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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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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 3 of 42)
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with her, the frigate escaping scot-free while the
sloop was nearly knocked to pieces. Mutual re-
criminations followed, each side insisting that the
other was the assailant.

When Great Britain issued her Orders in Council
forbidding our trading with France, we retaliated
by passing an embargo act, which prevented us

Naval War of 1 8 1 2 9

from trading at all. There could be but one re-
sult to such a succession of incidents, and that
was war. Accordingly, in June, 181 2, war was
declared; and as a contest for the rights of sea-
men, it was largely waged on the ocean. We also
had not a little fighting to do on land, in which,
as a rule, we came out second-best. Few or no
preparations for the war had been made, and the
result was such as might have been anticipated.
After dragging on through three dreary and un-
eventful years it came to an end in 181 5, by a
peace which left matters in almost precisely the
state in which the war had found them. On land
and water the contest took the forrn of a succes-
sion of petty actions, in which the glory acquired
by the victor seldom eclipsed the disgrace incurred
by the vanquished. Neither side succeeded in
doing what it intended. Americans declared
that Canada must and should be conquered,
but the conquering came quite as near being
the other way. British writers insisted that the
American navy should be swept from the seas ;
and, during the sweeping process, it increased

When the United States declared war. Great
Britain was straining every nerve and muscle in a
death struggle with the most formidable military
despotism of modern times, and was obliged to
entrust the defence of her Canadian colonies to a

lo Naval War of 1812

mere handful of regulars, aided by the local fenci-
bles. But Congress had provided even fewer
trained soldiers, and relied on the militia. The
latter chiefly exercised their fighting abilities upon
one another in duelling, and, as a rule, were
afflicted with conscientious scruples whenever it
was necessary to cross the frontier and attack the
enemy. Accordingly, the campaign opened with
the bloodless surrender of an American general to
a much inferior British force, and the war con-
tinued much as it had begun; we suffered dis-
grace after disgrace, while the losses we inflicted,
in turn, on Great Britain were so slight as hardly
to attract her attention. At last, having crushed
her greater foe, she turned to crush the lesser and,
in her turn, suffered ignominious defeat. By this
time events had gradually developed a small num-
ber of soldiers on our Northern frontier, who, com-
manded by Scott and Brown, were able to
contend on equal terms with the veteran troops
to whom they were opposed, though these formed
part of what was then undoubtedly the most for-
midable fighting infantry any European nation
possessed. The battles at this period of the
struggle were remarkable for the skill and stub-
bom courage with which they were waged, as well
as for the heavy loss involved; but the number
of combatants was so small that in Europe they
would have been regarded as mere outpost skir-

Naval War of 1 812 n

mishes, and they wholly failed to attract any at-
tention abroad in that period of colossal armies.
When Great Britain seriously turned her at-
tention to her transatlantic foe, and assembled in
Canada an army of 14,000 men at the head of
Lake Champlain, Congressional forethought en-
abled it to be opposed by soldiers who, it is true,
were as well disciplined, as hardy, and as well
commanded as any in the world, but who were
only a few hundred strong, backed by more or less
incompetent militia. Only McDonough's skill
and Sir George Prevost's incapacity saved us from
a serious disaster; the sea-fight reflected high
honor on our seamen, but the retreat of the
British land-forces was due to their commander
and not to their antagonists. Meanwhile, a large
British fleet in the Chesapeake had not achieved
much glory by the destruction of local oyster-
boats and the burning of a few farmers' houses,
so an army was landed to strike a decisive blow.
At Bladensburg ' the five thousand British regu-
lars, utterly worn out by heat and fatigue, by
their mere appearance frightened into a panic
double their number of American militia, well
posted. But the only success attained was burn-
ing the public buildings of Washington, and
that result was of dubious value. Baltimore was

' See the Capture of Washington, by Edward D. Ingraham
(Philadelphia, 1849).

12 Naval War of 1812

attacked next, and the attack repulsed, after the
forts and ships had shelled one another with the
slight results that usually attend that spectacular
and harmless species of warfare.

