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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odds in force, it is true, were against the Argus,
about in the proportion of 10 to 8, but this is
neither enough to account for the loss inflicted
being as 10 to 3, nor for her surrendering when she
had been so little ill-used. It was not even as if
her antagonist had been an unusually fine vessel of
her class. The Pelican did not do as well as either
the Frolic previously, or the Reindeer afterward,
though perhaps rather better than the Avon, Pen-
guin, or Peacock. With a comparatively unman-
ageable antagonist, in smooth water, she ought to
have sunk her in three quarters of an hour. But
the Pelican's not having done particularly well
merely makes the conduct of the Americans look
worse; it is just the reverse of the Chesapeake's

Naval War of 1 812 255

case, where, paying the highest credit to the Brit-
ish, we still thought the fight no discredit to us.
Here we can indulge no such reflection. The
officers did well, but the crew did not. Cooper
says: "The enemy was so much heavier that it
may be doubted whether the Argus would have
captured her antagonist under any ordinary cir-
cumstances." This I doubt; such a crew as the
Wasp's or Hornet's probably would have been
successful. The trouble with the guns of the
Argus was not so much that they were too small,
as that they did not hit; and this seems all the
more incomprehensible when it is remembered that
Captain Allen is the very man to whom Commo-
dore Decatur, in his official letter, attributed the
skilful gun-practice of the frigate United States.
Cooper says that the powder was bad ; and it has
also been said that the men of the Argus were
over-fatigued and were drunk, in which case they
ought not to have been brought into action. Be-
sides unskilfulness, there is another very serious
count against the crew. Had the Pelican been
some distance from the Argus, and in a position
where she could pour in her fire with perfect im-
punity to herself, when the surrender took place,
it would have been more justifiable. But, on the
contrary, the vessels were touching, and the Brit-
ish boarded just as the colors were hauled down ; it
was certainly very disgraceful that the Americans

256 Naval War of 181 2,

did not rally to repel them, for they had still
four fifths of their number absolutely untouched.
They certainly ought to have succeeded, for board-
ing is a difficult and dangerous experiment; and
if they had repulsed their antagonists they might
in turn have carried the Pelican. So that, in sum-
ming up the merits of this action, it is fair to say
that both sides showed skilful seamanship and un-
skilful gunnery; that the British fought bravely
and that the Americans did not.

It is somewhat interesting to compare this fight,
where a weaker American sloop was taken by a
stronger British one, with two or three others,
where both the comparative force and the result
were reversed. Comparing it, therefore, with the
actions between the Hornet and Peacock (British),
the Wasp and Avon, and the Peacock (American)
and Epervier, we get four actions, in one of which,
the first-named, the British were victorious, and in
the other three the Americans.

Comparative Comparative Per cent.
Force Loss Inflicted Loss

Pelican (British) i .00 i .00 .06

Argus (American) 82 .29 .23

Hornet (American) i . 00 i . 00 .02

Peacock (British) 83 .07 .31

Wasp (American) i . 00 i . 00 .02

Avon (British) 80 .07 .33

Peacock (American) i . 00 i . 00 .01

Epervier (British) 81 .08 ,20

Naval War of 1812 257

It is thus seen that in these sloop actions the
superiority of force on the side of the victor was
each time about the same. The Argus made a
much more effectual resistance than did either the
Peacock, Avon, or Epervier, while the Pelican did
her work in poorer form than either of the vic-
torious American sloops ; and, on the other hand,
the resistance of the Argus did not by any means
show as much bravery as was shown in the de-
fence of the Peacock or Avon, although rather more
than in the case of the Epervier.

This is the only action of the war where it is
almost impossible to find out the cause of the in-
feriority of the beaten crew. In almost all other
cases we find that one crew had been carefully
drilled, and so proved superior to a less-trained
antagonist; but it is incredible that the man to
whose exertions, when first lieutenant of the States,
Commodore Decatur ascribes the skilfulness of
that ship's men, should have neglected to train his
own crew; and this had the reputation of being
composed of a fine set of men. Bad powder
would not account for the surrender of the Argus
when so little damaged. It really seems as if the
men must have been drunk or over-fatigued, as has
been so often asserted. Of course, drunkenness
would account for the defeat, although not in the
least altering its humiliating character.

