Allen, William Henry, 1784-1813
Far less known than Rhode Island’s Oliver Hazard Perry, the hero of the September 1813 Battle of Lake Erie, Captain William Henry Allen was no less daring and courageous. He was born in Providence on October 21, 1784, the son of Sarah Jones, sister of Governor William Jones, and Major William Allen of Providence, a distinguished Revolutionary War soldier, later a brigadier general of militia and sheriff of Providence County.
Little is known of Captain Allen’s education, but his surviving journals and letters show a skilled penman and artist whose sketches in his writings were well executed. Allen wanted a naval career, so his influential parents, despite serious misgivings, prevailed upon U.S. Senator Ray Greene to secure his appointment as a midshipman in April 1800. The purpose of the fifteen-year-old Allen’s first cruise–a voyage from Philadelphia to North Africa aboard the George Washington–was to bring tribute to the Dey of Algiers so that the dey’s pirates would not attack American shipping.
In June 1807, as an officer on the U.S.S. Chesapeake, Allen allegedly fired the only shot at the H.M.S. Leopard when that British warship boldly impressed American seamen from the decks of this U.S. naval vessel, an incident precipitating the crisis with England that led to President Jefferson’s December, 1807 embargo.
During the early part of the War of 1812, Allen was serving as Captain Stephen Decatur’s first lieutenant on the frigate United States when the American vessel gained a decisive victory over the Macdeonian. Allen himself brought the British warship into Newport as a prize on December 6, 1812. Allen’s distinguished service soon earned him his own vessel, the brig Argus, a two-masted light cruising vessel, 95½ feet long on the upper deck, where eighteen 24-pound cannon and two 12-pound long guns were mounted.
Allen and his ship have been memorialized by naval historian Ira Dye in a meticulously researched book entitled The Fatal Cruise of the Argus: Two Captains in the War of 1812 (1994). As Dye recounts Allen boldly sailed his new command into the waters off the British Isles, where he became a scourge to England in the summer of 1813. By mid-August he had attacked twenty vessels, burning, sinking, or destroying the cargo of all but two of them. This tally, says Dye, “was more than any other single American warship of any size had done or was to do” during the War of 1812.
Then, on August 14, 1813, Allen rashly chose to turn and fight, rather than easily evade, a larger pursuing British warship, the H.M.S. Pelican, under the command of Captain John Maples. The decision was fatal. In a pitched battle the out-gunned Argus was beaten, and the Pelican took ninety-seven prisoners. Twelve American sailors were killed, including Allen, who succumbed to wounds four days after the encounter. Ironically the foes of the heroic Captain Allen gave him a huge military funeral in Plymouth, England, where he now lies buried in St. Andrew’s Churchyard, despite the wishes of some to return him to Rhode Island for reinterment–an honor accorded to Commodore Perry when that hero’s remains were moved from the Carribean island of Trinidad to Newport’s Island Cemetery in 1826.
– (Dr.) Patrick T. Conley