The close of the contest was marked by the
extraordinary battle of New Orleans. It was a
perfectly useless shedding of blood, since peace
had already been declared. There is hardly an-
other contest of modern times where the defeated
side suffered such frightful carnage, while the
victors came off almost scathless. It is quite in
accordance with the rest of the war that the
militia, hitherto worse than useless, should on
this occasion win against great odds in point of
numbers; and, moreover, that their splendid vic-
tory should have been of little consequence in its
effects upon the result. On the whole, the con-
test by land, where we certainly ought to have
been successful, reflected greater credit on our
antagonists than upon us, in spite of the services
of Scott, Brown, and Jackson. Our small force
of regulars and volunteers did excellently ; as for
the militia, New Orleans proved that they could
fight superbly; and the other battles, that they
generally woidd not fight at all.

At sea, as will appear, the circumstances were
widely different. Here we possessed a small but
highly effective force, the ships well built, manned
by thoroughly trained men, and commanded by

Naval War of 1812 13

able and experienced officers. The deeds of our
navy form a part of history over which any Ameri-
can can be pardoned for Hngering.

Such was the origin, issue, and general character
of the war. It may now be well to proceed to a
comparison of the authorities on the subject.
Allusion has already been made to them in the
preface, but a fuller reference seems to be neces-
sary in this connection.

At the close of the contest, the large majority
of historians who wrote of it were so bitterly ran-
corous that their statements must be received
with caution. For the main facts, I have relied,
wherever it was practicable, upon the official
letters of the commanding officers, taking each as
authority for his own loss.' For all the British
victories we have British official letters, which
tally almost exactly, as regards matters of fact
and not of opinion, with the corresponding Ameri-
can accounts. For the first year, the British also
published official accounts of their defeats, which,
in the cases of the Guerriere, Macedonian, and

* As, where Broke states his own force at 330, his antagonist's
at 440, and the American court of inquiry makes the num-
bers 396 and 379, I have taken them as being 330 and 379,
respectively. This is the only just method; I take it for
granted that each commander meant to tell the truth, and,
of course, knew his own force, while he might very naturally
and in perfect good faith exaggerate his antagonist's. .

r4 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

Frolic, I have followed as closely as the accounts
of the American victors. The last British official
letter published, announcing a defeat, was that in
the case of the Java, and it is the only letter that
I have not strictly accepted. The fact that no
more were published thereafter is of itself un-
fortunate; and from the various contradictions
it contains it would appear to have been tam-
pered with. The surgeon's report accompanying
it is certainly false. Subsequent to 18 12, no let-
ter of a defeated British commander was pub-
lished,' and I have to depend upon the various
British historians, especially James — of whom
more anon.

The American and British historians from whom
we are thus at times forced to draw our material
regard the war from very different standpoints,
and their accounts generally differ. Each writer,
naturally, so colored the affair as to have it ap-
pear favorable to his own side. Sometimes this
was done intentionally and sometimes not. Not
infrequently errors are made against the his-
torian's own side; as when the British author,
Brenton, says that the British brig Peacock
mounted 32's instead of 24's, while Lossing, in
his Field Book of the War of i8i 2, makes the same

' Except about the battles on the Lakes, where I have ac-
cordingly given the same credit to the accounts both of the
British and of the Americans.

Naval War of 1 812 15

mistake about the armament of the American
brig Argus. Errors of this description are, of
course, as carefully to be guarded against as any
others. Mere hearsay reports, such as "it has
been said," "a prisoner on board the opposing
fleet has observed," "an American (or British)
newspaper of such and such a date has remarked,"
are of course to be rejected. There is a curious
parallelism in the errors on both sides. For ex-
ample, the American Mr. Low, writing in 18 13,
tells how the Constitution, 44, captured the Guer-
riere of 49 guns, while the British Lieutenant Low,
writing in 1880, tells how the Pelican, 18, captured
the Argus of 20 guns. Each records the truth,
but not the whole truth, for although rating 44
and 18 the victors carried respectively 54 and 21
guns, of heavier metal than those of their an-
tagonists. Such errors are generally intentional.
Similarly, most American writers mention the
actions in which the privateers were victorious,
but do not mention those in which they were de-
feated; while the British, in turn, record every
successful " cutting-out " expedition, but ignore en-
tirely those which terminated unfavorably. Other
errors arise from honest ignorance. Thus, James,
in speaking of the repulse of the Endymion's
boats by the Neufchatel, gives the latter a crew
of 120 men; she had more than this number
originally, but only forty were in her at the time

