The hulls of Derby: Different trajectories in War Of 1812
The USS Constitution never looked better than on the morning it sailed from Alexandria, Va., fully provisioned, with an inexperienced but enthusiastic crew of 450 men eager for action and adventure.
Then word came later that day, June 18, 1812: A hawkish Congress had declared war on Britain. "The crew manifested its joy and zeal by giving three cheers," a lieutenant on board later wrote.
The 15-year-old frigate had just been overhauled, it's copper, originally provided by Paul Revere, gleaming in the sun, its black-and-white paint and acre of canvas an imposing sight — and it never had better leadership.
Capt. Isaac Hull, 39, short, burly and boyishly handsome, brimming with confidence, was born on the banks of the Housatonic River in Derby and had spent most of his life at sea. His father, a merchant seaman and whaler, had taken his young son all over the world with him.
At 14, Isaac was sent to Boston to live with his Uncle William, also from Derby, a Revolutionary War hero and now a successful lawyer and politician. William Hull, a Yale graduate, envisioned a college education and gentrified life for Isaac, but his nephew insisted on returning to the sea, starting as a cabin boy, eventually commanding a merchant ship. He learned every trick of the trade by his mid-20s.
When the U.S. Navy was established, William Hull arranged for a commission and Isaac Hull boarded the Constitution as a fourth lieutenant in 1798. He sailed and fought in the "Quasi War" with France and against the Barbary pirates, and in 1810 he took over his original ship, which had become disappointingly slow.
Isaac Hull saw to it that wagonloads of barnacles, seaweed and oysters were blasted away, then he brought in lighter cannon, and soon the U.S.S. Constitution moved with as much efficiency as a massive, 44-gun frigate possibly could.
"The crew are as yet unacquainted with a ship of war, as many are recently joined and many have not been on an armed ship before," Hull wrote to his superiors as he set out to open sea. "We are doing all we can to make them acquainted with their duty and in a few days we shall have nothing to fear from any single decked ship."
But while Isaac looked to the imminent war with confidence, his uncle, now 59 and not quite recovered from a stroke, was in deep trouble and knew it.
Sent by President Jefferson to govern the Michigan Territory in 1805, William Hull had worked with little success to make peace with the Native Americans. For the war, the U.S. had planned to plunge into Canada around the Great Lakes, and President Madison pressured William Hull to command an army.
William Hull tried to get several local militias in Ohio to galvanize under him, but with little success. He wasn't even aware war had been declared when he sent a schooner carrying supplies — and his plans — on ahead. The schooner was captured by the enemy, the first of Hull's mistakes.
In six weeks time, Isaac Hull would be feted up and down the East Coast, his legend as one of America's great Naval heroes set to last forever. And his Uncle William would be just as widely scorned as a coward, and facing trial for his life.
A Hero's Welcome
As two of its native sons prepared for critical roles, Connecticut was circumspect.
The War of 1812 was fought to uphold America's honor in the face of several insults from abroad, the ongoing impressment of American sailors on the high seas, and numerous other reasons.
"War! War! Impending," read a Courant headline that month, under which the paper, in its 48th year in business, wrote: "Some of the wildcats in Congress have gone home, unable to [face] the responsibility of unnecessary war, and the countenances of many of those left behind here bore makings of the belief that the places which have known them shall have them no more."
On July 7, a Courant editorial read: "The President did not, could not know the minds of the people. If he had, he would never have ventured to declare war. Such madness could not rage in the breast of any man, for he must know that no nation ever has, or ever will venture to carry on a war where the people are against it."
The New England economy had suffered during the trade embargoes that preceded the war and people now feared, with good reason, that their coastline would come under attack, since Britain's navy was far superior. Connecticut's Roger Griswold was among the governors who refused to make the state militia available to the president.
But in Washington, D.C., the feeling that the U.S. should stand up to Britain's bullying on the high seas had prevailed. Ready or not, the War of 1812 had begun.
Isaac Hull had orders to sail to New York to join a squadron there under John Rodgers. As he passed Egg Harbor, N.J., near present day Atlantic City, he was spotted by an enemy squadron. When the sun came up on the morning of July 16, Hull and his crew saw five warships hot on their tail.
