Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Aboard the Doomed Macedonian Again

Last weekend marked the anniversary of one of the first encounters in the War of 1812, the battle between the U.S.S. United States and H.M.S. Macedonian. In researching our National Geographic book, Mark and I found some stories that surprised us, and one involved the wager of a beaver hat and lightning striking twice.
    Stephen Decatur was commander of the Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, before the war. There he would invite his British counterparts in port over for dinner. In January 1812 one of his guests was Captain John Carden, who commanded the H.M.S. Macedonian. That night over dinner, Decatur bet Carden a fine beaver hat that his ship, the United States, could best the Macedonian one-on-one. It was almost a joke: Decatur’s ship was nicknamed “the Old Wagon,” while the Macedonian, with 38 guns, was new and nimble.
    They laughed, toasted and parted that night, expecting nothing to come of it.
    Within months, everything had changed. That fall when Decatur, after crossing the Atlantic, bore down on a British ship, the other ship turned out to be none other than the Macedonian.
The Macedonian and the United States
    It was Sunday, October 25. West of the Canary Islands. Confident in the Macedonian’s speed, Carden sailed straight at his opponent. And indeed, she sped past the United States' first shot. But Decatur used his position and the longer range of the U.S. guns (24-pounders compared to the British 18-pounders) to stay out of cannon range and dismast the Macedonian. Then he swooped in to finish the job.
    At that point we shift perspective to the British ship, where a boy named Samuel Leech, a powder monkey, quickly saw how brutal a sea battle could be. When the Macedonian’s crew had left Portsmouth heading for the Mediterranean, they didn’t even know that Britain was at war with the U.S. Suddenly they were in battle. My blog for NY Bound Books sometime ago takes up Leech’s tale.
    It’s a tale that takes a young man through war to another land, another life, and a sudden jarring return to his old ship during a visit to New York, like a bad flashback. Rattled and moved, Leech was inspired to write his life story, Thirty Years from Home. His book came out in the 1840s and became a surprise bestseller. It still offers a remarkable firsthand glimpse from that time of life and death and second chances.