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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 7

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p93 VI
The War of 1812 — Causes and Early Events


The causes of the War of 1812 were mainly the impressment of American seamen, the restrictions upon our commerce by the British Orders in Council and the Napoleonic Decrees, and the Indian troubles in the Northwest — the responsibility for all of which was charged, at least by many, against England.

Great Britain at the close of the eighteenth century entered upon a struggle with Napoleon that was so desperate as to require well-nigh all her resources, both of men and of food and war materials. For her gigantic navy she was constantly experiencing difficulty in finding a sufficient number of seamen. The duty required of them was hard and irksome. Further, many who might otherwise be available were drifting into the rapidly growing American merchant marine. The Yankee ships offered more comfort and very much higher wages. Some seamen of British birth sailing in our ships had become naturalized American citizens; others were deserters from the Russian navy. It made little difference. England claimed the right of seizing them wherever found and impressing them into her navy. For at this time and for many years to follow she held to the principle, "Once a subject, always a subject." Thus her warships frequently stopped an American merchantman on the high seas and took off deserters. This was bad enough, but when mistakes were made and American-born seamen were removed, there was sharp resentment. The case in which the United States frigate Chesapeake was thus p94treated by His Majesty's ship Leopard caused a sense of national humiliation and an indignation that lasted for years.

The Chesapeake-Leopard Incident

The British had been blockading some of our ports to enforce their orders, and several of the vessels on this duty had been very bold in impressing sailors even within a league of our shores. One of these blockaders in Chesapeake Bay had even chased an American revenue cutter with the Vice-President of the United States on board. On the other hand, from the Melampus, a British blockader in the Chesapeake, five of the crew deserted, one night in February, 1807, and three of them later enlisted on the United States frigate Chesapeake. A demand was made for their return by the British minister at Washington, and while the correspondence was going on, five more men deserted from the Halifax, and also took service on the Chesapeake. The authorities at Washington made an investigation, but having been convinced that the deserters were Americans, refused to give them up. This refusal was reported to Vice-Admiral Berkeley at Halifax, who at once sent an order to the commanders of all British vessels on the North Atlantic station, requiring them to watch for the Chesapeake at sea, and search her for deserters.

On June 22, 1807, as the Chesapeake set sail from Hampton Roads to relieve the Constitution in the Mediterranean, His Majesty's ship Leopard, which had been lying at Lynnhaven, followed her, and when well outside of the jurisdiction of the United States, the British vessel spoke the American. Captain James Barron of the Chesapeake, supposing the message to be of a peaceful character, hove to, and received an officer from the Leopard p95who came aboard with Admiral Berkeley's order. Barron refused to give up the men, whereupon the British frigate at once opened fire. The American vessel had just undergone repairs; her powder horns were empty, rammers could not be found, matches had been mislaid, and but few of her guns were mounted. After a number of broadsides had been fired at close range by the Leopard, First Lieutenant Allen managed to discharge one gun in return by means of a live coal from the galley. Meanwhile, twenty‑one shot had struck the Chesapeake's hull, her foremast and mainmast had been carried away, the rigging had been badly cut, and three men had been killed and eighteen wounded. Barron thereupon hauled down his flag. The British boarding party found only one man of the Halifax's crew, for the rest had deserted before the Chesapeake sailed, but they took off three other men, all Americans. Barron attempted to throw his ship on the British captain as prize, but the latter, refusing to accept it, left the American vessel to find her way back to port as best she might.1

The Chesapeake affair angered the nation as had nothing of its kind since the battle of Lexington. But Jefferson sought to avert war. In the negotiations which followed, England was ready to make reparation, but the President thought he could secure with it an abandonment of impressments and demanded also the latter. Since this was refused, many months of uncertainty passed, and it was not until 1811 that Great Britain made a formal disavowal of the wrong by restoring to the United States three of the four men who had been seized — the fourth had been hanged at the yardarm as a deserter.

