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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 4 of 42)
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26 Naval War of 1812

from the lives and memoirs of Admirals Farragut,
Codrington, Broke, or Durham. The titles of the
various works will be found given in full as they
are referred to.' In a few cases, where extreme
accuracy was necessary, or where, as in the case
of the President's capture, it was desirable that
there should be no room for dispute as to the
facts, I have given the authority for each sen-
tence; but in general this would be too cumber-
some, and so I have confined myself to referring,
at or near the beginning of the account of each
action, to the authorities from whom I have taken
it. For the less important facts, on which every
one is agreed, I have often given no references.

* To get an idea of the American seaman of that time
Cooper's novels, Miles Wallingford, Home as Found, and The
Pilot, are far better than any history; in the Two Admirals
the description of the fleet manoeuvring is unrivalled. His
view of Jack's life is rather rose-colored, however. Tom
Cringle's Log ought to be read for the information it gives.
Marryat's novels will show some of the darker aspects of
sailor life.


Overwhelming naval supremacy of England when America
declared war against her — Race identity of the combatants
— The American navy at the beginning of the war — Officers
well trained — Causes tending to make our seamen especially
efficient — Close similarity between the British and American
sailors — Our ships manned chiefly by native Americans,
many of whom had formerly been impressed into the British
navy — Quotas of seamen contributed by the different States
— Navy yards — Lists of officers and men — List of vessels —
Tonnage — Different ways of estimating it in Britain and
America — Ratings — American ships properly rated — Arma-
ments of the frigates and corvettes — Three styles of guns used
—Difference between long gims and carronades— Short
weight of American shot — Comparison of British frigates
rating 38, and American frigates rating 44 guns — Compared
with a 74.

DURING the early years of this century,
England's naval power stood at a height
never reached before or since by that of
any other nation. On every sea her navies rode,
not only triumphant, but with none to dispute
their sway. The island folk had long claimed the
mastery of the ocean, and they had certainly suc-
ceeded in . making their claim completely good
during the time of bloody warfare that followed
the breaking out of the French Revolution. Since
the year 1792, each European nation, in turn,
had learned to feel bitter dread of the weight of


2^ Naval War of 1 8i 2

England's hand.' In the Baltic, Sir Samuel Hood
had taught the Russians that they must needs
keep in port when the English cruisers were in the
offing. The descendants of the Vikings had seen
their whole navy destroyed at Copenhagen. No
Dutch fleet ever put out after the day when, off
Camperdown, Lord Duncan took possession of
De Winter's shattered ships. But a few years
before 1812, the greatest sea-fighter of all time
had died in Trafalgar Bay, and in dying had
crumbled to pieces the navies of France and of

From that day England's task was but to keep
in port such of her foe's vessels as she had not
destroyed. France alone still possessed fleets that
could be rendered formidable, and so, from the
Scheldt to Toulon, her harbors were watched and
her coasts harried by the blockading squadrons
of the English. Elsewhere, the latter had no fear
of their power being seriously assailed ; but their
vast commerce and numerous colonies needed
ceaseless protection. Accordingly, in every sea
their cruisers could be found, of all sizes, from the
stately ship-of-the-line, with her tiers of heavy
cannon and her many hundreds of men, down to
the little cutter carrying but a score of souls and a
couple of light guns. All these cruisers, but es-
pecially those of the lesser rates, were continually
brought into contact with such of the hostile ves-

Naval War of 1812 29

sels as had run through the blockade, or were too
small to be affected by it. French and Italian
frigates were often caught and captured when
they were skirting their own coasts, or had started
off on a plundering cruise through the Atlantic,
or to the Indian Ocean ; and though the Danes
had lost their larger ships, they kept up a spirited
warfare with brigs and gunboats. So the Enghsh
marine was in constant exercise, attended with
almost invariable success.

