War of 1812: A trick on the British (1864)

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A trick of war

A correspondent of the of the New York Dispatch says that during the War of 1812 he accidentally got possession of some of the signals of the British Navy, which he put into the hands of Commodore Rodgers; and he thus concludes the article:

Soon after the conclusion of peace, while dining with Commodore Rodgers, at his house in Washington, he related to me the following circumstances, which I give nearly in his own words:

“I acknowledged the receipt of your letter,” he observed, “and was determined to have the signal made on board, and to try the experiment, none of my officers understanding for what purpose they were intended. I cruised some time without meeting an enemy, until one afternoon we fell in with a schooner, some six or eight miles to windward of us. We hoisted the British ensign, which was answered by displaying another, and at the same time a signal at her maintop gallant masthead, which I immediately discovered was like one of those you had given me. From the list of English frigate, I selected the number of the Sea Horse, one of their largest class, and known to be on our coast, and hoisted it. She bore down at once and came under our stern; I ordered her to heave to, and I would send a boat on board of her.

“This order was obeyed, and I dispatched a lieutenant to bring her signal book, enjoining on him and the crew the strictest secrecy respecting our character. He was politely received by the captain, whose schooner proved to be the Highflyer. Our lieutenant’s coat attracted his attention, not being of the latest London fashion, although the crown and anchor were on the button; but casting his eye on the frigate, seeing the British ensign, and now and then the red coat of a marine appearing above the hammock netting, his mind was apparently set at rest.

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“The lieutenant informed him that he was requested to bring his signal book on board the Sea Horse, in order to have some alterations made, as there was a rumor that the Yankees had possession of something like the signals, and it was therefore necessary to change the number! This ruse had the desired effect, and out lieutenant returned with the book, which placed me in command of the whole correspondence of the British Navy. I sent the gig for the captain, requesting him to come on board, and bring any dispatches he might have in charge.

“On reaching our deck he seemed surprised at the size of the vessel, praised her cleanliness, and the order in which everything appeared, admired the red coats of the marines, and on being invited into the cabin, handed me a bundle of dispatches for Admiral Warren, who, he observed, must be within forty miles to leeward. I ordered refreshments, and, in company with several of my officers, we entered into a general conversation.

“I asked him what object Admiral Warren had in cruising in that neighborhood. He said to intercept American privateers and merchantmen, but particularly to catch Commodore Rodgers, who, he understood, had command of one of the largest and fastest sailing frigates in the American Navy. I inquired of him what kind of a man this Rodgers was, and if he had ever seen him. He said no, but he had understood that he was an old character, and rather hard to catch. After conversing with him upon several other subjects, I abruptly put the question to him —

“‘Sir, do you know what vessel you are on board of?’

“‘Why, yes sir,’ he replied, ‘on board of His Majesty’s ship Sea Horse!’

“‘Then, sir, you labor under a very great mistake. You are on board the United States frigate President, and I am Commodore Rodgers, at your service.’

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“The dying dolphin never assumed a greater variety of colors than did this poor fellow’s face.

“‘Sir,’ said he, ‘you are disposed to be humorous, and must be joking.’

“I assured him it was no joke; and to satisfy him on that head, handed him my commission. At the same moment the band struck ‘Yankee Doodle,’ on our quarter-deck, on reaching which he saw the American ensign flying, the red coats turning blue, and the crown and anchor button metamorphosed into the eagle.

“This affair,” observed the Commodore, “was of immense importance to our country. We obtained in full the British signals; the operations of Admiral Warren, by the non-receipt of his dispatches, were destroyed for the season; and it probably saved the frigate, for the course I was running at the time of my falling in with Highflyer, would have brought me into the midst of his fleet during the night.”


Top image: USS President at anchor in heavy swell, by Edward John Russell (1912)

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