p96 Restrictions Upon Commerce

The French Revolution, beginning in 1789 and followed soon by wars in which most of Europe including Great Britain was involved, so engrossed the people of the several countries that more and more of the commerce and carrying trade fell to America. For two decades profits were enormous and ships grew by leaps and bounds. Thus in 1790 the total exports of the country amounted to $19,000,000; five years later $26,000,000 worth of merchandise was brought from French, Spanish, and Dutch possessions to the United States, and thence re‑exported. In 1806 the value of the re‑exports had grown to $60,000,000. The magnitude of the foreign trade can be seen further by a comparison with later times. In 1810 when the population was about one‑tenth that of 1900, and the total national wealth was one‑fortieth or one‑fiftieth that of the later year, American ships in foreign trade were carrying actually a greater volume of trade.2

The conditions that obtained during this period are closely parallel to those of a century and some odd years later in the first years of the World War, when again America was the neutral power and profited from the great demands for ships and cargoes.

It is not strange that England became alarmed over the future of her maritime supremacy, and being goaded on also by the economic phase of her war with Napoleon, passed many restrictive measures.

The British courts having felt the pressure of public opinion handed down a decision on the "Essex case." By a previous act, the "Rule of 1756," neutral ships could not in time of war engage in a trade forbidden them in p97time of peace; e.g., trade between a country and its colonies. American merchants, however, had got around this by bringing the goods from a French or a Spanish colony first to an American port, and, after landing them and paying the duty, reshipping them to France or Spain (or vice versa); the drawback of the duty which was granted made this highly profitable. In the Essex case a cargo was thus taken from Barcelona to Havana via Salem. But the highest legal authority in England ruled that since the cargo was never intended for the American market, the broken voyage did not make the trade lawful. As a result of this decision, "about 120 vessels were seized, several condemned, all taken from their course, detained, or otherwise subjected to heavy losses and damages."3

Great Britain, as the next step, now ordered a general blockade against France from the Elbe to Brest, and a close blockade from the Seine to Ostend (Order in Council of May 16, 1806). Napoleon retaliated with his famous Berlin Decree (November 21, 1806), proclaiming "that the British Islands were thenceforward in a state of blockade; that all correspondence and commerce with them was prohibited; that trade in English merchandise was prohibited; and that all merchandise belonging to England or (even if neutral property) proceeding from its manufactories or colonies, is lawful prize."4

England now countered with a second Order in Council, more drastic than the first, and Napoleon answered with a Decree that was scarcely less than confiscation. American commerce was in consequence ground between the "upper and nether millstones." President Jefferson's remedy for all these wrongs was "peaceable coercion." In 1807 he declared an embargo on all foreign shipping, p98which lasted fifteen months. This cost the New England merchants alone $8,000,000; it was extremely unpopular at home and injured America much more than it did Europe.

Orders in Council and Decrees now followed fast, one after another, in this economic warfare, in which America also took part as she issued her Embargo and Non‑Intercourse Acts. Napoleon was by far the worst offender, but he played his game so skilfully that popular feeling in America turned chiefly against England.

Several British statesmen tried hard to avert war with the United States. The lack of bread in England, the distress of her manufacturing towns, and her already great burden in the European War made them hesitate before entering upon further hostilities. The Prince Regent also did his utmost. Thus the Orders in Council restricting American trade were revoked about the middle of 1812, but the action came too late.

Indian Troubles

While the negotiations between Washington and London and Paris had been proceeding, settlers had been pushing on in the Northwest. Already there was the desire for more space, and land speculators were pressing the Indians for further cessions. Against them Tecumseh attempted to organize the Indians that they might unite in refusing to cede more lands and oppose the settlers' progress.

