Naval warfare of a new kind during the Napoleonic age: The case of the Anglo-American war of 1812-1814 – part 1

Author(s) : PAGÉ Sylvain
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Sylvain Pagé charts the breakdown of relations between France, Britain and America as the continental blockade came into operation, leading into the War of 1812 and the attack on the British North American colonies (today Canada). The author takes into account the various factors that drove the United States to declare war on Britain, and situates the conflict in the wider Napoleonic geopolitical context.

An unexpected attack

On early morning of June 22 1807, the American warship USS Chesapeake weighed anchor from its naval base in Norfolk, Virginia, and soon cleared the bay whose name she carried to put to sea. Built less than seven years before, she had just been refitted after a four-year hiatus in the shipyard. She was now headed for a two-year assignment as flagship of the American squadron in the Mediterranean. On board were important civilian passengers – government officials- on their way to postings in Europe, travelling along with their relatives and their belongings. As a result, baggage and extra gear were scattered all over the lower decks and took priority over the battle readiness of the frigate; moreover, the extra weight also slowed her down considerably. However, since the country was at peace and she was going to sail in known and friendly waters, no one was too concerned by her state.
Chesapeake's senior officer was newly-appointed Commodore James Barron, an experienced seaman and captain of good repute who was heading for his post as Head of the American fleet in the Mediterranean. As his frigate rounded Cape Henry and made for open sea, a watchman signalled a British warship nearby. The Commodore was well aware that the Royal Navy was patrolling just off the three-mile limit which marked the boundary of international waters: before leaving port, he had heard of two French ships which had taken refuge in the Chesapeake Bay during a recent storm and which were now hiding from the Royal Navy. Surely, the British were waiting for them to come out, in some cat-and-mouse game. However, just as he crossed the three-mile limit, he saw that HMS Leopard, a 50-gun frigate, was actually hailing his ship. Extending naval courtesy, Barron ordered his men to drop sail to allow Leopard to catch up. Signals were exchanged and a small party of British officers came on board the American warship. Once civilities were exchanged, a young lieutenant flatly demanded of Barron that his whole crew be immediately assembled on deck for an inspection: the Chesapeake was suspected of having deserters from the Royal Navy in her ranks and the captain of the Leopard wanted to have them removed on the spot to be accordingly pressed back into His Majesty the King's service.
Barron, just as flatly, refused to comply. The British could perhaps bully captains of the merchant navy in this manner, but his was a US Navy warship and as such, it represented American territory: surely, the Leopard's captain would understand Barron's refusal to acquiesce to an invasion. The meeting was over and the British party went back to its ship. The discussion continued through loud hailers for a while but when Barron ordered to set sail, Leopard fired a shot across the Chesapeake's bow. It was followed in a matter of seconds by a full broadside; then six more came. In total, twenty-one roundshots hit their marks on the starboard side of the American. In less than 10 minutes, having fired only one shot, Chesapeake was too severely damaged to fight; Barron ordered her colours to be struck. There were four dead and 18 wounded amongst her crew, including Barron himself. Before the smoke could clear, another British party came onboard and proceeded to search the ship, moving through the debris and the ravaged and bloody decks. The inspection was carried out swiftly and the British soon left the American frigate, refusing her as a prize, but taking with them four men whom they declared bona fide deserters. Leopard then sailed off with the prisoners, leaving the crippled Chesapeake to get back to harbour by her own means.

