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

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were led by English captains, fought on ships
built by English gold, and with English weapons
and discipline.


There being, as already explained, three inde-
pendent centres of inland naval operations, the
events at each will be considered separately.

At the opening of the war. Lieutenant Woolsey,
with the Oneida, was stationed at Sackett's Har-
bor, which was protected at the entrance by a
small fort with a battery composed of one long 32.
The Canadian squadron of six ships, mounting
nearly 80 guns, was of course too strong to be
meddled with. Indeed, had the Royal George, 22,
the largest vessel, been commanded by a regular
British sea-officer, she would have been perfectly
competent to take both the Oneida and Sackett's
Harbor; but before the Canadian commodore,
Earle, made up his mind to attack. Lieutenant
Woolsey had time to make one or two short

Naval War of 1 812 185

cruises, doing some damage among the merchant
vessels of the enemy.

On the 19th of July, Earle's ships appeared off
the harbor ; the Oneida was such a dull sailer that
it was useless for her to try to escape, so she was
hauled up under a bank where she raked the en-
trance, and her off guns landed and mounted on
the shore, while Lieutenant Woolsey took charge
of the "battery," or long 32, in the fort. The
latter was the only gun that was of much use, for
after a desultory cannonade of about an hour,
Earle withdrew, having suffered very little dam-
age, inflicted none at all, and proved himself and
his subordinates to be grossly incompetent.

Acting under orders. Lieutenant Woolsey now
set about procuring merchant schooners, to be
fitted and used as gun vessels until more regular
cruisers could be built. A captured British schooner
was christened the Julia, armed with a long 32,
and two 6's, manned with 30 men, under Lieu-
tenant Henry Wells, and sent down to Ogdensburg.
" On her way thither she encountered and actually
beat off, without losing a man, the Moira of 14,
and Gloucester, of 10 guns." ' Five other schoon-
ers were also purchased ; the Hamilton, of 10 guns,
being the largest, while the other four, the Gover-
nor Tompkins, Growler, Conquest, and Pert had
but II pieces between them. Nothing is more

'James, vi., 350,

1 86 Naval War of 1812

difficult than to exactly describe the armaments
of the smaller lake vessels. The American
schooners were mere make-shifts, and their guns
were frequently changed ' ; as soon as they could
be dispensed with they were laid up, or sold, and

It was even worse with the British, who mani-
fested the most indefatigable industry in inter-
mittently changing the armament, rig, and name
of almost every vessel, and, the records being very
loosely kept, it is hard to find what was the force
at any one time. A vessel which in one conflict
was armed with long i8's, in the next would have
replaced some of them with 68-pound carronades ;
or, beginning life as a ship, she would do most of
her work as a schooner, and be captured as a brig,
changing her name even oftener than anything

On the first of September, Commodore Isaac
Chauncy was appointed commander of the forces
on the lakes (except of those on Lake Champlain) ,
and he at once bent his energies to preparing an
effective flotilla. A large party of ship-carpenters

' They were always having accidents happen to them that
necessitated some alteration. If a boat was armed with a
long 32, she rolled too much, and they substituted a 24; if she
also had an 18-pound carronade, it upset down the hatchway
in the middle of a fight, and made way for a long 12, which
burst as soon as it was used, and was replaced by two medium
6's. So a regular gamut of changes would be rung.

Naval War of 1 812 187

were immediately despatched to the Harbor ; and
they were soon followed by about a hundred officers
and seamen, with guns, stores, etc. The keel of a
ship to mount twenty-four 3 2 -pound carronades,
and to be called the Madison, was laid down, and
she was launched on the 26th of November, just
when navigation had closed on account of the ice.
Late in the autumn, four more schooners were
purchased, and named the Ontario, Scourge, Fair
American, and Asp, but these were hardly used
until the following spring. The cruising force of
the Americans was composed solely of the Oneida
and the six schooners first mentioned. The Brit-
ish squadron was of nearly double this strength,
and had it been officered and trained as it was
during the ensuing summer, the Americans could
not have stirred out of port. But as it was, it
merely served as a kind of water militia, the very
sailors, who subsequently did well, being then
almost useless, and unable to oppose their well-
disciplined foes, though the latter were so inferior
in number and force. For the reason that it was
thus practically a contest of regulars against
militia, I shall not give numerical comparisons of
the skirmishes in the autumn of 181 2, and shall
touch on them but slightly. They teach the old
lesson that, whether by sea or land, a small, well-
officered, and well-trained force, cannot, except
very rarely, be resisted by a greater number of

i88 Naval War of 1 812

mere militia; and that in the end it is true econ-
omy to have the regular force prepared before-
hand, without waiting until we have been forced
to prepare it by the disasters happening to the ir-
regulars. The Canadian seamen behaved badly,
but no worse than the American land-forces did at
the same time ; later, under regular training, both
nations retrieved their reputations.

