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The Navy and The War of 1812

 

The young American Navy came of age during the War of 1812

By Dr. Michael Crawford
Naval History and Heritage Command
United States Navy

The War of 1812 was important to the U.S. Navy for several reasons. The war demonstrated to the American public the vital importance of an effective naval force for national defense. It validated early policy decisions to implement cutting-edge technology for our warships. And it established a heritage of competence, heroism, and victory.

Debates about naval policy in the United States are perennial. What is the proper size for the navy? Should we build a six hundred-ship navy? Can we afford to maintain thirteen carriers? Could we use more littoral combat ships? How much of the fleet should be forward deployed, and where? The same types of naval policy debates raged in the early years of our American Republic. How large a navy? Did we need ships of the line? What design for our frigates was optimal? What should the mix between oceangoing warships and gunboats for coastal defense be? But there was something different about the debate between 1787, when the Constitution of the United States was drafted, and June 1812, when the United States declared war in defense of free trade and sailors' rights.

The debate was not merely over what kind of navy we should have and how we should use it, it was also over the fundamental value of the navy and whether we should have one at all. One party, the Federalists, believed we were a commercial people destined to grow industrially and to play a leading role on the international stage. They argued for a strong navy that could be at least a makeweight in naval contests and that could defend our merchant marine against threats from all quarters. The opposing party, the Jeffersonian Republicans, glorified the agriculturalist as the ideal citizen and denigrated commerce and industry as morally corrupting. Ignoring the necessity of keeping the sea lanes open so that we could market our agricultural surplus abroad, they feared that a navy was a danger on the high seas, where it was likely to embroil us in unwanted wars, and a danger domestically as a source of political corruption. Navies, they pointed out, are expensive. To support a strong navy, the government must borrow money from the rich. To pay the interest on those loans, the government must tax the common people. Thus having a strong navy meant the rich grew richer while the common man was reduced to poverty and dependence, undermining the rough economic egalitarianism on which a republican form of government rested.

The War of 1812 changed all that. The experience of war convinced the citizenry that the navy was essential to the defense of our freedoms and to our continued national prosperity. Warfare on the northern lakes, for example, demonstrated the importance of the navy as an element of national defense. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's naval victory on Lake Erie made possible General William Henry Harrison's defeat of the British and Indian enemy at the Battle of the Thames, and the twin American victories secured the Old Northwest for the United States, ending British plans to establish an Indian buffer state between the United States and Canada. The war made it clear that a successful invasion of Canada would require Americans first to establish naval superiority on Lake Ontario, a pre-condition that the equal ship-building race on the lake precluded. Commodore McDonough's victory over the British squadron on Lake Champlain, by threatening the British army's supply lines, forced the invading enemy army of ten thousand to retreat back across the boarder into Canada. On the other hand, the inability of the small American seagoing force to break the British blockade of our Atlantic coast reduced federal revenue to a trickle, left our agricultural states without an outlet for their produce, and idled the merchant fleets of our commercial states. The timely coming of peace, alone, saved the nation from financial and economic collapse. After the war, the debate over the navy's very existence was over. Instead of reducing the navy, as it had after the Quasi-War with France and the War with Tripoli, Congress enacted provisions for the gradual increase of the navy.

In addition to validating a strong navy, the War of 1812 validated the decisions made by naval leaders in the 1790s regarding the types of warships we should build. In 1794 Congress authorized the president to create a naval force of six frigates. Rather than purchasing merchant ships and converting them into men-of-war, an option under the act, Secretary of War Henry Knox recommended the construction of new frigates designed to be superior to any vessel of that class in European navies. The American frigates should be at least as big and powerful as any frigates then in existence. Hull construction should be as rugged as the technology of the day would permit; they should be as heavily armed as, or more heavily armed than, any single opponent they could not out-sail; and finally, as long as even a modest wind prevailed, their rigging and hull form should give them speed to elude any enemy man-of-war or squadron that they did not have an excellent chance of defeating. Events of the War of 1812 demonstrated the wisdom of these decisions. In a justly famous episode early in the war, for instance, USS Constitution escaped almost the entire Royal Navy North American squadron. On several occasions the heavy American frigates armed with 24 pounder cannon on their main decks handily defeated the British frigates armed with 18 pounders, and the defeated enemy officers when brought aboard the victors' ships marveled that their framing was nearly as thick as that of ships of the line. No wonder enemy cannonballs bounced off as if hitting sides of iron.