Prelude to war – Europe vs North America (1803-1812)

As violent as it was, this incident – which was soon dubbed the “Chesapeake Affair” by the American press – was only the latest escalation in the long-standing disputes between the United States and England, their former colonial master. During the four years prior, unresolved issues between the two countries had resurfaced, (1)  compounded by the events taking place in Europe. The resuming of the war between France and Britain had now turned into a bitter and all-out conflict. Napoleon and the English cabinet were exchanging blows which sent shockwaves all over the world, North America being no exception. As a result, relations between the United States, France and England had taken a turn for the worse, especially after Trafalgar, in October 1805. By gaining mastery of the seas during that battle, England had put an end to Napoleon's dream of invading the Island-Nation. In 1806, the Emperor opted for an economic war aimed at suffocating England's sea trade. From occupied Berlin, Napoleon decreed a continental blockade of all Europe, banning British merchandise. England replied with a series of Orders in council which forbade trade with French-held ports. These measures put all neutral nations in a deadlock and basically forced them to take sides. First and foremost among these countries were the United States. With the second largest merchant fleet in the world operating all over the European coast, reaching as far as the Baltic Sea and deep within the Mediterranean, the Americans could not abandon European markets without feeling a devastating economic backlash at home. Knowing this, both France and Britain seemed more and more intent on using US maritime as a weapon against each other: little consideration was given to American Independence. “All this was done with a self-righteous arrogance, as if dealing with an inferior species, which was no less infuriating for being perfectly sincere.” (Elting, 1991: 69).
A few months after the Chesapeake Affair, both Napoleon and the British government tightened their noose further around America's foreign trade by respectively issuing new decrees and orders which put the Americans in an impossible situation. If France acted harshly towards the Americans, it was nonetheless England which now seemed keenest on hurting the United States. “Great Britain, fighting for her life against France, was bent on all-out maritime warfare. If a neutral America, reaping the economic benefits, was bruised a little on the high seas, well, that was unfortunate but necessary. America, in British eyes, was a weak, inconsequential nation that could be pushed around with impunity.” (Berton, 1980: 24). In 1806, as a reply to the Napoleonic blockade, the Royal Navy started boarding American merchantmen for inspections at sea, sometimes taking them back to England as seized contraband runners. Between 1808 and 1812, over 400 US merchantmen met with such a fate, a loss which heavily affected American trade and created bitter resentment.
Another point of contention which furthered the deterioration of diplomatic relations between the two countries was that of the impressment of American sailors into British service. While inspecting US ships, British officers often picked-up seamen and forced them onboard His Majesty's ships without any further trial than their own decision. By doing so, Britain claimed it was merely going after deserters who were hiding onboard US ships and fleeing the harsh discipline on Royal Navy men-of-war. (2) But the manner in which it did so, and the extent of this impressment, continued to drive a wedge between the two countries. (3)  As such, the Chesapeake Affair only added fuel to the fire. (4)
In the end, the United States were caught between the hammer and the anvil. A young nation, it was very much divided as to how to reply to European pressures. Some advocated from the start that the country needed to take up arms to impose respect on England but in 1807, when the Chesapeake Affair took place, the US were nowhere near being ready for a war. Saddled by a huge economic debt, they could not afford the scaling up of armament and the mustering of a large military force needed against such a powerful enemy. Thus, Presidents Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and James Madison (1809-1817) opted in turn for economic warfare, enacting bills which were aimed at hurting both France and England by depriving them of much-needed American goods. Half-bluff, half-hopelessly idealistic policy, these measures ultimately failed – they nearly killed US foreign trade – and as a result, they brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy. After four years of such diplomacy, it became obvious for many Americans, including Madison, that peace was now a more costly proposition than war. This was made abundantly clear by a new crop of American politicians who were elected to Congress in 1810 under the slogan Free trade and sailors' rights. These politicians – though from Madison's own political party – were openly pro-war and were soon dubbed the “War Hawks”. Although they did not bear Napoleon in their hearts, their main nemesis was Britain. Since England refused to revoke its Orders in Council and, more importantly, kept on inspecting and seizing American ships or citizens at sea, they felt time had come once more to remind John Bull who had won at Yorktown. Although some Americans were in disagreement with this position – in particular in New England and along the central eastern coast, regions which now depended on black market with Canada and Britain for their livelihood. (5)  But the War Hawks finally prevailed and carried the country into war. On June 1st, President James Madison delivered a message to Congress and after approval by both Houses, he signed a declaration of war against Britain on June 18, 1812.

