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A True American Hero

Captain John Ordronaux

He was born at Nantes France, Dec. 16, 1778, the son of a French merchant skipper John Ordronaux and his English wife, Joanna Hammond, from the city of Hull. Amid the turmoil of the French Revolution, young John followed his father in the business of seafaring and learned his trade in the waters off Bordeaux. The troubled times in which he gained his education no doubt set the stage for his prowess as a daring and self reliant sea captain years later.

Historically, John Ordronaux comes on the scene at the outbreak of America's war with great Britain in 1812. At the time he was skippering the French privateer Marengo under the ownership of a Mme. Flory Charretton, a Parisian woman of considerable wealth. John sailed to the United States in the Marengo where he obtained a letter of marque to engage in hostilities against the British on behalf of his new host country.

After a successful cruise in Marengo, he turned her over to his former mate, Captain Ridois. His interest had now focused on a new vessel that he had seen lying idle in a New York shipyard. She was a sailor's dream, a sleek fast schooner/brigantine designed by Christian Bergh of Baltimore clipper fame. With Mme. Chareetton's support, John bought the ship and named her the PRINCE de NEUFCHATEL. After obtaining another letter of marque in New York he sailed for Cherbourg to complete fitting out. In early March of 1814, under the American flag, and armed with 18 guns she set out into the target-rich waters off the English Channel. In a short time she took nine prizes and at one point was pursued by seventeen enemy men-of-war and was able to out run them all.

On July 4th, 1814, he sailed for New York with Mme. Charretton on board. She was to die the following September in New York as a US citizen, never to see the fame of her captain was to achieve. After more successes in English waters, John Ordronaux and his crew desired to return to the United States. In early October of 1814, the PRINCE de NEUFCHATEL was making her first privateering cruise out of a US port with a very small crew of 37 men. Four days out of Boston, she captured the English merchantmen Douglass and took it under tow. Suddenly at noon on October 11th, off Nantucket Shoal, the British 40 gun frigate Endymion appeared on the horizon. Spotting PRINCE with her prize, the Britisher gave chase and enjoyed the advantage of a slight breeze to close the distance.

By seven in the evening both ships were becalmed, in sight of each other and just outside gun range. Seeing his ship was drifting towards shore, Ordronaux cast off his prize and set anchor, knowing the shallow depth prevented the Endymion from closing any further. As darkness fell, 120 English sailors and marines, in five boats skillfully converged on the PRINCE to board her; outnumbering the Americans nearly four to one. Attacking simultaneously from five points, a furious and bloody melee ensued. Few British gained the deck but when one group did and were getting ready to rush the defenders, John Ordronaux took a desperate gamble. Vowing to never surrender his ship, he held a lighted match over a companionway to the magazine, threatening to blow up the entire vessel if his men did not rally and drive the enemy off her decks. This they accomplished.

When it was all over, the British had lost 49 killed, 37 wounded, and 30 taken prisoner. As for Captain Ordronaux's crew their loss was proportionally severe, with seven killed and 24 wounded -a total of 31 or 84% of the crew. The next day with only six able bodied crewmen, John deposited prisoners ashore, reclaimed his prize and when the wind came up, evaded the Endymion; running into Boston Harbor on October 15th. Looking at this engagement the outcome was extraordinary in light of the fact a privately financed vessel frustrated the utmost efforts of a vastly superior man-of-war.

After his return to Boston, John Ordronaux, now a full owner of the PRINCE, handed the helm over to his former first mate. Eventually, the PRINCE was captured by the British and taken to England where her design was incorporated in new construction. She was accidentally destroyed in a dry dock handling mishap. With peace restored John returned to Bordeaux and married Mme Charretton's daughter, Elizabeth. They later moved to New York where John established a sugar business. In 1841 Captain Ordronaux was in Cartagena, Colombia, conducting such business, when he died of yellow fever on August 24th of that same year. His body, while being transported home, was thrown overboard by superstitious sailors when their ship nearly sank during a storm.

(The information above, with the editors gracious permission, is from: http://www.geocities.com/ordronaux/ordro.html)

(During WWII, the US Navy commissioned DD 617 and named her USS Ordronaux. The crew called her, "The Mighty O". She was awarded 3 Battle Stars.)

