Naval warfare of a new kind during the Napoleonic age: The case of the Anglo-American war of 1812-1814 – Part 2

Author(s) : PAGÉ Sylvain
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Redeeming the honour of the fleet

For many Royal Navy captains, the war had now become a personal question of redeeming the “lost honour” of the Fleet during the preceding year. While on patrolling duties in front of Boston harbour in the spring of 1813, one Captain Sir Philip Broke even issued a polite challenge to the US Navy captains he blockaded there to come out and meet with him, ship against ship, in a duel at sea. The Americans simply ignored Broke's bravado and, one by one, went out at night on faraway raiding ventures. However, one stayed behind and agreed to come out and meet with Broke's ship, the 36-gun HMS Shannon: Captain James Lawrence. A young officer of impressive physical stature and who possessed a fierce sense of personal honour, Lawrence had won three ship-to-ship actions against the British in the previous year and was on his way to becoming some sort of a navy hero, being extremely popular among the ranks. The light frigate he would take into combat had itself become some sort of an “icon” of the US Navy: the newly refitted 36-gun USS Chesapeake, the very ship the British had battered in 1807. Just back from a four-month cruise during which she had captured the richest prize-ship of the war (the merchantman Volunteer, worth $350, 000), Chesapeake was still in the midst of shaping herself as a fighting unit: Lawrence had just taken command; his first, third and fourth officers were also newly commissioned. Young midshipmen were acting as lieutenants and her crew had barely come together. Lawrence's opponent, on the other hand, had been in command of Shannon for seven years, relentlessly and carefully training his crew at naval gunnery. Nonetheless, Lawrence was confident in his own ability and in the quality of his men and thus decided to face Broke. He sailed out of Boston harbour and on June 1, 1813, at around three in the morning, Shannon came in sight of the American frigate. At the break of dawn, both opponents began to close in on each other.
The first broadsides were exchanged at 5:40 am; but Chesapeake came in too fast and was unable to manoeuvre in a proper firing position. As she passed Shannon's side, Broke's guns showered the crowded Chesapeake's gun deck – to kill as many crewmen as possible – with cannonballs and grapeshot. At such a short distance between the two frigates, not a shot could miss. Lawrence corrected course as best he could but his ship was hit badly and he was himself wounded in the thigh by a musket ball. Soon the British carronades started clearing the upper deck. The Americans fought with courage but within minutes, Chesapeake's wheel was shot off and she started drifting helplessly, stern-first, towards Shannon. The British aimed for this – the most vulnerable part of the ship – and proceeded to shred it to pieces. Soon Chesapeake came crashing into Shannon and got stuck in an anchor's fluke. Lawrence, desperate to recover victory from disaster, ordered his men to prepare to board the British ship. At that point, he was shot for a second time and carried down to the cockpit. His last order before slipping into unconsciousness was “Don't give up the ship!” But it was too late: the British were already on board Chesapeake and were cleaning out the last pockets of resistance. The battle was over.
Broke was victorious and Britain finally had its first significant success over the US Navy in the war. “The battle had taken only eleven minutes, timed by the Shannon's gunner who was working in the powder room away from the carnage of the gun decks. In those eleven minutes, 148 Americans and 83 Englishmen had been killed or wounded, a higher toll than the Victory suffered at Trafalgar in six hours. The heavy casualties aboard the Shannon demonstrate just how good the American crew were, while their own losses, together with the annihilation of their officers, explain why the ship was taken.” (LAMBERT, 2000: 198) Lawrence died of peritonitis three days following the battle, on his way to Halifax, and the United States proclaimed him a national hero soon afterwards. For her part, the Chesapeake was taken into the Royal Navy and, in 1820, taken apart at Portsmouth in England. Her timbers found their last use as building material for a flour mill at Wickham. She was an unlucky ship to the end.

