The War's Pervasive Naval Dimensions

By Charles E. Brodine Jr.

Clashes between opposing U.S. and Royal Navy warships also contributed to the deterioration in Anglo-American relations. The forcible seizure of four sailors from the U.S. frigate Chesapeake by a boarding party from HMS Leopard in June 1807, an action that left 23 of the Chesapeake ’s crew killed or wounded, nearly resulted in an American declaration of war against Britain. Four years later, the American frigate President and the smaller, sixth-rate HMS Little Belt exchanged broadsides in a nighttime encounter that severely damaged the British warship’s hull and rigging and left her with 32 casualties. 3

While Madison’s war message indicted the British for promoting Indian attacks in the western backcountry, the majority of his text dealt with violations of America’s maritime rights. It is difficult to imagine how these two countries could have come to blows in 1812, then, had it not been for Americans’ passionate desire to defend free trade and sailors’ rights.


The invasion of Canada formed the centerpiece of U.S. strategy during the War of 1812. In the minds of some American leaders, the British province would prove to be an easy conquest. “The acquisition of Canada,” predicted former President Thomas Jefferson, “. . . will be a mere matter of marching.” 4 Jefferson’s breezy estimation of the ease with which Canada would fall failed to take into account the naval dimension of operations along the northern frontier, for no army (American or British) could expect to operate across the U.S.-Canadian border without first establishing naval dominance on the inland lakes that formed much of the region’s boundary line. These lakes—Erie, Ontario, and Champlain—offered the only means by which large armies and their logistical trains might be moved with speed and efficiency in a wilderness theater spanning vast distances.

The Madison administration’s failure to grasp the importance of this strategic reality before declaring war resulted in Brigadier General William Hull’s surrender of Fort Detroit on 16 August 1812, an event that yielded initial naval mastery on Lake Erie to the British. Aroused from their lethargy by the news of Detroit’s capture, Madison and his advisers took immediate steps to counter the British threat on the northern lakes. 5 Before the month was out Navy Secretary Paul Hamilton had ordered Captain Isaac Chauncey to build and organize a naval force powerful enough “to obtain command of . . . Lakes Ontario & Erie.” One month later Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough received his own orders to assume command of a nascent U.S. fleet on Champlain. 6 Until the cessation of hostilities in February 1815, establishing naval supremacy on the northern lakes became the lodestone of the Madison administration’s Canadian strategy.

The administration had not begun to seriously consider how its small, oceangoing fleet of vessels might be deployed against the British until shortly before hostilities broke out. This may have owed to the fact that not much was expected of it in the face of the Royal Navy’s overwhelming numerical superiority and reputation for combat invincibility. Initially, Secretary Hamilton sought to limit the fleet’s cruising operations to American coastal waters. The Constitution ’s victory over HMS Guerriere , in waters southeast of Halifax, prompted the Navy secretary to allow his ships to cruise in distant seas, though he directed they sail in two- to three-ship squadrons. Hamilton’s successor, William Jones, preferred deploying individual ships on blue-water cruises aimed at the destruction of British commerce. 7

The American government believed a more telling blow might be landed against Britain’s maritime trade, not by the U.S. Navy, but by large numbers of armed privateersmen. The Royal Navy might “annihilate our public force on the water,” Thomas Jefferson informed a correspondent, “but our privateers will eat out the vitals of their commerce.” 8 The U.S. government commissioned more than 500 privateers during the War of 1812. The damage these commerce raiders inflicted on the British merchant marine was considerable, totaling more than 1,300 prizes. 9

Despite this success, there were some drawbacks to the large-scale commissioning of privateers. For one thing, the Navy Department lacked the authority to direct such vessels against particular military or naval objectives or to order them on government missions. As private commercial enterprises, privateers selected their own cruising grounds and targets based on the possibilities of profit, not glory or national interest. A more significant problem with privateers was that they competed with public vessels for supplies of men, armaments, and naval stores, thereby driving up the costs of outfitting Navy warships and, at times, delaying their departures from port.

For the British, the war with America was very much a sideshow, the real threat being the armies of Napoleon Bonaparte. This meant that few troops or ships could be spared for the North American theater until the French emperor’s defeat. The security of Canada thus depended on the ability of the provinces’ land and naval forces to fight a successful defensive war until reinforcements could be spared from the European continent for large-scale offensive operations against the United States. To bring the war home to the Americans, the Royal Navy instituted a blockade of the U.S. coast that increased in strength and effectiveness each year, choking off Yankee trade and disrupting American naval operations.