The War of 1812: The North American campaign of the Napoleonic Wars

Many historians, past and present, tend to designate this conflict as the “Second American War of Independence”. Though partly adequate, this title is also inadvertently misleading because it confines this war to a strictly British-American perspective, a sort of colonial clash which settled old scores rooted in Eighteenth-Century politics. The War of 1812 – as it is also and perhaps more aptly called – should rather be seen as the North American phase of the Napoleonic Wars. In fact, many of the conflict's roots plunged deep into the European geopolitical context of the time and in the struggle for domination between France and England which affected all continents on this planet. (6)  Although the matters of sea trading, sailors' rights and Britain's attitude towards North American politics played a great part in pushing the United States into open war, there were other factors at work which actually set this conflict in another, and larger, context. Declared in the early summer of 1812, it coincided with the beginning of Napoleon's military drive for Moscow. The American government had been told by its network of spies in Europe of the falling out between Russia and France in 1811. As the Grande Armée was gathering on the banks of the Russian border, many believed that Napoleon would repeat his successes of Austerlitz and Friedland, this time smashing the Czar's armies for good and imposing his terms on his former ally. If that happened, Britain would lose her only remaining continental support to the East and would have to face Napoleonic Europe on its own. Thus severely weakened, the Island-Nation would no doubt try to avoid the predicament of a war on two fronts. In an opportunistic gamble, the Americans decided to move on these “foregone” conclusions: Madison and his government now thought that the odds of declaring war on England and getting something substantial out of it were in their favour. But since they could not strike England on its own territory, the Americans opted for an easier and closer objective: the conquest of the British colonies in Canada. (7)

The invasion of Canada: "A mere matter of military marching"

In June of 1812, there were less than half a million people in the whole of Canada while there were over seven and a half million people living in the United States. With a fifteen to one advantage in favour of the Americans, Canada stood no chance of resisting for long. In total, 9,000 British troops were expected to defend a territory of over 2 million square miles. England had no immediate reinforcements to spare because of the war in the Iberian Peninsula, a fact well known by American authorities. The conquest of Canada, as President Jefferson had once put it, would be a “mere matter of military marching”. Nonetheless, the Americans did not possess many strategic options in drawing up their invasion plans. With the Royal Navy in command of the Atlantic and well established in the Saint Lawrence River – Canada's gateway to the East- the US Army command could not attack from there. (8) Consequently, it was forced to launch its invasion from inland, to the West. The conquering armies would first seize the British colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario), and then roll back the tiny Anglo-Canadian forces towards Lower Canada (Québec). Once the cities of Montréal and Québec were under their control, the Americans could give the final push up the Saint Lawrence River, moving on the shoreline towards Halifax and the sea. Plans were hastily drawn up and the American Army was sent to into Canada for a war that was supposed to be over by Christmas.
Logic and numbers do not always prevail in times of war and this particular war was one in which logic would be baffled almost daily. Badly led and under-trained, the US military forces that attacked the Canadian border in the summer of 1812 met with one humiliating disaster after another. Even though superior in numbers, they could not dispose of the small defending garrisons of British regulars, Canadian militia and Amerindian warriors in Western Upper Canada, let alone threaten Lower Canada or the cities of Montréal and Québec. Six months after the beginning of the war, Madison and the American military command could not escape the dire facts: their forces had been repelled three times from Canada. In the process, two armies had been defeated and forced to surrender to forces greatly inferior in numbers. Moreover, parts of American territory to the West of the Great Lakes and Upper Canada now lay in British hands. On the whole, there was only one source of good news for the Americans at the end of 1812, and it came from the most unexpected place of all: the sea.

The first "Wolf Packs" (1812-1813)

The one obvious advantage the British possessed over the Americans at the outset of the war was mastery of the oceans. In June of 1812, the Royal Navy officially mustered up  145, 000 men and more than 700 warships, including approximately 125 ships of the line and over 100 frigates. Morale was high, especially after Trafalgar. Now that the French fleet was bottled up in its ports, there was little but a few French privateers or lone frigates to threaten England's sea lanes. Nonetheless, the Royal Navy was starting to suffer the consequences of the long and gruelling war with France and cracks were showing in the fleet's veneer. The efficiency of many British ships was deteriorating because of longer blockading duties and the lack of gunnery training; most captains tried as best they could to remedy this situation but there was little time for exercises in such conditions. (9) Furthermore, the British were currently involved in a major refitting effort of their whole navy. “After Trafalgar, the British fleet, so assiduously built up between 1783 and 1793 was over age and worn out. Consequently, Britain replaced 50, 000 tons of battleships between 1805 and 1815.” (Lambert, 2000:183). This refitting – though well under way in June 1812 – combined with the blockade in Europe meant that there were less frigates available for patrolling duties on the high seas and that it took longer to assemble them into squadrons for action off the European coast. Notwithstanding these facts, as the war started, Britain remained convinced that it naturally owned the seas and that no nation could seriously challenge it while in this superior position.
