Impressed sailors versus volunteers — Silver American Eagle Dollar Coin

Today, the Silver American Eagle Dollar Coin remembers the naval battle of October 25, 1812 when the USS United States gained victory over the HBM Macedonian.

An English boy in the service of the HMB Macedonian gave his eyewitness account of the battle and its aftermath in his book Thirty Years from Home, Or a Voice from the Main Deck, published in 1844.

Let’s see how Samuel Leech described his experience after the Macedonian fell to the Americans:


When the crew of the United States first boarded our frigate, to take possession of her as their prize, our men, heated with the fury of the battle, exasperated with the sight of their dead and wounded shipmates, and rendered furious by the rum they had obtained from the spirit-room, felt and exhibited some disposition to fight their captors.

But after the confusion had subsided, and part of our men were snugly stowed away in the American ship, and the remainder found themselves kindly used in their own, the utmost good feeling began to prevail.

We took hold and cleansed the ship, using hot vinegar to take out the scent of the blood that had dyed the white of our planks with crimson.

We also took hold and aided in fitting our disabled frigate for her voyage.

This being accomplished, both ships sailed in company toward the American coast.

I soon felt myself perfectly at home with the American seamen; so much so, that I chose to mess with them.

My shipmates also participated in similar feelings in both ships.

All idea that we had been trying to shoot out each other’s brains so shortly before, seemed forgotten.

We eat together, drank together, joked, sung, laughed, told yarns; in short, a perfect union of ideas, feelings, and purposes, seemed to exist among all hands.

A corresponding state of unanimity existed, I was told, among the officers.

Commodore Decatur showed himself to be a gentleman as well as a hero in his treatment of the officers of the Macedonian.

When Captain Carden offered his sword to the commodore, remarking, as he did so, “I am an undone man. I am the first British naval officer that has struck his flag to an American:” the noble commodore either refused to receive the sword, or immediately returned it, smiling as he said, “You are mistaken, sir; your Guerriere has been taken by us, and the flag of a frigate was struck before yours.”

This somewhat revived the spirits of the old captain; but, no doubt, he still felt his soul stung with shame and mortification at the loss of his ship.

Participating as he did in the haughty spirit of the British aristocracy, it was natural for him to feel galled and wounded to the quick, in the position of a conquered man.

We were now making the best of our way to America.

Notwithstanding the patched-up condition of the Macedonian, she was far superior, in a sailing capacity, to her conqueror.

The United States had always been a dull sailer, and had been christened by the name of the Old Wagon.

Whenever a boat came alongside of our frigate, and the boatswain’s mate was ordered to “pipe away” the boat’s crew, he used to sound his shrill call on the whistle, and bawl out, “Away, Wagoners, away,” instead of “away, United States men, away.”

This piece of pleasantry used to be rebuked by the officers, but in a manner that showed they enjoyed the joke.

They usually replied, “Boatswain’s mate, you rascal, pipe away United States men, not Wagoners. We have no wagoners on board of a ship.”

Still, in spite of rebuke, the joke went on, until it grew stale by repetition.

One thing was made certain however by the sailing qualities of the Macedonian; which was, that if we had been disposed to escape from our foe before the action, we could have done so with all imaginable ease.

This however, would have justly exposed us to disgrace, while our capture did not.

There was every reason why the United States should beat us. She was larger in size, heavier in metal, more numerous in men, and stronger built than the Macedonian.

Another fact in her favor was, that our captain at first mistook her for the Essex, which carried short carronades, hence he engaged her at long shot at first; for, as we had the weather gage, we could take what position we pleased.

But this maneuver only wasted our shot, and gave her the advantage, as she actually carried larger metal than we did.

When we came to close action, the shot from the United States went “through and through” our ship, while ours struck her sides, and fell harmlessly into the water.

This is to be accounted for both by the superiority of the metal and of the ship. Her guns were heavier and her sides thicker than ours.

Some have said that her sides were stuffed with cork. Of this, however, I am not certain.

