Like duels, each party agreed to certain conditions before the challenge could be executed.
By Stuart Butler
Littleton Waller Tazewell of Norfolk, Virginia, could hardly wait until he could write to his good friend, Capt. William Bainbridge, about a most fascinating and intriguing story in which Tazewell himself was the chief actor. Waiting discreetly until the terms of the peace at Ghent were publicly announced, he wrote sometime after February 15, 1815, to Captain Bainbridge, who was then overseeing construction of naval ships in Boston:
The return of peace to us so glorious after recent events, and a little incident which as lately occurred here, in which I know you will take much interest, not only affords you more leisure, but me additional inducement to deny myself this pleasure no longer, as my tale will probably be a long one, I will begin it without further pretence [sic].
Tazewell was born on December 17, 1774, at Williamsburg, Virginia, into the well-connected Tazewell and Waller families. Educated at the College of William and Mary, he had become, at the start of the War of 1812, a prominent lawyer living in Norfolk, specializing in maritime law. In the course of his legal work, Tazewell had become close friends with many of America’s naval heroes, including William Bainbridge, Stephen Decatur, and James Barron.
In 1807 the Navy Department called upon the Virginia jurist to act as judge advocate in the court-martial of Commodore James Barron following the infamous seizure of USS Chesapeake by the British ship HMS Leopard. Capt. Charles Gordon actually commanded the Chesapeake when it was seized in 1807 just outside the Virginia capes. While Gordon received light punishment for his role in the ship’s unpreparedness, Barron, his superior officer then on board, received a stinging rebuke and condemnation for allowing the American frigate to be ignominiously boarded and in the process having several of his crew killed and others impressed into British service.
Virginia authorities also asked Tazewell to act as mediator between Virginia militia forces and the British navy in Hampton Roads in that same year. Many believed that Tazewell’s professional demeanor and negotiating skills during the Chesapeake affair helped defuse the tense situation in Virginia and helped to avert war for the time being between the two nations. It was these skills that would once again bring Tazewell to the negotiating table with the British navy in February 1815, but under far different circumstances.
Sometime in early February 1815, Tazewell obtained permission from Capt. Charles Gordon to present a flag of truce to the British squadron then in Hampton Roads. Tazewell’s friend, Capt. Stephen Decatur, had been captured at sea in January, and Tazewell was endeavoring to send his acquaintance some supplies and food while he remained at Bermuda to be exchanged. Captain Gordon commanded the American frigate USS Constellation but also was overall American naval commander in Hampton Roads at that time. Gordon allowed Tazewell to proceed on his mission to aid their mutual friend Decatur, but in doing so, he persuaded the famed jurist to accept another, more intriguing, mission. Gordon explained to Tazewell that he had been in communication with his British counterpart, Capt. Charles Napier, commander of HMS Euryalus, then just outside Lynnhaven Bay. It appeared that Captain Napier was offering a challenge to the American commander, or a duel between the two frigates, and Tazewell was to go aboard the British vessel to determine if, indeed, that was the British proposal, and, if so, under what conditions such a challenge could be fought.
I obtained from Capt. Gordon a flag to go down to the British squadron in order to send to Bermuda some things which might possibly be useful to our friend Decatur there. When I was about sailing on this expedition, Capt. Gordon (also for reasons which one subject to the orders of a court martial will at once suggest themselves to you, when you reflect on the positive orders of the Navy Department to all our officers upon the subject of giving or accepting challenges of this kind) requested me to represent him in this business, and I agreed to do so.
Like duels, each party agreed to certain conditions before the challenge could be executed. Naval challenges were usually fought between ships with crews and guns roughly comparable with one another. Challenges of this sort were strictly forbidden by Secretary of the Navy William Jones, as Tazewell well knew.
Consequently, if any word leaked out on his mission, Captain Gordon could be court-martialed for even considering a challenge. The ship had been bottled up in the Elizabeth River since the start of the war and had seen no action except to provide naval crews to thwart the British attack on Craney Island in June 1813. Gordon had been captain of USS Constellation since April 1813 and itched for action against the enemy.
Napier, likewise, yearned for naval action against the upstart Americans. While he had served bravely during the Washington and Baltimore campaigns in the fall of 1814, he was now relegated to routine blockade duty chasing down swift American merchant vessels that often eluded his grasp, while the major action had shifted to the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans.
Tazewell described to Bainbridge what happened next:
On getting on board of the Euryalus, I took the first occasion which presented itself to open my business to Capt. Napier, and after explaining very frankly the situation of Capt. Gordon which had compelled him to confide such a subject to one like me, so little acquainted with what might possibly be important, I stated to Capt. Napier, that Capt. Gordon accepted his challenge and that I was then ready to arrange with him the necessary preliminaries to the meeting of the two ships. He expressed pleasure at the intelligence, and enquired what I had to propose upon this point.
