In naval historical fiction set during the Age of Sail, the difficulties of identifying ships at sea are typically nonexistent or glossed over. For instance, in C. S. Forester’s brilliant novel Ship of the Line, one of the critical events in the life of Captain Horatio Hornblower results from the identification of a ship and her signals. In the autumn of 1810, Hornblower’s 74-gun ship-of-the-line Sutherland is patrolling Rosas Bay, off the southern coast of Spain, when the masthead lookout spots a sail, “right in the wind’s eye, sir, an’ comin’ up fast.” Coming from the direction of the wind, the stranger’s pennant and any signal flags would be streaming directly at the Sutherland. The lookout soon identifies the ship as a frigate, and “British by the look of her.”
Perched on the masthead, 80 or 100 feet above the main deck, and equipped with a spyglass, with the horizon perhaps 20 miles off, a lookout might be able to discern a larger warship-like frigate perhaps as far as 15 miles distant, if the weather were clear and sea conditions allowed.1 Forester, however, refers to “stormy waters” and a “grey sky,” what William Bush, the Sutherland’s first lieutenant, calls “blowing” weather, which surely would limit the view. Sometime later—Forester does not indicate how far off the oncoming ship is or how much time has elapsed—with the ship’s topsails in sight, “white against the grey sky,” Stebbings, a sailor at a carronade near Hornblower, identifies the approaching ship as the Cassandra, a 32-gun frigate. Stebbings has no spyglass nor even a vantage point, but he is proven right, even though had the Cassandra been hull down, she still presumably would have been several miles away. The Cassandra signals that a French squadron, which the Sutherland cannot see, trails far behind her.
As a result of that perfect ship identification and perfect reading of signals, Hornblower decides to shadow the French squadron from over the horizon, and then to fight four enemy ships-of-the-line at the certain loss of his own ship. That battle sets up Hornblower’s surrender of the Sutherland, his brief Spanish imprisonment, his condemnation by the French, his escape, and his triumphant return to England on board the Witch of Endor, where fame, wealth, a knighthood, and the widowed Lady Barbara Wellesley all await him. The sure sighting of the Cassandra and her signals is the fulcrum on which the Hornblower saga takes a decisive turn.2
Naval fact, however, did not mirror naval fiction. In the Age of Sail, commanders’ decisions often were based on misidentification, which played a critical, if often unrecognized, part in events. Indeed, several examples from the War of 1812 show there is a “hidden” history of misidentifications at sea, which directly led to lost opportunities, some of which might have changed the course of the war.
At the start of the war, in June 1812, the U.S. frigates put to sea as fast as they could. At 1400 on 17 July, the Constitution was sailing off Egg Harbor, New Jersey, on a northerly course, when a lookout spotted four ships to the northwest and inshore of the Constitution. Captain Isaac Hull realized they were ships of war. But whose? In the light wind, he ordered all sail to close with them; Hull was unsure if they were enemy ships or American, though he guessed they were Commodore John Rodgers’ squadron, which he expected to find off Sandy Hook.
Hull was wrong. The ships were a British squadron, consisting of the Africa, a 64-gun ship-of-the-line, and the frigates Shannon, Belvidera, and Aeolus. The British squadron immediately and correctly recognized the Constitution as one of the big American frigates, and in very light winds, began to close. At 1600, the Constitution saw yet another unknown ship, this one to the northeast, bearing down on her. Unbeknownst to Hull, this ship was another British frigate, HMS Guerriere. The risk was that the Constitution would be caught between the British ships.
Hull decided to approach the strange ship to ascertain what she was, but she was too far off during daylight. After dark, as the ships closed to within five or six miles, he flew the “night signal”—one or more colored lanterns from a mast. The Guerriere, of course, did not know the appropriate response, and Hull finally realized the strange ship was an enemy. Hull immediately ordered the Constitution to haul off to the southeast.3
At first light on 18 July, when the Guerriere was just one-half mile distant from the Constitution, lookouts on the British frigate spotted the other British ships; two of the frigates were close astern of the Constitution, almost within cannon-shot range. The Guerriere’s captain, James Dacres, signaled to the oncoming ships, but they did not respond. Like Hull the night before, Dacres inferred that they did not know the appropriate response because those ships were the enemy squadron, even though they were the very squadron to which the Guerriere was attached. Although one might well think, to use Forester’s phrase, that the Guerriere’s lookouts would have known they were “British by the look of [them],” the Guerriere tacked and wore around, falling behind the Constitution, losing precious distance, until Dacres realized his mistake and joined the chase.
