HMS Terror


When the new ship-rigged HMS Terror joined Captain Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy’s squadron about August 8, 1814, she brought a new weapon to the War of 1812: the mortar. Designed to fire upward rather than outward, mortars have been used in siege operations on land since the 1400s. The French first took them to sea in the late 1600s against the Barbary States, with two mortars mounted on the deck of a heavily built vessel. The vessel was securely anchored, with springlines on the anchor cables to adjust the angle of aim. These vessels were used against ports or fortifications, raining both terror and destruction from the sky.


The heavily built bomb ship TERROR rained her mortar shells and carcasses on Stonington and on Fort McHenry in 1814. But she is better known as an Arctic (and Antarctic) exploration vessel, as shown in this engraving depicting her 1836 expedition.


The Royal Navy added its first “bomb ship” armed with mortars to the fleet in 1687, and bomb vessels had served as recently as the siege of Copenhagen in 1807. In August 1812, Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, commander of the North American station, had requested bomb vessels from the Admiralty, “in case it is decided to annoy the coast of America.”

Three new bomb vessels of the Vesuvius class were launched in 1813. One of them, HMS Terror, was the fifth bomb vessel of that name built since 1696. Slightly over 100 feet long, she had a deep, full-bodied hull with heavy internal reinforcement to carry the ammunition and provide the buoyancy needed for the seven-ton weight of her 10- and 13-inch mortars. At an angle of 45 degrees, these weapons could drop a shell on a target more than two miles away.

Mortars fired both explosive shells and incendiary carcasses. The 13-inch shells weighed 200 pounds, while the 10-inch shells weighed 70 pounds. Carcasses weighed 150 pounds and had three 3-inch holes to spread the burning mix of saltpeter, sulfur, tallow, turpentine, and sulfide of antimony contained within, a highly combustible combination that would flame for about 11 minutes. Royal Navy specifications called for one carcass for every 44 shells.1

Commander John Sheridan had just brought the Terror across the Atlantic, and as she proceeded up Fishers Island Sound with the frigate Pactolus and the brig Dispatch, she was readying her mortars for the first use of this weapon “to annoy the coast of America.” Between 8:00 p.m. on August 9 and noon on August 12, the Terror fired 170 “bombs” at Stonington, according to her sailing master.2

HMS Terror would leave local waters a week after the battle, bound for the Chesapeake Bay. On September 13-14, she and four other bomb vessels dropped more than 1,500 shells and carcasses on Fort McHenry—“the bombs bursting in air” of Francis Scott Key’s Star Spangled Banner.

The rugged Terror had a second career as an Arctic exploration vessel. Between 1836 and 1845 she participated in one Antarctic and two Arctic expeditions. She was last reported in August 1845, entering Baffin Bay in the far north as part of Sir John Franklin’s failed Northwest Passage voyage.

Andrew W. German
Mystic, CT



1. Chris Ware, The Bomb Vessel (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1994), 9, 64-67, 88, 91. For defense, the Terror also mounted eight 24-pound carronades.

2. Connecticut Gazette, August 17, 24, 1814. British bomb vessels were also used at Fort Washington, Maryland, August 27, 1814; Fort McHenry, September 13-14, 1814; and Fort St. Philip, Louisiana, January 9-19, 1815.