Facing this formidable force was a skeletal and disorganized US Navy. It had no more than fifteen frigates and only a few dozen brigs and sloops-of-war. (10) The entire staff of the Navy Department consisted of less than ten people, including its Secretary. There were no reserve depots, no ordinary naval stores for provisions or ammunitions. Only one navy yard, located in Washington, was still in operation. The 700 gunboats which had been specially designed to protect the American coastline from British invasion were now laid up in ordinary (11)  after years of drastic cuts in the Navy's operating budget: there was no gear, no weapons, no crews to man them. (12) More alarming perhaps was the fact that the Americans had no ships of the line to challenge the British if – or rather when – they imposed a blockade on American ports and coastal trade. With the prospect of facing the mightiest navy in the world, it seemed like a foregone affair. The London Courier even boasted that “two fifty-gun ships would be able to burn, sink and destroy the whole American navy.”
Indeed, at the start of the war, Americans could take comfort in very few things, but one of them was the fact that there were a great number of well-trained and experienced sailors to be recruited from now that the merchant navy was almost out of action. After years of taking British abuse on the sea, American sailors were keen on getting even with John Bull. Many civilian sailors with years of seafaring went right away to the decks of recently refitted American warships to receive military training. However, the true saving grace of the American Navy in 1812 was its command structure on the high seas. Unlike the Army, the Navy had good and capable leaders who could shape the new recruits and old sailors into an efficient fighting force. It was a young officer corps – most captains being in their late twenties or early thirties – but it nonetheless had experience in warfare at sea. In fact, many captains, officers and midshipmen in the US Navy in 1812 were veterans of the two previous engagements which their country had fought: the Quasi-War against the French (1797-1800) and the Tripolitan War (1801-1805). The first, although never officially declared – hence its name – was a sea contest mostly fought by privateers. It was during this war that the US Navy was officially born. Even though hastily built and put together, it proved its quality by capturing many French corsairs and by taking a few French frigates in the Caribbean Sea while clearing the American coast of enemy ships. Soon after, the Tripolitan War confirmed the US Navy as a capable fighting force when it destroyed all the pirates' nests along the North African coast, from Morocco to Libya, thus ending decades of looting and ransoming in the Mediterranean. Although few ship-to-ship actions took place during this last conflict, the Americans impressed many European naval officers who witnessed the relentless and bold war the US Navy carried out. Lord Horatio Nelson, himself one of their admirers, observed rather prophetically that “there is in the handling of those transatlantic ships a nucleus of trouble for the navy of Great Britain”.
In June of 1812, Madison had little to no naval ambitions for his country. There was never any doubt in his mind that, given time, the British would be able to make use of their clear naval advantage to blockade the whole of the Eastern seaboard of the United States. At best, the American government hoped that privateering might disrupt a bit of the English trade before a tight blockade could be put in place. Just like in 1797-1800, licenses were issued to private ship owners who armed vessels which started operating the moment the war declaration was announced. (13) As for the US Navy, Madison wanted it to slip out of harbour in order to find and escort back to safety homeward bound merchantmen. American captains – in a concerted effort – begged their commanders to be allowed to pursue a more offensive strategy:  some even went to the President himself. Instead of only preventing the Royal Navy from grappling a few more American prize ships, they proposed an ambitious campaign. Their plan was “that the frigates be sent by ones or twos on long-range raids against English shipping. Not specifically stated, but certainly implied, was their strategic aim: England was a mercantile nation – Napoleon's “nation of shopkeepers” – dependent on foreign trade for its prosperity and even much of its food supply. Destroy enough of the merchant ships that carried that trade and England's economy would totter; its great traders, manufacturers, and West Indies planters would howl for peace.” (Elting, 1991: 72) In short, American captains were proposing a kind of warfare which consisted of preying extensively and methodically on England's supply routes, attacking ships under inadequate escort against anything except French privateers. This brand of combined long-range naval operations based on systematic stalking and pounding of enemy shipping convoys was to later inspire – and with the same dire loss of human life – German U-Boat tacticians who created the concept of the submarine “wolf packs” which plagued the Allied convoys for so long during World War II. Pressured by their captains, Madison and his naval advisers reluctantly agreed to allow for the US warships already commissioned to put out to sea and soften up the British merchant fleet for a while. The order was signed on June 21, and within an hour of receiving it, the heavy frigates United States, President, Congress, Argus and Hornet were outward bound from New York harbour. Other squadrons of sloops and brigs soon slipped out of other ports along the East coast and made for the high seas, mostly at night so as to avoid any British detection. Although still officially engaged in a hunt to find American merchantmen and British unescorted convoys, all Navy captains were dreaming of a chance meeting with a British man-of-war.