This misidentification led to the Constitution’s remarkable, hairbreadth three-day escape, with her crew sent out in the ships’ boats to tow and then kedge the frigate away from the pursuing squadron. Her escape led to her legendary battle a month later against the very same Guerriere, the sinking of the British ship, the immortalization of the Constitution as “Old Ironsides,” and the first substantial U.S. naval victory of the war, a boost for morale in the wake of the disastrous defeats on the Canadian frontier and the loss of Detroit. Had the Guerriere correctly identified the American frigate a month earlier, the Constitution would have been trapped and taken or sunk, there would be no Old Ironsides to venerate, and a terrible blow would have further damaged American morale. History would have been quite different.4
Both sides made identification errors. On 1 June 1813, the same day off Cape Anne that the British frigate Shannon boarded and overwhelmed the U.S. frigate Chesapeake (leading her mortally wounded commander, James Lawrence, to exhort his crew in vain, “Don’t give up the ship!”), another blow to the American cause occurred in Long Island Sound. Three U.S. warships—the frigates United States and Macedonian (the former HMS Macedonian) and the sloop-of-war Hornet—were poised off the eastern end of Long Island to break through the British blockade.
Two British ships guarded the waters east of Long Island: the Valiant, a ship-of-the-line, kept station off Watch Hill, Rhode Island; and the frigate Acasta sailed between Montauk Point and Block Island. The U.S. plan for the United States, Macedonian, and Hornet, anchored two miles south of the New London lighthouse, was to stand through the Race, a treacherous strait between Little Gull Island and Fisher’s Island, if the British blockaders had sailed away or were blown off. And on the morning of 1 June, the sea was free of British ships, as the Valiant and Acasta had put to sea and were perhaps 20 miles offshore and downwind of the U.S. ships, a position completely out of reach in an era when the wind dictated movement. The south fork of Long Island also lay between the British ships and the emerging Americans.
The three U.S. ships sailed out of the sound, the wind on their quarter, with all sails set. In fact, only when the British ships were rounding Montauk Point did their lookouts spot the enemy vessels, seven or eight miles distant, after the they had already passed through the Race.5
Yet, despite this golden opportunity, the Americans turned back to safety in New London.
Commodore Stephen Decatur on board the United States reported that there were two British warships off Block Island, which might have cut the U.S. ships off from New London, and three more British warships in the Block Island Channel, which threatened to cut them off from Newport, forcing the Americans to “haul their wind and beat back through the Race.” Captain Jacob Jones of the Macedonian reported that there were two British warships off Block Island and one other ship, “two points upon our bow” (to the ocean side), which “had the appearance of a ship of the line” and was standing in to intercept them, which caused the Americans to retire. Master Commandant James Biddle of the Hornet reported a ship-of-the-line and a frigate were in sight off Montauk, and another ship-of-the-line to the northward (to the landward side), “which induced us to haul our wind.”6
What all these ships were that Decatur, Jones, and Biddle saw is now impossible to say, but none was British. The only British warships in the vicinity were the Valiant and Acasta, and a historian who carefully reviewed the logs of all 108 British ships deployed to the western Atlantic on 1 June 1813 verified that no other Royal Navy warships were off eastern Long Island.7
What accounts for three veteran officers not being able to even see the same number of “enemies” in the same places or to understand that whatever they saw, they were not British warships? How could Jones and Biddle mistake whatever they saw for the massive hull and spars of a British ship-of-the-line, with the famous “Nelson checker” (black gunport lids on a white band)?
The only historian to examine this episode concludes that the U.S. commanders were psychologically certain that British warships were off Long Island, based on dated and erroneous intelligence. Added to that was perhaps a lack of local knowledge; they may not have known that Block Island was the principal watering place for that stretch of the American coast, and that the masts rising behind Block Island, which Decatur assumed were lurking British ships, may have been American merchantmen taking on fresh water.
Be that as it may, the Americans sailed back into New London, where the United States and Macedonian were bottled up, useless for the American cause, for the rest of the war.8
Ironically, on 27 May 1813, four days before the aborted sortie by the U.S. warships, the privateer Scourge, under Captain Samuel Nicholl, from the same anchorage as Decatur’s ad hoc squadron, plowed through the Race, surged forward on an eastward course, saw no British warships, and began a successful raiding cruise. The Scourge ended up in the Arctic, intercepting British summer trade with Russian ports on the White Sea.
