The Naval War of 1812

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The Cruise of the U.S. Fleet under Commodore John Rogers
Independent Frigate Actions of the United States in the War of 1812
Battle on the Lakes
War on the Chesapeake Bay
The Battle of New Orleans
The Peace of Ghent and the Future of the U.S. Navy
Documents


Independent Frigate Actions of the United States in the
War of 1812

Though the United States would struggle to gain victories on land during the War of 1812, its greatest victories were gained by the navy on the seas and the Great Lakes. Of the many notable naval victories, few compare with the remarkable actions taken by the half dozen frigates of the navy. With the numerous setbacks suffered on land, the string of victories by the Constitution, the United States, and the Essex buoyed the nation's spirits and left many hopeful of ultimate victory.

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The USS Constitution versus HMS Guerrière
--August 19, 1812

Battle between the Constitution and the Guerrière. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
On August 2, 1812, the Constitution, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, put to sea out of Boston with orders to raid British shipping along the east coast of Canada. After taking a number of British merchant ships in the area off Cape Race, Hull turned his ship southward, sighting the English frigate HMS Guerrière on August 9. Initially, the Guerrière's captain, James Dacres, had the upper hand. Twice he managed to place his ship broadside to the Constitution's bow, where he could bring all Guerrière's cannons into action, while Hull was only able to fire two cannons mounted at the bow.
Captain Isaac Hull. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Following this heavy "raking," Hull maneuvered the Constitution to bring her alongside the Guerrière. For nearly half an hour the two ships pounded one another with broadside after broadside, until the Guerrière's mizzenmast was shot away. As the British vessel lost speed and maneuverability, Hull pulled his ship ahead of the Guerrière and fired a heavy broadside into her bow. Soon the Guerrière lost her two remaining masts, and Captain Dacres struck his colors to Hull. The Guerrière was so badly damaged that Hull burned her at sea.

Upon his return to Boston on August 30, 1812, Hull and the crew of the Constitution--the first Americans to defeat a frigate of the Royal Navy in combat--were greeted as the first heroes of the War of 1812.

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The USS United States versus HMS Macedonian--October 25, 1812

Battle between the United States and the Macedonian. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
As Americans were still celebrating the victory of the Constitution over the Guerrière, Captain Stephen Decatur brought news of the defeat of yet another British frigate. On October 25, 1812, while the United States cruised five hundred miles west of the Canary Islands, Decatur sighted the Macedonian, under the command of Captain John Carden. The two ships engaged one another, and Decatur proved himself a man of vigorous action. British survivors reported that the United States
fired her guns at such a high rate that the smoke caused the crew of the Macedonian to believe she had caught fire. But such was not the case, and after only ninety minutes of pounding, the Macedonian struck her colors and became a prize of the United States. Decatur, again the hero, arrived in New York with the Macedonian flying the American flag.

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The USS Constitution versus HMS Java--December 29, 1812

Captain William Bainbridge. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
After Hull's triumphant return to Boston following the defeat of the Guerrière, the command of the Constitution was given to William Bainbridge. While sailing off the east coast of Brazil, Bainbridge spotted what proved to be the Royal Navy frigate Java. The Constitution's fight with the Java would be much more evenly matched than her fight with the Guerrière. Both Bainbridge and the Java's captain, Henry Lambert, were excellent sailors who turned the battle into a deadly match of movement and countermovement, with few mistakes on either side. Because neither side was able to gain a superior position, the battle became one of endurance. After an hour of punishing bombardment, the Constitution's heavier guns began to take their toll. At one point the ships touched, and Captain Lambert tried to lead a boarding party onto the Constitution; but a shot from a marine's musket fatally wounded him. By late afternoon the Java had lost most of her masts and rigging, and flashes from her own guns had ignited her fallen sails. Further resistance was useless; the Java
struck her colors. The damage to the British vessel was so great that Bainbridge was forced to burn her.

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The Cruise of the USS Essex--December 1812-March 1814

Captain David Porter, commander of the frigate USS Essex.
The independent cruises taken by the American frigates proved to be the most successful use of American sea power in the War of 1812. The cruise of the Essex under the command of David Porter was a textbook example of the role a warship could play in crippling the maritime commerce of its enemy.

Departing Philadelphia in December 1812, Captain Porter set the Essex for a rendezvous with Captain William Bainbridge and the Constitution in the Cape Verde Islands. However, after failing to meet Bainbridge (who had since defeated the Java), Porter formed a plan to sail his ship into the Pacific and there destroy the western whaling fleet of Great Britain. Successfully rounding Cape Horn in February 1813, Porter set upon the English whalers.
USS Essex battles the HMS Phoebe and Cherub at Valparaiso, Chile.
Between March and September 1813, Porter captured or destroyed fourteen vessels and broke the British whaling fleet along the west coast of South America.

Unfortunately for Porter, his successful action gained the attention of the Royal Navy, which dispatched two warships, the Phoebe and the Cherub, to capture the Essex. On March 28, 1814, the three ships engaged one another at Valparaiso, Chile. Outmatched and outgunned, Porter fought a losing battle in the midst of a heavy storm. Having lost his main topmast to the wind, Porter realized his chances of victory or escape were gone, and he surrendered his ship to the British. Once released by the British, Porter returned to the United States and received a hero's welcome as the man who had made the longest voyage on an American warship in the War of 1812.