It took weeks for the declaration of hostilities to get to London across the sea but it was only a matter of days before the unofficial – but eloquent – notification reached Halifax harbour, the Royal Navy Northern Atlantic station in Canada. It was delivered in the guise of the beaten up HMS Belvidera, a frigate which had been fairly active during recent years, inspecting a great number of merchantmen coming and going along the American coast and making herself a nuisance for US trade. It was an ironic fate that she became the first British ship to meet with the frigates now on the prowl in the Northern Atlantic. On June 23, two days after the Americans sailed out to sea, she barely escaped a hot pursuit off the New England coast due to her masterful sailing during the chase but also to the jettisoning of all of her boats, anchors and supplies of fresh water in order to distance her opponent, the 55-gun USS President. Her arrival in Halifax sent a clear message to the British admiralty that it now had a war on its hands.
Although not completely surprised, the British were somewhat taken off guard and rather unprepared for a war on two fronts. The Royal Navy had one ship of the line, six frigates and 16 schooners and brigs spread out between Halifax and the West Indies in June 1812: these were meagre resources for such a formidable and difficult territory to cover. There were a few patrolling ships off the American coast but not nearly enough to blockade it rapidly and tightly. It would take weeks, if not months to close down the whole coast of the United States. The delay was inevitable since British ships engaged off the European continent first had to be called back for refitting in England. Once this was done, they would then be dispatched across the Atlantic. The voyage westward – which could take, depending on the season, anywhere from a few weeks to two months – would usually end up with the arrival in Halifax of a storm-battered ship needing urgent repairs before being able to resume active duty. Thus, for the first few months of the war, the Royal Navy used its overstretched forces in a piecemeal effort and hoped to cut its losses. In late August, the British started blockading parts of the American coast and a few important harbours but there remained long stretches wide open for American ships to come and go as they pleased.
The Belvidera chase was just a prelude of Britain's troubles to come. Indeed, the situation quickly went from bad to worse for the Royal Navy. The Atlantic became a hunting ground for American privateers who captured and sunk dozens of bewildered British merchantmen who learned the hard way that war had come. US Navy “wolf packs” also raked in their share of prize ships as supply lanes between Canada, the West Indies and England were hit particularly hard in the first year. (14)  But public morale in England was to suffer even more as news reached home of the first encounters between US and British men-of-war. The first of these took place on August 13 when USS Essex, a 46-gun frigate, was attacked by a British 20-gun sloop-of-war, HMS Alert. Disguised as a sloppily handled merchantman – her successive captains had heavily modified her over the years, giving her the looks of a slug – Essex lured the British into approaching her. As the British sloop pulled aside, the Americans needed to fire only one broadside: with her mast down and her rigging completely torn apart, Alert struck her colors and surrendered in surprising haste. As it turned out, the “handful of fir-built frigates manned by bastards and outlaws” described earlier by the London Times could put up a fight after all.
