Theodore Roosevelt.

The naval war of 1812; or, The history of the United States navy during the last war with Great Britain, to which is appended an account of the battle of New Orleans; online

. (page 12 of 42)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

and a prize crew of 1 7 men, but was recaptured by
a British frigate.

The next appointed rendezvous was the Island
of Fernando de Noronha, where Captain Porter
found a letter from Commodore Bainbridge,

1 66 Naval War of 1812

informing him that the other vessels were off
Cape Frio. Thither cruised Porter, but his com-
patriots had left. On the 29th, he captured an
English merchant vessel ; and he was still cruising
when the year closed.

The year 181 2, on the ocean, ended as gloriously
as it had begun. In four victorious fights the dis-
parity in loss had been so great as to sink the dis-
parity of force into insignificance. Our successes
had been unaccompanied by any importa,nt re-
verse. Nor was it alone by the victories, but by
the cruises, that the year was noteworthy. The
Yankee men-of-war sailed almost in sight of the
British coast and right in the track of the mer-
chant fleets and their armed protectors. Our ves-
sels had shown themselves immensely superior to
those of their foee.

The reason of these striking and unexpected
successes was that our navy in 181 2 was the exact
reverse of what our navy is now, in 1882. I am
not alluding to the personnel, which still remains
excellent ; but, whereas we now have a large num-
ber of worthless vessels, standing very low down
in their respective classes, we then possessed a few
vessels, each unsurpassed by any foreign ship of
her class. To bring up our navy to the condition
in which it stood in 181 2 it would not be neces-
sary (although in reality both very wise and in the

Naval War of 1 812 167

end very economical) to spend any more money
than at present ; only instead of using it to patch
up a hundred antiquated hulks, it should be em-
ployed in building half a dozen ships on the most
effective model. If in 181 2 our ships had borne
the same relation to the British ships that they do
now, not all the courage and skill of our sailors
would have won us a single success. As it was, we
could only cope with the lower rates, and had no
vessels to oppose to the great "liners"; but to-
day there is hardly any foreign ship, no matter
how low its rate, that is not superior to the corre-
sponding American ones. It is too much to hope
that our political shortsightedness will ever enable
us to have a navy that is first-class in point of size ;
but there certainly seems no reason why what
ships we have should not be of the very best
quality. The efi^ect of a victory is twofold, moral
and material. Had we been as roughly handled
on water as we were on land during the first year
of the war, such a succession of disasters would
have had a most demoralizing effect on the nation
at large. As it was, our victorious sea-fights,
while they did not inflict any material damage
upon the colossal sea-might of England, had the
most important results in the feelings they pro-
duced at home and even abroad. Of course, they
were magnified absurdly by most of our writers at
the time; but they do not need to be magnified,

1 68

Naval War of 1812

for, as they are, any American can look back upon
them with the keenest national pride. For a hun-
dred and thirty years England had had no equal on
the sea; and now she suddenly found one in the
untried navy of an almost unknown power.


Name Guns Tonnage Remarks

Giierriere 49 1340

Macedonian 49 1325

Java 49 1340

Frolic 19 477 Recaptured.

Alert 20 325

186 4807

19 477 Deducting Frolic.

167 4330

Name Guns Tonnage

Wasp 18 450

Nautilus 14 185

Vixen 14 185

46 820


Rig Guns Tonnage Where Built


Nonsuch Schooner 14 148 Charleston $15,000

Carolina. . . Schooner 14 230 " 8,743

Louisiana.. Ship 16 341 New Orleans 15,500

Naval War of 1 812 169


Ship No. of Prizes

President y

United States 2

Constitution g

Congress 2

Chesapeake i

Essex II

Wasp 2

Hornet i

Argus 6

Small craft 5


^ These can only be approximately given ; the records are
often incomplete or contradictory, especially as regards the
small craft. Most accounts do not give by any means the
full number.



Preliminary — The combatants starting nearly on an
equality— Difficulties of creating a naval force— Difficulty of
comparing the force of the rival squadrons — Meagreness of
the published accounts— Unreliability of James. — Ontario —
Extraordinary nature of the American squadron — Canadian
squadron forming only a kind of water militia — Sackett's
Harbor feebly attacked by Commodore Earle — Commodore
Chauncy bombards York.— Erie— Lieutenant EUiott captures
the Detroit and Caledonia — Unsuccessful expedition of Lieu-
tenant Angus.

