The American Navy and Great Britain in the War of 1812:
A David and Goliath Story


President Jefferson, who believed in smaller national government, allowed the American Navy to dwindle to a mere dozen frigates and sloops with small gun boats used to defend ports. When American merchant shipping was victimized by the larger British Navy, which impressed American citizens to fill their need for sailors to fight in the Napoleonic wars, war broke out between America and Britain. The overwhelming strength of the British Navy that had been supreme since the defeat of the French at Trafalgar in 1805 balanced against American lack of preparedness would have seemed to indicate a quick and crushing victory by the British. That is not what happened.

As would be expected, the ill prepared American forces lost repeatedly at the beginning of the war, defeated in Canada and loosing Maine and Lake Ontario to British forces. Then something unexpected happened. The fledge-wing country began to show a surprising Naval genius that would shake the very foundations of the British Admiralty. How could the young country of America defeat Europe's greatest Naval power?

Out Building The Enemy

Speedy Clippers

During the War of 1812, fast ships known as Baltimore Clippers were responsible for more than 500 sinkings or seizures of British ships. The Baltimore Clipper Chasseur alone, under Captain Thomas Boyle, captured or sank 17 vessels. The audacious captain even had notice posted in Lloyd's Coffee House in London, by way of a captured merchant vessel, that the entire British Isles were under naval blockade by Chasseur alone! This actually caused the British Admiralty to call vessels home from the American war to guard merchant ships sailing in convoys.

Ships of the clipper type were first built in Baltimore where they were used as pilot boats around the time of the American Revolution. The clipper ships capitalized on ship design principals such as a narrow keel, heart-shaped midsection, and a high sail to hull area ratio that had made earlier Viking and English ships so fast.

The distinctive clipper with its narrow black hull and great cloud of sail soon came to stand for speed. Going at a "great clip" these ships were known to reach speeds of 18 knots, while standard ships could only make way at 5 knots or less. Most clippers were around 100 feet long from prow to stern with a very narrow beam or width and boasted a main mast one and a half times that in height. These ships were three masted with the fore mast nearest the front or prow of the clipper followed by the main mast and lastly the mizzen mast that combined carried over 20,000 square feet of sail. In an engineering design coup, the mast of a Baltimore clipper was set further aft (back) than on other ships and the foremast was proportionately taller, allowing a more efficient use of the sails. Many of these elegant ships were equipped with state-of-the-art sails of a new cotton duck. The cotton sails held their shape better, were stronger, were lighter and required less wetting down than the linen sails used on most ships. Wetting down caused the fabric to swell, closing the weave, and thereby holding the wind better. However, wet sails weighed more. Cotton fibers could be more tightly woven than linen. Cotton was readily available in America because of the Southern cotton production.

Though cotton was first cultivated by settlers when the Spanish planted it in Florida in 1556, the history of the crop in the South really begins with its cultivated at the Jamestown colony in 1607. By 1616, cultivation of the crop had spread. The American Revolution ended British restrictions on cotton production in America that had been meant to protect British industry. Samuel Slater, an English mill worker, emmigrated to America secretly and built the first cotton mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1790. The mill employed water-powered cotton spinning and carding machines based on machines designed by Richard Arkwight, which Slater had memorized while an apprentice in a mill in England. The capital was provided by Moses Brown, a Rhode Island manufacturer who needed to replace deteriorating English equipment. The invention in 1793 of the cotton gin, a machine for separating cotton seeds from the fibers, alowed a single worker to remove seeds from 50 pounds of cotton per day, compared to one pound of cotton a day by the hand method. The invention of the cotton gin and mechanization of textile production during the Industrial Revolution enabled cotton to supersede flax and wool textile production. The cotton crop in the American south increased twenty times over the years between the invention of the cotton gin and 1801. The War of 1812 cut America off from cotton woven in England, which encouraged the building of more textile mills in New England. Becasue most American factories were relatively new, they were built encorporating the latest innovations in the creation and weaving of cotton yarn. The steady demand for cotton made the labor intensive cultivation of cotton the mainstay of the slave-labor economy of the Deep South. Placing plantations along waterways allowed cotton to be moved efficiently to the Northern cotton mills. We often hear of the cotton clothes known as muslin and calico used in clothing production, but the sails of many ships came to be made of cotton. Inexpensive, strong, and lightweight--cotton made larger ship sails possible.

The Yankee Privateers with their fast trading ships took over 40 million dollars in prizes of ships and cargo from Great Britain during the War of 1812. A privateer is a privately owned ship that is issued letters of marque by a country's government, which authorized it to attack foreign shipping during war time. Many of the privateers that supplemented the United States Navy were fast, highly maneuverable clippers. English merchants complained that daring American privateers literally took ships in sight of British ports.

Strong Frigates

Six formidable frigates, including the famous USS Constitution, were authorized for construction under an act of Congress in 1794. Joshua Humphreys designed them to be larger and more heavily armed than the standard run frigate of the day. Construction took place in Edmund Hartt's shipyard in Boston, Massachusetts using resilient lumber from Southern live oak trees. The sides of the ships were constructed from planks up to seven inches (178 mm) thick. The ship's design was also unique for its time because of a diagonal cross-bracing of the ship's skeleton that enhanced the ship's structural strength. Paul Revere was responsible for forging the copper spikes and bolts that held the planks in place and the copper sheathing that protected the hull.

Captain Isaac Hull, appointed Constitutionís commanding officer in 1810, met HMS Guerriere in single combat about 600 miles east of Nova Scotia on the afternoon of August 19, 1812.. Twenty minutes after the British ship fired the first shot, it had been reduced to a dismasted hulk that was so badly damaged that it was not worth towing to port. Captain Hull won the battle by using his heavier broadside armament and his ship’s superior maneuvering ability to advantage, while the British were astonished when their shot simply rebounded harmlessly off Constitution’s strong hull — giving the ship her nickname 'Old Ironsides'.

Related material:

The French ship Acheron in the movie Master and Commander is the same type that Humphreys designed.

Out Fighting the Enemy

In the war theater of The Great Lakes, Lake Ontario was already dominated by the British through a win in a race to build boats for the lakes on the lakes. Then in 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry ( 1785 – 1819) supervised the building of a small fleet at what is now Erie, Pennsylvania. British forces moved in engaging battle for control of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. During the battle, Perry's flagship the Lawrence was destroyed and Perry found himself in a rowboat a half-mile from the USS Niagara. Instead of giving up, he rowed to the Niagara through heavy gunfire. Once he had transferred his command to the Niagara, Captain Perry led his small fleet to victory. He then dispatched his famous report, "We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop". This decisive victory gave control of Lake Erie to the Americans.

In more general terms, while the British forces had it all over the Americans in rapidity of fire. American volleys came to be known for their accuracy. Since a dismasted ship can no longer maneuver in a sea battle, dismasting a ship is often the checkmate move in a sea battle.

Changes Wrought by the War of 1812:

The War of 1812 gave the United States a new sense of self. It reaffirmed the separation of the United States and Canada, which had conducted itself with distinction during the War of 1812. But most importantly, American innovation in the area of ship building and tactics underlined the importance of supremacy on the high seas. This defeat forced changes in the way the British Navy conducted battles. This harsh lesson served to increase respect for the United States, and, in the end, helped Great Briton maintain their naval superiority by forcing the British Naval bureaucracy to keep up with the times.

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