"His manners were certainly easy and prepossessing," Isaac Hull was later described by a friend, "plain, bluff and hearty, as became a 'rough and boisterous captain of the sea.'"
The wind had died down, but the unflappable Hull ordered his men to put down the boats and tow the ship. The British followed suit. Hull also ordered his crew to continually wet down the Constitution's sails, to better capitalize on any wind there was, and stayed just far enough ahead to keep out of firing range.
As the chase continued into a second day, the British fixed all the boats of the five ships to its one most formidable frigate, the H.M.S Shannon, and gained on the Constitution.
One of Hull's lieutenants, Charles Morris, suggesting "kedging," a practice Isaac Hull may well have first learned as boy on the Houstonic River. The Constitution would drop an anchor that had been rowed far out in front of the ship, and then pull the ship toward it by rope. Provisions, including much of the crew's drinking water, were thrown overboard, and Hull's frigate lengthened its lead.
After 66 hours, the enemy squadron gave up. The Constitution had survived to fight another day. "No victorious fight could reflect more credit on the part of the conqueror than this three day's chase did on Hull," wrote Theodore Roosevelt, in his 1882 book "The Naval War of 1812."
The captain arrived in Boston to a hero's welcome on July 26, where he issued a statement indicative of his modesty:
"Captain Hull takes this opportunity to request his friends transfer a great part of their good wishes to Lt. Morris and the other brave officers and crew under his command for their very great exertions and prompt attention to orders while the enemy were in chase. Notwithstanding the length of the chase and being deprived of sleep and allowed but little refreshment during the time, not a murmur was heard to escape them."
William Hull's Travails
As Isaac Hull was leading the enemy on its chase up the Jersey coast, his uncle was reluctantly following orders to invade Canada.
He had first turned down the command, but the Madison administration had impressed upon him that his prestige was badly needed, so as both territorial governor of Michigan and brigadier general, William Hull left his daughter and grandchildren behind in Detroit and on July 9, 1812, led his collection of 2,200 army regulars and some undisciplined Ohio militiamen into Ontario.
Near Sandwich on July 12, Gen. Hull issued a bold proclamation, calling for the local citizenry to welcome his army as liberators and join the United States, which "offers you peace, liberty and security." But a combination of British troops and Native Americans under Tecumseh, who were allies, harried the Americans. Although his men wanted to attack Fort Malden as planned, Hull instead withdrew to Fort Detroit.
The Courant, still critical of the war, kept readers informed by publishing letters to and from its major players. It ran a letter from Hull on July 28, in which he says he learned of the fall of Fort Mackinac, exposing Detroit.
"On the 14th [of August]," ran another Courant account, "a force of 704 British regulars and 750 Indians, commanded in person by Gen. Brock, encamped nearly opposite Detroit and made a demand of surrender. Gen. Hull refused. … "
But the enemy began to fire and, as the officers and men under him talked of mutiny, Hull refused to believe he actually had far more men and better equipment and decided to surrender. Hull, held prisoner, wrote a long letter to the secretary of war that ran in The Courant in September.
"A large portion of the officers and men I commanded would cheerfully have contested until the last cartridge was expended and the bayonets worn to sockets," Hull wrote. "I could not consent to the useless sacrifice of such brave men."
The Courant also ran a letter written by Col. Lewis Cass of the Ohio militiamen, who would one day run for president, which excoriated Hull.
"Whether the philanthropic reason assigned by him is sufficient justification for surrendering a fortified town, an army and a territory is for the Government to determine. Confident I am that had the courage and conduct of the General been equal to the spirit and the zeal of the troops, the event would have been [as] brilliant and successful, as it is now disastrous and dishonorable."
When Hull was freed in an exchange of prisoners, he faced a court martial, charged with cowardice, negligence of duty and treason.
Naval officials wanted the Constitution to stay in Boston, but Isaac Hull, fearing it would be trapped there by a British blockade, set out on Aug. 1, the day before those orders arrived. He headed northeast, and hoped to disrupt enemy shipping lanes.
On Aug. 16, near Nova Scotia, Hull came upon the H.M.S. Guerriere, one of the ships involved in the chase a month earlier. He held his fire until he could maneuver his ship up close, giving the enemy a poor angle. Although Hull's own cabin was briefly set ablaze, the Guerriere's cannon balls thudded harmlessly off the Constitution's oaken sides, and it earned the nickname "Old Ironsides" for all time.