AT the time we are treating of, the State of
Maine was so sparsely settled, and covered
with such a dense growth of forest, that it
was practically impossible for either of the con-
tending parties to advance an army through its
territory. A continuation of the same wooded
and mountainous district protected the northern
parts of Vermont and New Hampshire, while in
New York the Adirondack region was an im-
penetrable wilderness. It thus came about that
the northern boundary was formed, for military
purposes, by Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Niagara,
Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence, and, after an in-


Naval War of 1 812 171

terval, by Lake Champlain. The road into the
States by the latter ran close along shore, and
without a naval force the invader would be wholly
unable to protect his flanks, and would probably
have his communications cut. This lake, how-
ever, was almost wholly within the United States,
and did not become of importance till toward the
end of the war. Upon it were two American gun-
boats, regularly officered and manned, and for
such smooth water sufficiently effective vessels.

What was at that time the western part of the
northern frontier became the main theatre of mili-
tary operations, and as it presented largely a
water front, a naval force was an indispensable
adjunct, the command of the lakes being of the
utmost importance. As these lakes were fitted
for the manoeuvring of ships of the largest size,
the operations upon them were of the same nature
as those on the ocean, and properly belong to
naval and not to military history. But while on
the ocean America started with too few ships to
enable her really to do any serious harm to her
antagonist, on the inland waters the two sides
began very nearly on an equality. The chief
regular forces either belligerent possessed were on
Lake Ontario. Here the United States had a
man-of-war brig, the Oneida, of 240 tons, carrying
sixteen 24-pound carronades, manned by experi-
enced seamen, and commanded by Lieut. M. T.

172 Naval War of 1812

Woolsey. Great Britain possessed the Royal
George, 22, Prince Regent, 16, Earl of Moira, 14,
Gloucester, 10, Seneca, 8, and Simco, 8, all under
the command of a Commodore Earle ; but though
this force was so much the more powerful it was
very inefficient, not being considered as belonging
to the regular navy, the sailors being undis-
ciplined, and the officers totally without experi-
ence, never having been really trained in the
British service. From these causes, it resulted
that the struggle on the lakes was to be a work as
much of creating as of using a navy. On the sea-
board, success came to those who made best use of
the ships that had already been built; on the
lakes, the real contest lay in the building. And
building an inland navy was no easy task. The
country around the lakes, especially on the south
side, was still very sparsely settled, and all the
American naval supplies had to be brought from
the seaboard cities through the valley of the
Mohawk. There was no canal or other means of
communication, except very poor roads inter-
mittently relieved by transportation on the Mo-
hawk and on Oneida Lake, when they were
navigable. Supplies were thus brought up at an
enormous cost, with tedious delays, and great
difficulty; and bad weather put a stop to all
travel. Very little, indeed, beyond timber, could
be procured at the stations on the lakes. Still, a

Naval War of 1 8 1 2 173


few scattered villages and small towns had grown
up on the shores, whose inhabitants were largely
engaged in the carrying trade. The vessels used
for the purpose were generally small sloops or
schooners, swift and fairly good sailors, but very
shallow and not fitted for rough weather. The
frontiersmen themselves, whether Canadian or
American, were bold, hardy seamen, and when
properly trained and led made excellent man-of-
war's men; but on the American side they were
too few in number, and too untrained to be made
use of, and the seamen had to come from the
coast. But the Canadian shores had been settled
longer, the inhabitants were more numerous, and
by means of the St. Lawrence the country was
easy of access to Great Britain ; so that the seat of
war, as regards getting naval supplies, and even
men, was nearer to Great Britain than to us. Our
enemies also possessed, in addition to the squadron
Dn Lake Ontario, another on Lake Erie, consisting
of the Queen Charlotte, 17, Lady Prevost, 13, Hun-
ter, 10, Caledonia, 2, Little Belt, 2, and Chippeway,
2 . These two squadrons furnished training schools
for some five hundred Canadian seamen, whom a
short course of discipline under experienced officers
sufficed to render as good men as their British
friends or American foes. Very few British sea-
men ever reached Lake Erie (according to James,
not over fifty) ; but on Lake Ontario, and after-