Commodore Chauncy arrived at Sackett's Har-
bor in October, and appeared on the lake on Nov-
ember 8th, in the Oneida, Lieutenant Woolsey,
with the six schooners Conquest, Lieutenant El-
liott; Hamilton, Lieutenant McPherson; Tomp-
kins, Lieutenant Brow^n; Pert, Sailing-master
Arundel; Julia, Sailing-master Trant; Growler,
Sailing-master Mix. The Canadian vessels were
engaged in conveying supplies from the westward.
Commodore Chauncy discovered the Royal George
off the False Duck Islands, and chased her under
the batteries of Kingston, on the 9th. Kingston
was too well defended to be taken by such a force
as Chauncy 's; but the latter decided to make a
reconnaissance, to discover the enemy's means of
defence, and see if it was possible to lay the Royal
George aboard. At 3 p.m. the attack was made.
The Hamilton and Tompkins were absent chasing
and did not arrive until the fighting had begun.
The other four gunboats. Conquest, Julia, Pert,
and Growler, led, in the order named, to open the

Naval War of 1812 189

attack with their heavy guns, and prepare the way
for the Oneida, which followed. At the third dis-
charge the Pert's gun burst, putting her nearly
hors de combat, badly wounding her gallant com-
mander, Mr. Arundel (who shortly afterward fell
overboard and was drowned) , and slightly wound-
ing four of her crew. The other gunboats engaged
the five batteries of the enemy, while the Oneida
pushed on without firing a shot till at 3.40 she
opened on the Royal George, and after twenty
minutes' combat actually succeeded in compelling
her opponent, though of double her force, to cut
her cables, run in, and tie herself to a wharf, where
some of her people deserted her; here she was
under the protection of a large body of troops, and
the Americans could not board her in face of
the land forces. It soon began to grow dusk, and
Chauncy's squadron beat out through the channel,
against a fresh head-wind. In this spirited attack
the American loss had been confined to half a
dozen men, and had fallen almost exclusively on
the Oneida. The next day foul weather came on,
and the squadron sailed for Sackett's Harbor.
Some merchant vessels were taken, and the Simco,
8, was chased, but unsuccessfully.

The weather now became cold and tempestuous,
but cruising continued till the middle of Novem-
ber. The Canadian commanders, however, utterly
refused to light ; the Royal George even fleeing from

190 Naval War of 181 2

the Oneida, when the latter was entirely alone,
and leaving the American commodore in undis-
puted command of the lake. Four of the schoon-
ers continued blockading Kingston till the middle
of November; shortly afterward, navigation


On Lake Erie there was no American naval
force, but the army had fitted out a small brig,
armed with six 6-pounders. This fell into the
hands of the British at the capture of Detroit, and
was named after that city, so that by the time a
force of American officers and seamen arrived at
the lake there was not a vessel on it for them to
serve in, while their- foes had eight. But we only
have to deal with two of the latter at present. The
Detroit, still mounting six 6-pounders, and with a
crew of 56 men, under the command of Lieutenant
of Marines Rolette, of the Royal Navy, assisted by
a boatswain and gunner, and containing also 30
American prisoners, and the Caledonia, a small
brig mounting two 4-pounders on pivots, with a
crew of 12 men, Canadian-English, under Mr.
Irvine, and having aboard also 10 American
prisoners, and a very valuable cargo of furs -s^'orth

^ These preliminary events were not very important, and
the historians on both sides agree almost exactly, so that I
have not considered it necessary to quote authorities.