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The USS Chesapeake versus HMS Shannon--June 1, 1813

Though the frigates of the United States Navy won several brilliant victories in action against ships of the Royal Navy, there were also losses.
Battle between the Chesapeake and the Shannon. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.

Perhaps the greatest defeat of the American navy in the War of 1812 was the action between the Chesapeake and the Shannon, fought off Boston in the summer of 1813.

That summer, the Chesapeake was blockaded in Boston under her newly appointed commander, Captain James Lawrence. Fresh from his victory over the British sloop Peacock, Lawrence endeavored to prepare the Chesapeake and her green crew for action. Meanwhile, English warships tasked with blockading the port patrolled the waters outside of Boston. Among these ships was the British frigate Shannon, under the command of Captain Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke.
Captain Sir Philip Bowes Vere Broke. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Broke was an extremely competent commander and an expert at naval gunnery. For the seven years that he had commanded the Shannon, he had regularly drilled his men at the guns. "The Shannons," as the crew called themselves, proved to be a highly disciplined group of sailors who eagerly sought action against the Americans. That opportunity came as Captain Lawrence ordered his ship out of Boston on the morning of June 1, 1813.

As the two ships closed for battle, the morale aboard the Chesapeake and the Shannon was in startling contrast. As Lawrence ordered his men to their guns, the crew of the Chesapeake refused to comply. Complaining that they hadn't received the prize money due them from earlier engagements, they refused to fight unless they were paid. Lawrence quickly ordered the ship's purser to issue vouchers promising payment to the crew, and only then did they follow orders to man the guns. Broke, on the other hand, sent his men to work with the command, "You will let them know today that there are Englishmen in the Shannon who still know how to fight. . . . You have the blood of hundreds of your countrymen to avenge."

The outcome was never in doubt. Within fifteen minutes, the "Shannons" had badly mauled the poorly prepared Chesapeake, damaging her rigging to the point that she drifted listlessly. Broke led a boarding party onto the decks of the Chesapeake and in quick and bloody action captured the American vessel. Fifty-six Americans were killed and eighty-five wounded. Among the dead was Captain James Lawrence, whose last command to his crew was "Don't Give Up the Ship," words that would live on in the United States Navy to the present day.

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The USS President versus HMS Endymion--January 15, 1815

During the night of January 15, 1815, Captain Stephen Decatur of the President made an effort to slip out of New York through the British blockade. That night, blowing snow blinded the pilot guiding the ship, and she ran aground off Sandy Hook. Knowing that he had to free his ship before daylight revealed her to the British, Decatur worked to refloat her, succeeding after several hours. The accident damaged her keel and rudder, greatly affecting her sailing ability. As the winds blew against Decatur, he could not return to New York, so he put to sea with hopes of avoiding the British fleet until he could put in for repairs elsewhere.

The next morning Decatur encountered the British squadron. His crippled ship was easily overtaken by the HMS Endymion, but the President's fighting crew made up for the ship's lack of mobility. For two hours the President and Endymion pounded one another with shot. At the end, Endymion was so badly riddled by Decatur's guns that she could no longer sail. However, the President had also been badly hurt, and a fifth of her crew were casualties. Knowing that the remainder of the British squadron was still pursuing him, Decatur once again tried to make an escape. However, his damaged ship made slow progress. Just before midnight, two pursuing English frigates caught up with the fleeing President and positioned themselves on either side of the American ship. Realizing that further battle would be disastrous, Decatur was forced to surrender his ship.

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The USS Constitution versus the Cyane and Levant--February 20, 1815

In the aftermath of the loss of the Chesapeake and the President, the Constitution fought the last naval battle of the War of 1812, providing a final victory for the United States Navy.
The USS Constitution. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Commanded by Captain Charles Stewart, the Constitution was cruising off the Cape Verde Islands when a sail was spotted on the horizon. Giving immediate chase, Stewart soon observed a second sail. Initially, he suspected that he had found two British frigates sailing in tandem. Stewart quickly devised a courageous battle plan. He decided to attack the nearest frigate and quickly dispatch it before the second one had time to swing about and offer any assistance to its companion. Having then defeated one foe, he would engage the second as it came to the rescue.

The ships Stewart had sighted were indeed ships of the Royal Navy. One was the frigate Cyane, mounting thirty-two guns, and the second a sloop, the Levant, carrying eighteen guns. As the Constitution bore down on them, a sudden heavy wind snapped Constitution's upper tier of her main mast. Losing speed and maneuverability, the crew of Constitution quickly began making repairs to the damaged mast. This delay robbed Stewart of the opportunity to engage the British in single ship action. While the Americans completed their repairs, the British ships had joined forces and turned to meet the Constitution.

As the ships joined in combat, it was already late afternoon, and the battle was fought in fading light. Initially, all three ships opened fire simultaneously. Stewart maneuvered toward the smaller Levant. The heavy guns of the Constitution riddled Levant, while Constitution suffered little damage. However, before Stewart was able to finish off the Levant, the larger Cyane approached. For the next two hours, Stewart fought an alternating battle between the two ships. By the end of the action, the Constitution had battered both ships into striking their colors. After taking both ships as prizes, Stewart tallied the day's losses. The British had thirty-five dead and forty-two wounded, while the Americans had only four dead and ten wounded.

In taking the Cyane and the Levant, the Constitution won the final victory of the war, and also the last fight of her career.

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Battle on the Lakes

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