In earlier conflicts the United States Navy had produced heroes and moments worthy of monuments— in the Quasi-War with France, one thinks of Truxtun of the Constellation, and in the Barbary Wars we had Preble before Tripoli, Decatur burning the Philadelphia, a handful of Marines leavening an Arab army of three hundred before Derna, and the brave volunteers who gave their lives sailing the Intrepid, armed as an infernal, into Tripoli Harbor. But nothing that came before compares in sheer volume with the vivid images of American naval lore that came out of the War of 1812. We can picture Lieutenant Charles Morris proposing the expedient of kedging the Constitution when being chased by an entire British squadron off the American coast; Lieutenant William Bush shot as he attempts to lead a boarding party from Constitution to Guerriere, the first U.S. Marine officer to give his life in combat; fat Isaac Hull splitting his breeches as he jumps down from a carronade in the heat of the engagement with Guerriere and excitedly exclaiming, "By God! That ship is ours!"; David Porter's Essex sailing alone into the wide Pacific Ocean, skulking among the Galapagos Islands and pouncing on unsuspecting British whalers; Essex's sailors supplying themselves for months from the stores of captured ships and seeking "R and R" in the South Sea Islands of Nuka Hiva; and Porter taking sides in warfare between rival tribes, and claiming the islands in the name of the United States. There are James Lawrence's fighting words, "Don't give up the ship," almost immediately taken up as a motto by the Navy and displayed on a motto flag in Oliver Hazard Perry's flagship on Lake Erie. We see Perry exposed in his ship's boat as he transfers his flag from Lawrence to Niagara in order to seal his victory in the Battle of Lake Erie. On Lake Ontario, we see Lieutenant Francis Gregory leading expeditions of small boats to intercept enemy transports, capture enemy gunboats, and burn enemy warships on the stocks; on Lake Champlain, as the first enemy shot destroys a chicken coop and the released rooster alights atop a carronade, sailors in Saratoga cheer, interpreting this as an omen of victory; Thomas Macdonough twice knocked unconscious during the battle but recovering to wind around his battered flagship to expose an undamaged battery and win the battle; on the Gulf Coast we witness the American gunboats under Thomas Catesby Jones standing up to an overwhelming assault of British boats, sacrificing themselves to capture in order to give the Americans at New Orleans under Andrew Jackson the time they needed to fortify their position.

The young American Navy came of age during the War of 1812. A small but determined corps of officers and sailors demonstrated that, man for man, ship for ship, they were the equal of any seagoing force afloat including the Royal Navy.

How will observing the bicentenary of the War of 1812 serve the mission of the Navy today?

  • By making clear the various and crucial functions of the Navy and its necessity for national defense, knowledge of the naval history of the War of 1812 will build public understanding and support of the Navy.
  • By illustrating the achievements of the Navy in the War of 1812, the commemoration of that war will build esprit de corps among sailors and potential recruits.

The Navy made important contributions to the nation's war effort by:

  • Harassing enemy commerce
  • Engaging enemy naval forces in ship-to-ship and in fleet actions
  • Supporting military operations
  • Defending coastal waterways
  • Protecting national commerce
  • Enforcing trade laws
  • Combating piracy
  • Raising national morale

The War of 1812 was important to the institutional development of the U.S. Navy in the following ways:

  • A shared record of achievement by officers and sailors that enhanced esprit de corps and pride of service
  • The establishment of a professional ethos that shaped the development of the fleet well into the nineteenth century
  • The emergence of a group of officers who became exemplars of naval leadership to the rest of the fleet, demonstrating the core values (honor, courage, commitment) that the Navy adheres to today

 

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