" Et tu quoque" is not much of an argument;

VOL. I.— 17

25S Naval War of 181 2

still it may be as well to call to mind here two en-
gagements in which British sloops suffered much
more discreditable defeats than the Argus did.
The figures are taken from James ; as given by the
French historians, they make even a worse show-
ing for the British.

A short time before our war, the British brig
Carnation, 18, had been captured, by boarding,
by the French brig, Palinure, 16, and the British
brig Alacrity, 18, had been captured, also by
boarding, by the corvette Abeille, 20.

The following was the comparative force, etc.,
of the combatants:

Weight Metal No. Crew Loss

Carnation 262 117 40

Palinure 174 100 20

Alacrity 262 100 18

Abeille 260 130 19

In Spite of the pride the British take in their
hand-to-hand prowess, both of these ships were
captured by boarding. The Carnation was cap-
tured by a much smaller force, instead of by a much
larger one, as in the case of the Argus; and if the
Argus gave up before she had suffered greatly, the
Alacrity surrendered when she had suffered still
less. French historians asserted that the capture
of the two brigs proved that ' ' French valor could
conquer British courage"; and a similar opinion

Naval War of 1 812 • 259

was very complacently expressed by British his-
torians after the defeat of the Argus. All that the
three combats really "proved" was, that in eight
encounters between British and American sloops
the Americans were defeated once; and in a far
greater number of encounters between French and
British sloops the British were defeated twice. No
one pretends that either navy was invincible ; the
question is : Which side averaged best ?

At the opening of the war we possessed several
small brigs ; these had originally been fast, handy
little schooners, each armed with twelve long 6's,
and with a crew of 60 men. As such, they were
effective enough ; but when afterward changed into
brigs, each armed with a couple of extra guns, and
given 40 additional men, they became too slow to
run, without becoming strong enough to fight.
They carried far too many guns and men for their
size, and not enough to give them a chance with
any respectable opponent ; and they were almost
all ignominiously captured. The single exception
was the brig Enterprise. She managed to escape
capture owing chiefly to good luck, and once
fought a victorious engagement, thanks to the
fact that the British possessed a class of vessels
even worse than our own. She was kept near the
land, and finally took up her station off the eastern
coast, where she did good service in. chasing away

26o Naval War of 1812

or capturing the various Nova Scotian or New
Brunswick privateers, which were smaller and less
formidable vessels than the privateers of the
United States, and not calculated for fighting.

By crowding guns into her bridle-ports, and
over-manning herself, the Enterprise, now under
the command of Lieutenant William Burrows,
mounted fourteen 18-pound carronades and two
long 9's, with 102 men. On September 5th, while
standing along shore near Penguin Point, a few
miles to the eastward of Portland, Me., she discov-
ered, at anchor inside, a man-of-war brig,' which
proved to be H. M. S. Boxer, Captain Samuel Blyth,
of 12 carronades, i8-pounders, and two long 6's,
with but 66 men aboard, 12 of her crew being ab-
sent.'' The Boxer at once hoisted three British en-
signs and bore up for the Enterprise, then standing
in on the starboard tack ; but when the two brigs
were still four miles apart it fell calm. At midday,
a breeze sprang up from the southwest, giving the
American the weather-gage, but the latter ma-
noeuvred for some time to windward to try the
comparative rates of sailing of the vessels. At 3
P.M., Lieutenant Burrows hoisted three ensigns,

' Letter from Lieutenant Edward R. McCall to Commodore
Hull, September 5, 1813.

" James, Naval Occurrences, 264. The American accounts
give the Boxer 104 men, on very insufficient grounds. Simi-
larly, James gives the Enterprise 123 men. Each side will be
considered authority for its own force and loss.

Naval War of 1 812 261

shortened sail, and edged away toward the enemy,
who came gallantly on. Captain Blyth had nailed
his colors to the mast, telling his men they should
never be struck while he had life in his body.' Both
crews cheered loudly as they neared each other,
and, at 3.15, the two brigs being on the starboard
tack not a half pistol-shot apart, they opened fire,
the American using the port, and the English the
starboard, battery. Both broadsides were very
destructive, each of the commanders falling at the
very beginning of the action. Captain Blyth was
struck by an 1 8-pound shot while he was standing
on the quarter-deck ; it passed completely through
his body, shattering his left arm and killing him
on the spot. The command, thereupon, devolved
on Lieutenant David McCreery. At almost the
same time, his equally gallant antagonist fell.
Lieutenant Burrows, while encouraging his men,
laid hold of a gun-tackle fall to help the crew of a
carronade run out the gun ; in doing so he raised one
leg against the bulwark, when a canister shot struck
his thigh, glancing into his body and inflicting a
fearful wound. ^ In spite of the pain he refused to
be carried below, and lay on the deck, crying out
that the colors must never be struck. Lieutenant
Edward McCall now took command. At 3.30,
the Enterprise ranged ahead, rounded to on the

' Naval Chronicle, xxxii., p. 462.
* Cooper, Naval History, i., p. 259.

