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Naval War of 1812

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Two sailing ships engaged in battle at sea.

With the sale of the frigate Alliance in 1785, the US Continental Navy ceased to exist. The young US would soon learn that her merchant ships were no longer protected by the mighty Royal Navy, or the British treaties that had protected them as colonies. Events in France would soon limit the promised protection of that country.

With Europe at war, the safety of neutral shipping was becoming very uncertain. Not only might a ship be boarded at any time by the ships of the fighting countries for inspection, but the states of north Africa, led by Algiers, had returned to their old custom of capturing ships and crews and holding them for ransom. The US Congress finally authorized the construction of six large frigates, an order which President Washington signed on 27 March, 1794. A peace was negotiated with Algiers by the spring of 1796, agreeing that the US would pay almost a million dollars in ransom and protection money. Congress removed the funding for three of the frigates; the other three, United States, Constellation and Constitution, would be launched in 1797.

The United States engaged in a series of attacks on French-flagged vessels from 1797 to 1800 known today as The Quasi-war. From 1801 - 1805 the United States Navy and Marine Corps engaged the Barbary States of North Africa, nominally belonging to the Ottoman Empire, and (briefly) the Independent Sultanate of Morocco. The second line of the US Marine Corps Hymn ' the shores of Tripoli...' recalls the actions of this conflict.

The Prelude to War

On 22 June, 1807 the United States frigate Chesapeake proceeded to sea from Hampton Roads, Virginia. Before she reached the open sea, the Chesapeake was accosted by the British ship Leopard off the Virginia Capes.

The Chesapeake apparently planned to spend most of her voyage to the Mediterranean preparing her weapons for use. The Leopard challenged and sent a boat to board the Chesapeake to search for British deserters. Commodore James Barron refused to cooperate with the British and forced the boat to return without any prisoners. The Leopard fired a shot across the bow of the American ship, followed quickly with a broadside1. One of the officers of the Chesapeake managed to reply with a single shot. When Commodore Barron struck his colours, three men had been killed and eighteen wounded, including the Commodore himself. Four men were removed from Chesapeake to stand trial in Halifax as deserters. Commodore Barron was tried by court martial and suspended from duty for five years without pay, for 'Having failed to clear his ship for action.'

The Embargo Act of 22 December, 1807 prohibited any US vessel from trading with any nation involved in the Napoleonic wars, in effect all the developed countries in Europe, and throughout the world. This created a great strain on the New England states who usually supplied the ships, and the Southern states, whose plantations provided the cargoes. The Embargo Act was revoked on 1 March, 1809, the last day of Thomas Jefferson's Presidency.

On 1 May, 1811 the British frigate Guerriere (36 guns) stopped a US brig Spitfire (a merchant ship) off Sandy Hook at the mouth of New York Harbour. A seaman from the state of Maine was seized as a deserter.

The US frigate President (44 guns) was dispatched to revenge the capture of Spitfire. On 10 May the President spotted a warship about 48 miles east of the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. The ship would prove to be the sloop-of-war Little Belt (22 guns). In the ensuing action Little Belt had 9 killed and 23 wounded (two mortally). Commodore John Rodgers, who commanded the American ship, claimed that he did not realize the small size of his opponent until after the battle; he said he thought he was fighting the Guerriere.

War is Declared

The official declaration of war was enacted on 18 June, 1812 by the United States. Speculations abound about the motives and goals sought by the US. Many believe it was an attempt to invade and capture Canada, and some of the initial campaigns seem to support this view. Others believe it was just an attempt to earn recognition from the European powers.

In any event it would have been sheer madness to challenge the British Empire with its vast military resources were they not spread thinly, engaged in conflicts that had been ongoing for about 20 years. The British Navy had almost a thousand ships in commission, a tenth of them 'Ships of the Line'2 mounting at least 60 cannons and several with over a hundred.

