Tuesday, September 3

A letter to the Captain

The following letter was written to Capt. Freymann and rec'd on Tuesday, 13th August:

Captain Robert Freymann
HMS Acasta,                                                                                                                                  
Halifax Station,                                                                                                                               
Nova Scotia.

Dear Captain Freymann,
Tom Hurlbut, Acting Commodore, Great Lakes Station

I take this opportunity to write you on matters social and professional, after recommendations by the good Doctor that this missive will not fall on deaf ears and, that it will be received in the spirit in which it is intended. Should I make a misstep, please inform me of it and I will take action to make amends.

Firstly, may I thank you for the loan of Doctor Roberts? His presence in the colony and service to the cause of the Navy in these parts are greatly appreciated as a man of his skill and talents are rare in this backwater of the Empire. Even more so, we had need of his special skills as the campaign in defense of Upper Canada against the incursions of the Americans involved some serious fighting and many injuries were received. Dr. Roberts’ cool demeanor in his chosen battlefield, that of the orlop or field hospital as the situation warranted, showed him as man of quiet courage and an inspiration to us all. I thank you again for the loan of him.

I hear that you have lost the services of your own purser in circumstances that are unknown to me. I hope that he will return to you soon, if possible, or that a suitable replacement is at hand. I would lend you my own but, you would not thank me. Mr. Cheetham is my own cross to bear, I fear.
Now to the serious matter that I would like to discuss with you.

As you are on the Halifax Station, the news of Philip Broke’s victory over James Lawrence and the USS Chesapeake must have come to you quite early and I’m certain of the general euphoria that must have resulted. I know that, after the string of single-ship defeats at the hands of the US Navy, the entire service felt the shock and disappointment. It is well that the streak has ended, with the victory, all is corrected.

And yet, after carefully examining the particulars of the encounters, in virtually every case, it should come as no surprise that the Americans would be successful. I wonder if you have had time to consider this? As far removed as I am from Halifax, I can only assume the attitude of the officers and men stationed there based on what we feel here at Kingston. My fear is that it will be felt that luck has changed and that the innate superiority of British maritime prowess will now re-assert itself, and that cruiser captains will again seek out the enemy and engage him in any situation where the odds might be considered close. In my considered opinion, that would be a mistake.

As it turns out, I am aided in my analysis by the particulars as provided by Mr. Mark Lardas who has sent me lists of dimensions and other details of the vessels of the United States. I will not say how this information came to me.

As you know, the major units of the US Navy are their big frigates, Constitution, United States and President. While there are some minor differences in appearance, dimension and armament, they are virtually identical in capabilities. They are 175’ between perpendiculars or on deck, have a 43’6” beam, and measure 1576 tons. The frames and scantlings are of a dimension more appropriate to ships of the line and they are armed with a main battery of 30 24-pdr long guns with a bank of 20 32-pdr carronades on a complete spar deck. They also have 24-pdr chase guns and a compliment of 450 officers, seamen and marines.

The difference between these vessels and the standard 38 gun frigate of the Royal Navy is significant. Macedonian was the biggest of the four to fight a US frigate and she was measured at 156’ between perpendiculars, and 38’9” on the beam. She measures 1082 tons burthen, a deficiency of  30% to United States.

Your fine Acasta, is of the largest class of 18-pdr frigates in the service and it might occur to some that she would be a fair match for one of the US frigates. Again, by looking at the numbers, I suggest that to seek out any but the smallest of US cruisers would prove disappointing in the outcome.

USS Chesapeake was the smallest of the frigates, rated 36 guns in US Navy service. This is misleading in that she actually carried 28 18-pdrs on her upper deck and an 18-pdr and 2 12-pdrs as chase guns as well as 18 32-pdr carronades on her spar deck. She also measures 152½ feet on deck, 41 feet maximum breadth and displaces 1244 tons with a crew of 340 officers, marines men and boys. Compare her with  Acasta, measuring 1127 tons burthen, 154 feet on deck, 40 feet 9 inches on the beam with her rated crew of 320 expected to handle 30 18-pdrs on the upper deck and either 10 9-pdr cannon or 8 32-pdr carronades on forecastle and quarterdeck. Even allowing for the difference between British tunnage versus US displacement, all other things being equal including crew training and discipline, Chesapeake would have been a challenge to any 40 gun 18-pdr frigate in the Royal Navy’s order of battle.

I did mention that Chesapeake was the smallest of the 36s. USS Constellation, also rated 36, and which performed well in the undeclared war with France in 1799, measures 164 feet on deck, 41 feet on the beam, displaces 1265 tons and in addition to a crew of 340, carries 28 18-pdrs and 20 32-pdr carronades.

Therefore, the only advantage is of the supposed superiority of the British seaman over that of any other nation. If there really is an inherent quality in the British sailor, then perhaps the Americans have it too? They are of the same stock, after all.

I know Captain Freymann that I suppose a great deal, that you will look upon these figures with a cold professional detachment and not take it that I diminish the value and quality of your ship, officers and crew. I have met your Doctor and, if he is of the measure of your men, then there can be no finer crew. Your reputation speaks of your own high abilities.

I take it too that you may find this information new and informative but if it is already familiar to you, then I hope you do not find it tedious or insulting.

On a future post, if you desire it, I shall tell you the story of my career since the days we shipped together when I was a newly minted Midshipman and you were beginning your rise to the top as a Master’s Mate.

I remain,
Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant
Thomas Hurlbut, 

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