Then Hull, standing on an ammunition crate, hollered, "Now, men, pour it into them." What happened next Hull described in a letter to the secretary of the Navy, which appeared in The Courant on Sept. 15, 1812.
"We commenced a heavy fire from all our guns, " Hull wrote, "… and so well directed were they, so warmly kept up, that in 15 minutes, his hull, rigging and sails were very much torn to pieces."
The Guerriere surrendered. Its captain, James Dacres, an old friend, had once boasted that he would bet his hat that any ship of his could defeat any American vessel commanded by Hull. When he came aboard the Constitution, Hull refused to accept Dacres' sword. "But I'll trouble you for your hat," he said.
Hull sent his men to the enemy ship to fetch all its supplies and retrieve a Bible that Dacres cherished, a gift to his mother. Then the Constitution sent charges to blow up the Guerriere. Hull and his men returned to Boston with 250 prisoners.
"I do not mind the day of the battle," Hull said to a gathering there, "the excitement carries one through, but the day after is fearful. It is dreadful to see my men wounded and suffering."
The Constitution lost seven killed and seven wounded. Hull was feted up and down the East Coast; the great painters of the day, notably Gilbert Stuart, were commissioned to capture his image, his curly brown hair pressed in at the sides, stood up across the middle of his head as if permanently shaped by his bicorn hat. In New York, Hull married Anna Hart in 1813, and he was sent to command and defend the Portsmouth Navy Yard.
The worst of the War of 1812 was to come. Connecticut towns, Essex and Stonington among them, came under attack. British troops raided Washington, D.C., and set fire to the White House and the Capitol. During the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key penned the lyrics to "The Star Spangled Banner."
In January 1814, the court martial of William Hull began in Albany. The charge of treason was withdrawn, but he was found guilty of the others and sentenced to death by firing squad. President Madison granted clemency, and Hull returned, broken-hearted, to Newton, Mass.
Later that year, the New England states sent 26 delegates to Hartford to air the region's grievances. A former Courant editor, Theodore Dwight, was chosen as secretary of the Hartford Convention, which convened in the Statehouse. The Courant ran a letter, signed "a Citizen of Connecticut" as the delegates arrived.
"When we were sufficiently impoverished by embargo," it reminded, "we were plunged into war with the only nation on earth capable of injuring us."
Another letter appearing in the Courant Dec. 13, 1814, opined, "It is certainly reasonable, between us and Mr. Madison, because we forewarned him of the danger. … What colour can he have to complain, if we say to him, 'wage the war if you please for your own objects, using your own means?'"
Though radicals talked of seccession from the Union, there was no mention of it in the convention's final report, which recommended a series of Constitutional amendments limiting federal power, requiring, for example, a supermajority of Congress to declare war in the future.
By then, troops under William Henry Harrison had retaken Detroit and, in May 1814, another Connecticut soldier, Thomas Macdonough, who was born in Delaware but lived most of his life in Middletown, had brilliantly stopped an invading force on Lake Champlain and strengthened America's hand at the bargaining table.
The Treaty of Ghent ended the war just as the Hartford Convention was bringing its recommendations, now moot, to Washington in late December. Before word of the truce reached New Orleans, Andrew Jackson won a bloody battle there, giving Americans the last word.
Isaac Hull, eventually Commodore Hull, continued to fill critical posts for the Navy, and remained in correspondence with his ailing father, still in Derby, and his Uncle William, who published two memoirs in defense of his actions in the war.
Slowly, time healed the wounds. William Hull was honored at a dinner in Boston, and visited by his old friend, the Marquis de Lafayette. Late in his life, he returned to Derby to visit his brother, Isaac's long ailing father, in 1825 and was greeted warmly. William Hull died that December.
The USS Constitution still rests in Boston, visited daily by tourists. It sailed under its own power as recently as 2012. Isaac Hull died in 1843, shortly after his retirement. In 1820, he was honored by the General Assembly; in a letter published in the Courant, he wrote in response:
"In future times, should the employment of our rising navy be for the safety and protection of our country, a recollection of the honor conferred upon me by the citizens of my native state will animate my exertions and present the most powerful motive to a faithful discharge of my duty."