The US possessed three large frigates nominally mounting 44 guns3 each: Constitution, President and United States, and three medium frigates of 38 guns: Constellation, Chesapeake and Congress. The 32-gun Essex was the smallest of the frigates. She had been built and presented to the navy by a few communities in Massachusetts. A dozen or so smaller ships were also available, each mounting 20 or fewer guns.

President vs Belvidera

A squadron put to sea on 21 June from the port of New York under the command of Commodore John Rodgers. The flagship President was accompanied by the frigate Congress and the brigs4 the Hornet and Argus.

Having heard rumours that war had been declared, on 23 June the British frigate Belvidera sighted what she thought to be a small squadron of American ships. When the British ship was close enough to identify the enemy, her captain realized he was facing a much larger force. He set as much sail as possible and headed back to sea. The President and Congress immediately gave chase. The President, a very fast ship for her time, closed the distance and opened fire. While discharging her second broadside, one of the President's main deck guns exploded, wounding the commodore, killing a few men and disrupting the order of the crew. They did however manage to disable a few of the Belvidera's sails, allowing the Congress to get close enough to join the action, but with little effect. The British crew managed to repair their rigging and escape. Three days later she was safe in Halifax Harbour.

Constitution vs Guerriere

The large frigate Constitution sailed north from Chesapeake Bay on 12 July. As she approached Sandy Hook, the primary landmark of the port of New York, four warships were spotted on the horizon. Expecting to rendezvous with Commodore Rodgers' squadron, Captain Isaac Hull confidently approached the waiting ships. The Belvidera now had a chance to turn the tables on the Americans. She had been joined by the frigates Shannon, Guerriere, Aeolus and the ship of the line Africa, all under the command of Captain Philip Vere Broke RN. It was now the Constitution's turn to run from a far superior force.

As the chase began the strength of the wind began to drop. After a long night of manoeuvring for advantage, the ships found themselves becalmed without enough speed to even steer. Shortly before dawn 18 July, Constitution hoisted out her boats to tow her to safety by the efforts of her crew. The British soon followed suit, assigning most of the squadron's boats to the Shannon, hoping to pull her into the range of her guns. The Constitution then changed tactics and began 'kedging'5. Just before the evening of 19 July a rain squall was seen approaching the ships. Rather than taking in the sails before the storm reached them, Captain Hull set every sail he dared and prepared the crew for the strong winds expected. Although the squall itself was short-lived, a light breeze remained. Hull set his men to wetting the sails so the fibres would swell and better catch the wind. He pumped most of the drinking water overboard to lighten the ship. By morning the Constitution had gained a sufficient lead that the British gave up the chase and returned to continue the blockade of New York. Realizing that New York was too well guarded to allow entry, Constitution sailed for Boston, desperate to replace her precious water.

On 2 August the Constitution once again put to sea with the intention of patrolling off Halifax, Nova Scotia and attacking British shipping traffic. A passing American privateer6 reported spotting a lone British frigate and gave her last known position.

On 19 August the enemy's sails were spotted and both ships manoeuvred to engage in combat. The Guerriere, the lone frigate, opened fire first as Constitution drew closer. As a taunt to the Americans, the Guerriere had the motto 'Not the Little Belt' painted across her fore topsail. Many of the British cannon balls could not penetrate the thick oak planks of the Constitution's hull. At this time an unknown member of the crew gave the ship the nickname 'Old Ironsides'.

It was not until the ships were side by side, about 6pm, that Constitution delivered her first broadside. In less than 15 minutes of firing, the Guerriere's mizzen mast was cut through and went over the side. With her opponent's manoeuvrability impaired, Constitution shifted her position to cross Guerriere's bow, allowing each shot to pass down the full length of the enemy's decks, while few guns could reply. By 7pm the Guerriere was a mastless hulk and was forced to surrender.

After her crew were removed as prisoners of war, the hulk was set on fire and destroyed when the conflagration reached her powder magazine. The British would complain after this battle that Yankee frigates were really ships of the line with a single gun deck.