Such was Great Britain's naval power when the
Congress of the United States declared war upon
her. While she could number her thousand sail,
the American navy included but half-a-dozen
frigates, and six or eight sloops and brigs ; and it
is small matter for surprise that the British officers
should have regarded their new foe with con-
temptuous indifference. Hitherto, the American
seamen had never been heard of except in con-
nection with two or three engagements with
French frigates, and some obscure skirmishes
against the Moors of Tripoli ; none of which could
possibly attract attention in the years that saw
Aboukir, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar. And yet
these same petty wars were the school which
raised our marines to the highest standard of
excellence. A continuous course of victory, won
mainly by seamanship, had made the English
sailor overweeningly self-confident, and caused

30 Naval War of 1812

him to pay but little regard to manoeuvring or
even to gunnery. Meanwhile, the American
learned, by receiving hard knocks, how to give
them, and belonged to a service too young to
feel an twer-confidence in itself. One side had let
its training relax, while the other had carried it
to the highest possible point. Hence our ships
proved, on the whole, victorious in the apparently
unequal struggle, and the men who had con-
quered the best seamen of Europe were now in
turn obliged to succumb. Compared with the
great naval battles of the preceding few years,
our bloodiest conflicts were mere skirmishes, but
they were skirmishes between the hitherto ac-
knowledged kings of the ocean, and new men who
yet proved to be more than their equals. For
over a hundred years, or since the time when they
had contended on equal terms with the great
Dutch admirals, the British had shown a decided
superiority to their various foes, and during the
latter quarter of the time this superiority, as
already said, was very marked indeed; in con-
sequence, the victories of the new enemy attracted
an amount of attention altogether dispropor-
tionate to their material effects. And it is a
curious fact that our little navy, — in which the
art of handling and fighting the old broadside
sailing frigate in single conflict was brought to
the highest point of perfection ever reached, — that

Naval War of 1 812 31

this same navy should have contained the first
representative of the modern war steamer, and
also the torpedo — the two terrible engines which
were to drive from the ocean the very white-
winged craft that had first won honor for the
starry flag. The tactical skill of Hull or Decatur
is now of merely archaic interest, and has but
little more bearing on the manoeuvering of a
modern fleet than have the tactics of the Athenian
gallies. But the war still conveys some most
practical lessons as to the value of efficient ships
and, above all, of efficient men in them. Had
we only possessed the miserable gun-boats, our
men could have done nothing; had we not pos-
sessed good men, the heavy frigates would have
availed us little. Poor ships and impotent artil-
lery had lost the Dutch almost their entire navy;
fine ships and heavy cannon had not saved the
French and Spanish from the like fate. We owed
our success to putting sailors even better than the
Dutch on ships even finer than those built by the
two Latin seaboard powers.

The first point to be remembered in order to
write a fair account of this war is that the differ-
ence in fighting skill, which certainly existed be-
tween the two parties, was due mainly to training,
and not to the nature of the men. It seems cer-
tain that the American had in the beginning some-
what the advantage, because his surroundings,

32 Naval War of 1 812

partly physical and partly social and political,
had forced him into habits of greater self-reliance.
Therefore, on the average, he offered rather the
best material to start with; but the difference
was very slight, and totally disappeared under
good training. The combatants were men of the
same race, differing but little from one another.
On the New England coast the English blood was
as pure as in any part of Britain; in New York
and New Jersey, it was mixed with that of the
Dutch settlers — and the Dutch are by race nearer
to the true old English of x\lfred and Harold than
are, for example, the thoroughly anglicized Welsh
of Cornwall. Otherwise, the infusion of new
blood into the English race on this side of the
Atlantic has been chiefly from three sources^
German, Irish, and Norse; and these three
sources represent the elemental parts of the com-
posite English stock in about the same proportions
in which they were originally combined, — mainly
Teutonic, largely Celtic, and with a Scandinavian
admixture. The descendant of the German be-
comes as much an Anglo-American as the de-
scendant of the Strathclyde Celt has already
become an Anglo-Briton. Looking through
names of the combatants it would be difficult to
find any of one navy that could not be matched
in the other — Hull or Lawrence, Allen, Perry, or
Stewart. And among all the English names on