Prince de Neufchatel

History of the American Privateers and Letters Of Marque By George Coggeshall

Third Edition, Revised, Corrected And Enlarged.
Printed 1861

Note to page 241

Since the first edition of this work appeared, I have received a more particular account of the desperate battle fought between Captain John Ordronaux, of the privateer The Prince of Neufchatel, of New-York, with five British barges belonging to the English frigate Endymion, off Nantucket, on the 11th of October, 1814; by which it will be seen under all circumstances, it was the hardest fought naval engagement and the most conspicuous victory achieved during the war.

It was a contest waged against a force more than three times superior numerically; advancing in separate divisions under the cover of night, and assisted by the presence of a heavy frigate, while at the same time, and as a most serious obstacle of a successful defense, Captain Ordronaux was encumbered with thirty-seven British prisoners, who were refractory and all ready for revolt.

He was therefore obliged to handcuff his prisoners, and confine them in the hold just before the action.

He had recently manned so many prizes that he had left only thirty-three men, including officers and marines at quarters, when simultaneously attacked by five British barges, manned with one hundred and eleven men, beside the before-mentioned thirty-seven prisoners confined below, who were striving to get loose from their manacles, and unite themselves to their fellow countrymen.

Fearing that the British frigate would attack the privateer with her boats, Captain Ordronaux made the following preparation for the contest, beside the usual number of muskets, pistols, boarding-pikes and sabers, belonging to his vessel: He had made a large augmentation of fire-arms taken from sundry British prizes during the cruise, so that his gun-room was literally filled with these implements of death and destruction.

He accordingly took the precaution before night to have some two or three hundred muskets and pistols loaded and placed in a position to grasp at a moment's warning.

The loaded pistols were put into baskets and placed behind the bulwarks, so that when the strife should commence, it would not be necessary to reload these weapons. He had also his shot-lockers all filled with heavy shot, to throw into the enemy's boats, and stave in their bottoms, if brought to close quarters, when he could not use his carriage-guns.

Being thus prepared, the brave Captain waited with the most intense anxiety for the approach of the enemy: it was about nine o'clock, the night being dark, they heard the sound of oars at a distance, silently approaching. In the obscurity they could not see the boats of the enemy; a few shot were fired from the Neufchatel in the direction of the sound, to draw a shot from his adversary, with a view to ascertain his position, and how he meant to attack, but the ruse did not succeed.

Captain Ordronaux had no intention of running away from the fight, nor did he mean that the enemy should, when once engaged in the deadly strife, it being well understood by all on board that rather than surrender to the enemy the privateer should be blown up. Such was the condition of things at the commencement of the action.

The Neufchatel lying at anchor, was now fully prepared to receive the enemy, who approached with five barges in the following order, namely, one on each side, one on each bow, and the other under the stern. A warm action then took place with muskets, pistols, sabers and boarding-pikes. The enemy were promptly met and repulsed, and in about twenty minutes many in the boats cried out for quarters, which were granted to those amidships.

The men in the two barges under the bows of the privateer, however, succeeded in gaining the forecastle, when Captain Ordronaux, with two or three of his faithful followers, discharged one of his main-deck guns, loaded with canister shot and bags of musket balls. This gun was trained upon the forecastle, which had the effect of killing and wounding great numbers of the enemy, and of driving the remainder overboard. In this discharge he unfortunately wounded several of his own men.

The five barges which attacked the privateer contained at the commencement of the action one hundred and eleven men, including officers and marines. One barge was sunk with forty-three men, of whom two only were saved. Three boats drifted off from alongside, apparently with no living soul on board; one was taken possession of. She contained thirty-six men at the beginning of the action, of whom eight were killed and twenty wounded, and eight uninjured.

The Second Lieutenant of the frigate, (F. Ormond, who was not injured,) three midshipmen, two of whom were severely wounded, with one master’s mate also wounded, were permitted to come on board. The remainder of the prisoners, (fifteen seamen and marines) were kept astern all night in the launch after taking out the arms, oars, etc., the commander being afraid to trust them on board, having only eight men fit for duty.

After the battle was over, it was found that six of the privateer’s crew were killed, and nineteen wounded, beside Mr. Charles Hilburn, a Nantucket pilot who was stationed at the helm during the action ; it is stated that he was several times wounded, and finally killed by the enemy.