The Indians had obtained their guns and ammunition from British traders in Canada. Making much of this, the land speculators argued through their spokesmen in Congress that the only way to bring peace to the Northwest was to remove the British from Canada. The West, largely represented by young men in Congress, had as their leader Henry Clay from Kentucky, and they were p99becoming a strong faction. Clay in a speech declared: "The conquest of Canada is in your power. . . . Is it nothing to extinguish the torch that lights up savage warfare? Is it nothing to acquire the entire fur‑trade connected with that country?" Clay, who had been elected Speaker of the House, was with his followers so insistent on aggressive measures that they were dubbed the "War Hawks." Their opponents charged that they had as their real motive territorial conquest.

The President and the Little Belt

Meanwhile another unpleasant affair occurred at sea. On May 1, 1811, the British frigate Guerrière, off New York harbor, had boarded the American brig Spitfire and impressed a passenger, a native of the United States. Immediately, Captain John Rodgers in the President was ordered to seek the Guerrière. Rodgers had already been put in command of a squadron of frigates and sloops, with orders to defend on the open sea all vessels of the United States from molestation by foreign armed ships.

While searching for the Guerrière, on May 16, 1811, fifty miles off Cape Henry, he sighted a strange vessel. At eight o'clock that evening, though within hailing distance, he could not make out in the darkness the stranger's identity. The latter, after two hails from the President, replied with a shot, which struck the American vessel's mainmast. Captain Rodgers at once returned the compliment. After a battle that lasted fifteen minutes, the foreign corvette, which turned out to be the sloop of war Little Belt, gave up the unequal contest. She had been badly cut up, and had lost nine killed and twenty-three wounded. Captain Rodgers stood by during the night, and next day offered assistance; but the English captain refused the proffered aid, and continued his voyage. This incident embittered the feeling between the two countries still more.

p100 The Declaration of War

President Madison had called the Congress together on November 4, 1811, and this body had at once voted an army of 35,000 regulars and 50,000 volunteers. To the navy, the President had devoted in his message only three lines. Congress appointed a committee to consider the feasibility of building war vessels, and this committee suggested that twelve ships-of‑the‑line and twenty frigates should be built to protect our coasts. But Congress, still dominated by a Jeffersonian opposition to naval armaments as expensive and subversive of political freedom, rejected the report by a vote of sixty‑two to fifty-nine. Politicians could not see that privateers and the loss of trade were far more expensive than ships-of‑war, nor did they yet realize that a well-managed navy would promote patriotism and bring back national self-respect. Congress contented itself in making an appropriation of $600,000 for timber for future warships and while in secret session it passed another embargo, April, 1812, intended to prevent the sapping of our seamen and supplies to aid England in her Peninsular War. Like the other embargoes, the Non‑Intercourse Act, and similar legislation, this law also failed in its object. On June 1, 1812, the President sent a message to Congress urging that war be declared against Great Britain, for the reasons that the latter country had ruined America's trade by her Orders in Council, had practically blockaded American ports, and had impressed American seamen into the service of her navy. Congress passed the necessary act, and on June 19, 1812, war was declared.

We thus see that the causes which led to war were: (1) impressment of American seamen, and (2) restrictions upon of American commerce resulting from the British Orders in Council, the Decrees of Napoleon, and the p101retaliatory Embargo and Non‑Intercourse Acts. With these there was a third cause, Indian trouble in the Northwest (justifying, as some maintained, the taking of Canada). The last, though not proclaimed by the President, had undoubted weight with the section of the country that clamored for war.

The Navies of the United States and Great Britain

At the outbreak of the war there were sixteen serviceable war vessels in our navy; among them there was not a single ship-of‑the‑line, but they included the three splendid 44‑gun frigates, United States, Constitution, and President, which were superior to any frigate in the British Navy. The personnel of the navy also was at a high pitch of efficiency, for nearly all the officers and many of the seamen had seen active service in the French War and in the war with Tripoli.