Naval War of 1 812 33

both sides will be found many Scotch, Irish, or
Welsh — McDonough, O'Brien, or Jones. Still
stranger ones appear: the Huguenot Tattnall is
one among the American defenders of the Con-
stellation, and another Huguenot Tattnall is
among the British assailants at Lake Borgne.
It must always be kept in mind that the Ameri-
cans and the British are two substantially similar
branches of the great English race, which, both
before and after their separation, have assimilated,
and made Englishmen of, many other peoples.'
The lessons taught by the war can hardly be
learned unless this identity is kept in mind.^

To understand aright the efficiency of our navy,
it is necessary to take a brief look at the character

' The inhabitants of Great Britain are best designated as
"British" — EngUsh being either too narrow or too broad a
term, in one case meaning the inhabitants of but a part of
Britain, and in the other the whole Anglo-Saxon people.

^ It was practically a civil war and was waged with much
harshness and bitterness on both sides. I have already
spoken of the numerous grievances of the Americans; the
British, in turn, looked upon our blockade-runners which
entered the French ports exactly as we regarded, at a later
date, the British steamers that ran into Wilmington and
Charleston. It is curious to see how illogical writers are.
The careers of the Argus and Alabama, for example, were
strikingly similar in many ways, yet the same writer who
speaks of one as an "heroic little brig," will call the other a
"black pirate." Of course there can be no possible com-
parison as to the causes for which the two vessels were
fighting; but the cruises themselves were very much alike,
both in character and history.

VOL. I.— 3

34 Naval War of 1812

and antecedents of the officers and men who served
in it.

When war broke out the United States Navy-
was but a few years old, yet it already had a far
from dishonorable history. The captains and
lieutenants of 181 2 had been taught their duties
in a very practical school, and the flag under
which they fought was endeared to them already
by not a few glorious traditions — though these,
perhaps, like others of their kind, had lost none
of their glory in the telling. A few of the older
men had served in the war of the Revolution, and
all still kept fresh in mind the doughty deeds of
the old-time privateering war-craft. Men still
talked of Biddle's daring cruises and Barney's
stubborn fights, or told of Scotch Paul and the
grim work they had who followed his fortunes.
Besides these memories of an older generation,
most of the officers had themselves taken part,
when younger in years and rank, in deeds not a
whit less glorious. Almost every man had had a
share in some gallant feat, to which he, in part at
least, owed his present position. The captain had
perhaps been a midshipman under Truxton when
he took the Vengeance, and had been sent aboard
the captured French frigate with the prize-master ;
the lieutenant had borne a part in the various
attacks on Tripoli, and had led his men in the
desperate hand-to-hand fights in which the Yan-

Naval War of 1 812 35

kee cutlass proved an overmatch for the Turkish
and Moorish scimitars. Nearly every senior offi-
cer had extricated himself by his own prowess or
skill from the dangers of battle or storm; he
owed his rank to the fact that he had proved
worthy of it. Thrown upon his own resources,
he had learned self-reliance; he was a first-rate
practical seaman, and prided himself on the way
his vessel was handled. Having reached his rank
by hard work, and knowing what real fighting
meant, he was careful to see that his men were
trained in the essentials of discipline, and that
they knew how to handle the guns in battle as
well as polish them in peace. Beyond almost any
of his countrymen, he worshipped the "Gridiron
Flag," and, having been brought up in the navy,
regarded its honor as his own. It was, perhaps,
the navy alone that thought itself a match, ship
against ship, for Great Britain. The remainder
of the nation pinned its faith to the army, or
rather to that weakest of weak reeds, the militia.
The officers of the navy, with their strong esprit
de corps, their jealousy of their own name and
record, and the knowledge, by actual experience,
that the British ships sailed no faster and were no
better handled than their own, had no desire to
shirk a conflict with any foe, and, having tried
their bravery in actual service, they made it
doubly formidable by cool, wary skill. Even the

36 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

younger men, who had never been in action, had
been so well trained by the tried veterans over
them that the lack of experience was not sensibly