i6 Naval War of 1 8i 2

of the attack. So also when the captain of the
Pelican writes that the officers of the Argus report
her loss at 40, when they really reported it at 24,
or when Captain Dacres thought the Constitution
had lost about 20 men instead of 14. The
American gun-boat captains, in recounting their
engagements with the British frigates invariably
greatly overestimated the loss of the latter. So
that on both sides there were some intentional
misstatements or garblings, and a much more
numerous class of simple blunders, arising largely
from an incapacity for seeing more than one side
of the question.

Among the early British writers upon this war,
the ablest was James. He devoted one work, his
Naval Occurrences, entirely to it ; and it occupies
the largest part of the sixth volume of his more
extensive History of the British Navy.'' Two other
British writers, Lieutenant Marshall ' and Captain
Brenton,^ wrote histories of the same events, about
the same time ; but neither of these naval officers
produced half as valuable a work as did the
civilian James. Marshall wrote a dozen volumes,
each filled with several scores of dreary panegyrics
or memoirs of as many different officers. There

' A new edition. London, 1826.

2 Royal Naval Biography, by John Marshall. London, 1823-


3 Naval History of Great Britain, by Edward Pelham Bren-

ton. New edition, London, 1837.

Naval War of 1 812 17

is no attempt at order, hardly anything about the
ships, guns, or composition of the crews; and not
even the pretence of giving both sides, the object
being to make every Enghshman appear in his
best hght. The work is analogous to the numer-
ous lives of Decatur, Bainbridge, Porter, etc., that
appeared in the United States about the same
time, and is quite as untrustworthy. Brenton
made a far better and very interesting book,
written on a good and well-connected plan, and
apparently with a sincere desire to tell the truth.
He accepts the British official accounts as needing
nothing whatever to supplement them, precisely,
as Cooper accepts the American officials'. A
more serious fault is his inability to be accurate.
That this inaccuracy is not intentional, is proved
by the fact that it tells as often against his own
side as against his opponents. He says, for ex-
ample, that the guns of Perry's and Barclay's
squadrons "were about equal in number and
weight," that the Peacock (British) was armed
with 32's instead of 24's, and underestimates the
force of the second Wasp. But the blunders are
quite as bad when distributed as when confined
to one side; in addition, Brenton's disregard of
all details makes him of but little use.

James, as already said, is by far the most valu-
able authority on the war, as regards purely British
affairs. He enters minutely into details, and has

VOL. I.— 2

i8 Naval War of 1 812

evidently laboriously hunted up his authorities.
He has examined the ships' logs, the Admiralty
reports, various treaties, all the Gazette reports,
gives very well-chosen extracts, has arranged his
work in chronological order, discriminates be-
tween the officers that deserve praise and those
that deserve blame, and in fact writes a book
which ought to be consulted by every student of
naval affairs. But he is unfortunately afflicted
with a hatred toward the Americans that amounts
to a monomania. He wishes to make out as
strong a case as possible against them. The
animus of his work may be gathered from the not
over-complimentary account of the education of
the youthful seafaring American, which can be
found in vol. vi., p. 113, of his History. On page
153 he asserts that he is an " impartial historian" ;
and about three lines before mentions that "it
may suit the Americans to invent any falsehood,
no matter how barefaced, to foist a valiant char-
acter on themselves." On page 419 he says that
Captain Porter is to be believed, "so far as is
borne out by proof (the only safe way where
an American is concerned)," — which somewhat
sweeping denunciation of the veracity of all of
Captain Porter's compatriots would seem to indi-
cate that James was not, perhaps, in that dis-
passionate frame of mind best suited for writing
history. That he should be biassed against in-

Naval War of 1 812 19

dividual captains can be understood, but when
he makes rabid onslaughts upon the American
people as a whole, he renders it difficult for an
American, at any rate, to put implicit credence
in him. His statements are all the harder to
confute when they are erroneous, because they are
intentionally so. It is not, as with Brenton and
Marshall, because he really thinks a British cap-
tain cannot be beaten, except by some kind of
distorted special providence, for no man says
worse things than he does about certain officers
and crews. A writer of James's undoubted ability
must have known perfectly well that his state-
ments were untrue in many instances, as where
he garbles Hilyar's account of Porter's loss, or
misstates the comparative force of the fleets on
Lake Champlain.

