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Donald A. Yerxa

The Naval War of 1812

Good reading for the bicentennial.

This year marks the bicentennial of the start of the War of 1812. Numerous commissions have been established to commemorate the conflict. The U.S. Navy has even set up a Bicentennial Network website to "connect people and organizations engaged in the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812." To no one's surprise, publishers have anticipated a spike in interest, and a number of highly readable books dealing with the naval aspects of the war have rolled off the presses. I've selected three of these—two expansive narratives of the naval war written by accomplished historical writers and an account of a single-ship engagement off the coast of Maine by a novice author. Stephen Budiansky, a journalist and former editor at U.S. News & World Report, has written several well-received military histories, though Perilous Fight is his first book-length foray into naval history. George Daughan, who has a doctorate in history from Harvard and taught at a number of universities, is now retired and resides in Portland, Maine. 1812 is a sequel to his award-winning If by Sea, which dealt with the forging of the American navy in the decades prior to the War of 1812. Knights of the Sea is David Hanna's debut book. A secondary school teacher in New York City and winner of the New York Times Teachers Who Make a Difference Award, Hanna grew up on the Maine coast, living for a time in the lighthouse keeper's cottage at Pemaquid Point, within sight of the waters where the HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise dueled in September 1813. These books enable us to become more familiar with one of America's most overlooked wars; at the same time, they provide an opportunity to assess whether history intended for a general readership reflects the best historical scholarship.

The United States entered the war with a very small naval force made up of only twenty frigates, sloops, and brigs, seven of which were undergoing repairs. These could operate individually or in small squadrons against isolated Royal Navy units or merchant vessels. But the American navy had nothing approaching a fleet, nor did it have any warships that could reasonably engage British ships of the line—the battleships of the day, which carried a minimum of 74 guns. On paper the Royal Navy was overwhelmingly superior. Estimates vary, but it had as many as 1,000 warships on its rolls, including nearly 80 assigned to North American waters at the beginning of the war. Indeed, President Madison assumed that the Royal Navy would sweep the tiny American navy from the seas in short order. He trusted, however, that swarms of American privateers would prey on British commerce. This, in true Jeffersonian fashion, would amount to American naval power on the cheap, the maritime equivalent of the militia.

In war, however, paper estimates never tell the whole story. For one thing, American frigates, though small in number, were a bit larger and more powerful than their British counterparts. Perhaps even more important, early on American captains put a higher stress on seamanship and gunnery than the British, who had grown accustomed to dominating the seas. Historical analogies can be dangerous, but C. S. Forester, the famed naval novelist, noted back in the 1950s that there is some parallel here with the German pocket battleships deployed in the early stages of World War II. Like the pocket battleships, American frigates were excellent commerce raiders and very good against single, similarly rated warships. But they were no match for the British ships of the line that generally accompanied convoys or served as flagships in the various Royal Navy squadrons. Though tiny, the fledgling U.S. Navy was a professional service—indeed, Budiansky contends, its level of professionalism may have been the highest in any navy at the time. And it was blessed with a cadre of young, talented, and ambitious naval officers—men like John Rodgers, Stephen Decatur, Jr., David Porter, Oliver Hazard Perry, Isaac Hull, Thomas Macdonough, and James Lawrence—who gained valuable experience in the Quasi War with France (1798-1800) and the war against Barbary state of Tripoli (1801-1805). These officers gave an extraordinarily good account of themselves throughout the war, thereby gaining considerable respect for the navy and the nation.

From the opening of hostilities, in fact, the American navy, though lacking a formal strategic blueprint, exhibited good strategic instincts. To be sure, at the outset of the war Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton seriously considered keeping the navy in port. But Madison and senior officers agreed that the best way to utilize the navy's meager forces was to send the warships out far and wide in small groups to attack individual British warships and shipping. Naval theorists have come to view guerre de course (commerce warfare) as the best approach for weaker navies when confronting much stronger opponents. At all costs, the American navy had to avoid multi-ship engagements and try to force the British to disperse their naval assets to protect vital shipping.

As it turned out, the first months of the war witnessed three single-ship victories on the seas by American frigates. The Constitution defeated HMS Guerriere in August 1812 and HMS Java in December. And the United States captured HMS Macedonian in October. There were other minor engagements, and not all of them went well for the Americans. Much larger British warships captured the sloop of war Wasp and the war schooner Vixen in the fall of 1812. But these losses did little to lessen the impact of the three frigate victories. As much as they bolstered the navy's morale, these engagements were even more a rude awakening for a British naval establishment utterly unprepared for the shock of the upstart Americans defeating the invincible Royal Navy in single-ship encounters. The Admiralty, reluctantly concluding that it had underestimated its foe, ordered the Royal Navy commander in North American waters, Admiral John Warren, to destroy the American navy and implement a blockade of the Chesapeake. Easier said than done. The vast extent of the American coast made an effective blockade all but impossible. But the British patrolled the waters off most of the major American ports, and they were able to control the choke points leading from the Atlantic to the Chesapeake, thereby shutting down much of the American coastwise commerce and virtually cutting off Philadelphia and Baltimore from maritime (but not privateer) traffic. Moreover, the Royal Navy trapped a number of American warships, including several frigates, in various ports and defeated the frigate Chesapeake in June 1813.