This trade was critical for Britain. Naval stores and timber for the Royal Navy’s masts and spars previously had come largely from the Baltic, where merchant ships had to run past the cannon of Danish fortifications and were subject to the vacillating policies of neutral Sweden. After Napoleon invaded Russia in June 1812, Russian timber and naval stores became available to the British—but through the harsh northern seas. The destruction of a convoy returning from Russia would undermine Britain’s ability to maintain its far-flung fleets against Napoleonic Europe and the United States. Thus, the unexpected rendezvous on 19 July 1813 of the Scourge with the U.S. frigate President under Commodore John Rodgers suggested that the public and private naval force of the United States might be brought to bear on a Russian convoy. Rodgers even had intelligence that the convoy was protected by two British brigs or sloops-of-war, which the President could blow out of the water with a few broadsides, leaving an entire convoy or series of convoys open to destruction or capture in the near-continuous daylight of the Arctic summer.
On the next afternoon, 20 July 1813, with the President and Scourge sailing in company off the North Cape, the Americans spotted two strange sails in sight to the southwest and gave chase. By 1900, the President was close enough for Rodgers to identify, erroneously, the ships as a British ship-of-the-line and a frigate. In fact, the supposed ship-of-the-line was a small 32-gun frigate, the Alexandria, and the supposed frigate was a fireship, the Spitfire, armed with nothing but a few short-range carronades. Rodgers, convinced he was outgunned when, in reality, he had before him the very situation U.S. commanders dreamed of, thought it was time to skedaddle.
In Keystone Cops fashion, the outgunned British pursued the President, having identified her as a French frigate. The President flew before her miniature pursuers for 90 hours, and hundreds of miles, until contact was lost. For both Rodgers and the British commander, the conduct of his opponent “confirmed” his own misidentification. But the Scourge was (again) not fooled by the tactical situation; together with the privateer Rattle Snake, over a month-long period, she captured 23 British merchant vessels, of which 18 were ultimately condemned by a prize court in Bergen, Norway.9
The explanation for these misidentifications seems clear: Until strange ships came very close—and sometimes not even then—lookouts and captains were just not sure what they were encountering. Captains projected their fears of what they thought might be before them. That would appear to be the only way to account for the varying explanations from Decatur, Jones, and Biddle of what they saw off Block Island or what Rodgers saw in the pale Arctic light. Armchair historians can wonder how experienced captains mistook a merchantman or a small frigate for a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, but even in the light of day, they did.
These episodes of mistaken identity reveal how contingent history is, and how the judgments and fears of individual people determine events. These episodes also demonstrate that from a simple misidentification, enormous consequences can follow.
We can only hypothesize what might have happened if these misidentifications had not occurred. If Rodgers knew how little opposed him off the North Cape in July 1813, in tandem with the privateers Scourge and Rattle Snake, he could have sunk, taken, or burned every merchant ship going to or from Russia, at least until a British ship-of-the-line arrived on scene. If Decatur’s ad hoc squadron had forged ahead into the Atlantic in June 1813 and hunted together, the United States, Macedonian, and Hornet might have wiped out an entire British convoy of 60 or even 100 ships returning to England from India or the West Indies, with potentially calamitous effects on British mercantile interests.
Had either of these possibilities occurred, the war might have taken a different path; had they both occurred nearly simultaneously, the political and diplomatic effects might have been enormous. But those opportunities were lost because of false identifications. As Winston Churchill wrote about a series of mistakes in a naval war a century later, “the terrible ifs accumulate.”
1. The horizon’s distance in nautical miles is 1.15 multiplied by the square-root of the height of the viewer’s eye, in feet. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 2005), 632 n.7.
2. C. S. Forester, Captain Horatio Hornblower: Ship of the Line (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1939), 281–86.
3. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, William S. Dudley, ed. (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1985), 1:161, letter, Isaac Hull to Secretary of the Navy, 21 July 1812; Ian W. Toll, Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2006), 339.
4. Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 47–50; Charles Morris, The Autobiography of Commodore Charles Morris, U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2002), 56–57; Kevin D. McCranie, Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812 (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 33–37.
5. W. M. P. Dunne, “‘The Inglorious First of June’: Commodore Stephen Decatur on Long Island Sound, 1813,” Long Island Historical Journal 2, no. 2 (Spring 1990): 213–14.
6. Dunne, “‘The Inglorious First of June,’” 214, 216.
7. Dunne, 201, 214–16, and 220 n.46.
8. Dunne, 204–6, 217; Donald A. Petrie, The Prize Game: Lawful Looting on the High Seas in the Days of Fighting Sail (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 186 n.4.
9. Petrie, The Prize Game, 85–90, 96–102.