174 Naval War of 1812

ward on Lake Champlain, they formed the bulk of
the crews, "picked seamen, sent out by govern-
ment expressly for service on the Canada lakes." '
As the contrary has sometimes been asserted, it
may be as well to mention that Admiral Codring-
ton states that no want of seamen contributed to
the British disasters on the lakes, as their sea-
ships at Quebec had men drafted from them for
that service till their crews were utterly depleted. ^
I am bound to state that, while I think that on the
ocean our sailors showed themselves superior to
their opponents, especially in gun practice, on the
lakes the men of the rival fleets were as evenly
matched, in skill and courage, as could well be.
The difference, when there was any, appeared in
the officers, and, above all, in the builders; which
was the more creditable to us, as in the beginning
we were handicapped by the fact that the British
already had a considerable number of war vessels,
while we had but one.

The Falls of Niagara interrupt navigation
between Erie and Ontario; so there were three
independent centres of naval operations on the
northern frontier. The first was on Lake Cham-
plain, where only the Americans possessed any
force, and, singularly enough, this was the only

» James, vi., 353.

2 Memoirs, i., 322, referring especially to battle of Lake

Naval War of 1 812 175

place where the British showed more enterprise in
ship-building than we did. Next came Lake On-
tario, where both sides made their greatest efforts,
but where the result was indecisive, though the
balance of success was slightly inclined toward us.
Our naval station was at Sackett's Harbor ; that of
our foes at Kingston. The third field of operations
was Lake Erie and the waters above it. Here
both sides showed equal daring and skill in the
fighting, and our advantage must be ascribed to
the energy and success with which we built and
equipped vessels. Originally, we had no force at
all on these waters, while several vessels were
opposed to us. It is a matter of wonder that the
British and Canadian governments should have
been so supine as to permit their existing force to
go badly armed, and so unenterprising as to build
but one additional ship, when they could easily
have preserved their superiority.

It is very difficult to give a full and fair account
of the lake campaigns. The inland navies were
created especially for the war, and, after it, were
allowed to decay, so that the records of the ton-
nage, armament, and crews are hard to get at. Of
course, where everything had to be created, the
services could not have the regular character of
those on the ocean. The vessels employed were
of widely different kinds, and this often renders it
almost impossible to correctly estimate the relative

176 Naval War of 181 2

force of two opposing squadrons. While the
Americans were building their lake navy, they, as
make-shifts, made use of some ordinary merchant
schooners, which were purchased and fitted up
with one or two long, heavy guns each. These
gun vessels had no quarters, and suffered under all
the other disadvantages which make a merchant
vessel inferior to a regularly constructed man-of-
war. The chief trouble was that in a heavy sea
they had a strong tendency to capsize, and were
so unsteady that the guns could not be aimed
when any wind was blowing. Now, if a few of
these schooners, mounting long 32's, encountered
a couple of man-of-war brigs, armed with carro-
nades, which side was strongest ? In smooth water
the schooners had the advantage, and in rough
weather they were completely at the mercy of the
brigs ; so that it would be very hard to get at the
true worth of such a contest, as each side would be
tolerably sure to insist that the weather was such
as to give a great advantage to the other. In all
the battles and skirmishes on Champlain, Erie,
and Huron, at least there was no room left for
doubt as to who were the victors. But on Lake
Ontario there was never any decisive struggle,
and whenever an encounter occurred, each com-
modore always claimed that his adversary had
"declined the combat " though " much superior in
strength." It is, of course, almost impossible to

Naval War of 1 812 177

find out which really did decline the combat, for
the ofificial letters flatly contradict each other;
and it is often almost as difficult to discover where
the superiority in force lay, when the fleets difTered
so widely in character as was the case in 1813.
Then Commodore Chauncy's squadron consisted
largely of schooners ; their long, heavy guns made
his total foot up in a very imposing manner, and
similar gun vessels did very good work on Lake
Erie; so Commodore Yeo, and more especially
Commodore Yeo's admirers, exalted these schoon-
ers to the skies, and conveyed the impression that
they were most formidable craft, by means of
which Chauncy ought to have won great victories.
Yet when Yeo captured two of them he refused to
let them even cruise with his fleet, and they were
sent back to act as coast gunboats and transports,
which certainly would not have been done had
they been fitted to render any effectual assistance.
Again, one night a squall came on and the two
largest schooners went to the bottom, which did
not tend to increase the confidence felt in the
others. So there can be no doubt that in all but
very smooth water the schooners could almost be
counted out of the fight. Then the question
arises in any given case, Was the water smooth?
And the testimony is as conflicting as ever.

