THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Friday, December 29, 1995 TAG: 9512290750 SECTION: PORTSMOUTH CURRENTS PAGE: 03 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Olde Towne Journal SOURCE: Alan Flanders LENGTH: Long : 101 lines
WHEN CAPT. LEWIS Warrington arrived in June 1821 for his first tenure as commander of Gosport Shipyard, he was already a national hero and a household word in this area.
In addition to a gold medal struck in his honor by order of Congress, his heroic naval exploits in the War of 1812 as commanding officer of the 22-gun sloop-of-war Peacock earned him a gold sword, which was presented to him in the hall of the House of Delegates by Gov. John Tyler.
One can only imagine the memories the arrival of the Peacock stirred in him when she anchored in Norfolk harbor for a break from the ``Pirate Wars'' in November 1823. No doubt he was proud to offer the services of his shipyard to the warship that had brought him so much adventure and fame back in April 1814.
It was during that fateful year that Peacock with young ``Master Commandant'' Warrington at the helm sailed from St. Mary's, Ga. to the British shipping lanes off the coast of southern Florida to await enemy merchantmen.
On April 29, Warrington's patience paid off as three enemy cargo ships sailing from the West Indies were spotted just over the horizon. As Peacock's crew prepared to take the three merchantmen in what they thought would be a routine action, Warrington had a different perspective of what was about to take place.
Through his telescope he spotted their escort, a warship equal to his own, the 18-gun HMS Epervier. No doubt the American captain knew he had a fight on his hands as it was well known throughout both fleets that Epervier had left Great Britain with a boast that she would capture an American ship equal to her own or greater on her first deployment.
Within seconds, battle stations were called on both ships as the three merchantmen sailed off to see who would carry the day in an era of two-ship engagements that demanded ``swashbuckling daring and courage.''
Following the battle tactics of the day, both Peacock and Epervier drew close to one another so that each would feel the direct impact of the other's broadsides. And for nearly 45 minutes, the roar of American and British cannon deafened the gun crews of both decks. When the smoke cleared, it was clear that Warrington and his crew had scored a decisive victory; in fact, one of the more lopsided of the war.
The Epervier struck her colors. She was a battered hulk strewn with 11 crewmen killed and 15 more seriously wounded. Her hull, now perforated with 45 holes, already had taken on five feet of water.
The Peacock meanwhile had suffered only two wounded and only superficial damage. But the psychological damage to the all-powerful British navy was even greater than many that day could calculate as the Epervier's officers were speechless that they had lost so quickly to the previously untried Warrington.
Not only did Warrington defeat the Epervier. He sent a boarding party over to her commanding officer to accept the vanquished British naval officer's sword and take command of the vessel as an American war prize.
On April 30, after a considerable patch job and with the addition of jury-rigged sails, the Epervier was ready to be escorted by the Peacock. However, Warrington was in for a surprise himself!
Just as he directed both ships to sail for Savannah, Warrington spotted two British frigates bearing down. Immediately, he ordered the Epervier, now under the command of his first Lt. John B. Nicolson, to steer a course inshore and to the north, while he used Peacock as a bait to lure the attackers off.
Calculating that he might have a chance to avoid a fight, he headed south and, fortunately, the slower enemy frigates followed. For a while, it was simply who had the faster ship and who was the luckier.
Apparently Warrington had both on his side that day as he managed to evade the British and rejoin the Epervier safely at anchor in Savannah harbor.
News spread along the American coastline that Warrington had won the day by defeating one of the finest ships in the British navy. Soon he was the toast of every pub and tavern from Massachusetts to Georgia.
During the last year of the war, 1815, Peacock captured several more valuable prizes in the West Indies, including the British East India Company's 14-gun ship Nautilus from which Warrington learned that a peace treaty ending the War of 1812 had been signed.
Returning to a hero's welcome in Hampton Roads, he received word that the General Assembly had instructed the governor to present him with a gold-mounted sword celebrating his victory over the Epervier.
Without a war, his naval career was ``grounded'' with shore commands that led to his being chosen first chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks and interim service as Secretary of the Navy in 1844. He also excelled in command of the Gosport shipyard during his first term from June 1821 to December 1824 and his second from May 1831 until October 1840.
Both Warrington tenures saw unparalleled growth in the facility as sailing ships were converted to steam and Gosport became the opening site for America's first stone drydock. In addition, it was while Warrington was serving his second tour that the first naval hospital was completed.
But perhaps nothing excited him so much as seeing the Peacock as it readied for the ``Pirate Wars.''
No doubt, Warrington had a good time entertaining his former ship's new commander with stories of her gallant exploits back in the days of wooden ships and canvas sail in the War of 1812. ILLUSTRATION: A contemporary woodcut depicts and the battle between the USS
Peacock, left, and the HMS Epervier in the War of 1812.
Portrait of Capt. Lewis Warrington was painted by Rembrandt Peale.