Jefferson's Gunboat Navy

Jefferson's Gunboat Navy, 1805-1812

As 1805 progressed, tensions between the United States and Britain increased. America had declared herself a neutral country in the conflict between Britain and France. Britain's blockade of France,
Sailors being pressed. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
her impressment of American sailors, and her confiscation of American ships had pitted the new nation against one of the most powerful maritime nations in the world. After France's defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805, Britain's dominance at sea was unquestionable, and indignities to American merchant shipping increased to a disastrous level. From 1800 to 1805, fifty-nine American merchant ships had fallen captive to Britain; from 1805 through 1807, four hundred and sixty-nine ships, or approximately half the merchant fleet, fell into British hands.
President Thomas Jefferson. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The 1807 Chesapeake-Leopard Affair and the impressment of more than six thousand men from American ships that year put America on the brink of war.

President Jefferson saw two alternatives for solving the growing crisis: war or economic embargo. Not prepared for war, he called for a cessation of trade with those countries who interfered with American commerce. At Jefferson's request, Congress imposed the embargo in December 1807. Jefferson saw this as an appropriate response to the economic warfare being practiced against the United States by both Britain and France.
The Gunboat Navy. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press.
As Jefferson took the nation in an isolationist and defensive direction, his theory about a naval force became clear.

Jefferson believed that a suitable naval force would consist of small gunboats that could defend the home waters of the United States. To create this defensive force, Jefferson ordered cutbacks in major ships and the construction of a fleet of small gunboats. He had seen proof of the effectiveness of gunboats in the defense of Tripoli. These small ships were typically about fifty feet long and eighteen feet wide, with a shallow draft for use in the shoal waters of America's harbors. They were variously rigged, with oars, sails, and a crew of about twenty. If the wind failed or if they were engaged in close combat, they could be propelled by oars. Each carried two to three guns: 18- to 24-pound swivel-mounted guns or 32-pounders on traversing carriages. Each gun could weigh as much as seven thousand pounds, which meant that a shallow-drafted gunboat would not fare well in heavy seas.

By February 1805, fifteen gunboats had been built. These small vessels were favored by the Republicans, who saw a $302,000 ship like the Constitution as an unnecessary drain on the nation. First estimates put a gunboat's cost at $5,000; in actuality, costs totaled over $10,000. Nevertheless, Congress authorized 25 in 1805, 50 in 1806, and 188 in 1807.
Gunboat battle on Lake Borgne. >From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
They were to be built at various ports around the nation. Jefferson and other Republicans knew that gunboats posed no threat to the British navy and thus would not provoke a preemptive strike. Gunboats could be distributed to many American ports and provide defense to a larger territory for less money than a frigate navy. Jefferson envisioned gunboats used in conjunction with land batteries, movable fortifications, and floating batteries to repulse attacks. In time of peace gunboats could be laid up in sheds, which would cut down on maintenance and personnel. But there were weaknesses in the Republican plan. A passive defense was useless against an invader with a strong navy like Britain. One frigate had the gun power of forty gunboats, and with their thin planking and low decks exposed to gunfire, gunboats stood little chance of survival. Invasion points were never known, and the few gunboats stationed at various American ports could provide only minimal defense.
President James Madison. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Furthermore, a gunboat was useless at sea and thus could not defend U.S. commerce. Jefferson's theory of naval defense would lead to the loss of much of the naval strength the United States had gained since the Barbary War of 1805, leaving the nation with an inadequate naval force when it needed it most.

Following the inauguration of James Madison in March 1809, the United States began to move away from its gunboat policy. One hundred gunboats already authorized for construction were never built. Most of the existing boats were put "in ordinary," and by December 1811 only sixty-three gunboats remained in service. By the spring of 1812, war was imminent. War hawks in Congress finally forced Madison's hand, and war was declared on June 15, 1812. The U.S. Navy had seven frigates, four schooners, four ketches, and 170 gunboats to pit against the greatest naval power the world had ever seen.

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Impressment of American Sailors

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