Her superiority, both in number of men and guns, may easily be seen by the following statistics.

We carried forty-nine guns; long eighteen-pounders on the main deck, and thirty-two pound carronades on the quarter deck and forecastle.

Our whole number of hands, including officers, men and boys, was three hundred.

The United States carried four hundred and fifty men and fifty-four guns: long twenty-four pounders on the main deck, and forty-two pound carronades on the quarter deck and forecastle.

So that in actual force she was immensely our superior.

To these should be added the consideration that the men in the two ships fought under the influence of different motives.

Many of our hands were in the service against their will; some of them were Americans, wrongfully impressed, and inwardly hoping for defeat: while nearly every man in our ship sympathized with the great principle for which the American nation so nobly contended in the war of 1812.

What that was, I suppose all my readers understand.

The British, at war with France, had denied the Americans the right to trade thither.

She had impressed American seamen, and forcibly compelled their service in her navy; she had violated the American flag by insolently searching their vessels for her runaway seamen.

Free trade and sailors’ rights, therefore, were the objects contended for by the Americans.

With these objects our men could but sympathize, whatever our officers might do.

On the other hand, the crew of our opponent had all shipped voluntarily for the term of two years only; (most of our men were shipped for life.)

They understood what they fought for; they were better used in the service.

What wonder, then, that victory adorned the brows of the American commander?

To have been defeated under such circumstances would have been a source of lasting infamy to any naval officer in the world.

In the matter of fighting, I think there is but little difference in either nation.

Place them in action under equal circumstances and motives, and who could predict which would be victor?

Unite them together, they would subject the whole world.

So close are the alliances of blood, however, between England and America, that it is to be earnestly desired, they may never meet in mortal strife again.

If either will fight, which is to be deprecated as a crime and a folly, let it choose an enemy less connected by the sacred ties of consanguinity.

Our voyage was one of considerable excitement.

The seas swarmed with British cruisers, and it was extremely doubtful whether the United States would elude their grasp, and reach the protection of an American port with her prize.

I hoped most sincerely to avoid them, as did most of my old shipmates; in this we agreed with our captors, who wisely desired to dispose of one conquest before they attempted another.

Our former officers, of course, were anxious for the sight of a British flag.

But we saw none, and, after a prosperous voyage from the scene of conflict, we heard the welcome cry of “Land ho!”

The United States entered the port of New London; but, owing to a sudden shift of the wind, the Macedonian had to lay off and on for several hours.

Had an English cruiser found us in this situation, we should have been easily recovered; and, as it was extremely probable we should fall in with one, I felt quite uneasy, until, after several hours, we made out to run into the pretty harbor of Newport.

We fired a salute as we came to an anchor, which was promptly returned by the people on shore.

After staying a short time in this port, we got under weigh and ran into New London.

Here we fired a gun as a signal; it was answered by the United States, and both ships were presently sailing in company to New York.

We found the sound plentifully dotted with sloops, carrying passengers, for this was before the days of modem steamboating.

After we reached Hurl-gate, vessels here gave us plenty of employment.

Most of them honored us with three cheers, as they passed.

Of course, the prize crew could do no less than cheer again, so that we passed our time amidst continued cheering.

While here, we were favored with abundant visitors, curious to see the captive frigate.

Finding these visitors extremely inquisitive, and being tolerably good-natured myself, I found a profitable business in conducting them about the ship, describing the action, and pointing out the places where particular individuals fell.

For these services, I gained some money and more good will.

The people who had been to see us, used to tell on shore how they had been on board of us, and how the English boy had conducted them over the ship, and told them the particulars of the fight.

It soon became quite common for those who came to inquire “if I was the English boy that was taken in her.”

This civility on my part was not without a motive; it was productive of profit, and I wanted money to aid me whenever I got clear, which I was fully determined to do, the first opportunity.


The Silver American Eagle Dollar Coin shows with an artist’s rendition of the naval battle between the USS United States and the HBM Macedonian.

Silver American Eagle Dollar Coin