The second year of the war witnessed crash shipbuilding campaigns by both sides on Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. Control of the lakes was essential for any American attempt to invade Canada or, for that matter, any British push into the United States from Canada. But Budiansky's Perilous Fight focuses on the war at sea, not on the lakes; he gives little attention to the American victories on Lake Erie (Oliver Hazard Perry) in September 1813 and on Lake Champlain (Thomas Macdonough) a year later. Budiansky does emphasize, however, another development in 1813—one he sees as critically important for the American naval war. In January, William Jones took over as secretary of the navy and almost overnight breathed new life into American naval administration. His most significant contribution, according to Budiansky, was to refine the strategy of guerre de course. Despite the remarkable single-ship victories, Jones understood that the navy could never win a naval war of attrition against the British. Nor did the navy have the strength to break the British blockade or protect American commerce. The best approach, therefore, was to send out American warships singly against British commerce wherever the pickings were the best—small, fast sloops and schooners that could more easily slip past the British blockaders when weather conditions offered the opportunity. Posing a threat to British shipping off places like the west coast of Africa or the Irish coast would do far more to disperse Royal Navy forces than engaging individual warships, something Jones ordered his captains to avoid at all costs.

A good demonstration of the Jones strategy, Budiansky contends, was Captain John Rodgers' cruise in one of the few American frigates at sea in 1813, the President. Rodgers led the Royal Navy on a five-month wild goose chase. Although the President took only a dozen prizes, Admiral Warren had to assign 25 warships to intercept her return to an American port. They failed. Rodgers evaded the blockading squadron and safely entered Newport harbor in September. But the President was trapped in New York harbor for most of the remainder of the war. She eventually slipped out during a storm in January 1815 only to be intercepted and captured almost immediately by a British squadron.

Surprisingly, American naval officers had difficulty buying into Jones' eminently sound strategy. Why so? According to their code of honor, Budiansky explains, it was disgraceful to avoid combat with an opponent of relatively equal strength. In an early test of the new strategy, the brig Argus, commanded by Henry Allen, took twenty merchant vessels as prizes in British home waters in the summer of 1813. But when approached by a Royal Navy brig he could have easily outrun, Allen made ready for battle. The decision cost Allen his life and the United States a warship. And in September 1813, off the coast of Maine and in view of people on the coast, another American naval officer, William Burrows, commander of the brig Enterprise, defied Jones' directive and engaged the Royal Navy brig Boxer in precisely the kind of one-on-one battle that Jones wanted to avoid. It was a brief but violent encounter. Although the Enterprise won and escorted the Boxer into Portland harbor, both Burrows and his British counterpart, Samuel Blyth, were killed.

David Hanna's Knights of the Sea uses this relatively obscure naval duel to examine the violent nature of naval warfare at the time and especially the lives and worlds of these two young officers who were immortalized in Longfellow's poem "My Lost Youth." Hanna's book is by no means a comprehensive history, but in its specificity it adds to our understanding of the war. His account of a 2007 visit to the poorly kept monument graves of these fallen officers in Portland's Eastern Cemetery is particularly memorable. It provides him with a good rhetorical platform for some valuable comments about loss and remembrance in war.

While it is tempting to focus attention on dramatic single-ship actions, the impact of both the blockade and privateering was more significant. Budiansky reports that during the war, American privateers and warships took 2,500 prizes.1 British privateers out of Halifax and Bermuda were also very active. Insurance rates—one of the best barometers for gauging the success of guerre de course—soared on some British trade routes. But for American merchantmen, insurance rose to a catastrophic rate of 50 percent. In fact, as the blockade improved, only sleek, swift letters of marque, armed merchant ships with limited cargo space that had governmental licenses to take prizes, could even get maritime insurance. American agricultural exports dropped to a small fraction of their pre-war volume.

