(Figure 1: The brig General Armstrong at the Battle of Fayal, September 26, 1814. Lithograph published by Nathaniel Currier, New York, 1830.)
Most Americans recall little from school about the War of 1812 – First Lady Dolley Madison ordering a George Washington portrait spirited out of the White House ahead of British troops approaching to burn Washington, D.C.; Francis Scott Key, inspired by the survival of an American flag over Fort McHenry in Baltimore following a naval battle, penning the poem The Star Spangled Banner to an English drinking tune; Andrew Jackson leading his troops to victory over the British at New Orleans weeks after the peace treaty was signed, although the combatants had yet to receive the news. Americans are, however, rarely taught about the Battle of Fayal, fought in the neutral waters of Horta harbor in Portugal’s Azores islands on the night of September 26, 1814. Yet this was the last great naval battle of the War of 1812 and a sound victory for the Americans, which many consider to have assured Britain’s final defeat at New Orleans a few months later.
Two centuries ago Great Britain was the world’s preeminent naval power, while the still-young United States’ Navy was only a fraction the size of Britain’s. To even out this imbalance a bit without further straining the new nation’s treasury, the U.S. government issued letters of marque authorizing privately financed American vessels called privateers to attack foreign military and commercial ships on its behalf in wartime; investors, officers and crew profited from captured cargo and ships. One such privateer was the brig General Armstrong, built in 1812.
business from Bordeaux, France, to Pico Island – had served nine years as
United States Consul to the Azores, posted in Horta, directly across the
Fayal Roads channel from Pico.
In Chapter IV of The Annals Roxana used official correspondence and family lore to recount the Battle of Fayal. Portugal was neutral in the War of 1812, so a certain civility existed in the Azores between Americans and British. For example, she related that in September 1814 Britain’s ship Rota “had been in Fayal some little time previous, and the officers had performed several plays for the entertainment of the English-speaking inhabitants of Horta. I have the play-bill; one of the plays was The Tragedy of Barbarossa [about a Barbary pirate]. The officers had promised a like entertainment, and I have understood were rehearsing a tragedy, as they came round Espalamaca Point [Horta bay’s northern boundary], the afternoon of the 26th, little thinking that they were so soon to be engaged in a real tragedy, which would cost several of them their lives” (p. 57).
That evening the General Armstrong was sailing for the fort at Horta (now site of a landmark pousada) to replenish her supply of fresh water, when several British ships approached from across the channel. The British claim of merely wishing to ascertain the ship’s identity is undermined by the fact that they could have contacted the British or American consulate for the information, or sent a peace delegation once the ship docked in Horta. Recounting that night’s events, Roxana reproduced contemporaneous correspondence among the U.S. Consul, Portugal’s Governor of the Azores, and the commander of the British ship Plantagent (she failed to note, however, whether the Azorean Governor’s messages had originally been in English, or were translated from Portuguese).
At 9 PM Consul Dabney wrote to Governor Elias José Ribeiro that, in violation of Portugal’s neutrality, “British Ships of war now in the harbour have just sent four or five armed boats to surprise and carry off the American Privateer General Armstrong, Captain Reid, then and now at anchor under the guns of the Castle [fort], where he conceived himself perfectly protected and secure. The boats were repulsed, but a second and more formidable attack is premeditated; I therefore require Your Excy. to protect this American vessel, either by force, or by such representations to the British Commander, as will cause him to desist from any further violence. I also request your Excy. to give leave for the American seamen now here, to go on board the said American brig to assist in defending her, if the English should attack her a second time” (p. 47).
An hour later Governor Ribeiro wrote to the commander of the British Naval force advising that, given Portuguese neutrality, “[t]he Governor has therefore the honour to request at your hands, that you will abstain from any hostility against the said vessel; and he avails himself of this occasion to give to the Commander in chief the consideration which he merits.” The British commander promptly replied claiming “one of the boats of his Britannic Majesty’s ship under my command was, without the slightest provocation fired on by the American schooner General Armstrong, in consequence of which two men were killed and seven were wounded; and that the neutrality of the port, which I had determined to respect, has been thereby violated. In consequence of this outrage, I am determined to take possession of the vessel, and I hope that you will order your fort to protect the force employed for that purpose.” The Governor then warned the commander that “it is certain that the British boats were the first to attack the American schooner. I foresee fatal consequences from the sad occurrences which I have just witnessed and you sir, should therefore, now give public evidence of the harmony, friendship, alliance, and good understanding which exists between your sovereign and the Prince Regent of Portugal, by putting an end to the hostilities begun at eight o’clock this night past” (p. 48).
John Bass Dabney reported that several Portuguese on shore were wounded during the firing. Roxana added that Charles was “among the spectators in the fort and received a lesson in prudence and forethought, which made a lasting impression; in his eagerness to see, he kept continually raising himself to look over the breastworks; at last a man near him (an American sea Captain) pulled him down saying, ‘You can see just as well with only the top of your head exposed, as with the whole of your chest a target for the bullets,’ which were continually whistling over their heads” (p. 57). When the battle ended late the next morning, Americans had suffered two deaths and seven wounded, the British 36 dead and 93 wounded. To prevent the British from capturing the General Armstrong, Captain Reid ordered a hole fired through the hull in order to sink her.