Wasp is among the oldest and most revered names of U.S. Navy ships. Including the first Wasp, a schooner purchased by the Continental Navy in 1775, 11 ships have carried the name (see “A Yank Flat-Top for Malta,” pp. 36–43).
Between 1807 and 1814, four Wasps were commissioned into Navy service. The first was a ship-rigged sloop-of-war built at the Washington (D.C.) Navy Yard. Her main battery consisted of 18 32-pounder carronades and a pair of 12-pounder long guns.
She began her service in 1808, enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807, which asserted the nascent United States’ right to neutrality and free trade amid the Napoleonic Wars. Chief among the targets of the act was stopping the impressment of America seamen “to retrieve our lost honor, & to bring the mad King [Britain’s George III] to his senses.”
Beginning in 1808, the Wasp operated in waters off the northern portion of Massachusetts that would become the state of Maine in 1820. In June, she transported an Army garrison from New York City to Passamaquoddy and later that winter patrolled Casco Bay. She remained at Portland until May 1809. By March 1810, she was refitting in New York. There, future Captain Isaac Mayo of the Constitution, then a 16-year-old midshipman, joined her, his first ship, with the thought “[I] cannot say that I am much pleased with first appearances.” It was Mayo who, from his berth on board the Wasp, wrote the earliest extant reference to “Uncle Sam.” After the sloop left New York on the 24th, Mayo spent the first two days out as “deadly seasick, oh could I have got on shore in the hight [sic] of it, I swear that uncle Sam, as they call him, would certainly forever have lost the services of at least one sailor.”
By the end of the year, the Wasp was patrolling the southern Atlantic coast, operating from Savannah and Charleston. In 1811, she sailed to Hampton Roads, joining the frigates United States and Congress and the brig Nautilus in a squadron commanded by Commodore Stephen Decatur.
Beginning on 9 March 1812, she transported a little-known adventurer and spy, John Henry, to France. Henry, an Irish-born American, had been employed by Sir James Craig, the Governor-General of Canada, in 1809 to report on the disaffection in New England toward the U.S. government. Henry corresponded frequently by letter with Craig over the three months he lived in Boston. In one letter, he wrote his belief that, in the event of war, Massachusetts would establish a “northern confederacy” that may ally with Great Britain. Craig died before Henry could capitalize on his information, but he found a buyer for their correspondence—President James Madison. He purchased them for $50,000. This was about the price of a new frigate.
Madison prefaced the letters’ release in a message to Congress:
I lay before Congress copies of certain Documents. . . . They prove that . . . in negociations on the part of the British government, through its public Minister here; a secret Agent of that Government was employed in certain States, more especially . . . in Massachusetts, in fomenting disaffection to the constituted authorities of the nation.
At the time, the Federalist Party was a minority party, but remained prominent in New England and strongly opposed war with Britain. With the letters, Madison was able to further justify a war against Britain and marginalize the Federalists.
Madison released the papers on the day the Wasp with Henry on board sailed. The sloop’s transport of a spy is often overlooked by historians. Why was Henry, with only the letters as his claim to fame, given passage on board a U.S. Navy warship?
After the United States went to war with Britain in June 1812, the Wasp, under the command of Master Commandant Jacob Jones, patrolled the coast of the mid-Atlantic states. On 13 October, after sailing from the Delaware River, the sloop captured the 12-gun brig HMS Dolphin. Two days later, she fought a heavy gale that tore away her jibboom and washed two crewmen overboard. The following evening, she spied a convoy and, despite the appearance of at least one man-of-war and her own storm damage, made for it. The Wasp caught the six merchantmen and their escort, the 22-gun sloop-of-war HMS Frolic, on the morning of the 18th.
The weather was clear, but with a strong wind and heavy seas. As both warships were primarily armed with carronades, there was no maneuvering to gain the weather gage. At 1130 they closed for battle, with the Wasp to starboard and slightly windward. The U.S. sloop’s gunners aimed for the Frolic’s hull, while their enemy targeted the American’s rigging. The ships closed to the point that the Wasp’s gunners struck the Frolic’s side with their rammers as they reloaded.
After 22 minutes, the Wasp, with her rigging mostly shot away, was unmanageable. The Frolic suffered greater damage to her hull, more casualties, and the loss of both masts. Out of control, the Frolic rammed the Wasp, which delivered a raking broadside to end the major fighting. It had lasted 43 minutes by Mayo’s account.
He later reported, “The action was commenced at 60 yards which was gradually lessened until the Wasp laid her on board and carried her by boarding.” More than half the British crew of 90 were casualties, with 15 killed and 43 wounded. The Wasp’s personnel losses were five killed and five wounded.
The victory was short-lived, however, for just two hours later, HMS Poictiers, a 74-gun third-rate ship-of-the-line arrived. With the Wasp’s rigging and sails mangled, Master Commandant Jones could neither fight nor run from the much larger warship. He surrendered his ship and recently captured prize.
The American sloop was sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where she was commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Loup Cervier in early 1813. Commander William Bowen Mends took command on 26 February. By June, his ship was off New London, Connecticut, aiding in the blockade of Decatur’s squadron there. The captain of the U.S. sloop-of-war Hornet, James Biddle, who had been first lieutenant of the Wasp, challenged Mends to an engagement. Decatur, however, delayed it until he could be certain of an even match. Meanwhile, the Loup Cervier sailed south.
She then had a string of captures or recaptures. On 27 June, she caught the schooner Little Bill (or Little Bell), followed a month later on 28 August by the 468-ton ship Hope. Two months later, on 29 October, she recaptured the brig John and Mary. Finally, on 13 December, in consort with HMS Rover, Valiant, and Statira, she shared in the capture of the 44-ton sloop Emeline.
In late 1813, the Loup Cervier was renamed the Peacock. She was one of the five British warships that on 21 April 1814 captured the Swedish brig Minerva. The next month, on 15 May, she recaptured the four-gun Swedish ship Providentia, as well as later that day the eight-gun Russian ship Hendrick.
The Peacock disappeared off the Virginia Capes after she apparently foundered on 23 July 1814.