The capture of HMS Cyane and HMS Levant was an action which took place at the end of the Anglo-American War of 1812. The British warships HMS Cyane and HMS Levant fought USS Constitution on 20 February 1815 about 100 miles east of Madeira. Following exchanges of broadsides and musket fire, both Cyane and Levant surrendered. The war had actually finished a few days before the action with the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent by both sides, but the combatants were not aware of this.
Constitution and the two prizes anchored in Porto Praya in the Cape Verde islands. Levant failed to escape when a British squadron appeared, and was recaptured.
The American frigate Constitution, commanded by Captain Charles Stewart, had broken out of Boston late in 1814 in a westerly gale which blew the British blockading squadron under Captain Sir George Collier off station. Stewart then embarked on a commerce-raiding cruise which took Constitution to Bermuda, Madeira, the coast of Portugal and finally back towards Madeira.
At 1:00 pm on 20 February 1815, two ships were sighted to the south, and Stewart set all sail in chase, in an easterly wind. The two ships were the sixth-rate Banterer-class post ship HMS Cyane (sometimes referred to as a "corvette"), commanded by Captain Gordon Thomas Falcon, and the Cyrus-class post ship (also a sixth-rate) HMS Levant, commanded by Captain the Honourable George Douglass. Cyane was armed with 22 32-pounder carronades, 10 18-pounder carronades and two 12-pounder long guns, the slightly lighter Levant had 18 32-pounder carronades, 2 6-pounder long guns and a shifting 12-pounder. The crews of the two British vessels totalled 320.
Constitution carried a main battery of 30 24-pounder long guns, and 20 or 22 32-pounder carronades and two long bow-chasers Having earlier detached 20 men to a prize, she had a crew of 410 officers and seamen and 41 Marines.
The two British ships were at first widely separated. Cyane increased sail to close on Levant and by 5:30 pm, the two British ships were within hail of each other. The two captains resolved to fight rather than split up and try to escape. They at first tried to delay battle until after nightfall, but Constitution was approaching too rapidly and they formed on the starboard tack in line ahead, with Levant a cable's length ahead of Cyane. The combined broadsides of the two British ships were slightly heavier than Constitution's, but were fired almost exclusively from short-range carronades, and at the range at which the action commenced, 250 yards (230 m), the effect of Constitution's main deck battery of 24-pounder long guns was decisive against the lighter structure of the British vessels.
At 6:10 pm, the action began, with Constitution to windward, Levant on her port bow and Cyane on her port quarter. After broadsides had been exchanged for quarter of an hour, the cloud of smoke from the firing which gathered under Constitution's lee hid the British ships from view. Stewart ordered his crew to cease fire, and the smoke cleared in time to allow the Americans to see Cyane attempting to cross their stern and rake Constitution. Stewart ordered the sails to be thrown aback, and Constitution instead raked Cyane. As Levant tried to cross Constitution's bows, Stewart ordered the sails to be filled again, and raked Levant from astern. As Levant drifted downwind with battered rigging, Constitution turned again to engage Cyane. At 6:50, Cyane struck her colours.
Lieutenant Hoffman, the second lieutenant of Constitution, took command of Cyane. At 8:00 pm, Stewart set off to pursue Levant, and at 8:50 discovered the British vessel beating back upwind to re-enter the fight, unaware that Cyane had surrendered. The two vessels exchanged broadsides on opposite tacks. Captain Douglass then attempted to escape upwind but at 9:30, Levant was overtaken and also forced to surrender.
Although it was acknowledged that the crews of both British ships had fought determinedly and skilfully, Stewart's ship-handling had been faultless.
The Americans lost 6 men killed and 9 wounded. Aboard Cyane, 12 men were killed and 26 wounded, some of whom later died of their injuries. Aboard Levant, 7 men were killed and 16 wounded.
Constitution and the two prizes made for Porto Praya in the Cape Verde islands, which were neutral Portuguese territory. They reached there on 10 March. While repairs were being made to all three ships and Stewart was preparing to send off the prisoners in a neutral cartel, a large ship was sighted making for the anchorage. Stewart was preparing to engage when two more heavy ships were sighted, clearly too powerful a force for Constitution to face. Stewart believed that the Portuguese would be unable to enforce their neutrality and his three ships hastily left the harbour.
The approaching ships were Collier's squadron, which had recrossed the Atlantic once Collier had discovered that Constitution had escaped from Boston. They were Collier's own ship HMS Leander (50 guns), HMS Newcastle (50 guns), and HMS Acasta (40 guns). (Leander and Newcastle had been constructed in 1813 with 24-pounder main deck broadsides specifically to match the large American frigates.)
As the British pursued, Constitution was forced to cut away the boats which the frigate had been towing. Cyane dropped back and Stewart ordered her to tack. She did so, and escaped, being ignored by Collier's frigates. Levant, commanded by Lieutenant Ballard, first Lieutenant of Constitution, also fell back, and turned back for Porto Praya. All three British frigates pursued her into the harbour and opened fire, while the British prisoners from Cyane and Levant seized a Portuguese shore battery and also opened fire on Levant. Although the cannonade was ineffectual, the odds were overwhelming and Ballard surrendered.
After calling at a Brazilian port, where Stewart released his remaining prisoners, Constitution reached Puerto Rico where Stewart learned that the war had ended some days before he had fought. Cyane reached New York without incident. The Portuguese later paid compensation to the United States for their failure to enforce their neutrality which allowed the recapture of Levant. Sir George Collier was accused of cowardice or incompetence for his failure to engage Constitution at Porto Praya, and took his own life in 1824.