Monday, January 23, 2012

David Hanna on why America’s fledgling Navy vanquished the invincible Royal Navy so frequently in the War of 1812

Guest blog post by David Hanna, author of Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812

One of the remarkable things about the War of 1812 at sea (and on the Great Lakes) was how well the youthful U.S. Navy performed against the reputedly omnipotent Royal Navy. No one expected much from a navy that was outnumbered by a ratio of fifty to one. President James Madison claimed the war was about freedom of the seas, but in reality he was more concerned with expanding America’s frontiers and winning the 1812 election, then only months away. Thus it came as a surprise that so many early U.S. successes in the war were won at sea. How was this so?

The Royal Navy had earned its mystique the hard way—by being at sea year round, unlike its chief rivals. And the British naval high command indoctrinated its officers with an aggressive streak that bordered on the reckless. The commander of the Boxer, Samuel Blyth, came from a long line of seamen who had helped shape the Royal Navy's mystique. The victories over Spain, Holland, and France dating back to the late 1500s were Blyth's patrimony. The Royal Navy was Blyth's family, and this was the case for many other British commanders. By 1812, British officers and crews had come to see their success not as the result of hard work, but of genetic superiority. All they had to do was show up, be aggressive, and they would carry the day, or so they thought.

The U.S. Navy was small in 1812, but it was nimble, and willing. The wars against the Barbary pirates during the administration of Thomas Jefferson had served as an incomparable school for young American officers. Stephen Decatur, David Porter, Oliver Hazard Perry, Thomas MacDonough, Isaac Hull, as well as the Enterprise’s commander, William Burrows, had all served in these wars, and had proven to be good students. There was as yet no naval academy in Annapolis; young officers had to learn what they needed to know on the job.

At that time, American crews were composed entirely of volunteers—their counterparts in the Royal Navy were, by contrast, virtually maritime slaves. Anticipating their confrontations with battle-tested British forces, the American officers knew they would be competing on competence. They trained their crews more often, and more thoroughly, and took nothing for granted.

The result was that in the overwhelming majority of engagements in the War of 1812 in which American and British naval forces were more or less evenly matched numerically, the U.S. Navy emerged victorious: the Constitution over both the Guerriere and the Java; the United States over the Macedonian, the Wasp over the Reindeer; the Enterprise over the Boxer; and on the Great Lakes, the victory of Perry's squadron over Barclay’s on Lake Erie, and the victory of MacDonough's squadron over Downie’s on Lake Champlain.

Henry Adams describes with flair several of these historic matchups in his History of the United States of America during the Administration of James Madison. Here he details the confrontation in the Azores on October 25, 1812, between the 44-gun United States under Stephen Decatur and the 38-gun Macedonian, the first British frigate captured as a prize, under John Surman Carden:
At first the United States used only her long 24-pounders, of which she carried fifteen on her broadside, while the Macedonian worked a broadside of fourteen long 18-pounders. So unequal a contest could not continue. Not only was the American metal heavier, but the American fire was quicker and better directed than that of the Englishman; so that Carden, after a few minutes of this experience, bore down to close. His manoeuvre made matters worse. The cannonades of the United States came into play; the Macedonian’s mizzen-mast fell, her fore and main top-mast were shot away, and her main-yard; almost all her rigging was cut to pieces, and most of the guns on her engaged side were dismounted. She dropped gradually to leeward, and Decatur, tacking and coming up on his enemy’s stern, hailed, and received her surrender. . . Decatur showed his skill by sparing ship and crew. His own loss was eleven men killed and wounded; the Macedonian’s loss was nine times as great. The United States suffered little in her hull . . . while [aloft] the Macedonian . . . nothing remained standing but her fore and main masts and her fore-yard.
The only notable British victory at sea was that of the Shannon over the Chesapeake. In 1814, after Britain made peace with France to end (at least temporarily) the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy could tighten the screws on its blockade of the United States. From then on, any chance of a single ship engagement became a virtual impossibility. The quantitative edge was too great to challenge, but this in no way diminished the qualitative edge the U.S. Navy had demonstrated. Pound for pound, the Navy could claim that by war's end it was the finest in the world.

