Commodore Isaac Hull in the War of 1812

Skippering Old Ironsides

Isaac Hull, USN
Commodore Isaac Hull. US Naval History and Heritage Command

Born March 9, 1773, in Derby, CT, Isaac Hull was the son of Joseph Hull who later took part in the American Revolution. In the course of the fighting, Joseph served as an artillery lieutenant and was captured in 1776 following the Battle of Fort Washington. Imprisoned in HMS Jersey, he was exchanged two years later and assumed command of a small flotilla on Long Island Sound.  Following the end of the conflict, he entered the merchant trade sailing to the West Indies as well as whaling.

  It was through these endeavors that Isaac Hull first experienced the sea.  Young when his father died, Hull was adopted by his uncle, William Hull. Also a veteran of the American Revolution, he would earn infamy for surrendering Detroit in 1812.  Though William wished his nephew to obtain a college education, the younger Hull desired to return to sea and, at age fourteen, became a cabin boy on a merchant vessel.

Five years later, in 1793, Hull earned his first command captaining a merchant ship in the West Indies trade.  In 1798, he sought out and obtained a lieutenant's commission in the newly re-formed US Navy.  Serving aboard the frigate USS Constitution (44 guns), Hull earned the respect of Commodores Samuel Nicholson and Silas Talbot.  Engaged in the Quasi-War with France, the US Navy sought out French vessels in the Caribbean and Atlantic.  On May 11, 1799, Hull led a detachment of Constitution's sailors and marines in seizing the French privateer Sandwich near Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo.

Taking the sloop Sally into Puerto Plata, he and his men captured the ship as well as a shore battery defending the harbor.  Spiking the guns, Hull departed with the privateer as a prize. With the end of the conflict with France, a new one soon emerged with the Barbary pirates in North Africa. 

Barbary Wars

Taking command of the brig USS Argus (18) in 1803, Hull joined Commodore Edward Preble's squadron which was operating against Tripoli.

  Promoted to master commandant the following year, he remained in the Mediterranean.  In 1805, Hull directed Argus, USS Hornet (10), and USS Nautilus (12) in supporting US Marine Corps First Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon during the Battle of Derna.  Returning to Washington, DC a year later, Hull received a promotion to captain.  The next five years saw him oversee the construction of gunboats as well as command the frigates USS Chesapeake (36) and USS President (44).  In June 1810, Hull was appointed captain of Constitution and returned to his former ship.  After having the frigate's bottom cleaned, he departed for a cruise in European waters.  Returning in February 1812, Constitution was in the Chesapeake Bay four months later when news arrived that the War of 1812 had begun.       

USS Constitution

Exiting the Chesapeake, Hull steered north with the goal of rendezvousing with a squadron that Commodore John Rodgers was assembling. While off the coast of New Jersey on July 17, Constitution was spotted by a group of British warships that included HMS Africa (64) and the frigates HMS Aeolus (32), HMS Belvidera (36), HMS Guerriere (38), and HMS Shannon (38). Stalked and pursued for over two days in light winds, Hull used a variety of tactics, including wetting down the sails and kedge anchors, to escape.

  Reaching Boston, Constitution quickly resupplied before departing on Aug. 2.

Moving northeast, Hull captured three British merchantmen and obtained intelligence that a British frigate was operating to the south. Sailing to intercept, Constitution encountered Guerriere on Aug. 19. Holding his fire as the frigates neared, Hull waited until the two ships were only 25 yards apart. For 30 minutes Constitution and Guerriere exchanged broadsides until Hull closed on the enemy's starboard beam and toppled the British vessel's mizzen mast. Turning, Constitution raked Guerriere, sweeping its decks with fire. As the battle continued, the two frigates collided three times, but all attempts to board were turned back by determined musket fire from each ship's marine detachment. During the third collision, Constitution became entangled in Guerriere's bowsprit.

As the two frigates separated, the bowsprit snapped, jarring the rigging and leading to Guerriere's fore and main masts falling. Unable to maneuver or make way, Dacres, who had been wounded in the engagement, met with his officers and decided to strike Guerriere's colors to prevent a further loss of life. During the fighting, many of Guerriere's cannon balls were seen to bounce off Constitution's thick sides leading it to earn the nickname "Old Ironsides." Hull attempted to bring Guerriere into Boston, but the frigate, which had suffered severe damage in the battle, began to sink the next day and he ordered it destroyed after the British wounded were transferred to his ship. Returning to Boston, Hull and his crew were hailed as heroes.  Leaving the ship in September, Hull turned command over to Captain William Bainbridge

Later Career

Traveling south to Washington, Hull first received orders to assume command of the Boston Navy Yard and then the Portsmouth Navy Yard.  Returning to New England, he held the post at Portsmouth for the remainder of the War of 1812. Briefly taking a seat on the Board of Navy Commissioners in Washington beginning in 1815, Hull then took command of the Boston Navy Yard.  Returning to sea in 1824, he oversaw the Pacific Squadron for three years and flew his commodore's pennant from USS United States (44). Upon completing this duty, Hull commanded the Washington Navy Yard from 1829 to 1835.  Taking leave after this assignment, he resumed active duty and in 1838 received command of the Mediterranean Squadron with the ship of the line USS Ohio (64) as his flagship.

Concluding his time abroad in 1841, Hull returned to the United States and due to ill health and increasingly advanced age (68) elected to retire. Residing in Philadelphia with his wife Anna Hart (m. 1813), he died two years later on February 13, 1843. Hull's remains were buried in the city's Laurel Hill Cemetery.  Since his death, the US Navy has named five vessels in his honor. 

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