Less than a week later, on August 19, while cruising the Grand Banks south of Newfoundland, HMS Guerriere encountered USS Constitution. Upon going into battle, the British captain promised his crew a bonus of four months' pay if they took the American within a quarter of an hour. The fight lasted longer – 40 minutes in total – but instead of seizing the American ship, it was Guerriere that was battered into a complete wreck. In a fight that became the stuff of legend in the US Navy, all American shots hit their target. Witnesses on both sides later reported that British cannon balls were seen bouncing off the Constitution's hull, thus earning her a nickname that would endure: “Old Ironsides”. The British lost 78 men, dead or wounded, before giving up the fight. With all of her masts gone, her rigging and hull damaged beyond repair, Guerriere could not be sailed back to the United States, and was consequently scuttled on the next day. When news of this defeat reached England, the London Times changed its tone and echoed British disbelief and fretting at these first American successes: “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken, […] but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them.” Indeed, on October 25, the slugfest continued, this time about 500 miles south of the Azores, as the 44-gun heavy frigate USS United States engaged HMS Macedonian (38 guns) in the morning. Two and a half hours later, Macedonian surrendered. By that time, she had lost her wheel and masts and there were over 100 of her crew dead or wounded: after two weeks of repair at sea, she was taken back to the United States and refitted to be taken into the American Navy, a fact which no doubt aggravated the British. A little more than a month later, on November 29, USS Constitution once again came into action, this time with HMS Java off the Brazilian coast. Although the British frigate put up a good fight, she surrendered after 122 of her crew were killed or wounded. Other engagements and single-ship actions produced similar results in favour of the Americans during 1812 and well into 1813. Public outrage now flowed in the British press and elsewhere in England. With pressure mounting at home, the Royal Navy was promptly instructed by the government to put an end to these naval setbacks, and to do so with extreme prejudice.
These American successes can be explained by two main factors. Firstly, in 1812, the best and ablest of the Royal Navy were still in European waters blockading the French: the US Navy was thus in a position to take full advantage of Britain's scarce resources in the Western Atlantic and benefited from the fact that the British admiralty was nowhere near ready for all-out war on two fronts. The second factor to take into consideration is that, if the British could count on many more ships than their enemy, the Americans possessed a relative technical superiority in ship-to-ship actions. In fact, the Royal Navy discovered the hard way that their new enemy was better equipped than their previous European foes. US naval design and architecture were very much ahead of their time, and by far superior and more innovative than that of the British. American warships were, on the whole, bigger, sturdier and more highly elevated elevated above the water line than British ships in their class: this resulted in superior sailing and manoeuvring capabilities which made for faster warships than anything else on water in those days, a precious quality extensively used by American captains. To add to their efficient design, American warships were also equipped with more guns (the average 44-gun heavy frigate would in reality carry 52 to 55 guns) and carronades than their counterparts: (15) moreover, because they were using heavier calibre ammunition, their broadsides could deliver a mightier blow on their enemy, and at a longer range. Gunnery training was also very good in the US Navy, a fact eloquently proven by the number of precise shots on British masts and wheels during ship-to-ship actions throughout the conflict.
It was thus that, by the end of 1812, American military disasters in Canada were somewhat compensated by these unlikely and timely victories at sea. “These Navy operations were a mighty stimulant to the American war effort, even in New England. Faced with such jubilant public enthusiasm, the administration decided to let its naval officers continue with their own brand of warfare.” (Elting, 1991: 75) In January of 1813, the US government decided to launch a new naval program: three ships of the line and a number of new frigates were ordered into construction at the Washington Navy Yard which was reorganized accordingly. In early 1813, US men-of-war started operating in the North and South Atlantic as three distinct squadrons, each one nominally composed of a heavy frigate, a light frigate and a sloop-of-war. The first squadron was to roam the North Atlantic, the other the Azores/Madeira sector and the last the South Atlantic. These squadrons started acting independently and although not always up to strength, they represented enough of a menace that the British altered their tactics to meet with them. The superiority of the American frigates forced British ships of that class to operate in pairs or squadrons, which were sometimes backed by ships of the line. The problem was compounded by the fact that American warships “[…] could remain at sea for long periods. What supplies they required could be found in most minor seaports; they could take on water at any handy river's mouth. A resourceful captain […] could even find an isolated island where he could careen his ship to scrape and recaulk her bottom. Consequently, commerce raiders could make long, destructive cruises, ranging widely from one choice “hunting ground” to another to avoid avenging British warships, resupplying themselves and even picking up new seamen from the ships they captured.” (Elting, 1991: 70). 