Later this year The Library of America will publish The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence, edited by Donald R. Hickey.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Henry Adams: History of the United States of America during the Administration of James Madison; James Madison: Writings; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Poems and Other Writings (includes “My Lost Youth”)

5 comments:

  1. But consider this passage, about the Royal Navy 100 years later:

    Two short siren blast rang out over the water as the main battle fleet,
    steaming in four groups, turned to port to form themselves in a single
    line of battle--the last line head battle formation in the history of
    the British navy. Not wooden walls this time, but walls of steel, with
    streamlined gray hulls instead of gilded stern galleries and
    figureheads, and funnels belching black smoke instead of sails
    close-hauled. But it was a formation Blake or Rooke or Rodney would have recognized, and approved. King George V and Ajax were first, followed by Orion, Royal Oak, Iron Duke, Superb, Thunderer, Benbow, Bellerophon, Téméraire, Collingwood, Colossus, Marlborough, St Vincent--twenty-seven in all, names redolent with the navy's past [...], names of admirals and generals, Greek heroes and Roman virtues.
    And all slowly bringing their guns to bear as they steamed into harm's
    way--just as their predecessors had for so many centuries in exactly
    the same sea. [...]
    Scheer's position was dangerous but hardly hopeless. [...] Scheer might
    have looked to his heavier armor to protect his ships from British
    shells (many of which were defective and failed to explode), while overpowering their with his own faster and more accurate fire.
    Certainly this was the moment of decisive battle he and Tirpitz had
    been yearning for.
    But as Scheer gazed out at the flashing fire along the horizon, he saw something else. He saw before him the entire history of the British navy, a fighting force with an unequaled reputation for invicibility in batle and bravery under fire. "The English fleet," he wrote later, "had the advantage of looking back on a hundred years of proud tradition which must have given every man a sense of superiority based on the great deeds of the past." His own navy's fighting tradition was less than two years old. At that fateful moment, Scheer was confronting not John Jellicoe but the ghosts of Nelson, Howe, Rodney, Drake, and the rest; and he backed down.
    -- Arthur Herman, of the Battle of Jutland, 1915, in _To Rule the
    Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World_, 2004

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  2. Interesting as it is, the article I think goes to far with the assertion that ...""The quantitative edge was too great to challenge, but this in no way diminished the qualitative edge the U.S. Navy had demonstrated. Pound for pound, the Navy could claim that by war's end it was the finest in the world.""

    The war with Napoleon stripped the British of the ability to resupply its North American squadrons. This in turn led to a degradation of its effectiveness, which the article does not refer to. Nor does it point out that it was in fact it the Americans who had the quantitative edge during the War of 1812. They had a rich supply of sailors, whilst the British had a shortage of men, resulting no doubt in taking something rather than nothing. Over supply of labour meant that the Americans could cherry pick the best sailors going. On the contrary, the British were struggling to man their boats with enough just to operate them, never mind fill them with skilled sailors.
    The other major quantitative aspect not referred to in the article, is the ability of the American fleet to resupply at local shipyards and bring on heavy guns.
    Furthermore, the article fails to mention that most of the American successes were due to 'their' superior fire-power and out-gunning capabilities against smaller frigates and sloops.
    It does not mention the capture either, the capture of the of the USS Argus by HMS Pelican, both evenly matched, but being out gunned by the British crew, or the capture of the mighty privateer Decatur.
    So I'm raising an eyebrow here about the claim that they won the qualitative war.

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  3. Les Misérables - I anticipated some push back from my British friends - and their supporters - on this article. Good! Your definition of quantitative in terms of number of crew per vessel doesn't take into account how many more vessels the Royal Navy had, in American home waters, than the U.S. Navy, and particularly so from 1814. I also have often heard the same argument concerning the edge in guns and size of American vessels over their similarly rated RN counterparts; that's why I wrote "more or less" evenly matched. But considering how the Royal Navy had made it nearly routine to attack and subdue French and Spanish vessels of greater strength, the fractional edge the U.S. Navy might have enjoyed in single ship engagements should have mattered little, no? As for "cherry picking" crews, American crews were all-volunteer and thus unsurprisingly of higher quality than their British counterparts, many of whom were the product of the press gang, as I imagine you well know. Thus, the American crews were superior, the officers of at least equal caliber, the individual (not collective) vessels superior, and they simply won more battles at sea and on the lakes than did the Royal Navy in the war. -- David Hanna

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  4. Dear David
    Thank you for your reply. You say that.."Your definition of quantitative in terms of number of crew per vessel doesn't take into account how many more vessels the Royal Navy had, in American home waters, than the U.S. Navy,

    True, I specifically left this out because in your initial article you state.. The result was that in the overwhelming majority of engagements in the War of 1812 in which American and British naval forces were more or less evenly matched numerically, the U.S. Navy emerged victorious

    Therefore we need to leave out the fact that the RN had more ships. We are discussing whether or not, when evenly matched, especially on a single ship on ship action, whether the USN were qualitatively superior to the RN.

    My evidence suggests that when placed in a ship versus ship basis, the reason the USN had several wins was not because they were superior in any genetic sense, but because au contraire, it was the USN who had the quantitative edge in terms of resupply of both armoury and labour.

    For the record I am a Scottish Nationalist (in exile!) who holds no fond sense of patriotism to the RN ;-)

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  5. Point taken. In My Defens God Me Defend!

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