The Virginian believed that the most important point to be understood by Captain Napier was that there must be some kind of guarantee that USS Constellation would not be interfered with by other British ships in Chesapeake Bay should the Americans triumph and take HMS Euryalus into port. Napier replied that Capt. John Clavell of HMS Orlando was senior officer in the bay and that only he could guarantee that other ships would stay away. From Napier’s description of Captain Clavell—that of an extremely officious and obedient officer—Tazewell felt that Clavell would probably never allow a formal challenge to be given or accepted. That he might order other ships away was in his authority, but certainly his suspicions would be aroused by Captain Napier’s request. The stricture concerning challenging was roughly the same in the British navy as it was in the American navy. Tazewell
replied that such a command could hardly be considered a guarantee at all for that altho’ he [Clavell] might order these ships away, yet the captain of the Orlando who would probably be near the firing, might easily order them and others back again, and that at all events, should the fortunes of war favor the Constellation, I see nothing to prevent the Menelaus or any other frigate then under his command from attacking our ship in a crippled state, and encumbered with her prize as she returned to port. Capt. Napier certainly could not consider the terms he offered as terms of equality when he looked around him and saw the number of British vessels in our waters and on our coasts, all of whom might be opposed to a single frigate if not more force than his own.
Although Clavell was most unlikely to permit the two ships to fight another under any conditions of challenge, Captain Napier thought Admiral Cockburn, the commander of the British fleet in the Chesapeake, was a different man altogether, who not only would have the authority to order such a guarantee but might look the other way. Unfortunately for Tazewell and Gordon, and perhaps fortunately for Napier, Cockburn was away in the West Indies preparing for the New Orleans campaign and would be impossible to reach to obtain such permission. By this time, Tazewell suspected that Napier had come to believe that Captain Gordon was strongly insisting on such an ironclad guarantee—knowing full well that he could not get it—as a means now to elude a challenge altogether. Tazewell asserted that Gordon cared not whether he faced Napier or Clavell, or any other ship in the British squadron, so long as each contender met in perfect equality.
Finding it impossible to get a guarantee from him [Napier], I would reverse the proposals and if he would allow one to name the place of fighting, I would give the guarantee which I had asked. That if he could consent to bring his ship under the guns of our forts and to fight there, we would send a pilot to bring him through safely, and to moor her abreast the Constellation, thus they might begin by signal.
Tazewell promised that the land forces would not molest the British force whatever the result of the battle, nor would American naval forces interfere. Captain Napier seemed pleased with this scenario but admitted that there were many “preparatory terms to be adjusted.” For example, if the “springs” of either ship should be cut away, should they cease firing until the ships resumed their original position again? (Springs were lines from a ship run to a temporary buoy or anchor that would allow a ship to remain broadside or parallel to another ship or coast when firing its guns.)
Tazewell thought the chances of cutting each other’s springs away were essentially the same, and thus equality would be maintained between the two ships. Napier felt otherwise, as he felt Gordon would have the advantage in knowing the area far better than he if the ships should start to drift apart. Consequently, he rejected this approach and returned to his original proposal of urging Captain Gordon to set sail without any guarantee.
I again repeated that Capt. Gordon wished to go to sea, and would rejoice in the occurrence of a proper [opportunity] of doing so if Capt. Napier would present that oppy. Capt Gordon would certainly avail himself of it & if in the course he should fall in with the Euryalus he would then expect no guarantee. But if he went out with an understanding that he was not to leave the coast (thronged as it was with British cruisers) . . . such a guarantee as I had asked was indispensable. He again repeated his inability to give it.
Tazewell then suggested that Captain Gordon go out to sea, and that Napier withdraw his squadron, while both proceeded to a given point unknown to anyone but themselves. This approach, Tazewell felt, would require no guarantee, and Napier could have no reasonable objection. The Virginian learned otherwise.
He [Napier] acknowledged that this proposal was perfectly fair, but observed that he could not accept it, because if Capt. Gordon should make any captures in the course of his cruise, previous to the meeting of the two ships, he [Napier] should be deservedly censured for permitting him to come out. I replied to this suggesting by stating that this might be easily obviated. For the Euryalus might accompany the Constellation on her cruise in which case there would be mutual checks upon either ship making prizes.
When Napier asked about where the encounter should take place, Tazewell suggested somewhere to the north, such as Boston Bay. Napier felt this was completely out of the question, as they would certainly meet other ships, the commanders of which were all superior to him.
