Today’s U.S. Navy was born (or perhaps reborn) in the War of 1812. Though the Fleet was founded during the first year of the American Revolution, by 1812 it was still a small coastal navy with a limited ability to project power, protect ports, or control the sea. Those shortfalls hurt the United States in the War of 1812 and showed Americans very clearly the importance of a capable navy to protect the nation’s security and economic prosperity. At the same time, the characteristics that eventually carried the small U.S. Fleet to victories against the British—tactical proficiency, forward operations, and warfighting readiness—became hallmarks of our Navy that endure to this day.
The U.S. Navy was not ready for the War of 1812 because America’s early leaders were not convinced the country even needed an ocean-going force. Presidents George Washington and John Adams initially planned to build up the Fleet to protect the nation’s growing economy. But Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison later slowed naval construction because they were wary of either increasing the national debt or raising taxes. In the lead-up to war, many in the Madison administration, recognizing the disparity against the British, argued that the Fleet would best be kept in port to focus on harbor defense.
Small Fleet, Large Impact
As a result, the American Navy that sailed into the War of 1812 consisted of just 20-odd ships—with seven of those undergoing or in need of repair. Despite its size, however, that small Fleet made a big difference. Before Britain completed its blockade of America’s coast, most U.S. frigates and other warships were able to get to sea and remain under way throughout the war to challenge the Royal Navy. Those ships and their crews won a series of individual engagements in the Atlantic and on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, surprising many observers in both countries and boosting morale in the United States.
Once it was able to mobilize in North America, the larger and more experienced Royal Navy blockaded U.S. merchants and some warships in port and eventually supported an invasion of Washington, D.C. The impact of the British offensive was significant. Insurance rates soared and imports dropped, dramatically raising the price of finished goods from Europe needed in America’s homes and factories. Meanwhile, commodity exports fell by more than 80 percent, denying American businesses and the government badly needed revenue.1 Britain eventually lifted the blockade and negotiated for peace because of the financial drain of the war, the persistent challenge from American warships that evaded the blockade, and a continued threat from France. But the cost of the blockade to the U.S. economy and the Navy’s limited effectiveness in ending it forged a consensus after the war that America needed a strong Navy to assure the nation’s security and prosperity.2
A Young Navy’s Enduring Traits
The young American Fleet was able to defeat the preeminent Royal Navy in individual battles because it evidenced traits that continue to be essential today. First, U.S. commanders were bold and innovative, having developed a strong culture of command and independence through the Quasi-War with France and conflict with the Barbary pirates. In the earliest example, Commodore John Rodgers put to sea within hours of learning of the outbreak of war to go in search of British convoys, stretching the limits of his orders and quickly showing the Royal Navy that America was willing to fight. Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, after twice being knocked unconscious in the Battle of Lake Champlain, was able to maneuver his flagship, the Saratoga, around to bring a fresh broadside to bear and ultimately win a decisive victory. And, in one of the first examples of transoceanic U.S. power projection, Captain David Porter took the frigate Essex around Cape Horn in 1813 and successfully disrupted British whaling and trade.
Second, U.S. Navy crews were confident and proficient. American sailors drilled daily at their guns, and were able to shoot more accurately and more rapidly than the British. Through multiple engagements, the Americans demonstrated superior gunnery skills and seamanship, such as when the Constitution evaded a more powerful force because her crew towed and winched the ship away when winds had calmed. Events like those during the War of 1812 reinforced John Paul Jones’ earlier conclusion that “men mean more than guns in the rating of a ship.”
Third, U.S. ships were well built and resilient, surprising the British with their agility and firepower. American 44-gun frigates were bigger, had thicker hulls, carried larger crews, and were outfitted with more guns than the standard frigates of the day. They made such an impression on the British that the Royal Navy began to question their classification. “Though they may be called Frigates,” read a secret order from the Admiralty to all station commanders, they “are of a size, Complem[e]nt and weight of Metal much beyond that Class, and more resembling Line of Battle Ships.”3 The Constitution, in fact, was given the nickname “Old Ironsides” by her crew after witnessing enemy shot bounce off the oak timbers that made up her hull.
Looking to the Past for the Future
Our Navy’s experience in the War of 1812 provides lessons we should apply today. Two hundred years ago our burgeoning industrial base built a Fleet with a focus on warfighting capability, ensuring that our frigates would deliver overwhelming fires while withstanding attacks. Our commanders, in turn, kept their crews’ attention on combat in the lead-up to conflict. Today we must continue applying that tenet of warfighting first—delivering durable, effective capabilities to the Fleet so it can overcome present-day threats.
The War of 1812 showed the vulnerability of our economy to disruptions in overseas trade. Today, globally interconnected supply and production chains make it even more imperative that we operate forward to protect the freedom of navigation at strategic maritime crossroads where shipping lanes and our security interests intersect. Those locations—such as the Gibraltar, Malacca, and Hormuz straits—will only grow in importance as production chains become more global and dependent on reliable trade routes.
America’s second war with Great Britain also made clear that confident and well-trained sailors provide a warfighting edge no amount of technology can duplicate. In 1812 American naval victories helped persuade Britain to negotiate peace. Today our forces must be ready to fight every day to promptly counter aggression or dissuade aggressors from their objectives.
Warfighting First. Operate Forward. Be Ready. Those are the key lessons from the U.S. Navy’s first sustained trial by fire. Those three tenets are the foundation of my Sailing Directions and keep us linked to our rich heritage.
2. Ibid., pp. 456–7.
3. First Secretary of the Admiralty to station commanders-in-chief, 10 July 1813, in William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford, eds., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, 3 vols. to date (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985–) 2:183.