On paper—and on water—it was a lopsided fight 200 years ago: the United States’ 20-odd warships versus Great Britain’s more than 500. But during the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy managed to do more than hold its own against the mighty Royal Navy. In fact, the conflict became a defining moment in the sea service’s history. How that came about, especially on the high seas, is the focus of this issue’s War of 1812 bicentennial package of articles.
Historians, writers, and leaders have long sought to avoid repeating history’s mistakes by applying lessons learned to present-day circumstances. Beginning in the early 1880s—near the end of the Navy’s dark ages—a small group of navalists turned their attention to the War of 1812, in part to argue for a stronger sea service. Leading the way was 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, whose groundbreaking The Naval War of 1812 was first published in 1882.
“At present people are beginning to realize that it is folly for the great English-speaking Republic to rely for defence upon a navy composed partly of antiquated hulks, and partly of new vessels rather more worthless than the old,” Roosevelt wrote in the book’s preface. “It is worth while to study with some care that period of our history during which our navy stood at the highest pitch of its fame.”
Although present circumstances are vastly different from those of 1882, important lessons still can be gleaned from the Navy’s experience in the War of 1812, according to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert. The CNO’s article, “Building on a 200-Year Legacy,” leads off our 1812 coverage by taking a broad look at important events during the naval war and then examining the enduring lessons to be learned from them. According to Admiral Greenert, three key lessons link today’s Navy with its experience two centuries ago.
Charles Brodine, a historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), follows by examining in “The War’s Pervasive Naval Dimensions” the wide-ranging effects of the conflict’s naval and maritime factors. From the U.S.-Canadian border to New Orleans, those factors shaped the conflict, Brodine asserts.
Our 1812 coverage next focuses on the war at sea, beginning with Kevin McCranie’s article, “Contesting the Four Oceans.” The author of Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812 (Naval Institute Press, 2011), McCranie explains how the plucky U.S. Navy earned stirring early victories in the war but was gradually worn down by the Royal Navy.
The most widely celebrated of those victories came in three early frigate duels—two fought by the Constitution and one by the United States. But before the former ship could earn her nickname “Old Ironsides,” she had to elude a British squadron in July 1812, which is the subject of naval historian Louis Arthur Norton’s article, “The Constitution’s Great Escape.” And in “America’s Frigate Triumphs,” Margherita Desy, historian at the NHHC’s Detachment Boston working with the USS Constitution, and Charles Brodine describe the three duels that ensued over the next five months.
Smaller U.S. warships also gained fame in the war. In his “Historic Fleets” department, NHHC historian Robert Cressman wraps up our War of 1812 package by examining one such vessel, the sloop Hornet, and her February 1813 victory over the British brig-of-war Peacock.
Richard G. Latture, Editor-in-Chief