American writers about the War of 1812 tend to stress its naval features — the frigate duels, the battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, the pressure kept on British commerce by privateers. But at the time most people thought of it as a land war; and on land it went badly for America.
Moreover, it would go even worse in a little while. When Napoleon backed away, outmaneuvered at last, as the allies drew nearer to Paris, it became clear that the war in Europe, the big war, was about to end.
Once the French were crushed, Great Britain would be left with by far the biggest and best army in the world, and she already had the biggest navy. She would not pause to catch her breath; she wouldn't need to. She would turn immediately upon her "rebellious colonies," and she would put a swift and violent finish to this other war, the war in America, the petty one that hitherto she had been fighting almost in an absent-minded manner, with her left hand. That would mean the end of the United States of America.
Of the five sea duels of the War of 1812, four between p136 frigates, the other between sloops-of‑war, the United States had won four. These were sensational, brilliant victories, and they elated the American people, as they puzzled, enraged, and perhaps even frightened the British, who simply could not believe what had happened. But their effect was only psychological, not material. They were glorious, but they made no basic difference in the war.
Even Perry's splendid victory on Lake Erie and Macdonough's on Lake Champlain were negative, not positive, in their results. They did not pave the way for an invasion of Canada, a plan that long before had been rudely frustrated. They did, however, make more difficult the invasion by Canada (with aid from home) of the United States.
At the beginning of the war the United States had seven frigates, not all of them in condition to take the high seas, and fifteen armed sloops. The British had more than 800 war vessels, almost 200 of them ships of the line. The weakest could easily have crushed our strongest frigate. It was as simple as that, and no amount of high personal courage could change the figures.
In a few months, then, the inevitable had happened. Every United States vessel of war was either at the bottom of the sea or holed up in some river or bay, outside of which, like so many cats watching a mousehole, an overwhelming British force waited.
The blockade was steadily tightened, from the south northward. This was done systematically, and it was done well. Even New England, at last, was blockaded.
Yet the privateers were thicker and more active than ever. They laughed at the blockade. An example: New p137 York City not only was a large port but it had a "back door" at the end of Long Island Sound. Almost from the beginning the British Navy had paid it special attention. Yet in the course of the war there were 102 privateers registered by New York, most of which went in and out many times.
All was not well, however. Expenses were mounting. The day was past when any old rusty cannon could be mounted in any old skiff and manned with any sort of pick‑up crew, and still show a stunning profit. Like the British, like vultures, the lawyers were closing in. Paperwork too had to be done. The world might gasp at the exploits of the more outstanding American privateers, but the privateers themselves did no gasping. They wept, most of them, when they examined their accounts.
As early as November of 1812 the privateers of New York, in their first show of organization, petitioned Congress for relief. They were being ruined, they declared.
Not only were British keeping vessels from going out of American ports, they were equally and perhaps even more efficiently keeping them from going back in. Prize after prize was lost on its way to a home port, where alone it could be libelled and condemned. Of about 2000 prizes taken by American privateers in this war, it has been estimated that at least 750 were recaptured by the British.
Albert Gallatin, Secretary of the Treasury and a man of great influence, advised against granting the privateers' petition. The country couldn't afford it, he said. Congress, awed, acted accordingly. But a little later, when Gallatin had been sent abroad on a peace mission, Congress began p138 to legislate in favor of the poor oppressed privateers.
By an act of March 3, 1813, it offered to pay to any privateer who would "burn, sink or destroy" any armed British vessel half the value of that vessel. The destruction of commerce was one of the most noteworthy functions of the privateers; but until this time, in the United States and in this war, the privateer had had no incentive to destroy other than his own patriotism. And if he thought that there was any chance at all of getting the vessel home he would man her with a prize crew. The word "armed" in that law was not too important. Just about every vessel that took to the high seas out of Great Britain and the various British possessions had some sort of gun, at least after the first few wild weeks.
On August 2 and 3, 1813, in three separate acts, Congress offered a bounty of $25 a prisoner, authorized the Secretary of the Navy to grant pensions to wounded privateers, and reduced by one‑third the duties on prize goods, which until then had been charged the usual tariff rates.
Even then privateers wept.
There were in this war 513 registered privateersmen, who took 1345 prizes that they kept. It has been estimated that about 300 came back empty-handed — or didn't come back at all.
In short, when the cheering had died and the flag had been lowered, when peace at last had been declared, it was the consensus of those best equipped to know that privateering simply didn't pay. Joshua Barney had been right.
He finished in a blaze of glory — on land! For after he p139 had renounced privateering to rejoin the Navy he suffered the fate of so many naval captains at that time: there was no vessel for him to command. Instead, he was given charge of a fleet of gunboats.
These gunboats were a heritage from the Jefferson administration. The third president of the United States was unalterably opposed to standing armies and navies, and though the war vessels built under the administration of his predecessor, John Adams, had proved mighty handy against the French and the Barbary corsairs, Jefferson stubbornly refused to spend public money on warships. He did, however, authorize the construction of scores of small gunboats, boats designed only for defense, workable only in shallow semi-inland waters. These were cheap, true; but they weren't good. In any kind of chop they couldn't shoot even the few small guns that they carried, and a dozen of them together under the best possible conditions would not have been a match for one light British sloop-of‑war.
To be sure, a few of them under Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones did put up a gallant, if doomed, resistance off the southern coast of Louisiana when the British expeditionary force against New Orleans was about to be landed. Other than that, the Jeffersonian gunboats had no history. They were meaningless. When action threatened they always had to run away. This is just what Captain Barney's boys did when Admiral Sir Alexander led a large British fleet into Chesapeake Bay. They went as far up the James River as they could, and then they burned their boats in order to keep them from being captured.
p140 They did, though, take off the guns first. The boats were worthless, but not the men. They had plenty of fight in them. They hauled those guns overland to Bladensburg, Maryland, where an inept general was organizing a stand against the British army landed under the command of Major General Robert Ross and already marching on Washington.
The story of Bladensburg is not a happy one in American ears. Just about everything that could have been done wrong was done wrong, and the ensuing scuffle was a walkover for the English. The militia ran. The regular army ran. The only ones who did not run were Joshua Barney and his naval gunners. They stuck by their guns, to a man, many of them being bayoneted right there. In the American view it was the only bright spot in the campaign that led to the burning of the capital.
So it was that Joshua Barney, himself wounded, again fell prisoner to the enemy. They treated him better this time. They wined and dined him, praising his conduct.
And so too it was that this involved, unwanted, disagreeable war dragged to an end — which to all intents and purposes was also to be the end of privateering. There was but one land victory for the American side, a smashing one to be sure, at New Orleans, but even this took place two weeks after peace had been declared.
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Page updated: 20 May 13