United States vs Macedonian

The large frigate United States under the command of Stephen Decatur returned to sea in early October. After the court martial of James Barron, Decatur had been given command of the Chesapeake. When the larger United States completed a refit in 1809, Decatur was transferred, along with most of his crew.

Decatur decided he would cruise alone off the west coast of Africa between the Azores and Canary Islands. The British frigate Macedonian, under Captain John Carden, was returning from escorting an East India ship through the North Atlantic. Carden had heard rumours that the light American frigate Essex was cruising in the area. Confident that he had superior speed and fire power, he decided to try to find her.

On the morning of 25 October the two ships sighted each other and prepared for battle. When the United States hoisted her battle ensigns the lines were drawn. Carden had planned to stand off and batter the American with his longer-ranged guns. Imagine his surprise when the 24-pound balls began to strike his hull and rigging while his own guns were not quite in range.

The United States was known to be a slow ship under sail; she had earned the nickname 'The Old Wagon' and her crew called 'Waggoners'. Had the Macedonian recognized the true identity of her opponent sooner she might have used her superior sailing ability to escape, or at least fight from a more advantageous position. As it was, her decks soon became a scene of horror - as can be seen from this account of the action from the Macedonian. After the inevitable surrender of the British ship, Decatur decided to take her as a prize. The British had 36 dead and 68 wounded, compared with seven dead and five wounded on the American ship. After several days spent repairing her rigging and patching her hull, the Macedonian sailed in company with the United States for New London, Connecticut.

Soon after arrival, Decatur learned that a grand ball was to held in a few days at Washington DC, where Commodore Hull would present the Guerriere's battle flag to the President and First Lady. Forbidden by regulations from leaving the ship himself, Decatur sent a midshipman who had distinguished himself during the battle. Archibald Hamilton, the son of the Secretary of the Navy, was ordered to carry Macedonian's battle flag to the Capitol and trump Hull's great moment.

Constitution vs Java

On the morning of 29 December the Constitution, now under the command of Commodore William Bainbridge, sighted the sails of two ships while cruising off the coast of Brazil. While one ship slipped closer to land, the other stood out to sea, challenging the new sail on the horizon. The two frigates approached each other and showed their flags, American and British respectively. The Java attempted to rake the Constitution, but she managed to turn and avoid the attack. About 2pm they began exchanging fire. Early in the fight the Constitution's wheel was shattered by a shot from Java. For the remainder of the battle Constitution was steered by men stationed far below the deck, blindly following the orders passed down to them.

After a half hour or so of firing at long range, the Constitution decided to close with Java, even though it meant exposing herself to heavier fire without being able to reply. Constitution passed so close that the Java's jib-boom7 became entangled in her rigging. Constitution began firing at Java's bow and within 15 minutes her bowsprit and foremast were shot away. With the loss of all the sails from Java's forward half, making any manoeuvring almost impossible, Constitution moved away to repair her own rigging.

Realizing that Java's flag was still flying, Constitution renewed the action and soon the last two masts were both shot away. When Constitution was once again in a position to rake her decks, Java finally surrendered. With only two boats remaining, Constitution began the removal of the English crew. Before the final sinking, Java's wheel was removed and re-installed on Constitution to replace the one that had been destroyed by Java's gun fire.

Shannon vs Chesapeake

Chesapeake had returned to Boston from a cruise on 9 April, 1813. Her captain, many officers and a large part of her crew were replaced. Freshly-promoted Captain James Lawrence prepared his ship and crew for their new challenges. Just outside the harbour the British frigate Shannon lay in wait. Her Captain, Philip Broke, and his crew had spent the last seven years together, training and learning how to work as a team. As a part of the routine of blockade duty, Shannon would regularly approach the harbour and take note of all the vessels preparing for sea. In late May it was clear to any experienced sailor that Chesapeake had almost completed her refit. History records that Captain Broke sent a challenge ashore for combat, but there is no evidence that Captain Lawrence ever received it.