In 1813, war spread to other oceans as US Navy captains and American privateers became bolder and more adventurous in their strikes. One light frigate, the USS Essex, left the Delaware River on October 28, 1812, and sailed for the South Atlantic under the command of Captain David Porter, a good seaman and a man of much energy. During his first three-month cruise, he had enjoyed success and brought ten prize-ships back to port. His new mission promised to bring in an even more interesting bounty. Porter was to sail out and meet with USS Constitution and Hornet off the Brazilian coast. The three ships were then to go as a squadron into the South Pacific to raid unsuspecting English commerce off Chile, Peru, and Mexico. Having missed the rendez-vous, the captain courageously decided to carry out his orders on his own. Essex rounded Cape Horn a few months later and, during the course of 1813, went on to virtually annihilate the whole of the British whale fishery in the South pacific. In October of 1813, Essex arrived in Nuka Hiva, in the Marquesas Islands. There, Porter refitted his ships (he now had two, having captured and transformed a British whaler into a gunship, which he had renamed Essex Junior) and rested his crew. A few weeks later, he set sail and retraced his steps across the Pacific, back to Chile. Considering what lay westward of the Marquesas, Porter's decision seems like madness: with the damage he had done in the previous year in South Pacific waters, British warships would no doubt be looking for him along the coast of South America. Had Porter decided to sail to the West instead of going back, his unexpected arrival in the China Sea and the Indian Ocean would certainly have had a devastating effect on the ill-protected British convoys in the area; but it would not be so. After a long and grueling voyage, Porter reached Valparaiso, Chile, where he was very soon after blockaded by two British warships dispatched – as expected – to hunt him down. On March 28, 1814, still damaged by the squalls encountered in the Pacific on her way to South America, Essex tried to slip out of Valparaiso but was attacked inside Chilean national waters and methodically wrecked by the British ships. The Americans lost 58 killed, 31 drowned, and 70 wounded. Three hours after the fight had begun, Porter ordered a last flag message to be hoisted up: it read “Free trade and sailors' rights”, the old slogan of the War Hawks. The captain then struck his flag and thus ended one of the boldest raids carried out by the US Navy during the War of 1812.
Six months into the war, the British Admiralty in London sent Admiral John Borlase Warren to Halifax to take command of the combined North America and West Indies Stations. The new Commander-in-Chief quickly assessed the situation and realized he did not yet possess the necessary means to seriously impede American coastal trade. “Therefore, Warren applied his available forces piecemeal against what he thought the most important areas, the Chesapeake and Delaware bays […]. Thereafter, as more ships dribbled in to join him, he extended his operations to cover Charleston, Port Royal, Savannah, New Orleans and Long Island Sound. Except for its naval base at Boston, New England was left largely unblocked in order to facilitate the treasonous and profitable trade in foodstuffs its merchants were carrying on with England and Canada.” (Elting, 1991: 77) Patrolling and escort duties were also increased out at sea but the shortages of warships – and more particularly the crying need for swift, small ships capable of running down American privateers and operating in shallow coastal waters – made Warren's task all the more difficult. Despite these new measures, enemy privateers and men-of-war still slipped out of harbour and avoided being detected; as a result, American activity increased once again in early spring of 1813 with new attacks on British convoys and lone merchantmen.


1) These ranged from border disputes in the North and West of North America (where some parts of land were claimed by both the new Republic and the British colonies of Canada) to disagreements about fishery rights in the Atlantic and navigation rights on the Great Lakes and the Mississippi.
2) Higher wages paid in the American merchant navy were another strong incentive for them to desert.
3) The number of American sailors who were forced into British service is estimated at around 5, 000. This is hardly surprising since the continental blockade imposed heavy sacrifices to the Royal Navy and overtaxed the already stretched out crews. British officers were forced to make up for lost crewmembers along the way and therefore did not care much to recognize the American accent of the so-called deserters they apprehended and pressed into service. After a while, ingenious American captains responded by having their carpenters build secret caches where they hid their best sailors during British inspection.