Besides these sixteen men-of‑war, there were 257 gunboats which had been built in the years immediately preceding the war; for Jefferson, who strongly opposed a navy, placed great faith in these gunboats, which were intended for coast defense. These, however, proved to be utterly worthless, and need not be considered as any part of our naval force.

On the other hand, Britain's navy in 1812 "stood at a height never reached before or since by that of any other nation."5 According to the London Times of that year, England "had from Halifax to the West Indies seven times the armament of the whole American Navy." Two years later, by the abdication of Napoleon, she had her entire navy free to use against the United States, a huge fleet of 219 ships-of‑the‑line and 296 frigates, besides a large number of corvettes.

p102 The Chase of the Belvidera

Shortly after the declaration of War, Commodore Rodgers, with his squadron (the only vessels ready for immediate service) consisting of his flagship, the President, 44; the United States, 44, Captain Decatur; the Congress, 36, Captain Smith; the Hornet, 18, Master-Commandant Lawrence; and the Argus, 16, Lieutenant Sinclair, left New York on June 21, with the intention of capturing the homeward-bound plate fleet from Jamaica. On June 23, Rodgers' squadron sighted the British frigate Belvidera, 36, Captain Byron. The President was overhauling the enemy, and when she came within gunshot, the American vessel, by means of her bow guns, killed and wounded nine men. At this juncture a main-deck gun on the President burst, and in the ensuing confusion, Captain Byron escaped. The President had lost much ground by yawing and firing harmless broadsides. By this chase, Commodore Rodgers was taken far out of the course of the plate fleet. He now proceeded to Newfoundland and thence across the Atlantic and back to Boston, where he arrived on August 31, with seven prizes, all merchantmen.

Hull's Escape from Broke's Squadron

The Belvidera, after her escape, carried the news of war to Halifax, and acting on this information Vice-Admiral Sawyer, on July 5, 1812, sent a squadron under Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke to cruise against the United States. This squadron consisted of the flagship Shannon, 38; the Belvidera, 36, Captain Byron; the Africa, 64, Captain Bastard; the Aeolus, 32, Captain Townsend; and the Guerrière, 38, Captain Dacres. On the 16th, the British vessels captured the United States brig Nautilus, of 14 guns. On the same afternoon, off p103Barnegat, they made out a strange sail standing to the northeast. This was the Constitution, Captain Hull. When on the following morning they discovered that she was an American frigate, they began a chase, remarkable for its duration, and for the skill with which the Constitution was handled.

Commodore Charles Morris, at this time first lieutenant on the Constitution, gives in his autobiography an interesting account of this chase:

"The ship [the Constitution] had been ordered to New York to meet and join other vessels under the command of Commodore Rodgers, and our course was directed accordingly. We had proceeded beyond the Delaware, but out of sight of land, when, on the afternoon of the 16th [July, 1812], we discovered four vessels at a great distance to the northwest, and a single ship to the northeast, from which quarter a light wind was then blowing. The wind changed to the southward about sunset which brought us to windward, and we stood for the ship, the wind being very light. The chase was evidently a frigate, and the first impression was that she might be a part of Commodore Rodgers' squadron. By eleven P.M. we were within signal distance, and it was soon apparent that she was not an American man-of‑war. There being no apprehension that a British frigate would make any attempt to avoid an engagement, Captain Hull felt justified in delaying any nearer approach till daylight of the 17th, when our newly-collected and imperfectly disciplined men would be less likely to be thrown into confusion. The ship was accordingly brought to the wind with her head to the southward and westward, under easy sail, with a light wind from the northwest. The other ship did the same at about two miles' distance. The watch not on duty were allowed to sleep at their quarters, and the officers slept in the same manner.

p104 "As the following morning opened upon us, it disclosed our companion of the night to be a large frigate, just within gunshot, on the lee quarter, and a ship-of‑the‑line and three other frigates, a brig, and a schooner, about two miles nearly astern, with all sails set, standing for us, with English colors flying. All our sails were soon set, and the nearest frigate, fortunately for us, but without any apparent reason, tacked and immediately wore round again in chase, a maneuver that occupied some ten minutes, and allowed us to gain a distance, which, though short, proved of utmost importance to our safety. By sunrise our ship was entirely becalmed and unmanageable, while the ships astern retained a light breeze till it brought three of the frigates so near, that their shot passed beyond us. The distance, however, was too great for accuracy, and their shot did not strike our ship.

