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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

Battle on the Lakes

One essential goal of the United States in the War of 1812 was the invasion of Canada. Many Americans still felt that Canada, if given the opportunity, would embrace independence or perhaps even join the United States. The expulsion of the British from America's northern border would also offer greater freedom from British interference in American westward expansion.

In August 1812, Brigadier General William Hull took an army of two thousand American militiamen to invade upper Canada. Though Hull's force outnumbered the British, Hull proved to be an overly cautious and nervous field commander. Convinced that his forces were in danger of being cut off by Indians to the west and a small British naval squadron on Lake Erie, Hull withdrew from Canada and fortified his army at Detroit. There Hull allowed himself to be surrounded. After a brief siege, he surrendered Detroit to the British. From Detroit, the British took the offensive and launched a series of attacks in the Ohio Valley. The American invasion of Canada had ended dismally.

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Lake Ontario

Battle on Lake Ontario. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
In order to solidify the American defense of the Canadian border, the secretary of the navy ordered the placement of fighting squadrons on lakes Erie, Champlain, and Ontario. By August 16, 1812,
Commodore Isaac Chauncey. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Commander Isaac Chauncey was sent north to take command of the new fleet being built at Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Chauncey had command of the base at Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario, and Lieutenant Jesse Elliot had command of Presque Isle in Lake Erie. By April 1813, Chauncey took his squadron on the offensive, crossing Lake Ontario and capturing and burning York (Toronto) on April 27. In retaliation, the British naval commander, Sir James Yeo, launched an unsuccessful attack on Sackett's Harbor. Long-range skirmishes continued between the American and British squadrons on Lake Ontario throughout the summer. For the remainder of the war, the battles on Lake Ontario proved indecisive and relatively bloodless. Eventually both sides began an expansive shipbuilding campaign in an attempt to establish naval superiority on Lake Ontario.

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Lake Erie

Battle of Lake Erie. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press.
While events slowly unfolded on Lake Ontario, naval affairs on Lake Erie rapidly escalated into the most important engagements of the war in Canada. In the spring of 1813, Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry succeeded Lieutenant Elliot in command at Presque Isle. The Lake Erie Squadron had two 20-gun brigs and nine smaller vessels. Though his ship strength was sufficient, Perry lacked manpower. The Navy Department sent new recruits north, but Commander Chauncey kept most of them for his ever-expanding Lake Ontario fleet. Perry was forced to appeal to the district army commander,
Major General William Henry Harrison. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Major General William Henry Harrison, for additional manpower. Harrison complied by sending all soldiers who claimed to have sea experience, plus one hundred trained sharpshooters. With these reinforcements, Perry sailed out of Presque Isle on August 6, 1813. His intent was to cross the lake and set up an advance base at Put-in-Bay. An American naval presence there would pose a threat to British-occupied Detroit.

Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry transferring to the Niagara. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Perry's threat at Put-in-Bay forced Captain Robert H. Barclay, who commanded the British forces at Malden, to take offensive action to regain control of western Lake Erie. Though Barclay's ships had half the firepower of Perry's fleet, Barclay engaged Perry on September 10. Perry's ships were largely armed with short-range, heavy-caliber carronades, and he was determined to close in quickly on the British and batter their ships into surrender. Taking the lead in the approach to the British fleet, Perry steered the Lawrence ahead and signaled for the eight other ships of his squadron to follow. However, the Lawrence quickly sailed ahead, leaving Perry to face the five ships of the British fleet alone.

For two hours the Lawrence engaged the British squadron alone, while Lieutenant Elliot aboard the Niagara made little movement to engage the enemy. The Lawrence was badly pounded by the British ships. With eighty percent of the ship's crew lost to death and injury and her rigging shot to pieces, Perry was forced to abandon her. Taking a boat from the Lawrence, Perry transferred his command and battle flag, inscribed with the slogan "Don't Give Up the Ship," to the Niagara. Once aboard his new flagship, he dispatched the reluctant Elliot to bring the other American vessels into battle. Perry then doggedly sailed the Niagara into action. Taking his new ship close to the enemy, he raked the bows of the British ships with furious fire from his carronades. The British were forced to surrender.

Perry's victory on Lake Erie was a key event in the War of 1812. Though it did not renew the American desire to conquer Canada, it did reverse the British gains in the Ohio Valley. With their supply lines endangered by Perry's control of the lake, the English withdrew back into Canada. General William Henry Harrison regained the offensive, which ultimately led to the American victory at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813. Perry's victory was the first defeat of a British naval fleet by the American navy. Perry sent a message immediately after the British surrender that stated, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." It would become a famous moment in the history of the U.S. Navy.

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Lake Champlain

The traditional invasion route from Canada to the United States was the western shores of Lake Champlain. This was the path taken by the British in 1777 and again in 1814. While British troops burned Washington on August 31, 1814, Major General Sir George Prevost marched an invading army of eleven thousand British troops south along the west bank of Lake Champlain.
Battle of Lake Champlain. Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press.
He planned to capture Plattsburg and hold it as a bargaining chip. With only 1,500 regular troops and three thousand militia at Plattsburg, American Brigadier General Alexander Macomb dug in for the coming battle. Prevost felt certain that he could take Plattsburg, but he knew that the British must also control Lake Champlain if he was to hold his position and protect his supply line. The future of the land battle would depend on the naval action on the lake.

Led by Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, an American squadron of four ships and ten barges defended Lake Champlain. The opposing British fleet included four ships and twelve gunboats.
Master Commandant Thomas MacDonough. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
The total number of guns that each fleet carried was nearly the same, but the British had more long guns. This allowed them to stand off at a distance and fire on the Americans, whose shorter-range carronades would not be able to answer.

Macdonough was well aware of this disadvantage, and he also knew that his crews were made up of largely inexperienced sailors who lacked the shiphandling skills needed to maneuver against the British. He decided to anchor the ships at Plattsburg and force the British to attack. Macdonough took special care in anchoring his ships. Not only did he anchor at the standard bow and stern, but he also added two kedge anchors, which would allow the ship to spin in place. This way, both port and starboard batteries could be used.

British commander Captain John Downie was aware of the American situation and hoped to draw the American fleet into the open waters of the lake to the advantage of his long guns. However, he was overruled by Prevost, who feared further delay and ordered an attack on the American fleet in Plattsburg harbor. On September 11, 1814, as the British fleet rounded Cumberland Head and turned toward the Americans, landforms killed the wind. Slowly, Downie's ships drifted toward the anchored fleet. At close range, with no room to maneuver, Downie's long guns were of no advantage. The better-trained British crews were able to fire and reload faster than the Americans, but the heavy American carronades took a terrific toll on the British ships, and Downie was killed. The command fell to his lieutenant, who tried to press for victory.
MacDonough's victory on Lake Champlain. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
However, as the ships neared one another again, Macdonough ordered his stern and bow anchor lines cut and the lines of the kedge anchors hauled in, causing his ship to pivot with a devastating broadside against the British. The British tried a similar maneuver, but their ships stalled and were raked from bow to stern by the American broadside. As the punishing fire continued, the British were forced to strike their colors. The victory was decisive. With no hope of controlling the lake, Prevost realized that the opportunity for taking and holding Plattsburg was gone. He withdrew northward, abandoning any further thought of an offensive through upstate New York.

As with the battles on Lake Erie the previous year, the American navy had played the pivotal role in turning back British offensives along the Canadian border.

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War on the Chesapeake Bay

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