In any event the Chesapeake sailed on the afternoon of 1 June. An especially made flag proclaiming 'Free trade and sailors' rights' flew from one of her mastheads. Shannon was waiting for her. As Chesapeake approached the enemy she crossed her stern, in an excellent position to rake her with the Chesapeake's cannons. For some unknown reason the Chesapeake held her fire until the two ships were side by side where they began battering each other on almost equal terms. Captain Broke ordered the enemy ship to be grappled and lashed alongside. With the order 'Boarders away' the American ship's fate was sealed. Captain Lawrence was mortally wounded by small arms fire early in the action. As he was being carried below to die he gave his famous order 'Don't give up the ship!'

Unfortunately this was not to be, in less than 15 minutes the Chesapeake's flag would be struck, and the prize carried north to Halifax. Captain Lawrence and one of his Lieutenants, who died of his wounds, were buried there with full military honours. A marker still remains.

The War in Europe

Following his disastrous invasion of Russia in the autumn of 1812, Napoleon began to lose control of his armies and of France. On 13 March, 1814 the British and their allies entered Paris. Abandoned by his generals, Napoleon was forced to abdicate unconditionally on 11 April. He was sent into exile on the island of Elba and the European war was over. Britain could now use the full force of her well-trained troops and ships for the American war.

The War on the Lakes

The British troops in Canada were obstructed from free passage to the United States by several large lakes. Although far removed from the sea, three of these would have a naval significance. The British had, long before the conflict, established small squadrons on the Great Lakes to train local citizens in case they would be called to service.

Lake Ontario

The United States assembled a small squadron on Lake Ontario to challenge the British forces on the lake. The two squadrons supported the land troops of their respective sides with transport and supply. The British vessels were primarily armed with long-range cannon and waited for a chance to attack the Americans while the winds were light and they could batter their ships while remaining out of range of their guns. The Americans on the other hand wished to attack with strong winds so they could quickly close with the enemy and use their heavier guns.

On 8 August, 1813 two American schooners the Hamilton and Scourge were struck by a strong squall. Both capsized and sank quickly, drowning most of their crews. Only 16 men survived from the crew of both ships.

Battle of Lake Erie

The largest battle on the lakes was fought on 10 September, 1813 near Put In Bay, Ohio. The Royal Navy on the lake consisted of the ships8: Detroit, 19 guns, Queen Charlotte, 16 guns, the brigs HMS Hunter, 10 guns and HMS Chippaway, 1 gun. They were joined by the schooner Lady Prevost, 13 guns and the sloop HMS Little Belt, 3 guns. The British squadron was commanded by Commander Robert H Barclay, who had distinguished himself at the Battle of Trafalgar.

The American Navy consisted of the newly-built brigs Lawrence and Niagara, 20 guns each and the much smaller Caledonia, 3 guns, which had been captured from the British on Lake Ontario, the schooners Ariel, 4 guns, Scorpion, 2 guns, Somers, 2 guns, Porcupine, 1 gun, Tigress, 1 gun, and the smallest American vessel, the sloop Trippe, 1 gun. All were under the command of Master Commandant Oliver H Perry. Although both commanders were below the rank of post-captain, they were both given the title Commodore, signifying their command over several vessels.

As the two squadrons approached each other, the wind initially favoured the British. Commodore Barclay flew his flag of command on the Detroit. Commodore Perry flew his flag from Lawrence, a large dark blue flag with Captain Lawrence's famous dying words 'Don't give up the ship' uttered aboard the doomed Chesapeake. Perry had planned to attack Detroit with the Lawrence, while Niagara would concentrate her fire on Queen Charlotte. As the battle unfolded, Lawrence found herself at the forefront of the battle and was battered by the British long guns for half an hour before her carronades9 could reply. The other vessels were delayed by wind and trying to keep clear of one another. As the other Americans finally came within range of the battle, Perry assessed the condition of his flagship. In a daring move at the heat of battle he ordered one of the ship's boats lowered into the water. He hauled down his flag of command and ordered the boat's crew to pull for Niagara. When his blue and white flag broke out on Niagara's masthead, the rest of the squadron knew he had transferred his command to the other brig. The Americans now attacked with fury. Commodore Barclay himself was wounded in the arm. In the confusion of battle Detroit and Queen Charlotte collided, fouling their rigging. Perry took the opportunity and ran down to rake both ships while they were hopelessly entwined. With 41 dead and 93 wounded the British were forced to surrender. The American losses were 23 dead and 96 wounded.