"Our boats were soon hoisted out, and the ship's head kept from the enemy, and exertions were made to increase our distance from them by towing. This, and occasional catspaws, or slight puffs of wind, enabled us to prevent their closing, but as their means were equal to ours, we could gain nothing. A few guns were fired from our sternports, but so much rake6 had been given to the stern, that the guns could not be used with safety and their further use was relinquished. All means were adopted that seemed to promise any increase of speed. The hammocks were removed from the nettings, and the cloths rolled up to prevent their unfavorable action; several thousand gallons of water were started and pumped overboard, and all the sails kept thoroughly wet to close the texture of the canvas.

"While making all these exertions, our chances for escape were considered hopeless. For many years the ship had proved a very dull sailer, especially during the p105late cruise, and it was supposed that the first steady breeze would bring up such a force as would render resistance of no avail, and our situation seemed hopeless. At about eight A.M., one of the frigates called all the boats of the squadron to her, and, having arranged them for towing, furled all sails. This brought her toward us steadily, and seemed to decide our fate. Fortunately for us, a light breeze filled our sails and sent us forward a few hundred yards, before her sails could be set to profit by it.

"With our minds excited to the utmost to devise means for our escape, I happened to recollect that, when obliged by the timidity of my old commander, Cox, to warp the President in and out of harbors where others depended on sails, our practice had enabled us to give her a speed of nearly three miles an hour. We had been on soundings the day before, and, on trying, we found twenty‑six fathoms. This depth was unfavorably great, but it gave me confidence to suggest to Captain Hull the expediency of attempting to warp the ship ahead. He acceded at once, and in a short time (about seven A.M.) the launch and the first cutter were sent ahead with the kedge and all the hawsers and rigging, from five inches and upward, that could be found, making nearly a mile of length. When the kedge was thrown, the men hauled on the connecting hawser, slowly and carefully at first, till the ship was in motion, and gradually increasing until a sufficient velocity was given to continue till the anchor could be taken ahead again, when the same process was repeated. In this way the ship was soon placed out of the range of the enemy's guns and by continued exertions when the wind failed, and giving every possible advantage to the sails when we had air enough to fill them, we prevented them from again closing very near us.

"The ship which we had first chased gained a position abeam of us about nine A.M., and fired several broadsides, p106but the shot fell just short of us, and only served to enliven our men and excite their jocular comments. The exertions of neither party were relaxed during this day or the following night. There was frequent alternation of calms and very light winds from the southeast, which we received with our head to the southwestward. When the wind would give us more speed than with warping and towing, the boats were run up to their places, or suspended to the spars in the chains by temporary tackles, with their crews in them, ready to act again at a moment's notice.

"At daylight of the second day, on the 18th, it was found that one frigate had gained a position on our lee bow, two nearly abeam, one on the lee quarter about two miles from us, and the ship-of‑the‑line, brig, and schooner, three miles from us in the same direction. The wind had now become tolerably steady, though still light. The frigate on the lee bow tacked about four A.M., and would evidently reach within gunshot if we continued our course. This we were anxious to avoid, as a single shot might cripple some spar, and impede our progress. If we tacked, we might be exposed to the fire of the other frigate on the lee quarter; but as she was a smaller vessel, the risk appeared to be less, and we also tacked soon.