The British in this action acknowledge a lose of thirty-three killed, thirty-seven wounded, and thirty prisoners.

During the hottest part of the engagement the prisoners in the hold were loudly cheering their countrymen to continue the fight, and constantly striving to break loose, while Captain Ordronaux and his First Lieutenant, Mr. Millen, were obliged to watch their prisoners, and guard every point to prevent a recapture from the enemy.

The brave Captain, though wounded, could not be attended by the surgeon, for this gentleman was also wounded in the fight, and unable to assist those who were suffering; so that through this long and dreary night, Captain Ordronaux and his First Lieutenant, Mr. Millen, were obliged to keep guard at each hatchway, with pistol in hand, to prevent the prisoners from breaking loose, while his own poor fellows were lying about the deck, suffering, from their wounds, with no one to attend them, or even to give them a drink of cold water.

Thus passed this awful night of painful anxiety. I will leave the reader to imagine the anxious feelings of Captain Ordronaux, and his faithful followers, during the long and sleepless night, surrounded by the dead and wounded, with mingled sounds of groans and curses of those who were wallowing about the deck, while the frigate at a distance was seen burning port fires, and sending up signal rockets for her barges to return.

He also feared that at the break of day the frigate would bear down upon them, and thus defeat all that he had gained in this eventful struggle. At last the morning dawned upon these weary, battle-stained watchers, who had passed the dreary night without once leaving their posts. The colors of the Neufchatel were still flying, though her decks were in an awful condition.

Some thirty or forty men lay dead and wounded in every condition of mutilation, while the broken arms and implements of warfare scattered around told how desperate had been the struggle on that blood- stained deck ; and now had arrived the most difficult part of Captain Ordronaux's duty.

As has been stated, he had but eight men fit for duty after the termination of the action; all his prisoners were to be paroled and landed under the eye of a numerous enemy. He was, therefore, obliged to employ five or six of his men in a large launch, and at the same time to keep up an appearance of strength to deceive his adversaries. He was, therefore, obliged to resort to stratagem to carry out his plan.

Accordingly, he had a sail hung up abaft the main hatches, to serve as a screen, wherewith to conceal the quarter-deck. After this was done, he kept two boys there, one beating the drum, the other blowing the fife, and tramping heavily about the deck, to make the enemy believe that a large number of men were stationed there at quarters, to enforce his orders. Thus while the attention of the enemy was drawn off from his enfeebled state, sixty-seven of the prisoners were passed over the side into the launch, and transported to the shore, where they were placed in the possession of the United States Marshal.

He also landed his own wounded men, that they might be better attended to, and receive more medical assistance than could be given them on board of the privateer. And thus after having landed all his prisoners, except some five or six, who had been paroled, these being young and active he retained on board to assist his crew in weighing the anchor, and navigating his vessel to Boston.

In this adroit management, Captain Ordronaux displayed a vast deal of cool, deliberate judgment, as well as uncommon tact in disposing of his numerous prisoners, and hiding his own weakness in point of numbers. He showed himself a great tactician, and, like General Jackson, he knew how to avail himself of every advantage for enabling a small force to compete successfully with a large one.

A near relative of Captain Ordronaux has furnished the writer of these pages with the brave Captains journal, the original parole given by the English in their own handwriting, and many other valuable papers and documents, which clearly establish the truth of this unparalleled victory.

I shall therefore, make no apology for thus discharging my duty to the memory of a distinguished fellow citizen, by communicating these facts in full.

I think it will be conceded on all hands that Captain Ordronaux evinced as much bravery and tact in disposing of his prisoners after the battle, as in defending his vessel against the enemy during the severe conflict. There are many men who can fight bravely, but few who can manage as well as he did, to profit by and secure the fruits of a glorious victory.

On his arrival at Boston, a large number of patriotic merchants and other citizens proposed presenting the brave Captain with a sword and a vote of thanks for his gallantry, but the unsparing modesty of the heroic Ordronaux begged through his friends that it should not be done. For, so far from coveting applause, his unassuming, retiring disposition, led him to shun publicity of every kind, and often prevented him from receiving that just share of public approbation which his merit so richly deserved; so that the world knows but little of the gallant deeds of this distinguished nautical hero.

(The information above, with the editors gracious permission,is from: http://www.1812privateers.org)

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