The sailors comprising the crews of our ships
were well worthy of their leaders. There was no
better seaman in the world than American Jack;
he had been bred to his work from infancy, and
had been off in a fishing-dory almost as soon as
he could walk. When he grew older, he shipped
on a merchantman or whaler, and in those war-
like times, when our large merchant-marine was
compelled to rely pretty much on itself for pro-
tection, each craft had to be well handled; all
that were not, were soon weeded out by a process
of natural selection, of which the agents were
French picaroons, Spanish buccaneers, and Malay
pirates. It was a rough school, but it taught
Jack to be both skilful and self-reliant; and he
was all the better fitted to become a man-of-war's
man because he knew more about fire-arms than
most of his kind in foreign lands. At home he
had used his ponderous ducking-gun with good
effect on the flocks of canvasbacks in the reedy
fiats of the Chesapeake, or among the sea-coots
in the rough water off the New England cliffs;
and when he went on a sailing voyage the
chances were even that there would be some use
for the long guns before he returned, for the

Naval War of 1812 37

American merchant - sailor could trust to no
armed escort.

The wonderful effectiveness of our seamen at
the date of which I am writing, as well as long
subsequently to it, was largely due to the curious
condition of things in Europe. For thirty years
all the European nations had been in a state of
continuous and very complicated warfare, during
the course of which each nation in turn fought
almost every other, England being usually at
loggerheads with all. One effect of this was to
force an enormous proportion of the carrying trade
of the world into American bottoms. The old
Massachusetts town of Salem was then one of the
main depots of the East India trade; the Balti-
more clippers carried goods into the French and
German ports with small regard to the blockade;
New Bedford and Sag Harbor fitted out whalers
for the Arctic seas, as well as for the South Pacific ;
the rich merchants of Philadelphia and New York
sent their ships to all parts of the world; and
every small port had some craft in the coasting
trade. On the New England seaboard but few
of the boys would reach manhood without having
made at least one voyage to the Newfoundland
Banks after codfish ; and in the whaling towns of
Long Island it used to be an old saying that no
man could marry till he struck his whale. The
wealthy merchants of the large cities would often

38 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

send their sons on a voyage or two before they let
them enter their counting-houses. Thus it came
about that a large portion of our population was
engaged in seafaring pursuits of a nature strongly
tending to develop a resolute and hardy character
in the men that followed them. The British
merchantmen sailed in huge convoys, guarded
by men-of-war, while, as said before, our vessels
went alone, and relied for protection on them-
selves. If a fishing smack went to the Banks it
knew that it ran a chance of falling in with some
not over-scrupulous Nova Scotian privateer. The
barques that sailed from Salem to the Spice
Islands kept their men well trained both at great
guns and musketry, so as to be able to beat off
either Malay proas or Chinese junks. The New
York ships, loaded for the West Indies, were pre-
pared to do battle with the picaroons that
swarmed in the Spanish main; while the fast
craft from Baltimore could fight as well as they
could run. Wherever an American seaman went,
he not only had to contend with all the legitimate
perils of the sea, but he had also to regard almost
every stranger as a foe. Whether this foe called
himself pirate or privateer mattered but little.
French, Spaniards, Algerines, Malays, — from all
alike our commerce suffered, and against all our
merchants were forced to defend themselves. The
effect of such a state of things, which made com-

Naval War of 1 812 39

merce so remunerative that the bolder spirits
could hardly keep out of it, and so hazardous
that only the most skilful and daring could suc-
ceed in it, was to raise up as fine a set of seamen
as ever manned a navy. The stern school in
which the American was brought up, forced him
into habits of independent thought and action
which it was impossible that the more protected
Briton could possess. He worked more intelli-
gently and less from routine, and while perfectly
obedient and amenable to discipline, was yet able
to judge for himself in an emergency. He was
more easily managed than most of his kind — be-
ing shrewd, quiet, and, in fact, comparatively
speaking, rather moral than otherwise; if he was
a New Englander, when he retired from a sea life
he was not unapt to end his days as a deacon.
Altogether, there could not have been better
material for a fighting crew than cool, gritty
American Jack. Moreover, there was a good
nucleus of veterans to begin with, who were well
fitted to fill the more responsible positions, such
as captains of guns, etc. These were men who
had cruised in the little Enterprise after French
privateers, who had been in the Constellation in
her two victorious fights, or who, perhaps, had
followed Decatur when with only eighty men he
cut out the Philadelphia, manned by fivefold his
force and surrounded by hostile batteries and war

40 Naval War of 1 8 1 2

vessels,- — one of the boldest expeditions of the
kind on record.

