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Royal Naval Biography/Dacres, James Richard

[Post-Captain of 1806.]

This officer is the only surviving son of the late Vice-Admiral, J. R. Dacres[1], by Eleanor Blandford, daughter and heiress of Pearce, of Cambridge, Esq.

He entered the naval service at a very early age; was made a Lieutenant, Nov. 15, 1804; promoted to the command of the Elk sloop of war, July 5, 1805; and posted into the Bacchante of 24 guns, on the Jamaica station, Jan. 14, 1806.

On the 14th Feb. 1807, Captain Dacres captured the French national schooner Dauphin, of 3 guns and 71 men; a vessel which had done much mischief to British commerce in the West Indies, and was then returning, from a successful cruise, to St. Domingo.

Finding that the Dauphin was well known at Samana, and having consulted with Captain William Furlong Wise, of the Mediator 44, who had witnessed her capture, Captain Dacres determined to send her in under French colours, to disguise the Bacchante as a prize, and the Mediator as a neutral; which stratagem so completely deceived the enemy, that he got through the intricate navigation of the harbour, and anchored within half a mile of the fort, before they discovered their mistake. A heavy cannonade was now commenced on both sides, and continued for four hours, when the fort was gallantly stormed by a detachment of seamen and marines, landed under the command of Captain Wise, assisted by Lieutenants Baker, Norton[2], and Shaw. Possession was then taken of two French schooners, fitting for sea as cruisers; an American ship and an English schooner, both of which had been recently captured by privateers. The Mediator appears to have been the greatest sufferer on this occasion, the fire of the enemy being chiefly directed against her, but not so much as might have been expected from the commanding situation of the fort, which was manned principally by the crews of the schooners. Her loss consisted of 2 men killed and 12 wounded; the Bacchante had not a man slain, and only 4 wounded. The fort and cannon were afterwards destroyed by Lieutenant Gould, and the place was evacuated by Captain Dacres on the 21st of the same month.

From this period we find no mention of Captain Dacres until his appointment to the Guerriere frigate, which took place about April 1811. The following is a copy of his official letter to Vice-Admiral Herbert Sawyer, describing his action with the United States’ ship Constitution, on the 19th Aug. 1812[3]:–

Boston, September 7, 1812.

“Sir,– I am sorry to inform you of the capture of H.M. late ship Guerrière, by the American frigate Constitution, after a severe action on the 19th of August, in lat. 40° 21' N. and long. 55° W. At two P.M. being by the wind on the starboard tack, we saw a sail on our weather-beam bearing down on us. At 3 made her out to be a man of war; beat to quarters, and prepared for action. At 4, she closing fast, wore to prevent her raking us. At 4-10, hoisted our colours, and fired several shot at her; at 4-20, she hoisted her colours, and returned our fire, wore several times to avoid being raked, exchanging broadsides. At 5, she closed on our starboard beam, both keeping up a heavy fire and steering free, her intention being evidently to cross our bow. At 5-20, our mizen-mast went over the starboard quarter, and brought the ship up in the wind; the enemy then placed himself on our larboard-bow, raking us, a few only of our bow-guns bearing, and his grape and riflemen sweeping our deck. At 5-40, the ship not answering her helm, he attempted to lay us on board: at this time, Mr. (Samuel) Grant, (Master’s-Mate), who commanded the forecastle, was carried below, badly wounded. I immediately ordered the marines and boarders from the main-deck; the Master was at this time shot through the knee, and I received a severe wound in the back. Lieutenant (Bartholomew) Kent was leading on the boarders, when the ship coining to, we brought some of our bow-guns to bear on her[4], and had got clear of our opponent, when at 6-20, our fore and main-masts went over the side, leaving the ship a perfect unmanageable wreck. The frigate shooting a-head, I was in hopes to clear the wreck, and get the ship under command to renew the action; but just as we had cleared the wreck, our spritsail-yard went; and the enemy having rove new braces, &c., wore round within pistol-shot, to rake us, the ship lying in the trough of the sea, rolling her main-deck guns under water[5], and all attempts to get her before the wind being fruitless: when, calling my few remaining officers together, they were all of opinion, that any further resistance would only be a needless waste of lives, I ordered, though reluctantly, the colours to be struck.