I was now at my wit’s end and I could only say that he must necessarily be better acquainted with the cruising ground of British ships then I was, and as the place which I had named, was proposed merely as being one where no interruption would probably take place, if he would name any other, where this object would be attained with more certainty, we would agree to that. He stated that he knew no course they could steer so as to insure their mutual wishes so well as going straight far enough off into the Atlantic. I then remarked that altho there were some objections to this, yet I would mention it to Captain Gordon, and I believed he would accede to it. Should he do so, he would pass the Euryalus and making her a signal to agreed upon, would expect her to follow him. He [Napier] objected to the signal being made by Capt. Gordon, saying that the other ships ought to see it but observed that he would make it himself.
Napier then inquired about what distance each should proceed. Because distance depended on the tides, wind, and currents, Tazewell thought time was a better measure than distance; he suggested about a fortnight, which Napier felt was far too long as it would take him away from his station and that he would suffer from it. Tazewell then counter-proposed the idea that the American ship would pass out of sight of Napier during the night and that he should follow unbeknownst to other British vessels in chase until the proposed time was reached and the engagement fought.
He remarked that this could never be, for if in the proposed chase it should turn out that the Euryalus was the better sailor, which he believed would be the case & should the two ships afterwards be separated and no fight take place, he must be broke for cowardice, in not bringing the Constellation to action when he had it in his power do so.
Realizing that there were just too many insurmountable difficulties in the way of achieving agreement on conditions, Tazewell admitted “that I had nothing further to offer and was sorry the mutual wishes of the parties, springing as they did from a motive as laudable, could not be accomplished.”
Captain Napier, however, continued to hope for an eventual engagement by now proposing that he send his other ships to the other side of Chesapeake Bay and that he would remain near Cape Henry, allowing Constellation to pass between him and the cape in the night. The two would set to sea for an agreed-upon time, less than a fortnight, and should they encounter any ships commanded by officers inferior to Napier, he would order them off. If they should encounter officers superior in rank to Napier, he would hope they would leave him alone, but in any event, he would not engage the American frigate if attacked by any other vessel. Napier even suggested that the Constellation consider raising the British flag over the American flag to indicate a prize taken to avoid all examination by other British ships.
[T]o the last proposal, I felt at the time that I ought not to make any answer cause the only one which I ought to have made, would have been proper in the cabin of the Euryalus where we then were. And in his former proposals I thought I saw so many circumstances indicating foul play, that combining them with what had gone before, and other events which had occurred during our interview & which distinctly assured one, that the Capt. of the Menelaus (then on board) was informed of the nature of our business, I believed it most prudent to content myself with remarking merely that I would communicate it to Capt. Gordon, who would return him an answer in due time.
Tazewell left the British frigate on the night of February 8, 1815, and did not arrive in Norfolk until two days later. Captain Gordon was preparing new instructions for his then-exhausted mediator when a violent snowstorm raged from February 12 into the morning of the 13th,
which prevented any communication with the British fleet then and on the evening of the latter day, we received the certain account of peace, which, of course, put a stop to everything further upon this subject. These facts were communicated to Capt. Napier by Capt. Gordon, who received his answer stating that he was happy to hear of the restoration of peace, but should the occasion ever thereafter arise, he should be proud to have a meeting with the Constellation upon any terms compatible with the duty he owed to his country and to his superior officers. Thus ended my dear Sir this strange transaction with which I would not have troubled you, if I did not believe that altho the tale be a long one, and very awkwardly told, yet nevertheless, it would give you pleasure.
Tazewell hastened to assure Bainbridge that for obvious reasons his story was still a very sensitive tale, but he did have Gordon’s permission to send it to Bainbridge, and to any officers that Captain Bainbridge thought trustworthy enough to keep it secret. Tazewell concluded his letter by wishing he
had time or strength left to amuse you with several little anecdotes occurring on board of the Euryalus while I was there which would make any an amusing episode to this long tale, and manifest not less the discipline of the ship, than the urbanity of the Scotchman who commands her. But I have written enough to tire myself, and more than enough to weary you I am sure, therefore I will add no more, but that I am your sincere friend.
Tazewell’s letter to Captain Bainbridge not only provides an insight into early 19th-century naval customs between the two English-speaking belligerents, but it also shows us a lighter side of Littleton Waller Tazewell’s character. The letter indicates his dogged persistence in carrying out a favor for his “friend Gordon” no matter how frustrating and annoying the execution of the favor turned out to be. In the end, Tazewell, however, could discover some amusement and humor in his own predicament, a fate that he was more than happy to share with others whom he felt would be equally amused by the whole affair.
Originally published by Prologue 39:1 (Spring 2007), the United States National Archives and Records Administration, to the public domain.