It is not too easy to reconcile the official letters of
the commanders, and it is still harder to get at the

VOL. I. — 12,

178 Naval War of 181 2

truth from either the American or British his-
tories. Cooper is very inexact, and, moreover,
paints everything couleur de rose, paying no atten-
tion to the British side of the question, and dis-
tributing so much praise to everybody that one is
at a loss to know where it really belongs. Still,
he is very useful, for he lived at the time of the
events he narrates, and could get much informa-
tion about them at first hand, from the actors them-
selves. James is almost the only British authority
on the subject ; but he is not nearly as reliable
as when dealing with the ocean contests, most of
this part of his work being taken up with a succes-
sion of acrid soliloquies on the moral defects of the
American character. The British records for this
extraordinary service on the lakes were not at all
carefully kept, and so James is not hampered by
the necessity of adhering more or less closely to
official documents, but lets his imagination run
loose. On the ocean and seaboard his account of
the British force can generally be relied upon ; but
on the lakes his authority is questionable in every-
thing relating either to friends or foes. This is
the more exasperating because it is done wilfully,
when, if he had chosen, he could have written an
invaluable history; he must often have known
the truth when, as a matter of preference, he chose
either to suppress or alter it. Thus he ignores
all the small "cutting-out" expeditions in which

Naval War of 1812 179

the Americans were successful, and where one
would like to hear the British side. For example,
Captain Yeo captured two schooners, the Julia
and Growler, but Chauncy recaptured both. We
have the American account of this recapture in
full, but James does not even hint at it, and
blandly puts down both vessels in the total
"American loss" at the end of his smaller work.
Worse still, when the Gro-Jiisr again changed hands,
he counts it in again, in the total, as if it were an
entirely different boat, although he invariably
rules out of the American list all recaptured ves-
sels. A more serious perversion of facts are his
statements about comparative tonnage. This was
at that time measured arbitrarily, the depth of
hold being estimated at half the breadth of beam ;
and the tonnage of our lake vessels was put down
exactly as if they were regular ocean cruisers of
the same dimensions in length and breadth. But
on these inland seas the vessels really did not
draw more than half as much water as those on the
ocean, and the depth would of course be much less.
James, in comparing the tonnage, gives that of the
Americans as if they were regular ocean ships,
but in the case of the British vessels carefully
allows for their shallowness, although professing
to treat the two classes in the same way ; and thus
he makes out a most striking and purely imaginary
difference. The best example is furnished by his

i8o Naval War of 1812

accounts of the fleets on Lake Erie. The captured
vessels were appraised by two captains and the
ship-builder, Mr. Henry Eckford; their tonnage
being computed precisely as the tonnage of the
American vessels. The appraisement was re-
corded in the Navy Department, and was first
made public by Cooper, so that it could not have
been done for effect. Thus measured, it was found
that the tonnage was in round numbers as follows :
Detroit, 490 tons; Queen Charlotte, 400; Lady
Prevost, 230; Hunter, 180; Little Belt, 90; Chippe-
way, 70. James makes them measure respectively
305, 280, 120, 74, 54, and 32 tons, but carefully
gives the American ships the regular sea tonnage.
So, also, he habitually deducts about 25 per cent,
from the real number of men on board the British
ships ; as regards Lake Erie, he contradicts himself
so much that he does not need to be exposed from
outside sources. But the most glaring and least
excusable misstatements are made as to the battle
of Lake Champlain, where he gives the American
as greatly exceeding the British force. He
reaches this conclusion by the most marvellous
series of garblings and misstatements. First, he
says that the Confiance and the Saratoga were of
nearly equal tonnage. The Confiance, being cap-
tured, was placed on our naval lists, where for
years she ranked as a 36-gun frigate, while the
Saratoga ranked among the 24-gun corvettes; and