4) Clearly surprised by the impact of the incident, the British government tried to calm things down by sacking Vice-Admiral Berkeley, the Commander-in-chief of the station to which Leopard belonged; it also offered to indemnify the wounded and next of kin of those Americans killed during the clash. However, no official apology ever came from London.
5) This lucrative trade actually ensued from American policies banning all trade with England, and its Canadian colonies in the previous years. Most of these States depended on it for their livelihood.
6) Some historians actually argue that, because of their impact on such a grand scale, this series of conflicts is truly the First World War.
7) By conquering Canada and expelling the British out of continental North America, Madison and the majority of his party hoped to gain land in the West of the continent. In fact, the War of 1812 is the first American war of expansion: for some time now, the United States had grabbed parts of land beyond the Mississippi for new settlements: in this, they were meeting more and more resistance on the part of Amerindian tribes who lived in these parts. By conquering Canada, the United States wished to cut off the tribes from Britain, their traditional ally. In short, by invading Canada, the Americans were settling two problems at once and were gaining a free hand in North America.
8) There was also a political factor at play: most of the States in the central and upper eastern seaboard , the cradle of the American Revolution, resented what they called "Mr. Madison's War". The day the declaration of war was announced, national flags were lowered at half-mast in many towns. Most of the Governors of the region refused to call up the State militias; by doing so, it meant that the US Army could not launch any operations from this area. As the war went on, illegal trade with Canada was actively carried out and some bankers in the region who had refused to lend money to their own government agreed to help Britain financially, thus contributing to the enemy's war chest.
9) Some French captains discovered this and handled the Royal Navy's frigates some unexpected defeats - mostly in the Indian Ocean in 1808-1810.
10) A frigate was a ship-rigged vessel carrying guns on two decks. A sloop was a small one-mast craft; a sloop-of-war was a ship-rigged vessel, next in size to a frigate, carrying guns on its upper deck only. Europeans often termed this last class of warships "corvettes".
11) The modern expression would be mothballed.
12) These gunboats were the brainchild of Jefferson's military response to the growing European intervention in US sea trade from 1805 to 1808. In order to discourage the British from bolder moves against shipping but unwilling to forego the expenses of keeping a permanent US Navy war fleet at sea, the President opted for the building of these gunboats, each designed to operate in shallow coastal waters.
13) These raided enemy shipping, mostly the less risky and more profitable merchantmen but sometimes the occasional warship as well. Financial incentives were strong in the form of prize money which was divided into shares and then distributed amongst crew members and ship owners.
14) In total, American privateers claimed to have captured over 1,300 prize-ships during the 30 months  of the conflict. American warships took over 165 enemy merchantmen. Most of the captured ships never made it back to the United States - they were often sunk on the spot for expediency's sake - and therefore did not add much to the American war chest but their loss was certainly felt in Great Britain. It is estimated that over 500 American privateers operated during the war, of which about 250 were captured or destroyed by the Royal Navy.
15) Carronades were short-barrelled weapons, very deadly in close engagements between ships. Being lighter than a regular gun, a 32-pounder carronade could replace a 12-pounder or 18-pounder gun, providing more firepower. Their only problem was that they had a much shorter range than heavy guns. A ship equipped with too many carronades and too few guns could thus be pounded on from afar by an opponent possessing longer-range artillery.
Selected Bibliography
Sir W. L. Clowes, Sir C. Markham & al., The Royal Navy. A History from the earliest times to the present. 7 volumes, London, Sampson Low, 1897-1903.
W. Dudley. The Naval War of 1812. Washington, 1985-1992.
J. R. Elting. Amateurs to Arms ! A Military History of the War of 1812. Chapel Hill, 1991.
R. Gardiner. Warships of the Napoleonic Era, London, 1999.
J. M. Hitsman. The Incredible War of 1812. Toronto, 1999.
A. Lambert. War at Sea in the Age of Sail, London, 2000.
D. Pope. Life in Nelson's Navy, London, Allen & Unwin, 1981.
W.B. Turner. The War of 1812. The War that both Sides Won. Toronto, 2000.
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