Naval warfare on the Great Lakes

Because there was no road network in North America at the time of the War of 1812, the control of rivers and lakes became essential to both sides since most troops, material and foodstuffs transited by these waterways. In fact, the key to the successful invasion of Canada lay in one place: the control of the Great Lakes – especially Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. (16) Although superior in numbers, the American forces in the area had not been able to take the initiative at the outset of the war because the British and their allies in Canada were in control of these lakes. In their first attempts to invade in 1812, the Americans had met with disaster partly because they had overlooked this important strategic factor. In 1813, they were to proceed differently: the successes of the US Navy combined with the Army's failures soon convinced Madison to let his naval force take a more active role in inland operations. As early as January 1813, the American government expanded its naval building program to the Northern Front and the Great Lakes with the objective of wrestling control of these waterways out of British hands. Captain Isaac Chauncey was named Commodore of the American fleet on Lake Ontario. Shortly after, a young subordinate of Chauncey, Oliver Hazard Perry (17), was named Commodore of the American fleet on Lake Erie, under Chauncey's supervision. Both were able men, efficient and of proven courage in battles and storms at sea although Perry was much more ardent than his senior, as events would prove.
The problem for both men was that no American fleet existed yet on either of these two lakes. The British were in command simply because they possessed a few schooners, brigs and gunboats – hardly a navy; rather a provincial marine force onboard a rag-tag collection of armed vessels. But it was more than the Americans had, and enough to pin down any invading army by operating on its supply line, as it had showed in 1812. Chauncey and Perry were sent up North, the first to Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario, the second to Presque Isle, on Lake Erie, with orders to build their squadron on the spot. Convoys of shipbuilding crews and equipment soon left the Atlantic seaports and travelled interminable supply lanes through the wilderness to reach the new shipyards. Once arrived, the Americans started carving their ships out of the green timber of fir and pine forests on the shoreline, imitated by the British who joined in the building contest and started augmenting their own forces on both lakes. For the rest of the war, the shores of Lake Erie and Ontario would resound with the noise of axes, hammers and saws of naval builders.
When he arrived at Presque Isle on Lake Erie in March 1813, Perry accomplished the daunting task of building and refitting a fleet of ten vessels before the beginning of August. The backbone of his naval force were two brigs pierced for twenty guns each, USS Niagara, and USS Lawrence. The latter, named after the now defunct Chesapeake's captain, became Perry's flagship. But this force was barely trained and dangerously undermanned: Perry had less than half the crews needed to sail; furthermore, his guns were mostly carronades, which meant the enemy would have to be engaged at very close range, thus risking a pounding from their heavier guns. Ordered to move quickly, the American commodore went on the offensive feeling ill-prepared for the job. On August 5, he set sail to meet his opponent.
When both fleets met on September 10, 1813, at Put-In-Bay near the Bass Islands, the British could only oppose six ships to the Americans' ten. The flagship of their fleet was the newly constructed 126-foot long brig HMS Detroit. Its commander was Captain Robert Barclay, a seasoned veteran who had served at Trafalgar under Nelson. Though only 28 years old, Barclay had been in the navy for sixteen years and knew his trade. But on that day, he would need nothing short of a miracle to obtain victory: underfed, and ill-trained, his crews were raw recruits for the most part and his ships were undermanned. Most of his marines were in fact infantrymen who had never set foot on a ship before. His guns were a collection of various calibres, some taken from land fortifications to make up for his utter shortage of firepower. If Detroit could be counted on, the rest of his ships could not be expected to win the day on their own and Barclay knew this. Therefore, he decided to engage the largest American ships one by one, using Detroit's longer range guns to punch his enemy from afar. If he could first destroy Lawrence and Niagara, his other ships could certainly fight down the rest of the Americans, and the day would be his.
Going into battle, Perry ordered a flag to be hoisted from his ship. It carried Lawrence's last words on the day of Chesapeake's defeat: “Don't give up the ship!” The sight of the flag caused all American crews to erupt in a loud cheer. Approaching the British van bow first, the Lawrence was mercilessly hit by the methodical pounding from Detroit's guns. At 12:15, the Americans finally came within range and opened fire, so close in fact that the British thought their opponents were coming in to board them. An hour and fifteen minutes later, Lawrence was out of action but, miraculously unharmed, Perry transferred on board Niagara to continue the fight. This signalled the reversal of the situation: less than three hours later, the Americans had won the battle as well as a place in Royal Navy history. For the first time, an entire British fleet had been defeated and captured intact by its adversary. The fight was barely over that Perry sat on a dismantled gun carriage aboard Niagara, using his hat as a desk, to scribble down a message to his superior: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” It would become the most famous quotation of the war.
Although it opened up the whole of Western Canada to invasion, the American victory at Put-In-Bay did not come to fruition because Lake Ontario still remained up for grabs. In April 1813, the Americans had launched their first Great Lake fleet there, headed by a powerful 24-gun sloop-of-war, USS Madison (built in less than 45 days, with complete rigging), and consisting of a few fast schooners and brigs, all newly commissioned. Other ships would soon trickle in and join them on the water. This new asset had been used in landing operations which had allowed the Americans to briefly occupy York, Upper Canada's capital in April and July of 1813. As a result, the British had augmented their efforts on Ontario and had launched a few new ships of their own.
One of the direct consequences of Put-In-Bay was that both opponents slipped into an over-cautious frame of mind and became obsessed with outbuilding the other side on Lake Ontario. As huge amounts of money, material and manpower went into the construction of bigger and more powerful warships, both naval commands started hesitating more and more about risking their precious fleet in anything other than small scale squabbling. Each was becoming convinced – and not without reason – that a decisive battle on Lake Ontario would probably win the war. Each also hesitated in provoking the other into a pitched battle for fear of losing it and thus both waited to gain a definite advantage in numbers of ships and men. In the end, the two fleets on Ontario never met and only continued to augment in size, as the construction evolved from brigs and sloops, to schooners and frigates, each side remaining fairly equal as months passed. The British only gained the upper hand in this building contest in October 1814, when they launched HMS St. Lawrence, literally the largest ship of the line ever built. It was a gigantic three-decker, with a crew of 837 officers and seamen, and carrying over 120 guns, it was 20 feet longer than Nelson's Victory at Trafalgar – it was also 200 tons heavier, a surprising fact since it did not need all the stores a seafaring ship demanded. However, by the time this Gargantuan ship started operating, the war was almost over and thus it came too late to tip the scale in favour of the British. In fact, St. Lawrence only served during two sorties on Lake Ontario in the rather unglamorous role of convoy escort. (18)