262 Naval War of 181 2

starboard tack, and raked the Boxer with the star-
board guns. At 3 . 3 5 , the Boxer lost her main- top-
mast and topsail yard, but her crew still kept up
the fight bravely, with the exception of four men
who deserted their quarters, and were afterward
court-martialed for cowardice.' The Enterprise



'^ s*s y

now set her foresail and. took position on the
enemy's starboard bow, delivering raking fires;
and at 3.45 the latter surrendered, when entirely
unmanageable and defenceless. Lieutenant Bur-
rows would not go below until he had received the
sword of his adversary, when he exclaimed: " I am
satisfied; I die contented."

Both brigs had suffered severely, especially the
Boxer, which had been hulled repeatedly, and had
three 18 -pound shot through her foremast, her
topgallant forecastle almost cut away, and several
of her guns dismounted. Three men were killed
and seventeen wounded, four mortally. The En-

' Minutes of court-martial held aboard H. M. S. Surprise,
January 8, 1814.

Naval War of 1 812 263

terprise had been hulled by one round and many
grape; one 18-pound ball had gone through her
foremast, and another through her mainmast, and
she was much cut up aloft. Two of her men were
killed and ten wounded, two of them (her com-
mander and Midshipman Kervin Waters) mor-
tally. The British court-martial attributed the
defeat of the Boxer "to a superiority in the ene-
my's force, principally in the number of men, as
well as to a greater degree of skill in the direction
of her fire, and to the destructive effects of the first
broadside." But the main element was the su-
periority in force, the difference in loss being very
nearly proportional to it ; both sides fought with
equal bravery and equal skill. This fact was ap-
preciated by the victors, for at a naval dinner given
in New York shortly afterward, one of the toasts
offered was : " The crew of the Boxer: enemies by
law, but by gallantry brothers." The two com-
manders were both buried at Portland, with all
the honors of war. The conduct of Lieutenant
Burrows needs no comment. He was an officer
greatly beloved and respected in the service.
Captain Blyth, on the other side, had not only
shown himself on many occasions to be a man of
distinguished personal courage, but was equally
noted for his gentleness and humanity. He had
been one of Captain Lawrence's pall-bearers, and
but a month previous to his death had received a

264 Naval War of 181 2

public note of thanks from an American colonel,
for an act of great kindness and courtesy.'

The Enterprise, under Lieutenant-Commander
Renshaw, now cruised off the southern coast,
where she made several captures. One of them was
a heavy British privateer, the Mars, of fourteen
long 9's and 75 men, which struck after receiving
a broadside that killed and wounded four of her
crew. The Enterprise was chased by frigates on
several occasions; being once forced to throw
overboard all her guns but two, and escaping only
by a shift in the wind. Afterward, as she was
unfit to cruise, she was made a guardship at
Charlestown ; for the same reason, the Boxer was
not purchased into the service.

On October 4th, some volunteers from the New-
port flotilla captured, by boarding, the British
privateer Dart,^ after a short struggle, in which
two of the assailants were wounded and several of
the privateersmen, including the first officer, were


On December 4th, Commodore Rodgers, still in

command of the President, sailed again from Provi-

' dence, Rhode Island. On the 25th, in lat. 19° N.

and long. 35° W., the President, during the night,

fell in with two frigates, and came so close that the

' Naval Chronicle, xxxii., 466.

* Letter of Mr. Joseph Nicholson, October 5, 1813.

Naval War of 1 812 265

headmost fired at her, when she made off. These
were thought to be British, but were in reahty the
two French 40-gun frigates Nymphe and Meduse,
one month out of Brest. After this Httle encoun-
ter, Rodgers headed toward the Barbadoes, and
cruised to windward of them.