Naval War of 1812 181

by actual measurement the former was half as large
again as the latter. He gives the Confiance but
270 men; one of her officers, in a letter published
in the London Naval Chronicle,^ gives her over
300 ; more than that number of dead and prisoners
were taken out of her. He misstates the calibre
of her guns, and counts out two of them because
they were used through the bow-ports; whereas,
from the method in which she made her attack,
these would have been peculiarly effective. The
guns are given accurately by Cooper, on the au-
thority of an officer " who was on board the Con-
fiance within fifteen minutes after the Linnet
struck, and who was in charge of her for two

Then James states that there were but 10 Brit-
ish gallies, while Sir George Prevost's official ac-
count, as well as all the American authorities, state
the number to be 12. He says that the Finch
grounded opposite an American battery before the
engagement began, while in reality it was an hour
afterward, and because she had been disabled by
the shot of the American fleet. The gallies were
largely manned by Canadians, and James, anxious
to put the blame on these rather than the British,
says that they acted in the most cowardly way,

'Vol. xxxii., p. 272. The letter also says that hardly five
of her men remained unhurt.
2 Lieut. E. A. F. Lavallette.

i82 Naval War of 1 8i 2

whereas in reality they caused the Americans
more trouble than Downie's smaller sailing vessels
did. His account of the armament of these ves-
sels differs widely from the official reports. He
gives the Linnet and Chubb a smaller number of
men than the number of prisoners that were actu-
ally taken out of them, not including the dead.
Even misstating Downie's force in guns, under-
estimating the number of his men, and leaving
out two of his gunboats, did not content James;
and to make the figures show a proper dispropor-
tion, he says (vol. vi., p. 504) that he shall exclude
the Finch from the estimate, because she grounded,
and half of the gunboats, because he does not
think they acted bravely. Even were these as-
sertions true, it would be quite as logical for an
American writer to put the Chesapeake s crew down
as only 200, and say he should exclude the other
men from the estimate because they flinched ; and
to exclude all the guns that were disabled by shot
would be no worse than to exclude the Finch.
James's manipulation of the figures is a really
curious piece of audacity. Naturally, subsequent
British historians have followed him without in-
quiry. James's account of this battle, alone,
amply justifies our rejecting his narrative en-
tirely, as far as affairs on the lakes go, whenever
it conflicts with any other statement, British or
American. Even when it does not conflict, it

Naval War of 1 812 183

must be followed with extreme caution, for when-
ever he goes into figures the only thing certain
about them is that they are wrong. He gives no
details at all of most of the general actions. Of
these, however, we already possess excellent ac-
counts, the best being those in the Manual of
Naval Tactics, by Commander J. H. Ward, U.S.N.
(1859), and in Lossing's Field- Book of the War of
1812, and Cooper's Naval History. The chief
difficulty occurs in connection with matters on
Lake Ontario,' where I have been obliged to have
recourse to a perfect patchwork of authors and
even newspapers, for the details, using Niles's
Register and James as mutual correctives. The
armaments and equipments being so irregular, I
have not, as in other cases, made any allowance
for the short weight of the American shot, as here
the British may have suffered under a similar dis-
advantage ; and it may be as well to keep in mind
that on these inland waters the seamen of the two

^ The accounts of the two commanders on Lake Ontario are
as difficult to reconcile as are those of the contending admirals
in the battles which the Dutch waged against the English and
French during the years ^672-1675. In every one of Do
Ruyter's last six battles each side regularly claimed the vic-
tory, although there can be but little doubt that on the whole
the strategical, and probably the tactical, advantage remained
with De Ruyter. Every historian ought to feel a sense of the
most lively gratitude toward Nelson ; in his various encounters
he never left any possible room for dispute as to which side
had come out first best.

i84 Naval War of 1 812

navies seem to have been as evenly matched in
courage and skill as was possible. They were of
exactly the same stock, with the sole exception
that among and under, but entirely distinct
from, the Canadian-English, fought the descen-
dants of the conquered Canadian-French; and
even these had been trained by Englishmen,