Naval War of 1 812 191

about $200,000, moved down the lake, and on
October 7th anchored under Fort Erie/

Commander Jesse D. ElHott had been sent up
to Erie some time before with instructions from
Commodore Chauncy to construct a naval force,
partly by building two brigs of 300 tons each,'' and
partly by purchasing schooners to act as gunboats.
No sailors had yet arrived ; but on the very day on
which the two brigs moved down and anchored
under Fort Erie, Captain Elliott received news
that the first detachment of the promised seamen,
51 in number, including officers,^ was but a few
miles distant. He at once sent word to have these
men hurried up, but when they arrived they were
found to have no arms, for which application was
made to the military authorities. The latter not
only gave a sufficiency of sabres, pistols, and
muskets to the sailors, but also detailed enough
soldiers, under Captain N. Towson and Lieutenant
Isaac Roach, to make the total number of men
that took part in the expedition 124. This force

' Letter of Captain Jesse D. Elliott to Secretary of Navy,
Black Rock, October 5, 181 2.

2 That is, of 300 tons actual capacity; measured as if they
had been ordinary sea vessels, they each tonned 480. Their
opponent, the ship Detroit, similarly tonned 305 actual
measurement, or 490, computing it in the ordinary manner.

3 The number of men in this expedition is taken from Los-
sing's Field-Book of the War of i8t2, by Benson J. Lossing,
New York, 1869, p. 385, note, where a complete list of the
names is given.

192 Naval War of 1812

left Black Rock at one o'clock on the morning of
the 8th in two large boats, one under the command
of Commander Elliott, assisted by Lieutenant
Roach, the other under Sailing-master George
Watts and Captain Towson. After two hours'
rowing they reached the foe, and the attack was
made at three o'clock. Elliott laid his boat along-
side the Detroit before he was discovered, and cap-
tured her after a very brief struggle, in which he
lost but one man killed, and Midshipman J. C,
Cummings wounded with a bayonet in the leg.
The noise of the scuffle roused the hardy provin-
cials aboard the Caledonia, and they were thus
enabled to make a far more effectual resistance to
Sailing-master Watts than the larger vessel had to
Captain Elliott. As Watts pulled alongside he
was greeted with a volley of musketry, but at once
boarded and carried the brig, the twelve Canadians
being cut down or made prisoners ; one American
was killed and four badly wounded. The wind
was too light and the current too strong to enable
the prizes to beat out and reach the lake, so the
cables were cut and they ran down stream. The
Caledonia was safely beached under the protection
of an American battery near Black Rock. The
Detroit, however, was obliged to anchor but four
hundred yards from a British battery, which, to-
gether with some flying artillery, opened on her.
Getting all his guns on the port side, Elliott kept

Naval War of 1 812 193

up a brisk cannonade till his ammunition gave
out, when he cut his cable and soon grounded on
Squaw Island. Here the Detroit was commanded
by the guns of both sides, and whichever party-
took possession of her was at once driven out by
the other. The struggle ended in her destruction,
most of her guns being taken over to the American
side. This was a very daring and handsome ex-
ploit, reflecting great credit on Commander Elliott,
and giving the Americans, in the Caledonia, the
nucleus of their navy oh Lake Erie; soon after-
ward Elliott returned to Lake Ontario, a new de-
tachment of seamen under Commander S. Angus
having arrived.

On the 28th of November, the American general,
Smith, despatched two parties to make an attack
on some of the British batteries. One of these
consisted of ten boats, under the command of Cap-
tain King of the 15th Infantry, with 150 soldiers,
and with him went Mr. Angus with 82 sailors, in-
cluding officers. The expedition left at one o'clock
in the morning, but was discovered and greeted
with a warm fire from a field battery placed in
front of some British barracks known as the Red
House. Six of the boats put back ; but the other
four, containing about a hundred men, dashed on.
While the soldiers were forming line and firing, the
seamen rushed in with their pikes and axes, drove
off the British, capturing their commander, Lieu-


194 Naval War of 1812

tenant King of the Royal Army, spiked and threw
into the river the guns, and then took the barracks
and burned them, after a desperate fight. Great
confusion now ensued, which ended in Mr. Angus
and some of the seamen going off in the boats.
Several had been killed ; eight, among whom were
Midshipmen Wragg, Dudley, and Holdup, all
under twenty years old, remained with the troops
under Captain King, and, having utterly routed the
enemy, found themselves deserted by their friends.
After staying on the shore a couple of hours some
of them found two boats and got over; but Cap-
tain King and a few soldiers were taken prisoners.
Thirty of the seamen, including nine of the twelve
officers, were killed or wounded — among the
former being Sailing-masters Sisson and Watts,
and among the latter Mr. Angus, Sailing-master
Carter, and Midshipmen Wragg, Holdup, Graham,
Brailesford, and Irvine. Some twenty prisoners
were secured and taken over to the American
shore; the enemy's loss was more severe than
ours, his resistance being very stubborn, and a
good many cannon were destroyed, but the ex-
pedition certainly ended most disastrously. The
accounts of it are hard to reconcile, but it is diffi-
cult to believe that Mr. Angus acted correctly.