"In passing the lee frigate at five, we expected a broadside or more, as we should evidently pass within gunshot; but, from some unexplained cause, Lord James Townsend, in the Aeolus, of 32 guns, suffered us to pass quietly, and tacked in our wake, while the others soon took the same direction. We had now all our pursuers astern and on the lee quarter, and as the wind was gradually increasing, our escape must depend on our superiority of sailing, which we had no reason to hope or expect. Exertions, however, were not relaxed. The launch and first cutter, which we dared not lose, were hoisted on board at six A.M., under the directions of Captain Hull, p107with so little loss of time or change of sails, that our watching enemies could not conceive what disposition was made of them. This we afterward learned from Lieutenant Crane, who was a prisoner in their squadron. The sails were kept saturated with water, a set of skysails was made and set, and all other sails set and trimmed to the greatest advantage, close by the wind. The ship directly astern gained slowly, but gradually, till noon; though, as the wind increased, our good ship was going at that time at the unexpected rate of ten knots. At noon we had the wind abeam, and as it gradually freshened, we began to leave our fleet pursuer. Our ship had reached a speed of twelve and a half knots by two P.M. Our hopes began to overcome apprehension, and cheerfulness was more apparent among us.

"Though encouraged, we were by no means assured, as all the ships were still near and ready to avail themselves of any advantage that might offer. About six P.M., a squall of wind and rain passed over us, which induced us to take in our light sails before the rain covered us from the view of the enemy; but most of them were soon replaced as the wind moderated.7 When the rain had passed, we had evidently gained a mile or more during its p108continuance. Still the pursuit was continued, and our own ship pressed forward to her utmost speed. The officers and men again passed the night at quarters. At daylight, on the morning of the 19th, our enemies had been left so far astern that danger from them was considered at an end, and at eight A.M. they at last relinquished the chase and hauled their wind.8 Our officers and crew could now indulge in some rest, of which the former had taken little for more than sixty hours.

"Captain Hull deservedly gained much reputation for this difficult retreat from a greatly superior force, when superior numbers and other circumstances gave the enemy great advantages. . . . If they had concentrated their efforts at an earlier period to bringing up some one of their ships within fair range, or had adopted our plan of warping at any time during the early part of the chase, they could hardly have failed to inflict such damage as would have prevented our escape, after our dependence was reduced to our sails. The result may be remembered as an evidence of the advantages to be expected from perseverance under the most discouraging circumstances, so long as any chance of success may remain."9

Captain Isaac Hull, by reason of his coolness, great perseverance, good seamanship, and readiness to take suggestions of his subordinates, had completely out‑maneuvered five British captains. This feat in eluding Broke's squadron, and his fight shortly afterwards with the Guerrière, according to Roosevelt, "place him above any single-ship captain of the war."

The Authors' Notes:

1 Captain Barron was court-martialed and found guilty of neglecting, on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action. He was suspended for five years without pay.

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2 For a fuller discussion of the growth of the American merchant marine see Krafft and Norris, Sea Power in American History, chap. IV.

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3 Monroe to Fox, American State Papers, Foreign Relations, III, 114.

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4 Mahan, War of 1812, I, 142.

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5 Roosevelt, Naval War of 1812, p22.

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6 Slant or inclination.

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7 This was a skilful ruse on the part of Hull to deceive the enemy. "He immediately let everything go by the run, apparently in the utmost confusion, as if unable to show a yard of canvas — his sails were hauled up by the brails and clewlines. The enemy, perceiving this, hastened to get everything snug, before the gust should reach them; but no sooner had they got their sails furled, than Captain Hull had his courses and topsails set, and the Constitution darted forward with great rapidity. So coolly, however, did he proceed, that he, . . . though pressed by a pursuing enemy, attended personally to hoisting his launch and other boats, while the ship was going at ten knots through the water. . . . The British squadron cut adrift all their boats, and, after they abandoned the chase, spent two or three whole days in cruising to pick them up." Naval Monument, pp8‑9.

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8 That is, came up into the wind.

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9 The Autobiography of Commodore Morris, pp51‑55.

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