Capt. Johnston Blakely born in 1781. Image courtesy of the North Carolina Office of Archives and History, Raleigh, NC.
Although the most successful American naval officer of the War of 1812, Blakely never enjoyed the fame that he had for so long desired. It was posthumous.
Born to Scots-Irish parents in 1781 in Seaford, County Down, Ireland, Blakeley immigrated with his family to Charleston, South Carolina in 1783. Following the death of his mother and younger brother, he and his father, John, moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, where his father became a merchant. In 1790, Edward Jones, John Blakely’s friend, a successful attorney, and the state’s Solicitor General, started rearing the young Blakely as a foster son and sent him to a Long Island, New York academy. Six years later, Blakely returned to Wilmington after his father’s death.
Determined to make his foster son an attorney, Jones enrolled the young man in the fledgling University of North Carolina. There he performed exceptionally well. His academic career was cut short, when financial support vanished in a 1799 Wilmington fire that destroyed the student’s uninsured warehouses. Refusing to accept a loan from Jones, Blakeley asked instead that Jones secure him a midshipman’s commission in the navy. It was delivered on February 5, 1800.
Blakely embarked on his maritime career by sailing in 1800 on the USS President under commander Thomas Truxton and afterward on the USS John Adams under John Rodgers. His service was spent mainly in the Mediterranean. By 1806 the Navy, however, had been reduced in size. Left with no assignment, Blakely helped man a merchant vessel. At last, Blakeley was commissioned a lieutenant in January 1807 and returned to the Navy by 1808. In 1811, he was given command of the brig USS Enterprise that was stationed at various ports, including Charleston, South Carolina, New Orleans, St. Mary’s, Georgia, and Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
The United States called on Blakely’s maritime skill during the War of 1812. After capturing one prize in the fall of 1813, Blakeley was ordered to Newburyport, Massachusetts to oversee construction of a new sloop, Wasp. Designed as a commerce raider, Wasp was rated at 509 tons and eighteen guns with a 173-man crew. After marrying Anne Hoope, daughter of a New York merchant, Blakely left port on May 1, 1814, at the helm of the newly commissioned Wasp. Blakeley captured his first prize on June 2. Within the following month four more prizes were captured and burned.
The fame that had thus far eluded Blakeley became his on June 28, 1814. Having already spot, chased, and closed in on the Royal Navy’s HMS Reindeer, a heated battle commenced that day. Blakeley’s guns overpowered and reduced the British vessel to a drifting hulk (an abandoned or burnt-out structure that is difficult to steer). Also damaged, Blakely sailed to L’Orient, France to offload prisoners and seek repairs. En route, with his boat operating at less than 100-percent, the commander still captured two more prizes.
The Wasp was back at sea by August 27, and Blakeley set course for Gibraltar. He continued cruising successfully throughout the fall, even winning a battle over the HMS Avon. As news of Blakeley’s success filtered back to the United States in October and early November, he became a hero, and Congress promoted him to Captain on November 24. Meanwhile, the Wasp’s return was long overdue, and rumors swirled concerning the ship’s fate. The British never made claims to sinking the ship, but the Wasp vanished somewhere on the Atlantic. The last confirmed sighting was by a Swedish crew on the Adonis. They saw the Wasp on October 9, 1814, some 225 miles southwest of Madeira.
While he was on the seas fighting during the War of 1812, he was most likely unaware that his wife was pregnant with their daughter. She was born in January 1815. Both the federal and state governments compensated Blakeley’s family, with $900 in back pay, $8,100 in prize money, and a $50-per-month pension until she remarried. Blakeley’s daughter, Maria, continued to receive the pension until 1830, and the North Carolina legislature even paid for Maria’s education. In the end, she received $8,000 from the state and a silver tea service in lieu of her late father’s sword.
Lindley S. Butler, Pirates, Privateers, and Rebel Raiders of the Carolina Coast (Chapel Hill, 2000); Jerry L. Cross, “Wasp” in William S. Powell, ed., Encyclopedia of North Carolina (Chapel Hill, 2006); Stephen W.H. Duffy, Captain Blakeley and the Wasp: The Cruise of 1814 (Annapolis, 2001); Sarah McCulloh Lemmon, North Carolina and the War of 1812 (Raleigh, 1971); Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (New York, 1999).
By Andrew Duppstadt, North Carolina Division of State Historic Sites
See Also:Related Categories: Early America