|This print by T. Buttersworth depicts the January 1815 battle between President and Endymion that led to the capture of Commodore John Rodgers’ cherished frigate. Courtesy, U.S. Navy Art Collection. (p. 194)|
Our generation’s images of the military have been dominated by the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, so many Americans have lost sight of the Navy. Act of Valor, the Hollywood film in theatres this month, reminds us of the Navy with the story of a SEALs Special Operations team like the one that caught and killed Osama bin Laden.
Finally back in Long Island, he resumed life and built a business with his small boat, with a bitter eye trained on finding “the first opportunity of doing mischief to those who had so long tortured me.” When the War of 1812 came, he had his chance.
By the summer of 1813, Penny was on his next mission: to infiltrate and sabotage the British blockade that stopped all sea traffic up the coast. He got aboard the British ship Ramillies posing as a local vendor of produce and clams. The ship’s officers later realized he was “of course a spy to collect information on our movements,” and that he was preparing a torpedo “to destroy this ship.” They tracked him to his home and ambushed him at dawn. After firing at him, they seized him and hustled him, still in his pajamas, under guard to the Ramillies. There he was locked in irons on the bare deck all day in the August heat. For 18 days he survived on bread and water until the ship reached Halifax, where he was jailed as a prisoner of war.
In a few weeks, the story of his harsh treatment outraged the highest levels of the U.S. government. President Madison ordered retaliation. It took nine months before Penny was released and made his way home again, with the war in its final months. He had just one regret.
“It was never my good fortune to command a torpedo,” he recalled, “but I should be pleased to have the privilege of terrifying John Bull…” An attitude worthy of Act of Valor.
David Taylor, in addition is author of The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy and also Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Visit him at his Amazon page.