“The loss of the ship is to be ascribed to the early fall of the mizen-mast, which enabled our opponent to choose his position. I am sorry to say we suffered severely in killed and wounded, and mostly whilst she lay on our bow, from her grape and musketry; in all, 15 killed, and 63 wounded[6], many of them severely. None of the wounded officers quitted the deck till the firing ceased.

“The frigate proved to be the United States’ ship Constitution, of thirty 24-pounders on her main-deck, and twenty-four 32-pounders and two 18-pounders[7] on her upper-deck, and 476 men; her loss in comparison with ours is trifling; the first Lieutenant of marines[8] and 8 men killed; the first Lieutenant and Master of the ship, and 11 men wounded; her lewer masts badly wounded, stern much shattered, and very much cut up about the rigging.

“The Guerrière was so cut up, that all attempts to get her in would have been useless. As soon as the wounded were got out of her, they set her on fire; and I feel it my duty to state, that the conduct of Captain Hull and his officers to our men has been that of a brave enemy, the greatest care being taken to prevent them losing the smallest trifle, and the greatest attention being paid to the wounded, who, through the attention and skill of Mr. Irvine, Surgeon, I hope, will do well.

“I hope, though success has not crowned our efforts, you will not think it presumptuous in me to say, the greatest credit is due to the officers and ship’s company for their exertions, particularly when exposed to the heavy raking fire of the enemy: I feel particularly obliged for the exertions of Lieutenant Kent, who, though wounded early by a splinter, continued to assist me; in the second Lieutenant (Mr. Henry Ready), the service has suffered a severe loss; Mr. (Robert) Scott, the Master, though wounded, was particularly attentive, and used every exertion in clearing the wreck, as did the warrant officers. Lieutenant Nicholl, of the royal marines, and his party, supported the honorable character of their corps, and they suffered severely. I must recommend Mr. (William J.) Snow, Master’s Mate, who commanded the foremost main-deck guns, in the absence of Lieutenant (John) Pullman, and the whole after the fall of Lieutenant Ready, to your protection, he having received a severe contusion from a splinter. I must point out Mr. (John) Garby, acting Purser, to your notice, who volunteered his services on deck, commanded the after quarterdeck guns, and was particularly active, as well as Mr. (John W.) Bannister, Midshipman.

“I hope, in considering the circumstances, you will think the ship entrusted to my charge was properly defended; the unfortunate loss of our masts, the absence of the third Lieutenant, second Lieutenant of marines, three Midshipmen, and twenty-four men, considerably weakened our crew, and we only mustered at quarters 244 men and 19 boys, on coming into action; the enemy had such an advantage from his marines and riflemen, when close; and his superior sailing enabled him to choose his distance.

“I have the honor to be, &c.
(Signed)Jas. R. Dacres.”

Qn the 2d Oct following, a court-martial was assembled on board the Africa 64, at Halifax, to try Captain Dacres for surrendering his ship to the enemy: the following is, we believe, a correct copy of the address, which was delivered by him, after the evidence had been gone through:–

“Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Court,– By my letter to Vice-Admiral Sawyer, and the narrative of the principal officers, I trust that you will be satisfied that every exertion was used in defending the ship, as long as there was the smallest prospect of resistance being useful. In my letter, I mention the boarders being called: it was my intention, after having driven back the enemy, to have boarded in return; and in consequence I ordered the first Lieutenant down on the main-deck to send every body up from the guns; but finding his deck filled with men, and every preparation made to receive us, it would have been almost impossible to succeed. I therefore ordered the men down again to their quarters, and desired Mr. Kent to direct part of his attention to the main-deck, the second Lieutenant being killed. The main-mast fell without being struck by a single shot, the heart of the mast being decayed; and it was carried away solely by the weight of the fore-mast[9]. Though every thing was was done, we could not succeed in getting the ship under command; and, on the enemy wearing round to rake us, without our being able to make any resistance, and after having used every exertion, to the best of my abilities, I found myself obliged to order the colours to be struck; which nothing but the unmanageable state of the ship (she lying a perfect wreck) could ever have induced me to do, conceiving it was my duty not to sacrifice uselessly the lives of the men, without any prospect of success, or of benefit to their country.

“On the larboard side about thirty shot had taken effect, nearly five sheets of copper down; the mizen-mast had knocked a large hole under her starboard counter, and she was so completely shattered, that the enemy found it impossible to refit her sufficiently to attempt carrying her into port, and they set fire to her as soon as they could get the wounded out. What considerably weakened my quarters was, permitting the Americans belonging to the ship to quit their guns, on the enemy hoisting the colours of that nation, which, though it deprived me of the men, I thought it was my duty to do.

“I felt much shocked, when on board the Constitution, to find a large proportion of British seamen among her crew, many of whom I recognized as having been foremost in the attempt to board.

“Notwithstanding the unlucky issue of the affair, such confidence have I in the exertions of the officers and men who belonged to the Guerrière, and I am so aware that the success of my opponent was owing to fortune, that it is my earnest wish, and it would be the happiest period of my life, to be once more opposed to the Constitution, with them under my command, in a frigate of similar force to the Guerrière.

“I cannot help noticing, that the attachment of the ship’s company in general to the service of their King and Country, reflects on them the highest credit; for though every art was used to encourage them to desert, and to inveigle them into the American service, by high bounties and great promises, in direct contradiction to the declaration of the American officers to me, that they did not wish such a thing; only eight Englishmen have remained behind in the United States, two only of which number have volunteered to serve in the Constitution.

“Leaving the character of my officers and ship’s company, as well as my own, to the decision of this honorable Court, the justice of whose sentence no person can presume to question, I close my narrative, craving indulgence for having taken up so much of their time.”

Having attended to the whole of the evidence, and also to the defence of Captain Dacres, the Court agreed,–

“That the surrender of the Guerriere was proper, in order to preserve the lives of her valuable remaining crew; and that her being in that lamentable situation was from the accident of her masts going, which was occasioned more by their defective state, than from the fire of the enemy, though so greatly superior in guns and men. The Court did, therefore, unanimously and honorably acquit Captain Dacres, his officers, and rew, of all blame on account of her capture.”

Captain Dacres was subsequently appointed to the Tiber frigate, the command of which ship he retained until she was paid off at Deptford, on the 13th Oct. 1818. He married, in 1810, Arabella Boyd, third daughter of Lieutenant-General Sir Hugh Dalrymple, Bart.

Agents.– Messrs. Maude.

  1. See Vol. II. Part I. p. 29.
  2. Lieutenant Norton had previously distinguished himself by his gallantry in an attack made by the boats of the Bacchante, upon a brig and two feluccas lying in the harbour of St. Martha, the whole of which he brought out in triumph under a tremendous fire from the shore.
  3. The following notes are extracted from Mr. James’s account of the action.
  4. Some of the wads of which set fire to the Constitution’s cabin, but the flames were soon extinguished.
  5. To secure which required increased efforts, the rotten state of the breachings, as well as of the timber-heads through which the long bolts passed, having caused many of them to break loose.
  6. Six mortally, thirty-nine severely, and eighteen slightly.
  7. These were English 18’s, bored to carry a 24-pound shot. The Guerrière mounted thirty long 18’s, sixteen 32-pounder carronades, and two long nines.
  8. He was killed by a British marine when leading his party forward to board the Guerrière at 5-40 P.M.
  9. The main-mast had been struck by lightning some months previous to the action.