In 1814, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane replaced Admiral Warren as commander in chief of British naval forces in North American waters. He had no love for Americans (apparently because his brother was killed at Yorktown in 1781), and he was prepared to wage a much more aggressive and uncompromising brand of war. By this time the American frigates were bottled up in ports and only a few fast sloops of war fought on the high seas. New American warships were under construction, but they would find it almost impossible to avoid the blockade. Cochrane began to exercise Britain's command of the sea by conducting raids and amphibious operations up and down the Chesapeake. He also talked about attacking Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and Newport, Rhode Island, but settled on the nation's capital, which his forces raided and burned in August. Nearby Arlington, Virginia, chose to surrender its shipping to the British, some twenty or so merchant vessels, and was spared. Cochrane then moved on Baltimore in September, but stout defenses saved the city, as our national anthem commemorates. Given his "high seas" focus, Budiansky essentially ends his narrative with Cochrane's withdrawal from Baltimore. He does little more than mention Macdonough's success on Lake Champlain or Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans, though he provides valuable accounts of the sorry state of thousands of American prisoners of war and of some late-war cruising by a few American warships that managed to slip past the British blockade.

Budiansky's account of the naval war concludes with a number of important observations. He reminds us, for example, that the Royal Navy never deployed a force in North American waters adequate for the tasks assigned to it. While there were as many as 120 warships assigned to North America, many were designated for the West Indies and were marginal in the American war effort. In addition to blockade duty, the Royal Navy was also given the tasks of protecting convoys, carrying dispatches, transporting troops, and supporting land operations. Cochrane may never have had more than twenty-five ships available for blockade duty at any given time.[2] Budiansky also observes that as a result of the American navy's performance in the War of 1812, the notion of a "standing navy" was never again in question. There would be debates about its size and war readiness, but the days of relying on a militia of the sea were over.

The contrast between Budiansky's Perilous Fight and Daughan's 1812 is marked. If you are looking for a bold narrative of the war on the seas, then Budiansky's book is more than adequate. But if you seek to gain a greater understanding of how the events on the seas (and lakes!) fit within the larger contexts of statecraft, strategy, and domestic politics, then Daughan has written a far more satisfying book. The naval engagements are all there, but Daughan also includes serviceable accounts of the ineffectual land campaigns in the north, full treatments of the naval activities on the lakes, and a helpful summary of the New Orleans campaign, in which American naval units performed valuable service. Daughan does not simply provide the reader with a more comprehensive history of the war, he draws more effectively on recent scholarship that places the War of 1812 in the context of Britain's fundamental strategic preoccupation with Napoleon in Europe. For example, while Budiansky indicates that the size of the squadrons assigned to the blockade of American waters was inadequate, Daughan does a much better job emphasizing that the American theater was a sideshow for the British. It was not just that the Admiralty assigned too many tasks to too few warships in North American waters; the Royal Navy was stretched across the globe, policing colonial waters and especially blockading Napoleonic Europe.

Moreover, while Jones was indeed an important figure on the American side of the naval war of 1812, Madison's contribution probably has been underrated. To be sure, he did not have anything remotely approaching a detailed war strategy—certainly not one that gave the navy a major role. But he did have a consistent, albeit problematic, strategic goal and some grasp of the larger strategic picture facing both the United States and Britain. Madison, who had almost no professional army and only "a pigmy navy" upon which to call, hoped that Napoleon's campaigns, especially his invasion of Russia and efforts to hold off Wellington in the Iberian Peninsula campaign, would so occupy Britain that the United States could mount a successful invasion against a lightly defended Canada. Daughan's narrative suggests that any attempt to understand the war of 1812 without an eye to Napoleon and Europe misses a significant explanatory piece. Other historians, notably the late Jon Latimer, go even further. They stress that the War of 1812 was fundamentally an attempt to take advantage of the Napoleonic Wars to enable America to annex Canada and permanently push the British out of North America. Daughan is more nuanced than that, but the War of 1812 was not just about maintaining neutral rights on the seas and American honor in the face of impressment.

In a book subtitled "The Navy's War," Daughan reveals what a mess the land war was from start to finish—with a few notable exceptions such as the defense of Baltimore in 1814 and New Orleans in 1815. Not only were American regular soldiers and the generally unreliable militia unable to mount anything approaching a successful invasion of Canada, they could not prevent the British from burning the nation's capital and occupying a good chunk of eastern Maine in 1814. In fact, were it not for America's tentative control of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain late in the war—accomplished in great part by diverting naval construction resources and manpower to the lakes from the coast—the United States would have faced a very serious threat of invasion from Canada by British regulars released from duty in Europe with the abdication of Napoleon. Here the British were not interested in occupying American territory; rather, they wanted to use military might for political gain. By isolating the disgruntled New England states, the British hoped that they might be encouraged to secede from the Union. Ultimately the British wanted to block U.S. landward expansion and limit drastically the nation's continental territorial ambitions. These are extremely important considerations that do not sufficiently enter into the mix when the focus is almost exclusively on the high seas.

