisting 130 guns with 14. The General Armstrong was scuttled where she lay, while Reid and his crew made for the safety of the shore. There they commandeered an old castle and prepared to sell their lives dearly. They were attacked no further.

Captain Lloyd had made a serious mistake. He had lost 65 men killed and 117 wounded. Carnation was so badly damaged that she could not proceed. Thais and Calypso, when they arrived, had to be used for transporting the wounded to British bases. The invasion had been delayed nearly a month.

It was a vital month. During the time so providentially provided, General Andrew Jackson had time to reach New Orleans, to gather and organize his rag-tag defensive forces, and even to make an unnatural alliance with Jean Lafitte, the pirate. The American defenders were pathetically few and deplorably weak, but they were now as ready as they could ever expect to be.

 

 

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Brig GRAND TURK of Salem Saluting MarseillesFrom Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956), The Navy, a history; the story of a service in action, Garden City, N.Y., Garden City Pub. Co., [1941]

...............the Louisiana force had been calculated amply for the business, but it stumbled over one of those damned Yankee pirates when the naval chief lost his temper, forfeited surprise and from that moment was doomed to sprawl. It happened at Fayal in the Azores; Captain Lloyd of His Britannic Majesty's Navy put in there with Plantagenet, 74 (guns), Rota., 38, Carnation, 18, carrying some of the troops and most of the artillery for the New Orleans attack, having named that place as the rendezvous for two more ships, Thais and Calypso, coming from Spain with officers and powder.

A brig lay near the shore, recognizable as an American privateer -- General Armstrong of New York, 14 guns, commanded by Captain Samuel Reid, a remarkable man who was later to invent lightships and the present arrangement of the American flag. The port was neutral but the opportunity of suppressing one of these pests seemed too good to missed; Lloyd ordered out Carnation's boats to go in and take her-- a sloop's men get little chance of glory, and this would be good training for them. The boats were four in number and had huge crews, --but the privateer opened on them a fire so coolly accurate that after fifteen minutes of it they went crawling away, crying for mercy.

This made Captain Lloyd very angry; he sent a note through to the Portuguese governor demanding that the privateer be given up. Reid sent back word that if Lloyd wanted him he should come and get him so the British captain prepared to do that. He ordered out the big barges from Rota and Plantagenet, twelve in all with four hundred men, a gun apiece and ordered to give no quarter when they capture the pirate. Just before midnight it came on dark, but not altogether, for the shock of cannon in the first fight had brought the whole town to the rooftops, and the waterfront blazed with fires. In that fitful light the British drew together, gave three cheers and pulled for the privateer, firing their boat-guns as they came. Reid handled General Armstrong's Long Tom himself and hit them hard; for a moment they seemed to stagger, then rushed in and laid her aboard, fore and aft and at the sides. At the stern they could not reach the deck; forward they shot down Reid's lieutenant and were on the forecastle for moment, shouting No quarter!" but Reid led his men from aft in a hurricane charge that tumbled them back. "The Americans fought more like bloodthirsty savages than anything else"; that No quarter ! cry had roused them.

They rushed into the boats sword in hand and put every soul to death. Some barges were left without a single man to row them, others with three or four. For three days after the battle boats floated ashore full of dead bodies." Two of Rota's and one of Plantagenet's remained with the privateersmen; of the seventy-five men in them only eighteen escaped with their lives, and they by swimming ashore.

The end was not yet; Carnation warped in in the morning to try long-range gunnery, but before noon warped out again with her main-topmast down, her bowsprit shot through and fifteen men dead. Captain Lloyd was wild with anger now. The fighting had cost him 210 killed, 140 wounded, including all Rota officers and four of Plantagenet s lieutenants.

He sent another note to the governor that he was going to take that privateer if he had to lay the town in ruin and when Reid anticipated him by scuttling the brig, demanded the Americans be given up on penalty of sacking Fayal. Reid and his men retired to an "old Gothic castle," broke down the drawbridge an dared Lloyd to come on. By this time a little sense was beginning to percolate into the British skull; Lloyd growled and gave it up, but when Thais and Calypso came they had to turn back with the wounded while Lloyd waited for new men and officers. It cost the expedition three weeks to refit, and in those three weeks Andrew Jackson reached New Orleans with the riflemen of Tennessee and the pirates of Barataria to set the stage for his farewell to glory on the frost-strewn plain of Chalmette.