Later in the winter. Captain Oliver Hazard
Perry arrived to take command of the forces on
Lake Erie.



Blockade of the American coast — The Essex in the South
Pacific — The Hornet captures the Peacock — American priva-
teers cut out by British boats — Unsuccessful cruise of Com-
modore Rodgers — The Chesapeake is captured by the Shannon
— Futile gun-boat actions — Defence of Craney Island — Cutting
out expeditions — The Argus is captured by the Pelican — The
Enterprise captures the Boxer — Summary.

BY the beginning of the year 1813 the British
had been thoroughly aroused by the Amer-
ican successes, and active measures were
at once taken to counteract them. The force on
the American station was largely increased, and
a strict blockade begun, to keep the American
frigates in port. The British frigates now cruised
for the most part in couples, and orders were
issued by the Board of Admiralty that an 18-
pounder frigate was not to engage an American
24-pounder. Exaggerated accounts of the Amer-
ican 44' s being circulated, a new class of spar-deck
frigates was constructed to meet them, rating 50
and mounting 60 guns; and some 74's were cut
down for the same purpose.' These new ships were
all much heavier than their intended opponents.

" James, vi., p. 206.

196 Naval War of 181 2

As New England's loyalty to the Union was,
not unreasonably, doubted abroad, her coasts were
at first troubled but little. A British squadron
was generally kept cruising off the end of Long
Island Sound, and another off Sandy Hook. Of
course, America had no means of raising a block-
ade, as each squadron contained generally a 74 or a
razee, vessels too heavy for any in our navy to
cope with. Frigates and sloops kept skirting the
coasts of New Jersey, the Carolinas, and Georgia.
Delaware Bay no longer possessed the importance
it had during the Revolutionary War, and as the
only war vessels in it were some miserable gun-
boats, the British generally kept but a small force
on that station. Chesapeake Bay became the
principal scene of their operations; it was there
that their main body collected, and their greatest
efforts were made. In it a number of line-of-
battle ships, frigates, sloops, and cutters had been
collected, and early in the season Admiral Sir John
Warren and Rear-Admiral Cockburn arrived to
take command. The latter made numerous de-
scents on the coast, and frequently came into con-
tact with the local militia, who generally fled after
a couple of volleys. These expeditions did not
accomplish much, beyond burning the houses and
driving off the live-stock of the farmers along
shore, and destroying a few small towns — one of
them, Hampton, being sacked with revolting

Naval War of 1 812 197

brutality.^ The Government of the United States
was, in fact, supported by the people in its war
pohcy very largely on account of these excesses,
which were much exaggerated by American
writers. It was really a species of civil war, and
in such a contest, at the beginning of this century,
it was impossible that some outrages should not
take place.

The American frigate Constellation had by this
time got ready for sea, and, under the command of
Captain Stewart, she prepared to put out early in
January. As the number of blockaders rendered
a fight almost certain within a few days of her de-
parture, her crew were previously brought to the
highest state of discipline, the men being exer-
cised with especial care in handling the great guns
and in firing at a target.^ However, she never
got out; for when she reached Hampton Roads
she fell in with a British squadron of line-of -battle
ships and frigates. She kedged up toward Nor-
folk, and when the tide rose ran in and anchored
between the forts ; and a few days later dropped
down to cover the forts which were being built at
Craney Island. Here she was exposed to attacks
from the great British force still lying in Hampton

^ James (vi., 340) says: "The conduct of the British troops
on this occasion was ' revolting to human nature ' and ' dis-
graceful to the flag.' "

^ Life of Commodore Tatnall, by C. C. Jones, p. 15 (Savan-
nah, 1878).

