Today, the Half Cent Coin of 1809 remembers the first naval skirmish after war was declared in 1812.
From the History of the Navy of the United States of America, by James Fenimore Cooper, published in 1839:
But the declaration of war did not find the little marine of America in a condition to act in this combined, intelligent, and military manner.
The vessels were scattered; some were undergoing repairs, others were at a distance; and, with the exception of one small squadron, everything was virtually committed to the activity, judgment, and enterprise of the different captains.
In the port of New York, were collected the President, 44, Com. Rodgers; Essex, 32, Capt. Porter; and Hornet, 18, Capt. Lawrence.
These vessels were ready to sail at an hour’s notice, except the Essex, which ship was overhauling her rigging, and re-stowing her hold.
Com. Rodgers had dropped into the bay, with the President and Hornet, where he was joined by the United States, 44, Com. Decatur; Congress, 38, Capt. Smith; and Argus, 16, Lieut. Com. Sinclair, which arrived from the southward on the 21st of June.
Information had been received of the sailing of a large fleet of Jamaica-men, under protection of a strong force; and as these vessels would naturally be sweeping along the American coast, in the gulf stream, it was determined to make a dash at this convoy, — as judicious a plan, under the circumstances, as could then have been adopted.
Within an hour after he had received official information of the declaration of war, together with his orders, Com. Rodgers was underway.
The squadron passed Sandy Hook on the afternoon of the 21st of June, and ran off south-east. That night an American was spoken, that had seen the Jamaica ships, and sail was instantly crowded in pursuit.
On the 23rd, however, at 6 a. m., a sail was seen to the northward and eastward, which was soon made out to be an enemy’s frigate, and a general chase took place.
The wind was fresh for the greater part of the day, and the enemy standing before it; the President, an uncommonly fast ship off the wind, soon gained, not only on the enemy, but on the rest of the squadron.
About 4 p. m., she was within gunshot of the chase, but the wind had unfortunately fallen, and the American ships being just out of port and deep, their greater comparative weight, under such circumstances, gave the enemy an advantage.
Perceiving but very faint hopes of getting alongside of the stranger, unless he could cripple him, Com. Rodgers determined now to open on him, with his chase-guns.
With this view, that officer went forward, himself, to direct the cannonade, and about half-past four the forecastle gun was discharged.
This was the first hostile shot fired afloat in the war of 1812, and the gun is understood to have been pointed by Com. Rodgers in person.
The shot struck the chase in the rudder- coat, and drove through the stern frame into the gun-room.
The next gun was fired from the first division below, and was pointed and discharged by Mr. Gamble, the second lieutenant, who commanded the battery.
The shot struck the muzzle of one of the enemy’s stern chasers, which it damaged.
Com. Rodgers fired the third shot, which struck the stern of the chase, killed two men, badly wounded two more, and slightly wounded a lieutenant and two others.
Mr. Gamble again fired, when the gun burst.
The shot flew abroad off on the President’s bow, and the explosion killed and wounded sixteen men.
The forecastle deck was blown up, and Com. Rodgers was thrown into the air, breaking a leg by the fall.
This accident prevented the guns of that side from being used for some time.
The pause enabled the enemy to open from four stern guns, otherwise he would have soon been driven from the after part of his ship.
The fire of the chase was spirited and good, one of his shot plunging on the President’s deck, killing a midshipman, and one or two men.
The President shortly after began to yaw, with a view to cut away some of the chase’s spars, and her fire soon compelled the latter to lighten.
The enemy cut away his anchors, stove his boats, and threw them overboard, and started 14 tons of water.
By these means he drew ahead, when about 7 o’clock the President hauled up, and as a last resort, fired three broadsides, most of the shot of which fell short.
Finding it impossible to get any nearer to the enemy, without rendering his own ships inefficient for a cruise, by lightening, Com. Rodgers ordered the pursuit to be finally abandoned, about midnight.
It was afterwards known that the vessel chased was the Belvidera, 36, Capt. Byron, who deservedly gained much credit for the active manner in which he saved his ship.
The Belvidera got into Halifax a few days later, carrying with her the news of the declaration of war.
The President had 22 men killed and wounded on this occasion, 16 of whom suffered by the bursting of the gun.
Among the former, was the midshipman mentioned; and among the latter, Mr. Gamble.
The loss of the Belvidera was stated at seven killed and wounded by shot, and several others by accidents, Capt. Byron included.
She also suffered materially in her spars, sails, and rigging; while the injuries of this nature, received by the President, were not serious.
The Half Cent Coin shows with an artist’s image of the USS President.