When he says (p. 194) that Captain Bainbridge
wished to run away from the Java, and would
have done so if he had not been withheld by the
advice of his first lieutenant, who was a renegade
Englishman,' it is not of much consequence
whether his making the statement was due to
excessive credulity or petty meanness, for, in
either case, whether the defect was in his mind or
his morals, it is enough to greatly impair the
value of his other "facts." Again, when James

^ Who, by the way, war, Mr. Parker, born in Virginia, and
never in England in his Ufc.

20 Naval War of 1812

(p. 165) states that Decatur ran away from the
Macedonian until, by some marvellous optical de-
lusion, he mistook her for a 32, he merely detracts
a good deal from the worth of his own account.
When the Americans adopt boarding helmets, he
considers it as proving conclusively that they are
suffering from an acute attack of cowardice. On
p. 122 he says that "had the President, when she
fell in with the Belvidera, been cruising alone
. Commodore Rodgers would have magni-
fied the British frigate into a line-of-battle ship,
and have done his utmost to avoid her," which
gives an excellent idea of the weight to be attached
to the various other anecdotes he relates of the
much-abused Commodore Rodgers.

But it must always be remembered that un-
trustworthy as James is in anything referring
purely to the Americans, he is no worse than his
compeers of both nationalities. The misstate-
ments of Niles in his Weekly Register about the
British are quite as flagrant, and his information
about his own side even more valuable.' Every

' In Niles, by the way, can be found excellent examples of
the traditional American "spread-eagle" style. In one place
I remember his describing " The Immortal Rodgers," balked
of his natural prey, the British, as "soaring about like the
bold bald eagle of his native land," seeking whom he might
devour. The accounts he gives of British line-of-battle
ships fleeing from American 44's quite match James's anec-
dotes of the latter's avoidance of British 38's and 36's for

Naval War of 1 812 21

little American author crowed over Perry's " Nel-
sonic victory over a greatly superior force." The
Constitution was declared to have been at a dis-
advantage when she fought the Guerriere, and so
on, ad infinitum. But these writers have all faded
into oblivion, and their writings are not even re-
ferred to, much less believed. James, on the con-
trary, has passed through edition after edition, is
considered as unquestionable authority in his own
country, and largely throughout Europe, and has
furnished the basis for every subsequent account
by British authors. From Alison to Lieutenant
Low, almost every English work, whether of a
popular character or not, is, in so far as it touches
on the war, simply a "rehash" of the works writ-
ten by James. The consequence is that the
British and American accounts have astonishingly
little resemblance. One ascribes the capture of
the British frigates simply to the fact that their
opponents were "cut down line-of -battle ships";
the other gives all the glory to the "undaunted
heroism," etc., of the Yankee sailors.

One not very creditable trait of the early Ameri- '
can naval historians gave their rivals a great
advantage. The object of the former was to

fear they might mount twenty-four -pounders. The two
works taken together give a very good idea of the war;
separately, either is utterly unreliable, especially in matters
of opinion.

22 Naval War of 1 8i 2

make out that the Constitution, for example, won
her victories against an equal foe, and an exact
statement of the forces showed the contrary; so
they always avoided figures, and thus left the
ground clear for James's careful misstatements.
Even when they criticised him they never went
into details, confining themselves to some remark
about "hurling" his figures in his face with
" loathing." Even Cooper, interesting though his
work is, has gone far less into figures than he
should, and seems to have paid little, if any, at-
tention to the British official statements, which
of course should be received as of equal weight with
the American. His comments on the actions are
generally very fair, the book never being dis-
figured by bitterness toward the British ; but he
is certainly wrong, for example, in ascribing the
loss of the Chesapeake solely to accident, that of
the Argus solely to her inferiority in force, and so
on. His disposition to praise all the American
commanders may be generous, but is nevertheless
unjust. If Decatur's surrender of the President
is at least impliedly praised, then Porter's defence
of the Essex can hardly receive its just award.
There is no weight in the commendation bestowed
upon Hull, if commendation, the same in kind
though less in degree, is bestowed upon Rodgers.
It is a great pity that Cooper did not write a
criticism on James, for no one could have done it