After the battle Commodore Perry penned his famous report:

We have met the enemy, and they are ours...

Battle of Lake Champlain

There is a path through the mountains that separate the Canadian city of Montreal and New York - the Hudson valley. High in the mountains at the north end of the river there is a large lake which must be crossed. Lake Champlain had been the site of a major naval battle during the American Revolution.

Late in the autumn of 1812 Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough was ordered to prepare a squadron to prevent the British from crossing the lake. The British held a strongly-fortified position at the northern end of the lake, Isle Aux Noix. Shortly after he had taken command, two of his vessels, the Growler and Eagle, passed too close to this position, were captured and entered into the British squadron.

While the British made a few raids on the American settlements, both sides were working feverishly to enlarge their squadrons by building row galleys, mounting one or two guns, as well as some much larger vessels. The British flagship was the 37-gun Confiance, large enough to be listed as a 5th rate frigate10. The British were commanded by Captain George Downie, who had only received the appointment a few days before the battle. The American flagship was the Saratoga with 26 guns, a ship-rigged sloop-of-war. The two fleets were almost evenly matched in fire power, although once again the British cannon could fire at longer range.

As the British fleet approached on the the morning of 11 September, 1814, Commodore Macdonough carefully arranged his fleet at anchor in Cumberland Bay. Each vessel had rigged spring lines to her anchor cable, allowing the vessel to be turned as necessary to bring her guns to bear. This position would force the British to attack, negating the advantage of their long guns. Interestingly this was not unlike the tactics Benedict Arnold had used in the earlier war.

The British fleet was sailing before the northerly wind. The Americans opened fire almost as soon as they were in range. Their shots passed down the length of the British decks leaving death and destruction in their wake. The British came on steadily. When they were satisfied with their position they dropped their own anchors and opened fire. Early in the action a shot from Saratoga struck one of Confiance's guns squarely, knocking it from its carriage and into the Commodore. Barclay was killed instantly. At one point almost all of the guns on one side of Saratoga were damaged to the extent they could no longer fire. Macdonough ordered the crew to wind ship, hauling on her anchors and spring cables turning the ship a full 180 degrees. Now faced with an almost undamaged battery, and unable to do the same, the enemy began to surrender.

One frigate, one brig and two sloops-of-war struck their flags, the remainder fled back to Isle Aux Noix.

Exploits of the Essex

The Essex departed New York on 3 July, 1812 under the command of Captain David Porter, the father of the US Civil War Admiral of the same name. The first person to be given the rank of Admiral in the US, David Farragut, was also aboard as a midshipman. Her orders were to join Constitution and Hornet off the coast of Brazil. Both these ships had, however, been engaged in their own successful enterprises and did not arrive at any of the rendezvous points. Left on his own, without orders or instructions, Porter decided to round Cape Horn and attack the British whale ships in the Pacific. The film Master and Commander - the Far Side of the World is very much based on the cruise of the Essex, although the ship's identity was changed to a French privateer to avoid offending American audiences. One of the tricks Porter had learned in his years fighting the Barbary Pirates was to disguise his ship as a merchant vessel until close enough to overwhelm his enemy.

After rounding Cape Horn, Porter was forced to enter the port of Valparaiso, Chile, although concerned that he might not be well received as Spain was an ally of Britain. Imagine his relief when he learned that Chile had declared her independence, and welcomed any help with defeating Peruvian privateers, who had joined with British warships in capturing American merchant ships with whom they were trading.

Porter's success among the whaling ships was impressive. As most of these vessels had a half dozen cannon or so, he started arming them and formed his own small squadron. As many of the sailors on the British whale ships proved to be Americans, he had little problem manning his ships. One of the captured whale ships, the Atlantic, proved to be a fast sailer and was renamed Essex Junior.