Over twenty years ago, Donald R. Hickey lamented that despite a respectable body of historical scholarship, the War of 1812 was probably America's "most obscure war." Tellingly, his comprehensive history of the war published in 1989 carried the subtitle "A Forgotten Conflict." But the war has not always been overlooked. In 1882, two years after graduating from Harvard, 23-year-old Teddy Roosevelt wrote The Naval War of 1812—an operational account that became a classic in American naval history. Today it is read as something of a period piece—an attempt to call attention to a rich American naval tradition in the service of creating a modern navy worthy of a great power. In that effort Roosevelt was joined by one of the most influential American naval officers of all time, Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose books and essays on the history of sea power were devoured by navalists throughout the world. In 1905, Mahan wrote the two-volume Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812, an extended historical tract warning contemporaries of the dangers of entering into a maritime conflict with an unprepared navy and what he considered to be a confused naval strategy.3 Just over fifty years later, C. S. Forester, whose 11-volume Horatio Hornblower series still captures the nautical imaginations of readers, wrote The Age of Fighting Sail: The Story of the Naval War of 1812. It remains an incredibly fast-paced and informative narrative of the war at sea and on the lakes. Since Forester's book, there have been many specialized studies of various aspects of the war as well as solid biographies of a number of the naval officers on both sides. We are especially indebted to two important books that provide more comprehensive narratives that place the various battles, ship-on-ship engagements, and personalities into larger contexts: the aforementioned Donald Hickey's War of 1812: The Forgotten War (1989; a special bicentennial edition is coming out this year) and the late Jon Latimer's 1812: War with America (2007).[4]

The current crop of books may well help to restore the War of 1812 to a more prominent place in the mainstream narrative of American history. Geared to the general reader, they offer compelling accounts of naval officers and sailors on both sides, many of them quite young and most of them brave, serving their respective countries while often simultaneously pursuing personal glory and financial gain. All three of the books considered in this essay—even, despite its title, Knights of the Sea—go well beyond the romance of the dashing naval hero and the smoke, splinters, and blood of single-ship battles. They provide a glimpse into a very different America in which the administrative structures we consider essential to fighting a war, let alone running a nation, were virtually nonexistent. This was a society, as Budiansky rightly reminds us, in transition to the modern world, one whose identity was not secure. And, to employ an anachronism, these books confront us with asymmetrical conflict from a different perspective, one in which the United States was the underdog up against the dominant maritime power of the era. The best of these books, Daughan's 1812, also provides insight into the important military and international contexts that historians have been exploring now for several decades.

There has been much commentary of late about the enormous public appetite for history and the nourishment it receives from historians both inside the academy and without. I concur with Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan's recent complaint that academic history has become far too self-referential. Too many historians in the academy labor mightily to write monographs read by only a handful of specialists. (I know; I wrote one.) Fortunately, a growing number of academic historians are coming to realize that they have a responsibility to make their scholarship accessible to non-academic audiences. Moreover, there are many gifted so-called popular or public historians who write well-researched books with prose that engages the reader. I am not the first to observe that academic historians have much to learn about the craft of writing from them. In the end, I agree with my friend and mentor John Lukacs: the distinction between the academic and the popular historian is not terribly helpful. There is good history and bad history. The best histories are by authors who combine first-rate scholarship with crisp, accessible prose. The books under consideration in this essay are all good. One is very good.

Donald A. Yerxa is professor of history emeritus at Eastern Nazarene College. He is senior editor of Historically Speaking and editor of Fides et Historia.

Books discussed in this essay:

Stephen Budiansky, Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815 (Knopf, 2010).

George C. Daughan, 1812: The Navy's War (Basic Books, 2011).

David Hanna, Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812 (New American Library/Caliber, 2012).

1. This number is no doubt considerably inflated. According to one of Britain's leading naval historians, N. A. M. Rodger, Lloyd's estimated that the British lost 1,175 ships to the Americans during the war (less 373 that were recaptured).

2. In fact, another historian has estimated that it would have taken virtually half the strength of the entire Royal Navy to effectively seal off the extensive American coastline.

3. To understand why Mahan thought the American naval strategy in the War of 1812 was confused, it is necessary to keep in mind that he used history to advance a presentist agenda. Writing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he argued that the key to sea power was a sizable concentrated battle fleet of capital ships. That was well beyond the means of the United States in the second decade of the 19th century; nevertheless, Mahan was no fan of guerre de course and the dispersal of naval assets.

4. Mention should also be made of N. A. M. Rodger's magisterial The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (Penguin/Allan Lane, 2004) and Alan Taylor's The Civil War of 1812: Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies (Knopf, 2010).

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