On the whole, the ocean warfare of 181 3 was de-
cidedly in favor of the British, except during the
first few months. The Hornet's fight with the
Peacock was an action similar to those that took
place in 1 8 1 2 , and the cruise of Porter was unique
in our annals, both for the audacity with which
it was planned, and the success with which it was
executed. Even later in the year, the Argus and
the President made bold cruises in sight of the
British coasts, the former working great havoc
among the merchantmen. But by that time the
tide had turned strongly in favor of our enemies.
From the beginning of summer, the blockade was
kept up so strictly that it was with difficulty any of
our vessels broke through it; they were either
chased back or captured. In the three actions
that occurred, the British showed themselves
markedly superior in two, and in the third the
combatants fought equally well, the result being
fairly decided by the fuller crew and slightly
heavier metal of the Enterprise. The gunboats,
to which many had looked for harbor defence,

266 Naval War of 1812

proved nearly useless, and were beaten off with
ease whenever they made an attack.

The lessons taught by all this were the usual
ones. Lawrence's victory in the Hornet showed
the superiority of a properly trained crew to one
that had not been properly trained; and his de-
feat in the Chesapeake pointed exactly the same
way, demonstrating in addition the folly of taking
a raw levy out of port, and, before they have had
the slightest chance of getting seasoned, pitting
them against skilled veterans. The victory of
the Enterprise showed the wisdom of having the
odds in men and metal in our favor, when our an-
tagonist was otherwise our equal; it proved, what
hardly needed proving, that, whenever possible, a
ship should be so constructed as to be superior in
force to the foes it would be likely to meet. As
far as the capture of the Argus showed anything,
it was the advantage of heavy metal and the abso-
lute need that a crew should fight with pluck.
The failure of the gunboats ought to have taught
the lesson (though it did not) that too great econ-
omy in providing the means of defence may prove
very expensive in the end, and that good officers
and men are powerless when embarked in worth-
less vessels. A similar point was emphasized by
the strictness of the blockade, and the great in-
convenience it caused: namely, that we ought to
have had ships powerful enough to break it.

Naval War of 1 812 267

We had certainly lost ground during this year;
fortunately, we regained it during the next two.


Name Guns Tonnage

Peacock 20 477

Boxer 14 181

Highflyer 6 96

40 754


Name Guns Tonnage

Chesapeake. . 50 1265

Argus 20 298

Viper 10 148

80 17 II


Name Rig Guns Tonnage Where Built Cost

Rattlesnake Brig 14 278 Medford, Pa. $18,000

Alligator Sch'r 4 80

Asp Sloop 3 56 2,600


Name of Ship No. of Prizes

President 13

Congress 4

Chesapeake 6

Essex 14

Hornet 3

Argus 21

Small craft 18


1813 ,


Ontario. — Comparison of the rival squadrons — Chauncy
takes York and Fort George — Yeo is repulsed at Sackett's
Harbor, but keeps command of the lake — Chauncy sails —
Yeo's partial victory off Niagara — Indecisive action off the
Genesee — Chauncy's part al victory off Burlington, which
gives him the command of the lake — Erie. — Perry's success
in creating a fleet — His victory — Champlain. — Loss of the
Growler and Eagle — Summary.


WINTER had almost completely stopped
preparations on the American side.
Bad weather put an end to all com-
munication with Albany or New York, and so pre-
vented the transit of stores, implements, etc. It
was worse still with the men, for the cold and ex-
posure so thinned them out that the new arrivals
could at first barely keep the ranks filled. It was,
moreover, exceedingly difficult to get seamen to
come from the coast to serve on the lakes, where
work was hard, sickness prevailed, and there was
no chance of prize-money. The British govern-
ment had the great advantage of being able to


Naval War of 1 812 269

move its sailors where it pleased, while in the
American service, at that period, the men enlisted
for particular ships, and the only way to get them
for the lakes at all was by inducing portions of
crews to volunteer to follow their officers thither.*
However, the work went on in spite of interrup-
tions. Fresh gangs of shipwrights arrived, and,
largely owing to the energy and capacity of the
head builder, Mr. Henry Eckford (who did as
much as any naval officer in giving us an effective
force on Ontario), the Madison was equipped, a
small despatch sloop, the Lady of the Lake, pre-
pared, and a large new ship, the General Pike, 28,
begun, to mount 13 guns in each broadside and 2
on pivots.