1814 – War is coming to the United States

Napoleon never recovered from his Russian venture. Eighteen months later, after having been forced back into France by the victorious Allies, he could no longer hope to stay in power. In April 1814, pressured by his entourage, he abdicated and retired to the island of Elba. After more than twenty years of war, Europe was left to pick up the pieces. England's struggle was not yet over: although it had brought down its nemesis, there was still a war on the other side of the Atlantic, a war which now deserved – and got – all of its attention. In early spring of 1814, with the blockade no longer needed in Europe, the Royal Navy switched considerable resources and manpower to the Western Atlantic and the West Indies in order to shut down all trade on the United States' coastline. By the beginning of August, every major American port came under close watch by British warships. The new commander-in-chief of the North America Station, Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane, pushed for even more resolute actions. New England harbours which had been kept open since the start of the war so as to facilitate black market with Canada now also came under a tight blockade. Licenses were discontinued and patrols increased to put a stop to all illicit trade.
Other than tightening the blockade, Cochrane also devised a wave of attacks on American territory. Aimed at tying down as many American military resources on their coastline as possible, these raids were to help relieve British forces defending the Canadian frontier. They were also to be carried out in retribution for the destruction the Americans had inflicted upon British shipping and in Upper Canada in the previous years. (19) In a letter to Lord Bathurst, the secretary responsible for the colonies, Cochrane best summed up British intentions behind these raids on American soil:  “I have it much to heart to give them a complete drubbing before peace is made.” (20) From July onwards, Royal Navy gunboat squadrons started slipping inside major coastal waterways and rivers, attacking warehouses and hangars, burning and laying waste to military, industrial and shipping installations along their way. The States of Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania were hit particularly hard during the upcoming summer. Some English raiding parties ventured as far as 20 miles up river on such missions. Later in the summer, parts of northern Maine were invaded by British troops who seized large chunks of land near the border with Canada. 
Helping Cochrane in planning and carrying out these raids was another hard-handed and grim specimen of the Royal Navy: Rear-Admiral George Cockburn. A veteran of many years who had served in the West Indies, Cockburn had launched repeated devastating attacks on American shipping and coastal towns during 1813 and early 1814, especially in the Chesapeake Bay area. Many American newspapers had blamed him personally for the scorched earth tactics used by some of his troops during these raids. Late in the summer of 1814, Cochrane and Cockburn joined their efforts one more time in what would become the boldest British move of the war. On August 19, a British fleet under their personal command, landed 4, 000 troops – all hardened veterans of Wellington's who had just been sent to America –  deep into enemy territory, up the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River.  Wasting no time, these troops made a dash for a highly symbolic but poorly defended objective: Washington. After a three-day and sixty-mile march in an eerily empty country devoid of any fortification, the British were met in front of the capital by a force of 6, 000 American militia. The fight was as brief as decisive: the militia made a poor attempt at resisting and then ran off the field. British troops then entered Washington and, after having been fired upon by stray gunmen hiding on the roof tops, started looting and burning government buildings, including the Capitol. Once in the city, Cockburn himself rode to the National Intelligencer's office – a virulently anti-British newspaper which had vilified the rear-admiral on many occasions – and personally supervised its torching. “Make sure that all the C's are destroyed,” Cockburn reputedly told his men, “so that the rascals have no further means of abusing my name.” Elsewhere in Washington, the President's house was expecting 40 guests that night. The staff had barely fled when the British