Allen, William Henry
- Ira Dye
Allen, William Henry (21 October 1784–18 August 1813), U.S. naval officer and hero of the War of 1812, was born in Providence, Rhode Island, the son of militia general William Allen, a veteran of the Revolution, and Sarah Jones, sister of William Jones, future governor of Rhode Island. William Henry’s parents were prosperous members of Providence society and intended for him to follow a civilian career. His early education provided him with a good grounding in penmanship and mathematics (the latter proved useful in his naval career) and also with considerable skill as an artist. He made very competent sketches in his letters and the blank pages of his journals and did pen and ink portraits of his family. His only surviving likeness, a profile portrait, is probably based on a sketch done by Allen himself.
When Allen was twelve, in 1797, his mother died, and his father remarried the following year. At about this time, Allen decided that he wanted a more active life than had been planned for him, and he urged his parents to let him enter the navy. Senator Ray Greene (R.I.) provided an appointment as midshipman, and in May 1800 at the age of fifteen, Allen left home to join his first ship, the frigate George Washington. For the rest of his short life he would be near the center of action in the fledgling navy.
His first cruise, in the George Washington under Captain William Bainbridge, delivered a shipload of the notorious tribute to the Dey of Algiers. At Algiers, threatened by the guns of the citadel, Bainbridge was forced to carry an Algerian embassy, plus some tonnage of wild animals, slave girls, and other exotica to Constantinople, as a gift from Algiers to the sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The George Washington was the first U.S. naval vessel to visit Golden Horn and helped to open that area to U.S. trade. The forced voyage to Constantinople contributed to firming President Thomas Jefferson’s views in favor of building up the navy in order to take a strong line against the depredations of the Barbary princes.
After Tripoli’s declaration of war in May 1801, Allen made three more cruises to the Mediterranean, one as a midshipman in the frigate Philadelphia under Captain Samuel Barron, one in the frigate John Adams under Captain John Rodgers, and one as sailing master in the frigate Congress, again under Rodgers. During this period Allen saw much of the action in the Barbary Wars and became the protégé and friend of the irascible Rodgers. In late 1804 in the Mediterranean, Rodgers was given command of the larger frigate Constitution and took Allen with him, promoting him to acting lieutenant. In 1805, still in the Constitution with Rodgers, Allen was present in the naval expedition to Tunis, during which a treaty with the bashaw of Tunis ended the Barbary Wars.
In January 1807 Allen was ordered to the frigate Chesapeake as third lieutenant. The Chesapeake was to be sent to the Mediterranean as squadron flagship, under Commodore James Barron. Barron was the personal enemy of John Rodgers and greatly distrusted Allen, whom he knew to be a close friend of Rodgers. Among the sailors recruited for the Chesapeake were several deserters from the British navy. Desertion in U.S. waters was a difficult problem for the Royal Navy and Admiral Berkeley, the British commander in chief in North America, decided, without authority from his home government, to take back these deserters by force. The United States was “at peace with all the world” but as the unprepared Chesapeake left Norfolk, the frigate was attacked by HMS Leopard, a much more powerful ship, and after three destructive broadsides the Chesapeake surrendered. The only shot fired by the Chesapeake in return was fired by Allen, who took a live coal from the galley to touch off a gun in his division. After the surrender, Allen told Barron, “we have disgraced the flag,” and he wrote a letter to the secretary of the navy, signed by him and the other lieutenants, recommending that Barron be court-martialed for not having prepared the ship for action. Allen came out of the Chesapeake-Leopard incident as its only hero.
Barron was replaced by Stephen Decatur, with whom Allen served in the Chesapeake until the end of 1808, when Decatur was given command of the larger frigate United States and took Allen with him as first lieutenant. Allen trained the gun crews to a high pitch of effectiveness, and on 25 October 1812, shortly after the beginning of the War of 1812, the United States met the British frigate Macedonian at sea, south of the Azores, and captured the vessel after a bloody, hourlong action. Allen commanded the Macedonian on the frigate’s trip to the United States as a prize.
Decatur credited the major share of the victory to Allen’s gunnery training, and in January 1813 Allen was rewarded with the command of the U.S. brig Argus. Allen also received a normal promotion to the rank of master-commandant later in the year.
In the late spring of 1813 the Argus was chosen to carry to France the Honorable William H. Crawford, the new American minister to Napoleon’s court. The Argus sailed in mid-June 1813 and, after delivering Minister Crawford to L’Orient, Allen, in late July, took the Argus on a highly successful commerce-destroying cruise in the vicinity of Ireland and St. George’s Channel. They had captured or destroyed twenty-two vessels when early on 14 August 1813, off the coast of Wales, they met the British brig Pelican, a somewhat larger and more heavily gunned vessel. The Pelican’s captain, John Fordyce Maples, a commander in the Royal Navy, like Allen, was very strong on gunnery training. In the first minutes of the action, Allen was struck in the left thigh by a 32-pound shot and was taken below. Several others of the Argus were killed or wounded, the ship’s colors were brought down, and the Argus was taken by the Pelican after an action lasting about forty-five minutes.
Allen was taken ashore in Plymouth, England, where he died of his wound in the Mill Prison Hospital. He was buried in St. Andrew’s churchyard with full military honors. He had never married or had children.
Allen was a young naval officer of great promise and uncompromising honor. He was part of that band of young officers in the early U.S. Navy who created the traditions that the navy still follows such as boldness and a strong sense of personal honor. His cruise with the Argus showed the Navy Department that the effective way to fight the then-powerful Royal Navy was to send small, nimble, heavily-gunned warships to operate against British merchant shipping, right in British home waters.
Fifty-two of Allen’s letters to his family, written between 1800 and 1813, his journal kept on board the George Washington (HM 250), and his journal from the Chesapeake (HM 564), together with a number of letters between his family members written after his death, are in the Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif. Several other letters from Allen to his family are in the Manuscripts Department, Library of Congress, Accession 4815. His journal kept on board the John Adams is in the G. W. Blunt White Library at the Mystic Seaport Museum, Log No. 227, “The John Rodgers Logbook.” For the cruise of the Argus in 1813, see Journal of an Unknown Officer (the “Argus Log”) and The Journal of Surgeon James Inderwick, both in the Manuscripts Division of the New York Public Library, plus The Journal of William H. Crawford for 4 June 1813–15 July 1813, in the Manuscripts Department, Library of Congress. There are numerous official letters from Allen to the secretary of the navy in Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy from Officers below the Rank of Commander, 1802–1884, microfilm M-148, rolls 1–12 (1802–1813), RG 45, National Archives. The Chesapeake-Leopard affair is covered thoroughly in U.S. Navy Department, Proceedings of the General Court Martial Convened for the Trial of Commodore James Barron, Etc. (1822). All standard histories of the War of 1812 cover the battle of the Argus and the Pelican. The basic biosketch of Allen is in the Port Folio 3, no. 1 (Jan. 1814), prepared from material provided by his family just after his death.
- Bainbridge, William (1774-1833), naval officer
- Jefferson, Thomas (1743-1826), philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, and president of the United States
- Rodgers, John (1773-1838), naval officer
- Barron, James (1769-1851), naval officer
- Decatur, Stephen (1779-1820), naval officer
- Crawford, William Harris (1772-1834), U.S. senator, cabinet member, and presidential candidate