|The top sail schooner of war the USS Alligator was built to chase slavers and pirates.|
When we think of Caribbean pirates we think of Robert Lewis Stevenson, Errol Flynn, Johnny Depp, and the swashbuckling Golden Age of Buccaneering on the Spanish Main from the 16th through 18th Centuries. But it persisted on a somewhat reduced scale well into the 19th Century and never entirely went away. Modern day pirates still prey occasionally on luxury yachts and on drug smuggling boats. Back in the early decades of the 1800’s pirates were still enough of a nuisance to American shipping the U.S. Navy launched the West Indies Anti-Piracy Operations in 1817 which continued for eight years.
The Navy and the Revenue Cutter Service—forerunner of the Coast Guard—engaged in several sometimes violent actions before the USS Grampus defeated the pirate ships Palyrma and the El Mosquito and captured the one of the main pirate captains, Roberto Cofresi in 1825 greatly curtailing depredations on the bounding main.
Our story today is about a genuine American hero who is not much remembered today.
In the matter-of-fact style of Naval bureaucracy it is officially known as the Action of 9 November 1822. Because no sovereign nation or its naval forces were engaged, the bloody affair could not rise to the official dignity of a battle.
The USS Alligator, the last of five 12-gun topsail schooners built for special purposes of suppression of the slave trade and action against Caribbean pirates set sail from Boston under the command of Lieutenant William Howard Allen. It was the third cruise of the fast little war ship. The first two, under the command of future hero Master Commandant Robert .F. Stockton had been anti-slave trade patrols off of West Africa and had included a bloody victory over the Portuguese pirate and slaver Marianna Flora and the capture of several other prizes in 1821. Now the veteran crew was headed to the waters off of Cuba under a new skipper.
Allen was also an experienced officer with a solid war record, although this was his first command of a warship. During the War of 1812 Allen had been a junior officer on board the brig USS Argo which was boldly raiding British shipping in the English Channel and Irish Sea. She was attacked by the Royal Navy’s HMS Pelican. The two ships exchanged broadsides for nearly 4 hours. Commanding officer Master Commander William Henry Allen (no relation to the younger officer) lost a leg early in the battle and the First Lieutenant was also badly wounded. Second Lieutenant William Allen assumed command and valiantly kept up fire until the Argo was dead in the water and was about to be overwhelmed by a boarding party. Young Allen spent the rest of the war in England as a prisoner of war, but the Navy took note of his bravery and fighting spirit.
In early November 1822 Allen brought the Alligator into port at Matanzas on the northwest coast of Cuba for fresh water and supplies. While in port he found two Americans trying to raise $7000 to ransom their trading ships which had been captured by pirates and were being held in a cove some 15 league—about 45 nautical miles—away. Allen would not hear of allowing the merchants to pay the ransom. Instead he brought the men aboard to lead him to the cove with the intention of attacking the pirates and releasing several captive ships.
It was a bold plan considering that the pirates had three armed schooners—the 80-ton Revenge, armed with five cannon and 35 men, a 90-ton ship with six guns and 30 men, a 60-ton vessel was with three cannon and 60 men. Thus the pirate flotilla out gunned the Alligator and its crew was out numbered. The pirates held five American merchantmen—William Henry, a ship-rigged vessel from New York; the brigs Iris and Sarah Morril from Boston; and schooners out of Rochester and Salem.
|The first newspaper account of the action appeared in the form of a letter from an Alligator officer that appeared in early December in the National Intligencer, the Monroe administration's press mouthpiece.|
Upon arrival Allen discovered that the Alligator’s draft was too deep to enter the harbor. The conventional naval strategy for such a situation would be so blockade and hope to pick off the pirates if they tried to make a break. That could take days or weeks. And there was the danger that the pirates could land their booty and captured crews and escape overland after burning the prizes.
Allen boldly decided to go on the attack with his small boats—the launch, largest of the boats carried on the Alligator; a medium size cutter; and a gig, the small boat used as a messenger. He manned his boats with 40 sailors including his small compliment of Marines armed with muskets, pistols, and naval swords. Allen took personal command of the launch, Lieutenant Dale the cutter, and Midshipman Henley the gig. The aim was to surprise and board the pirates and avoid their cannon by speed and by presenting only their bows until the last moment.
The Revenge spotted the small attacking flotilla and got under way despite almost no wind by the crew manning her sweeps. The American boats pursued the Revenge for nearly 10 miles, nearly exhausting their crews. Then the pirate ship came about and attacked the small boats with both solid and grape shot, most of which missed the targets. When the boats came within range, they opened up with deadly accurate musket fire and moved within boarding range. Rather than fight a boarding party, the pirates abandoned ship, many leaping into the sea where presumably several drown.
While Allen and the crew of the launch attempted to secure the Revenge, a second pirate ship attacked the cutter and gig, who presented their broadsides to the attacker. The men in the small boats were faltering against the heavy fire, especially the cutter which had taken enough casualties to make manning the oars difficult. Allen on the launch turned his boat to rally his other boats and stood up waving his sword in encouragement. He was struck by musket fire in the head and torso and was mortally wounded.
In the confusion the two other pirate ships were able to escape, but they left behind the Revenge and all of their merchant prizes. The battle was a bloody little encounter. The Americans found 14 bodies on the Revenge in addition to the men presumed drown in the escape attempt. The Navy lost three dead in addition to Allen and three wounded.
The Revenge and liberated merchantmen were escorted back to Matanzas where Allen was buried with honors and a ceremonial escort was provided by the Spanish Governor.
On November 18 the Alligator left the Cuban port to return to Boston escorting her freed prizes. Perhaps Lt. Dale was not as experienced a sailor as Allen, or perhaps it was a bad chart, or just blind misfortune, but the Alligator ran aground on a coral reef in the Florida Keys ripping a hole in her hull. The crew was unable to re-float her but salvaged all of her guns, logs, and papers. She was then burned to prevent the hulk from being salvaged. The reef she was believed to be lost on was named Alligator Reef in her honor, but the exact location of her wreck was long considered lost. The crew proceeded home on the merchantmen.
|Lt. Allen's remains were repatriated from Cuba to his home town of Hudson, New York where the citizens paid to erect a column monument in his honor.|
Allen was recognized as a hero within the Navy. The next year his name became a rallying cry USS Galliniper and USS Mosquito engaged and defeated a band of pirates led by Diabolito—perhaps including those who escaped in near the same area where the American lieutenant had been slain. A monument to his honor was erected along the banks of the Hudson in Allen’s hometown. But he never got the public recognition of other early naval heroes, perhaps because the campaign against the pirates was obscure even it its own time and unpopular in the South because the same ships were used to interdict the now forbidden international slave trade.