stormed in. They feasted on the meal and wine first and then torched parts of the building. What was left standing of the house on the day after was repaired and white washed to erase the traces of the fire, thus earning an enduring nickname. On August 25, the British pulled out of the capital and marched back to their ships, waiting up river. Emboldened by their success in Washington, Cochrane and Cockburn then decided along with their military commanders to keep the pressure on the Americans. This time, they aimed for another military target: the city-port of Baltimore – a few miles away in the Chesapeake Bay – and one of the unofficial US Navy yards as well as a stronghold of American privateering. On early morning of September 13, the British fleet anchored off Baltimore and started showering cannonballs, mortar shells and naval rockets onto the city. (21)  British troops were landed on the next day and attempted an assault but they were repulsed. The bombardment continued for a while but Baltimore would not be a second Washington. Cochrane and Cockburn, realizing they would not be able to crack this nut, decided to give up on the attack. The English fleet left soon after, and sailed back to its home base in Jamaica.
Combined with the news of an American victory at Plattsburgh a few days earlier, (22) Baltimore's defence helped to improve American morale; but on the whole, the country and its political establishment were undoubtedly shaken by the burning of the capital and the effects of the raids elsewhere on American territory. By targeting areas where dissension was growing, the British raids even succeeded in aggravating internal political tensions in the US and actually helped further the cause of secession in New England. By the end of the war, many States in that area were seriously considering leaving the Union if Madison was unwilling to put an end to “his” war. The President himself was now convinced it was time to end the conflict. A few weeks after the attack on the capital, he ordered his emissaries already in Europe to meet with British envoys and start negotiating for peace. The parties agreed to meet in the city of Ghent, Belgium.
While waiting for the result of these negotiations, the Americans started gearing up to respond to the British blockade. Navy dockyards began construction on more ships of the line as well as a few heavy frigates. These were destined to become the core of squadrons especially built for blockade running. Besides these, the Americans also worked on innovative naval designs to punch their way through the web of English ships off their coast: one of these trial concepts was USS Demologus, a blockade runner designed by Robert Fulton, the famed inventor of the steam boat. Armed with 32-pounders, its sides were built of massive oak, five feet thick – enough to repel any shot used in those days. It was to be powered by a revolutionary steam engine and was expected to launch in early spring of 1815. Experiments were also conducted on primitive forms of torpedoes. Meanwhile, despite the tightening of the blockade, a few US Navy warships and privateers managed to keep gutting British merchantmen. Some attacks were even carried out in the British Channel during the summer and the fall of 1814 and drew crowds on the cliffs and shorelines of England. Their cheers usually turned to cries as they helplessly watched their own merchantmen being sunk. American men-of-war also remained active elsewhere on the seas. In the winter of 1815, some American squadrons managed to escape the blockade. A few months later, they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and began cruising in the Indian Ocean. Their presence was soon noticed, as they bagged a few British convoys on their way home from China and the Far East. English frigates and ships of the line dispatched in a hurry to put an end to this new menace spent much of their energy chasing them. By then, rumours started spreading from ships arriving from Europe, rumours which were soon confirmed by official orders: all fighting was to cease, the war was finally over.  It took a while, however, for this information to reach all ships at sea and it was thus that the last shots of the war were fired in the Strait of Sunda, between Java and Sumatra, half a world away from where it had begun, when USS Peacock, an American warship which had ventured successfully thus far, captured HMS Nautilus. It was June 30, 1815. Peace had been signed for over six months.

