The War of 1812 & the U.S. Navy

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

                The War of 1812 today tends to fall into a list of wars that are commonly forgotten by both Americans and British. More recent and much larger wars from the past century remain at the forefront of many when thinking of their nations’ military history. Even at the time of the war it was only on the periphery of the British public, whose main interest was in the massive Napoleonic Wars taking place across the English Channel. Most historians appear to also have avoided the topic, with relatively few books on the topic being published. Despite this lack of interest the War of 1812 was an important period for the US Navy, which performed well against an opponent regarded as the best in the world.

                The US Navy was, much like the rest of the country, not prepared for the War of 1812.  Thanks in part to the general mistrust of standing military forces during the years following the Revolution, the American Navy was still in its infancy during the War of 1812. Following the Revolution, the Navy had effectively ceased to exist. For nine years after the decommissioning of the USS Alliance, there were no active ships serving in the US Navy. Only with the passage of the Act to Provide a Naval Armament in 1794 would there be further naval shipbuilding. This act, designed to combat Barbary pirates engaged in the capture of American merchant vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, allowed for the construction of the famous six frigates, United States, President, Chesapeake, Constellation, Constitution, and Congress. These vessels were designed to be capable of taking on any pirate ship they might encounter. Each displaced over 1,000 tons, had a deck length over 175 feet, carried at least thirty twenty-four pound long guns plus varying numbers of carronades.[1] These ships, which could be considered as heavy frigates (or sometimes referred to as “super-frigates”), would form the backbone of the US Navy as the War of 1812 began. At the time of the war’s outbreak, the US Navy could count on the services of another eleven ships in addition to the heavy frigates. 

                This small force of seventeen ships was all that the US Navy could field against the Royal Navy, at that time the world’s largest navy. The Royal Navy enjoyed an overall superiority in numbers, with 657 ships in service in 1811.[2] In addition, the British could draw upon their enormous victory over the French Navy at Trafalgar seven years earlier. However, the Royal Navy which faced the Americans in 1812 was not the same force which had met the French in battle at Trafalgar. Most of the British ships were engaged in blockading the French fleet in their home ports as well as supporting British army operations on the European continent. These efforts had the effect of draining supplies and ships away from the Royal Navy’s American squadron, based out of Halifax and Bermuda. British historian Jeremy Black notes that the Royal Navy’s ships at Halifax were poorly maintained and their crews had not been drilling as often as they could have.[3] Finally, the Royal Navy’s decisive victory over the French at Trafalgar had given the service somewhat of an air of invincibility- the idea that a ship of the Royal Navy, the greatest force on the seas, could be defeated by anyone else was unthinkable.

                Thanks to these problems, the US Navy was able to quickly achieve a string of victories during the months following the declaration of war on June 18, 1812. Within three days of the start of the war, multiple US warships had put to sea to search for British merchant ships to attack. The first engagement of the war occurred on June 23rd when the USS President opened fire on the HMS Belvidera, a 36-gun fifth-rate frigate. The Belvidera was hit several times but managed to escape thanks in part to a cannon misfiring and exploding on the President which killed several men.[4] Ten days later on July 3rd, the USS Essex, a fifth-rate frigate built for the US Navy by Salem, Massachusetts, became the first US warship to capture a British ship, the troopship Samuel & Sarah. July also saw the capture of the brig USS Nautilus on the 11th, the first US warship captured during the war, and also the near-capture of the USS Constitution, which just barely escaped from a British squadron after a three-day chase from Chesapeake Bay.

 USS Constitution engaging and defeating the frigate HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812.

USS Constitution engaging and defeating the frigate HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812.