Naval War of 1 812 23

more thoroughly. But he never mentions him,
except once in speaking of Barclay's fleet. In
all probability this silence arose from sheer con-
tempt, and the certainty that most of James's re-
marks were false; but the effect was that very
many foreigners believe him to have shirked the
subject. He rarely gives any data by which the
statements of James can be disproved, and it is
for this reason that I have been obliged to criticise
the latter's work very fully. Many of James's re-
marks, however, defy criticism from their random
nature, as when he states that American midship-
men were chiefly masters and mates of merchant-
men, and does not give a single proof to support
the assertion. It would be nearly as true to assert
that the British midshipmen were for the most
part ex-members of the prize-ring, and as much
labor would be needed to disprove it. In other
instances it is quite enough to let his words speak
for themselves, as where he says (p. 155) that of
the American sailors one third in number and
one half in point of effectiveness were in reality
British. That is, of the 450 men the Constitution
had when she fought the Java, 150 were British,
and the remaining 300 could have been as effec-
tively replaced by 150 more British. So a very
little logic works out a result that James certainly
did not intend to arrive at: namely, that 300
British led by American officers could beat, with

24 Naval War of 1 8i 2

ease and comparative impunity, 400 British led
by their own officers. He also forgets that the
whole consists of the sum of the parts. He ac-
counts for the victories of the Americans by
stating (p. 280) that they were lucky enough to
meet with frigates and brigs that had unskilful
gunners or worthless crews; he also carefully
shows that the Macedonian was incompetently
handled, the Peacock commanded by a mere
martinet, the Avon's crew unpractised at the guns,
the Epervier's mutinous and cowardly, the Pen-
guin's weak and unskilful, the Java's exceedingly
poor, and more to the same effect. Now, the
Americans took in single fight three frigates and
seven sloops, and when as many as ten vessels
are met it is exceedingly probable that they rep-
resent the fair average; so that James's strictures,
so far as true, simply show that the average
British ship was very apt to possess, comparatively
speaking, an incompetent captain or unskilful
crew. These disadvantages were not felt when
opposed to navies in which they existed to an
even greater extent, but became very apparent
when brought into contact with a power whose
few officers knew how to play their own parts
very nearly to perfection, and, something equally
important, knew how to make first-rate crews out
of what was already good raw material. Finally,
a large proportion of James's abuse of the Ameri-

Naval War of 1 812 25

cans sufficiently refutes itself, and perhaps Coop-
er's method of contemptuously disregarding him
was the best; but no harm can follow from de-
voting a little space to commenting upon him.

Much the best American work is Lieutenant
George E. Emmons's Statistical History of the
United States Navy. Unfortunately, it is merely
a mass of excellently arranged and classified sta-
tistics, and while of invaluable importance to the
student, it is not interesting to the average reader.
Almost all the statements I have made of the
force, tonnage, and armament of the American ves-
sels, though I have, whenever practicable, taken
them from the Naval Records, etc., yet could be
just as well quoted from Emmons. Copies of most
of the American official letters which I have quoted
can be found in Niles's Weekly Register, volumes
i. to X. and all of the British ones in the London
Naval Chronicle for the same years. ' It is to
these two authorities that I am most indebted,
and nearly as much so to the American State
Papers, vol. xiv. Next in order come Emmons,
Cooper, and the invaluable, albeit somewhat scur-
rilous, James; and a great many others whose
names I have quoted in their proper places. In
commenting upon the actions I have, whenever
possible, drawn from some standard work, such
as Jurien de la Graviere's Gnerres Maritimes, Lord
Howard Douglass's Naval Gunnery, or, better still,

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