198 Naval War of 181 2

Roads, and, fearing they would attempt to carry
her by surprise. Captain Stewart made every
preparation for defence. She was anchored in the
middle of the narrow channel, flanked by gun-
boats, her lower ports closed, not a rope left hang-
ing over the sides; the boarding nettings, boiled
in half-made pitch till they were as hard as wire,
were triced outboard toward the yard-arms, and
loaded with kentledge to fall on the attacking
boats when the tricing lines were cut, while the
carronades were loaded to the muzzle with musket-
balls, and depressed so as to sweep the water near
the ship.' Twice, a force of British, estimated by
their foes to number 2000 men, started off at night
to carry the Constellation by surprise; but on each
occasion they were discovered and closely watched
by her guard-boats, and they never ventured to
make the attack. However, she was unable to
get to sea, and remained blockaded to the close of
the war.

At the beginning of the year, several frigates and
smaller craft were at sea. The Chesapeake, Cap-
tain Evans, had sailed from Boston on December
13, 1812.^ She ran down past Madeira, the Ca-
naries, and Cape de Verde, crossed the equator, and

' For an admirable account of these preparations, as well
as of the subsequent events, see Cooper, ii., 242.

^Statistical History of the U. S. Navy, by Lieut. G. E. Em-

Naval War of 1 812 199

for six weeks cruised to the south of the line be-
tween longitudes 16° and 25°. Thence she steered
to the west, passing near Surinam, over the same
spot on which the Hornet had sunk the Peacock
but a day previous. Cruising northward through
the West Indies, she passed near the Bermudas,
where she was chased by a 74 and a frigate; es-
caping from them she got into Boston on April
9th, having captured five merchantmen, and
chased unsuccessfully for two days a brig-sloop.
The term of two years for which her crew were en-
listed now being up, they, for the most part, left,
in consequence of some trouble about the prize-
money. Captain Evans being in ill-health. Cap-
tain James Lawrence was appointed to command
her. He reached Boston about the middle of
May,' and at once set about enlisting a new crew,
and tried, with but partial success, to arrange
matters with the old sailors, who were now almost
in open mutiny.

When the year 181 2 had come to an end, the
Essex, 32, was in the South iVtlantic, and Captain
Porter shortly afterward ran into St. Catharines
to water. Being at a loss where to find his

'He was still on the Hornet at New York on May loth,
as we know "from a letter of Biddle's, written on that date
(in Letters of Masters-Commandant, 1813, No. 58), and so
could hardly have been with the Chesapeake two weeks before
he put out; and had to get his crew together and train them
during that time.

200 Naval War of 1812

consorts, he now decided to adopt the exceed-
ingly bold measure of doubling Cape Horn and
striking at the British whalers in the Pacific.
This was practically going into the enemy's
waters, the Portuguese and Spanish countries
being entirely under the influence of Britain,
while there were no stations where Porter could
re victual or repair in safety. However, the
Essex started, doubled the Horn, and on March
13th anchored in the harbor of Valparaiso.
Her adventurous cruise in the Pacific was the
most striking feature of the war; but as it has
been most minutely described by Commodore
Porter himself, by his son. Admiral Porter, by
Admiral Farragut, and by Cooper, I shall barely
touch upon it.

On March 20th, the Essex captured the Peruvian
corsair Nereyda, 16, hove her guns and small arms
overboard, and sent her into port. She made the
island of San Gallan, looked into Callao, and
thence went to the Gallipagos, getting everything
she wanted from her prizes. Then she went to
Tumbez, and returned to the Gallipagos; thence
to the Marquesas, and finally back to Valparaiso
again. By this year's campaign in the Pacific,
Captain Porter had saved all our ships in those
waters, had not cost the Government a dollar,
living purely on the enemy, and had taken from
him nearly 4000 tons of shipping and 400 men,

Naval War of 1 812 201

completely breaking up his whaling trade in the
South Pacific,

The cruise was something sui generis in modern
warfare, recalling to mind the cruises of the early-
English and Dutch navigators. An American
ship was at a serious disadvantage in having no
harbor of refuge away from home ; while on almost
every sea there were British, French, and Spanish
ports into which vessels of those nations could run
for safety. It was an unprecedented thing for a
small frigate to cruise a year and a half in enemy's
waters, and to supply herself during that time,
purely from captured vessels, with everything—
cordage, sails, guns, anchors, provisions, and
medicines, and even money to pay the officers and
men I Porter's cruise was the very model of what
such an expedition should be, harassing the enemy
most effectually at no cost whatever. Had the
Essex been decently armed with long guns, in-
stead of carronades, the end might have been as
successful as it was glorious. The whalers were
many of them armed letters-of -marque, and,
though of course unable to oppose the frigate,