 

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Ship JANSON cut through by Texel River IceFrom Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), ( Pres. of the U.S. 1901-1909), The naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans: by Theodore Roosevelt, New Knickerbocker ed. PUBLISHER :New York, London, G. P. Putnam's sons [1927, c1910] DESCRIPTION :437 p. front.,illus. 214 cm. SUBJECT(S) :United States. Navy -- History -- War of 1812 New Orleans, Battle of, 1815 United States -- History -- War of 1812 -- Naval operations

On the 26th of September, while the privateer-schooner General Armstrong of New York, Captain Samuel C. Reid, of 1 long 24 gun, 8 long 9's, and 90 men, was lying at anchor in the road of Fayal, a British squadron, composed of the Plantagenet, 74 guns, Captain Robert Floyd, the Rota, 38 guns, Captain Philip Somerville, and the Carnation, 18 guns, Captain George Bentham, hove in sight. One or more boats were sent in by the British, to reconnoiter the schooner, as they asserted, or, according to the American accounts, to carry her by a coup de main. At any rate, after repeatedly warning them off, the privateer fired into them, and they withdrew. Captain Reid then anchored, with springs on his cables, nearer shore, to await the expected attack, which was not long deferred. At 8 P. M. 4 boats from the Plantagenet and 3 from the Rota, containing in all 180 men under the command of Lieutenant William Matterface, first of the Rota, pulled in toward the road, while the Carnation accompanied them to attack the schooner if she got under way. (TR s note: James, VI, 509. Both American accounts say 12 boats, with 400 men and give the British loss as 250. I take each side' s statement of its force and loss, as usual.) The boats pulled in under cover of a small reef of rocks, where they lay for some time, and about midnight made the attack. The Americans opened with the pivot-gun, and immediately afterward with their long 9's, while the boat replied with their cannonades, and, pulling spiritedly on amid a terrific fire of musketry from both sides, laid the schooner aboard on her bow and starboard quarter. The struggle was savage enough, the British hacking at the nettings and trying to clamber up on deck, while the Americans fired their muskets and pistols in the faces of their assailants and thrust the foremost through with their long pikes. The boats on the quarter were driven off, but on the forecastle all three of the American lieutenants were killed or disabled, and the men were giving back when Captain Reid led all the after-division up and drove the British back into their boats. This put an end to the assault.

Two boats were sunk, most of the wounded being saved as the shore was so near; 2 others were captured and but three of the scattered flotilla returned to the ship. Of the Americans, 2 were killed, including the second lieutenant, Alexander O. Williams, and 7 were wounded, including the first and third lieutenants, Frederick A. Worth and Robert Johnson. Of the British, 34 were killed and 86 were wounded; among the former being the Rota's first and third lieutenants, William Matterface and Charles R. Norman, and among the latter her second lieutenant and first lieutenant of Marines, Richard Rawle and Thomas Park. The schooner s long 24 had been knocked off its carriage by a carronade shot but it was replaced and the deck cleared for another action. Next day the Carnation came in to destroy the privateer, but was driven off by the judicious use the latter made of the "Long Tom.". But affairs being now hopeless, the General Armstrong was scuttled and burned, and the Americans retreated to the land.

The British squadron was bound for New Orleans, and, on account of the delay and loss that it suffered it was late in arriving, so that this action may be said to have helped in saving the Crescent City. Few regular commanders could have done as well as Captain Reid.


_________________________________________________________
The larger paintings on this page show ships of the War of 1812 era, respectively the USS Rambler, Grand Turk, and Janson. These Illustrations were taken from the Marine Paintings and Drawings in the Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts and are used with their kind permission. Much more maritime art can be seen at their site at The Peabody Essex Museum Maritime Arts and History Page

 

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In any case, the story of this privateer became a widely known subject of poetry and song in the USA before the Civil War.  And the (fanciful?) speculation I'm working on is that my great-great-grandfather and uncle were the ones who so enraged Captain Lloyd that they changed the course of world history! The story of John Hewitt Mackie and my quest for his past are on our genealogy page. Map1814.jpg (133790 bytes)

For the plaintext and a larger letter, click on the image

After the scuttling of the General Armstrong:

From the British Public Record Office, a copy of the original 1814 letter by English Commander Robert Lloyd to the Portuguese Governor of the Azores, demanding he hand over two of the American Privateers.  Lloyd says these two deserted his ship when he was off the American coast.

For the plaintext and a larger letter, click on the image.

 


                                            Some other related links:

Read about Privateers of the Era on Michael Dun's fine Site Updated.gif (150 bytes)

More about Captain Samuel Chester Reid of the General Armstrong

Bibliography from the Library of Congress  New

Extensive fulltext background material on the War of 1812

All about the island of Faial in the Azores

Another Faial site  

The General Society of the War of 1812  New

And the Discriminating General's War of 1812 Website sees the War from the other side of the hill - a Canadian and British point of view.   (Perhaps an antidote to the US jingoism of the time.) Updated.gif (150 bytes)

Comments and suggestions about this page gratefully welcomed:

Robert Rowen
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