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The Art of Mort Künstler / The American Spirit / A New Nation

Here you will find a pictorial chronicle of the drama and excitement of American History. These paintings give the viewer an insight into the tumultuous life of this young nation that mere words cannot achieve.

Shall I Board Her, Sir? - limited edition print
USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere August 19, 1812

This limited edition print is SOLD OUT

Historical Information

In war – as in peace – Americans have defended the “patriot’s dream” that emerged as a new nation from the Declaration of Independence. Americans won their independence in the Revolutionary War, but not until the War of 1812 ended did Great Britain and the European powers leave the United States alone to forge its destiny. Despite a tally of military defeats in the War of 1812, contests like the 1812 naval battle between the USS Constitution and the British warship HMS Guerriere enabled the fledgling United States to prove its national mettle and defend its sovereignty. When the War of 1812 ended, Great Britain recognized the determination of its “American cousin” and Americans had won the respect of freedom-loving peoples throughout the world.

The day dawned bright and clear. Its summer brilliance caused the swirling North Atlantic seas to sparkle as they tossed aggressively, agitated by fresh to strong north to northwesterly winds.

Because of the winds, Constitution found herself plunging and pitching as she made way, alone, on a south-southwest heading.

Constitution was sailing alone for good reason. The Royal Navy had sent a large British squadron to sweep the North Atlantic seas clear of all American shipping and blockade the coast. Because of this, and fearing he might be trapped in Boston Harbor, Captain Isaac Hull, in Constitution, had hastily put to sea without orders. Since August 2 she had sailed south of the Bay of Fundy without encountering an enemy.

Constitution was one of a class of three recently built vessels. She was big, well outfitted – 1,576 tons, mounting 56 guns served by a ship’s company of 456 of which some 50 were Marines. This Marine Detachment was under the command of First Lieutenant William Bush.

At about 2:00 PM on the 19th, the masthead lookout shouted “Sail Ho! East by South.” By 3:00 PM the sighting was identified as a large frigate.

Constitution was made ready for action. Her Marines went to battle stations. Corporal Allen McDonald and four Privates manned the foretop. Similarly, teams of five marksmen manned the maintop and mizzentop. The remainder of the Detachment stayed on deck to provide additional musket fire and form the Boarding Party when called.

The vessel was HMS Guerriere, Captain Richard Dacres, commanding, underway for Halifax, Nova Scotia with passengers and crew of several American merchantmen taken as prizes.

Running with the wind, Hull bore on his target. Guerriere awaited attack, but tossing seas caused Guerriere’s first broadside to miss completely. Hull closed range and firing broadside after broadside, Constitution blew away Guerriere’s mizzenmast. The wreckage crashed down over Guerriere’s starboard quarter. Dragging in the water, it caused her to lose way and steerage. Constitution continued to rake her with double shotted broadsides of solid shot and grape shot.

Hull turned hard to cross the Englishman’s bow. Constitution swung too close, allowing Guerriere’s long bowsprit to thrust into Constitution’s mizzen rigging over the quarterdeck. This snaring caused Guerriere’s bow and forward freeboard to lock into Constitution’s quarter.

A critical moment! Both captains called up boarding parties. This was a task for Lieutenant Bush and his Marines.

It is this heroic instant that Mort Künstler portrays. A Marine junior officer leading his men against the enemy in this notable fight at sea. Bush, seen at the head of his Detachment, asks his Captain for orders. A moment later he is struck down – killed by the musketball of a Royal Marine.

Marine Lieutenant Contee assumed command and the fight continued. Heavy musketry caused serious loss to the British. A Marine marksman on the mizzentop hit Captain Dacres, wounding him.

Order to board were belayed because of the hazards created by the high running sea. Captain Hull ordered canvas up to pull away.

Tearing free of Guerriere’s bowsprit, she continued to fire with as many guns as could bear. Shortly, Guerriere’s remaining masts crashed down, leaving her a helpless hulk. Water poured into her gun ports with each roll – to fight on was not possible. With 30 percent of her crew casualties, she had to strike colors.

Captain Dacres came to Constitution to surrender. American sailors fired her stores and at 3:00 AM on August 20, 1812, Guerriere exploded and sank.

Captain Hull immediately set course for Boston where he announced to the Nation the news of this great victory at sea. It was good news in a year during which the news had been mostly bad.

This painting was commissioned by the Marine Corps Command and Staff College Foundation.


All illustrations by Mort Künstler. Text by Michael Aubrecht, Dee Brown, Henry Steele Commager, Rod Gragg, Mort Künstler, Edward Lengel, James McPherson, and James I. Robertson, Jr. - Copyright © 2001-2017. All Rights Reserved. No part of the contents of this web site may be reproduced or utilized in any form by any means without written consent of the artist.