                The fall saw several ship-to-ship battles which have for all purposes become legend for the US Navy. On August 19th, the USS Constitution defeated the HMS Guerriere, a British fifth-rate, leaving her hulk to burn and sink.[5] On October 25th, the USS United States engaged and captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian.[6] The following day, the USS Constitution again found itself fighting a British warship, this time the HMS Java, another fifth-rate frigate, and won this fight as well. These engagements provided the American public with some of the only bright spots in a war which was not proceeding well for its Army. It also caused an uproar among the British public, who were furious that the upstart Americans were defeating Royal Navy warships.[7] In addition, the events aroused the concerns of the Admiralty, who quickly realized that the American super-frigates outclassed the fifth-rate frigates in use by the Royal Navy. On July 10, 1813, the Secretary of the Admiralty issued an order to all Royal Navy frigates explicitly forbidding them from engaging the American frigates in single ship combat.[8]

                Following the first six months of the war, American ships were prevented from further successes in the Atlantic due to the increasing effectiveness of the British blockade. The North American squadron, which had not been in position in time to stop the first American warships venturing out on their commerce-raiding cruises, was able to post squadrons of warships just outside of American harbors, preventing the American super-frigates from venturing forth and keeping them bottled up for much of the war. Ships that did try to run the blockade were frequently captured- from March 30-July 22, the Royal Navy seized 138 ships, most of them American.[9] Additionally, the Royal Navy was able to defeat one of the American frigates in July, when the HMS Shannon successfully attacked the USS Chesapeake on July 10, taking her back to the Halifax.[10] The British would continue to experience success against US Navy warships, capturing or destroying 20 by December 1813.[11] As the war progressed, the British blockade took its toll on the American economy, dropping export profits from $45M in 1811 to just $7M in 1814.[12] By the time the war had ended in 1815, the Royal Navy’s blockade had seized or destroyed some 1,400 American vessels, a substantial portion of the merchant fleet. Most American warships which were not captured by the blockade spent most of 1813 and 1814 stuck in port. The chances of escape were slim enough that several warships were laid up in ordinary as a cost-saving measure. Only on rare occasions did US warships attempt to run the blockade. In January 1815 the USS President attempted to break out into the Atlantic for commerce raiding, only to be surrounded and defeated by a British squadron just off the East Coast. The following month, the USS Constitution engaged and captured the HMS Cyane and briefly the HMS Levant after having successfully run the blockade in December 1814. American privateers experienced a trend similar to the US warships, with a multitude of success during the first six months of the war followed by two years of sparser activity. Privateers did manage to account for some 1,600 ships over the course of the war, but as British historian Brian Arthur points out, that figure represented only 7.5% of the all British merchant shipping, and the overall size of the merchant fleet increased by 4.5% during the war, greatly lessening the effect of American commerce raiding.[13]

 HMS Shannon escorts the captured USS Chesapeake into Halifax, June 1813.

HMS Shannon escorts the captured USS Chesapeake into Halifax, June 1813.

                American warships on the Eastern coast then, while achieving several high profile victories, were forced to reside in port for much of the war thanks to the very effective British blockade. Those losses that the US Navy and American privateers were able to inflict on the British were not so damaging that they endangered the British capability to wage war on the seas. The British blockade, on the other hand, caused critical economic damage to the US, calling into question not only it’s ability to fight but also its ability to simply continue functioning as a country. In the Part 2 of this article, I will discuss the battles on the Lakes and the War of 1812’s effect on the US Navy.

[1] Ian W. Toll Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy ( New York: W.W. Norton &, 2006)

[2] 30, Brian Arthur. How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy's Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815. (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011)

[3] 1, Jeremy Black. "A British View of the War of 1812." United States Naval Institute. Web. 25 Apr. 2013. (http://www.usni.org/magazines/navalhistory/2008-08/british-view-naval-war-1812)

[4] Xxviii, George C. Daughan. 1812: The Navy's War.(New York: Basic, 2011)

[5] 76-77, George C. Daughan. 1812: The Navy's War.(New York: Basic, 2011)

[6] 133, George C. Daughan. 1812: The Navy's War.(New York: Basic, 2011)

[7] 134, Ronald D. Utt. Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy. (Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2012)

[8] 134, Ronald D. Utt. Ships of Oak, Guns of Iron: The War of 1812 and the Forging of the American Navy. (Washington, DC: Regnery History, 2012)

[9] 95, Brian Arthur. How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy's Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815. (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011)

[10] 191-194, George C. Daughan. 1812: The Navy's War.(New York: Basic, 2011)

[11] 103, Brian Arthur. How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy's Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815. (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011)

[12] 1, “A British View of the War of 1812”

[13] 199, Brian Arthur. How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy's Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815. (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011)