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:
- “The Sea Fight That Inspired a Longfellow Poem,” an excerpt from Knights of the Sea on The Atlantic’s website
- The War of 1812 website includes frequently updated links to new articles about the war
- In October 2011 WNED-TV Buffalo-Toronto and Florentine Films produced a new film, The War of 1812, as well as a downloadable smartphone app guide to historic sites and battlefields