Unfortunately Porter allowed himself to become involved in the tribal disputes of the Polynesians. The British also became aware of the activities of Essex and sent a squadron to stop her campaign. Phoebe and Cherub had Essex and Essex Junior blockaded in Valparaiso harbour. On 28 March, 1814 a strong storm arrived, parting one anchor cable and causing the other anchor to drag. With the safety of the harbour eliminated, Porter decided to put to sea, trusting the neutrality of the port for protection. This was not to be. In the ensuing action Essex losses were 58 dead, 65 wounded and 31 missing; the British had 5 dead and 10 wounded. Porter and his men were allowed to return to the US aboard Essex Junior, having given their parole.


The War of 1812 was the last time privately-owned warships would play a major role in the fighting among large nations. Although most actions of private ships are not recorded, one interesting event was the Battle of Fayal fought by the General Armstrong.

Constitution vs Levant and Cyane

Unaware that a peace treaty had been signed, Constitution was cruising off the coast of Africa. On 20 February, 1815 her lookouts sighted a sail. Captain Charles Stewart, now in command, ordered his ship to close with the strange sail so he could identify her. A second sail was soon sighted in front of the first. The two ships were close-hauled to the light easterly wind. At about 4pm Constitution added all possible sail having seen the two ships exchanging signals. At 4:30 one of Constitution's upper masts carried away from the strain. While repairing the damage Constitution cleared for action about 5:00 and began a sporadic fire with her forward guns. By 6:00 Constitution's main battery was in a position to fire. She hoisted her US ensign. Both ships replied with British colours. For the next few hours Constitution would first fire on the after ship, then surge ahead to fire on the other. She would then cease fire to let the smoke clear, fall back and repeat the process. At 6:20 the Cyane, 34 guns, under Captain Gordon Falcon, struck her colours. It was not until 10pm that her consort Levant, 21 guns, commanded by Captain George Douglas also struck. The word that the treaty had been ratified by Congress would not reach Constitution until 28 April.


The war officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent, signed on 24 December, 1814.

The largest land battle of the war was fought at New Orleans on 8 January, 1815, after the treaty had been signed but before its ratification by Congress. While not a naval battle, there were two ships on the Mississippi River that shelled the British camps, and a significant number of the defenders consisted of the buccaneers from Barataria under Jean Lafitte.

The American capital of Washington DC was burned. To this day the 'President's Mansion' is called the 'White House' for the paint used to cover the soot stains in the stone façade.

The unsuccessful attack on Baltimore, MD would inspire a poem that was set to an existing tune and is now the United States National Anthem.

On 1 March, 1815 Napoleon escaped from his prison on Elba. After the Hundred Days War ended at Waterloo, he would be exiled to the lonely island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic until his death.

British ship design would evolve into developing larger frigates, eventually producing HMS Warrior, the first iron-hulled warship.

Although Canada wasn't granted independence until 1867, the war of 1812 had already done much to establish the fledgling nation's pride and heritage.

The USS Constitution is still officially in commission and can be visited in her berth just north of Boston, MA.

1All of the cannon mounted on the side of the ship closest to the enemy.2Battle ships considered large enough to engage the enemy in fleet actions.3Cannons mounted aboard a ship are referred to as 'guns'.4Smaller two-masted vessels.5The practice of carrying the anchors as far ahead as possible with the boats, dropping them one at a time, and pulling the ship forward by winding in the anchor cable while a second anchor is rowed ahead.6A privately-owned ship licensed to attack enemy ships.7The spar extending farthest from the front of the ship.8The term 'ship' in the age of sail indicated a vessel with three masts, all square-rigged.9Short, reduced-range naval cannons.10This refers to the rating system in use at the time for Royal Navy ships. Frigates were designed for speed and manoeuvrability rather than the sheer firepower of ships of the line – the 1st to 4th rate ships.

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