Meanwhile, Sir George Prevost, the British com-
mander in Canada, had ordered two 24-gun ships
to be built, and they were begun; but he com-
mitted the mistake of having one laid down in
Kingston and the other in York, at the opposite
ends of the lake. Earle, the Canadian commodore,

* Cooper, ii., 357. One of James's most comical misstate-
ments is that on the lakes the American sailors were all
"picked men." On p. 367, for example, in speaking of the
battle of Lake Erie, he says: "Commodore Perry had picked
crews to all his vessels." As a matter of fact. Perry had once
sent in his resignation solely on account of the very poor
quality of his crews, and had with difficulty been induced to
withdraw it. Perry's crews were of hardly average excel-
lence, but then the average American sailor was a very good

2 70 Naval War of 1812

having proved himself so incompetent, was re-
moved ; and, in the beginning of May, Captain Sir
James Lucas Yeo arrived, to act as commander-in-
chief of the naval forces, together with four cap-
tains, eight Heutenants, twenty-four midshipmen,
and about 450 picked seamen, sent out by the
home government especially for service on the
Canada lakes.'

The comparative force of the two fleets or
squadrons, it is hard to estimate. I have already
spoken of the difficulty in finding out what guns
were mounted on any given ship at a particular
time, and it is even more perplexing with the
crews. A schooner would make one cruise with
but thirty hands; on the next it would appear
with fifty, a number of militia having volunteered
as marines. Finding the militia rather a nuisance,
they would be sent ashore, and on her third cruise
the schooner would substitute half a dozen frontier
seamen in their place. It was the same with the
larger vessels. The Madison might at one time
have her full complement of 200 men; a month's
sickness would ensue, and she would sail with but
150 effectives. The Pike's crew of 300 men at one
time would shortly afterward be less by a third, in
consequence of a draft of sailors being sent to the
upper lakes. So it is almost impossible to be per-
fectly accurate ; but, making a comparison of the

Jjames, vi., 353.

Naval War of 1812


various authorities, from Lieutenant Emmons to
James, the following tables of the forces may be
given as very nearly correct. In broadside force,
I count every pivot gun, and half of those that
were not on pivots.



Rig Tonnage Crew Metal; lbs. Armament

Pike Ship 875 300 360 28 long 24's

Oneida . .

593 200 364

. . Brig 243 100


Hamilton Sch'r 1 1 2

Scourge "



Julia. . .
Ontario .

Fair A merican. .
Pert "

Asp "

Lady of the Lake "


1 10




















24 short 32's

16 " 24's
long 32
" 24

short 12's


44 ■)

44 ]

44 I

36 j



2576 980 1399

long 32
" 12
" 6's

" 32
" 12

" 32

" 32

" 32

" 24
" 12

" 24
" 24
" 9


Naval War of 181 2

This is not materially different from James's
account (p. 356), which gives Chauncy 114 guns,
1 193 men, and 2121 tons. The Lady of the Lake,
however, was never intended for anything but a
despatch boat, and the Scourge and Hamilton were
both lost before Chauncy actually came into col-
lision with Yeo. Deducting these, in order to
compare the two foes, Chauncy had left 1 1 vessels
of 2265 tons, with 865 men and 92 guns throwing
a broadside of 1230 pounds.



Rig Tonnage Crew Metal ; lbs. Armament

f • I long 24


. Ship





8 " 18

4 short 68

10 " 32

3 long 18

Royal George...






2 short 68
16 " 32


• Brig





2 long 18
12 short 32






2 long 9
12 short 24

Sydney Smith..

. Sch'r





2 long 12

10 short 32

I long 24



187 •



I " 9

6 short i8's

2091 770 1374


Naval War of 1 812 273

This differs but slightly from James, who gives
Yeo 92 guns, throwing a broadside of 1374 pounds,
but only 717 men. As the evidence in the court-
martial held on Captain Barclay, and the official
accounts (on both sides) of Macdonough's victory,
convict him of very much underrating the force in
men of the British on Erie and Champlain, it can
be safely assumed that he has underestimated the
force in men on Lake Ontario. By comparing the
tonnage he gives to Barclay's and Downie's squad-
rons with what it really was, we can correct his
account of Yeo's tonnage.

The above figures would apparently make the
two squadrons about equal, Chauncy having 95
men more, and throwing at a broadside 144
pounds shot less than his antagonist. But the

Online LibraryTheodore RooseveltThe 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 text (page 17 of 42)