Though it was not the first conflict that the still fledgling US Navy had taken part in, the War of 1812 would be the first real test of the Navy’s mettle.
by Seth Marshall
In Part 1 of this article, I discussed the initial success of the American heavy frigates against the lighter armed fifth-rate frigates of the British Royal Navy, and the Royal Navy’s success with its blockade against the ports along the Eastern Seaboard of the US. Now we turn to naval warfare on the lakes of North America and what the War of 1812 meant for the US Navy.
While on the Atlantic coast warships remained in port for the majority of the war, the same was not true of naval warfare on the Great Lakes. Here, both sides engaged in building smaller ships for the purposes of troop transport, fire support, and for control of the Lakes. Two relatively high-profile battles occurred in this theater- the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of Plattsburgh. The Battle on Lake Erie took place on September 10, 1813 between a fleet of nine American and six British ships. Despite the American advantage in ships, firepower, and men, the British were able to damage several American ships, including Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s flagship USS Lawrence. Perry transferred his flag to the brig Niagara and rallied the American fleet to victory. The British defeat on Lake Erie ensured American naval dominance of that lake for the duration of the war. Other lakes were not the scene large navy engagements but did see the buildup of warships by both sides. At Lake Ontario, this buildup culminated in the construction of the HMS St. Lawrence, a 112-gun ship of the line crewed by 700 men. One year after the Battle of Lake Erie during the Battle of Plattsburgh, an American and British fleet again met, this time on Lake Champlain. During this battle, the forces were closer to being even; the Americans had a corvette, brig, sloop, and eleven other smaller ships against a British frigate, three sloops and several gunboats. However, the US Navy ships drew the British into Plattsburgh Bay to bring them within range of the carronades which was the primary armament of the US ships. After a fierce fight, the British surrendered their larger warships while the smaller gunboats retreated. The loss coupled with the British defeat on land halted the British invasion and forced them to pull back. The victory on Lake Champlain occurred shortly before the Treaty of Ghent was signed and was one of the last naval engagements of the war.
Despite the lauding of the frigate victories as crowing achievements by some contemporary American popular historians, the US Navy was not ultimately victorious in the War of 1812. Over the course of the war, the Royal Navy lost 28 ships while the US Navy lost 42. It is true that the US Navy was successful during the opening months of the war; however, there are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost, the British were preoccupied with the war against Napoleon taking placing on the Continent. As a result, the Royal Navy’s North American squadron ships stationed at Halifax and Bermuda were relatively few in number, under-supplied, and overall not in a state of preparedness when the war began. Second, the US Navy’s frigate victories were achieved by super-frigates which far outclassed the fifth-rates which they were fighting against. To be fair, this was a smart move on the part of the US Navy, which was equipped with only a handful of warships and could not readily replace them with ships from other theaters as the Royal Navy could. Still, when pitted against multiple ships, single US warships generally did not fair too well, with a few notable exceptions such as the Constitution’s fight against the Cyane and Levant. Even Perry’s fleet took substantial damage at Lake Erie, and he had the advantage in numbers and firepower. What is more, after 1812 the Royal Navy instituted a blockade which not only kept the super-frigates in port for most of the war, it had a disastrous effect on the US economy by practically severing the export profits which were so critical to the nation.
Despite the impossibility of victory against the Royal Navy, the US Navy performed admirably, particularly for a navy that was still new. Even though it lost more ships to the Royal Navy that it captured or destroyed, the margin was not as large as one might expect from a war between the largest fleet in the world and a small force such as the US Navy in 1812. The Navy provided some the only positive headlines for the American public during a war in which the army did not perform well. Americans became so enthusiastic about their new Navy and its “glorious” victories against the British frigates in 1812 that on January 2, 1813, President Madison signed the Naval Expansion Act, which allowed for the construction of four 74-gun battleships and six new 44-gun frigates. The act was later expanded in March to include the addition of six new sloops of war. Navy commanders and captains such as Oliver Hazard Perry and Stephen Decatur were lauded as heroes by the public. And though Navy had generally not faired well against multiple Royal Navy ships, it had proved that it could match the British on even terms during the Battle of Plattsburgh. The War of 1812 then, while not a success, gave the Navy tremendous support for future development and provided it with a wealth of experience for future wars.
 210-216, George C. Daughan. 1812: The Navy's War.(New York: Basic, 2011)
 344-349, George C. Daughan. 1812: The Navy's War.(New York: Basic, 2011)
 198, Brian Arthur. How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy's Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815. (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011)
 570, William S. Dudley, Michael J. Crawford, and Christine F. Hughes. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History. (Washington: Naval Historical Center, Dept. of Navy, 1985)