The War of 1812 and its aftermath

Signed on the eve of Christmas 1814, the Treaty of Ghent put an end to this conflict which neither side wanted to carry on anymore. Support for the war in the United States kept eroding with each passing day. In England, the population could not stomach much longer what seemed like a futile loss of men and money in a colonial contest with no prospect of glory. Considering the general mood on each side of the Atlantic, the two governments put much pressure on their respective delegates to come to an agreement, which was soon done. In less than 3, 000 words and 11 pages, the Treaty of Ghent merely stated that both countries agreed to cease fighting and to give back all territory conquered during the war: both sides simply agreed to have bilateral commissions resolve all disputes remaining. In short, both nations settled for status quo ante bellum which, in the end, allowed them both to save face and declare themselves the victor. The news of the peace agreement did not reach America before February 1815, where it was soon ratified by a unanimous vote. It was too late to prevent one last bloodbath. Back in December, the British command in North America – also unaware of the result of the talks in Ghent – launched one last attack, right after Christmas. Trying to repeat their earlier success on Washington, they targeted New Orleans but, on January 8, 1815, a frontal – and very poorly planned – assault was easily repulsed by the defenders of the city, leaving more than 2, 000 casualties on the British side.
Although futile and absurd, this last American victory, combined with the earlier successes at Baltimore and on Lake Champlain, managed to convince the Americans that they were indeed the winners of this contest when news spread that it was over. First, many US citizens felt that Britain had been taught a lesson: in the future, it would no doubt hesitate to take up arms against the young Republic. In fact, the century that lay ahead would transform the rivalry between the two countries into an economic one. Even though incapable of successfully conquering Canada, the United States felt a surge of national pride in the years following the conflict. The West was unlocked (23) and many felt the country could finally fulfill its continental “destiny”. Talks of secession in the North soon came to pass and Madison even enjoyed renewed popularity during the end of his last term. The President even confessed later on that, had he known Napoleon would be so severely defeated in Russia, he would not have declared war.
This confession was an omen of things to come. Like their former President, most Americans were weary of foreign entanglements; in that sense, the last thirty years had been trying ones for the young Republic and the whole of America longed openly for some sort of removal from European political influence. This wish would become reality under the next President, James Monroe, who made it the official doctrine of his country not to meddle in European affairs while no longer tolerating foreign interventions on North American soil.  American isolationism would remain the official diplomatic stance of the United States until the First World War.
On a concrete basis, the US naval muscle acquired during the conflict would become an ally of this policy. It would serve as a deterrent to other naval powers not to mingle in US foreign trade. Never again would the Americans be intimidated on the seas – probably the most lasting legacy of the conflict. The War of 1812 showed to the world that the United States would be a naval force to be reckoned with in the future. In the United States, a consensus for a strong navy was born out of this conflict and as a result, the naval building program would go on after the war. In the end, it would be the arrival of industrialization and of new technologies that would render centuries of ship design and building obsolete and would send the powerful, expensive and beautiful ships to the scrapyard.


(16) The Great Lakes are actually five immense lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario) interconnected by a series of smaller lakes and rivers. Often described as an inland sea of fresh water, their size and depth made them a peculiar environment for navigation and naval warfare. Lake Erie was particularly treacherous to navigate, being very shallow (maximum depth of 209 feet) and peppered with many sandbars. Lake Ontario (maximum depth of 800 feet) was renowned for its vicious and almost instantaneous storms. Both these bodies of water thus constituted different sailing environment and demanded good local knowledge to navigate and fight through their many hazards. Another impediment to sailing was that, for about six months of the year, these lakes were covered with ice, preventing all movement. However, warships built especially for the Great Lakes had some advantages over their sea-going counterparts: for example, they used bigger spreads of sails to make for faster cruising and did not need space for drinking water or large amount of supplies, which gave them more space to cram guns.
(17) His brother Matthew would open Japan to the Western world in 1853.
(18) The St. Lawrence was laid up in ordinary during the next summer.
(19) The Americans had proceeded to the burning of official buildings in York, the Upper Canadian capital in the previous year. They had also laid waste to many farming communities along the border in December 1814. For many British officers, it was only payback time.
(20) Quoted by J. M. Hitsman, 2000: 237.
(21) It was during this attack that a young lawyer serving in the local militia named Francis Scott Key composed The Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem.
(22) The biggest British army corps engaged during the war – over 10, 000 Wellington veterans from the campaigns in Spain and the South of France - failed to take the city after its supporting squadron on Lake Champlain was defeated. The British turned back to Montreal and thus never threatened New York City, the objective of their offensive strike.
(23) The American land victory at Moravian Town in October 1813 put an end to Amerindian resistance and destabilized the Western tribes for decades to come.
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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