Hornet vs Peacock

24th February 1813
Part of : The War of 1812 (1812 - 1814)
Previous action : Constitution vs Java 29.12.1812
Next action : Chesapeake vs Shannon 1.6.1813


United States of America

Ship NameCommanderNotes
Hornet (18) James Lawrence (1781-1813)1 killed, 2 wounded

United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland

Ship NameCommanderNotes
Peacock (16) William Peake (1780-1813)5 killed, 33 Wounded Sunk

Notes on Action


On February 24th, 1813, near the mouth of the Demerara River, Captain Lawrence, being near shore, discovered a man-of-war brig lying at anchor; and while beating round Caroband bank in order to get at her, he discovered another man-of-war brig edging down on his weather quarter. Both were British. The one at anchor was the Espiegle, of sixteen 32-pr. carronades, and two 6 prs., Commander John Taylor; the other was the Peacock, Commander William Peake, which for some unknown reason had exchanged her 32-pr. carronades for 24's. She had left the Espiegle's anchorage that morning at ten o'clock. The Hornet at once turned to attack the newcomer, being anxious to get rid of her before her companion inside the bar could come to her assistance.

At 4.20 P.M. the Peacock hoisted her colours, and the Hornet beat to quarters and cleared for action. Lawrence kept close hauled to get the weather-gage. When he was sure that he could weather the enemy, he tacked at 5.10 and stood toward her, hoisting his colours. The ship and the brig were now both on the wind the Hornet on the starboard, and the Peacock on the port, tack. At 5.25 they exchanged broadsides as they passed one another, but a few yards distant, in opposite directions, the Americans firing their lee, and the British their weather guns, as they bore. The contrast in the gunnery of the two crews was almost absurd. As the British were using the weather battery, the guns, unless somewhat depressed, were sure to throw the shot high, and for this the crews made no allowance. Not a shot penetrated the Hornet's hull, the entire broadside passing through the rigging. One of her men in the mizen-top was killed by a round shot, and two in the main-top were wounded; a few ropes were cut, the foremast was wounded, and some holes were made in the sails; but her fighting efficiency was not impaired in the slightest degree. On the other hand, the Hornet's guns, being fired from the lee side of the ship, naturally shot low, and her men aimed as if at drill, almost every shot striking the Peacock's hull, while, inasmuch as the Peacock was heeled over, many of them struck below the water-line, making holes through which the water gushed in torrents as soon as the brig was again on an even keel.

When the two vessels were clear, Captain Peake put his helm hard up and wore, firing his starboard guns; but Lawrence had watched him closely, and himself bore up, and at 5.35 ran the Englishman close aboard on the starboard quarter. Another broadside, added to the musketry fire, did the business. Captain Peake fell; and at 5.39, just fourteen minutes after the first shot, the Peacock surrendered. Immediately afterwards her main-mast went by the board, and she began to settle, hoisting her ensign upside down as a signal of distress. Both vessels cast anchor; and Lieutenant Shubrick, being sent on board the prize, reported her sinking. Lieutenant Connor was then sent in another boat to try to save the brig; but though the captors threw the guns overboard, plugged the shot holes, and worked the pumps, the water gained so rapidly that the attempt was abandoned, and the Hornet's officers used what remained of the fading tropical twilight in removing the wounded and prisoners. Just as dark fell the brig suddenly sank, in water which was so shallow that her foretop remained above the surface. There was, of course, much confusion. Three of the Hornet's men and nine prisoners went down with the Peacock. Four other prisoners lowered the stern-boat and escaped unobserved to the land, while four more saved themselves by running up the rigging into the foretop. Lieutenant Connor and the rest of the Hornet's men who were on board, and the remainder of the Peacock's crew, who had not been shifted, escaped by jumping into the launch which was lying on the booms, and paddling her towards the ship with pieces of boards.

Seven of the Hornet's men and six of the Peacock's were on the sick list, leaving fit for action one hundred and thirty-five of the former, and one hundred and twenty-two of the latter. The Hornet carried twenty, and the Peacock nineteen guns, each presenting ten in broadside; but, as already mentioned, the Peacock's carronades were 24's, and the Hornet's 32's. There was a very real disparity in force, but in this particular instance the disparity in force in no way affected the result. The Peacock's guns simply did not hit, so that their calibre was a matter of no possible consequence. The Hornet was hardly scratched, and lost but three men, all aloft; while the Peacock was sunk in fourteen minutes, nearly one-third of her crew being killed or wounded. She was bravely fought, but her gunnery was phenomenally bad. It appears that she had long been known as "the yacht" on account of the tasteful arrangement of her deck. The breechings of the carronades were lined with white canvas, and nothing could exceed in brilliancy the polish upon the traversing bars and elevating screws. Of course, a slovenly ship does not often make a good fight, for slovenliness is an indication of laziness, carelessness, and inefficiency; but man and above all the fighting man shall not live by neatness alone, nor yet merely by precision in the performance of duties not connected with the actual shock of arms. Commander Peake had committed the not uncommon mistake of confounding the incidents and the essentials of discipline.

Throughout the fight the Espiegle was but four miles distant, and was plainly visible from the Hornet; but for some reason, which never was fully explained, her Commander did not observe anything, and knew nothing of the action until the next day. Lawrence, of course, took it for granted that he must know, and would shortly come out; and, by nine o'clock in the evening, new sails had been bent on, and the decks cleared, so that the Hornet was again ready for action. She was then, however, overcrowded with people and short of water, and, as the Espiegle showed no signs of coming out, the Hornet stood for home, which she reached in March. On their arrival at New York the officers of the Peacock published a card expressing their appreciation of the way in which they and their men had been treated. The note ran in part, "We ceased to consider ourselves prisoners, and everything that friendship could dictate was adopted by you and the officers of the Hornet to remedy the inconvenience we would otherwise have experienced from the unavoidable loss of the whole of our property and clothes owing to the sudden sinking of the Peacock."

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