It is to be noted, furthermore, in this connec-
tion, that by a singular turn of fortune. Great
Britain, whose system of impressing American
sailors had been one of the chief causes of the war,
herself became, in consequence of that very sys-
tem, in some sort a nursery for the seamen of the
young Republican navy. The American sailor
feared nothing more than being impressed on a
British ship — dreading beyond measure the hard
life and cruel discipline aboard of her; but once
there, he usually did well enough, and in course of
time often rose to be of some little consequence.
For years before 1812, the number of these im-
pressed sailors was in reality greater than the
entire number serving in the American navy,
from which it will be readily seen that they formed
a good stock to draw upon. Very much to their
credit, they never lost their devotion to the home
of their birth, more than two thousand of them
being imprisoned at the beginning of the war be-
cause they refused to serve against their country.
When Commodore Decatur captured the Mace-
donian, that officer, as we learn from Marshall's
Naval Biography (ii., p. 10 19), stated that most of
the seamen of his own frigate, the United States,
had served in British war vessels, and that some
had been with Lord Nelson in the Victory, and

Naval War of 1 812 41

had even been bargemen to the great Admiral, —
a pretty sure proof that the American sailors did
not show to a disadvantage when compared with
others. '

Good seaman as the impressed American proved
to be, yet he seldom missed an opportunity to
escape from the British service, by desertion or
otherwise. In the first place, the life was very
hard, and, in the second, the American seaman
was very patriotic. He had an honest and deep
affection for his own flag, while, on the contrary,
he felt a curiously strong hatred for England, as
distinguished from Englishmen. This hatred was
partly an abstract feeling, cherished through a
vague traditional respect for Bunker Hill, and

^ With perfect gravity, James and his followers assume De-
catur's statement to be equivalent to saying that he had
chiefly British seamen on board; whereas, even as quoted by
Marshall, Decatur merely said that "his seamen had served
on board a British man-of-war," and that some "had served
under Lord Nelson." Like the Constitution, the United
States had rid herself of most of the British subjects on
board, before sailing. Decatur's remark simply referred to
the number of his American seamen who had been impressed
on board British ships. Whenever James says that an
American ship had a large proportion of British sailors
aboard, the explanation is that a large number of the crew
were Americans who had been impressed on British ships.
It would be no more absurd to claim Trafalgar as an American
victory because there was a certain number of Americans in
Nelson's fleet, than it is to assert that the Americans were
victorious in 1812 because there were a few renegade British
on board their ships.

42 Naval War of 1812

partly something very real and vivid, owing to
the injuries he, and others like him, had received.
Whether he lived in Maryland or Massachusetts,
he certainly knew men whose ships had been
seized by British cruisers, their goods confiscated,
and the vessels condemned. Some of his friends
had fallen victims to the odious right of search,
and had never been heard of afterward. He had
suffered many an injury to friend, fortune, or
person, and some day he hoped to repay them all ;
and when the war did come, he fought all the
better because he knew it was in his own quarrel.
But, as I have said, this hatred was against Eng-
land, not against EngHshmen. Then, as now,
sailors were scattered about over the world with-
out any great regard for nationality; and the
resulting intermingling of natives and foreigners
in every mercantile marine was especially great
in those of Britain and America, whose people
spoke the same tongue and wore the same aspect.
When chance drifted the American into Liver-
pool or London, he was ready enough to ship in an
Indiaman or whaler, caring little for the fact that
he served under the British flag; and the Briton,
in turn, who found himself in New York or Phila-
delphia, willingly sailed in one of the clipper-
built barques, whether it floated the Stars and
Stripes or not. When Captain Porter wrought
such havoc among the British whalers in the South

Naval War of 1812 43

Seas, he found that no inconsiderable portion of
their crews consisted of Americans, some of whom
enHsted on board his own vessel; and among
the crews of the American whalers were many-

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