British naval forces also launched a campaign of amphibious raids that grew in scope, tempo, and destructiveness under the direction of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane. The Scottish-born commander-in-chief sought to use fire, sword, and terror to break the American public’s will to fight. 10 According to Cochrane, the Americans were like spaniels. “They must be treated with great severity before you ever make them tractable.” 11

The Northern Lakes

The United States committed enormous resources to achieve a war-winning stroke in Canada. As noted earlier, naval mastery of the lakes along which U.S. land forces operated was an essential preliminary to any offensive campaign. Thus the story of the War of 1812 on the northern lakes is a tale centered on shipbuilding, of great fleets being raised up in the wilderness, and of the daunting logistical hurdles overcome to assemble those fleets. On Lake Erie, the efforts of Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry and his men resulted in victory on 10 September 1813 in the Battle of Lake Erie, a triumph that restored naval mastery of that lake to the United States. One year later nearly to the day, Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough gained the second of the Navy’s fleet victories over the Royal Navy at the Battle of Plattsburgh Bay, on Lake Champlain, compelling a large invasion force under Lieutenant General George Prevost to withdraw into Canada.

Only on Lake Ontario were American efforts to gain naval supremacy frustrated. This was because Commodore James Lucas Yeo, Isaac Chauncey’s counterpart at the British naval base at Kingston, was every bit his match as a naval administrator and builder of ships. For two years Yeo and Chauncey carried on what one historian has called “a shipbuilder’s war,” each officer constructing and adding ships to his fleet in order to gain the upper hand on Lake Ontario. 12 Despite the enormous expense this naval arms race entailed, President Madison vigorously supported Chauncey’s efforts.

“The Enemy,” he wrote Major General Henry Dearborn, whose command stretched from the Niagara River to the New England coast, “are making transcendent exertions to equip a naval force that will command the Lakes. Whatever theirs may be, ours ought to go beyond them. Nothing ought to be left to hazard on this subject. If they build two ships, we should build four. If they build thirty or 40 gun ships, we should build them of 50 or 60 Guns. The command of those waters is the hinge on which the war will essentially turn, according to the probable course of it.” 13

Having built these wonderful instruments of naval warfare, however, neither Chauncey nor Yeo was willing to risk them in battle without enjoying a numerical advantage over the other. Ridiculing what he called the “Equipoise of Imbecility on Lake Ontario,” Lieutenant General Winfield Scott, a veteran of campaigns along the Niagara frontier, offered the following description of the competition between Chauncey and Yeo in his memoir:

Early in 1813, the great contest on Lake Ontario commenced between the ship carpenters at Kingston, under Sir James Yeo, and the ship carpenters, under Commodore Chauncey, at Sacketts Harbor. He that launched the last ship sailed in triumph up and down the lake, while his opponent lay snug, but not inactive, in harbor. This was (say) Chauncey’s week of glory. Sir James’s was sure to follow, and Chauncey, in turn, had to chafe in harbor, while preparing another launch for recovering the mastery of the lake. . . . Thus the two naval heroes of defeat held each other a little more than at arms-length—neither being willing to risk a battle without a decided superiority in guns and men. 14

The reluctance of Chauncey and Yeo to bring the other to battle stalemated military affairs on Lake Ontario.

The American Maritime Frontier

Considering the Atlantic coast, Chesapeake Bay, and Gulf coast as one extended maritime frontier, the challenges for defending this area were formidable. From the outset, American port towns on the Atlantic were subject to raids and increasing economic pressure from British blockaders and amphibious assaults. The problem faced by the Navy Department was that it lacked the resources to provide even modest protection to coastal communities. When Master Commandant Daniel T. Patterson, commander of the New Orleans Station, requested additional sailors to man his idle gunboats in order to cruise the Gulf coast, Secretary Jones told him that he would have to make do with the men that he had, noting:

The Inhabitants, as well as the commanders, of every district, or place, in the Union, in any degree exposed to the annoyance of the enemy, are too prone to imagine the power and resources of the Government of the Union, inexhaustible, and without taking a sufficiently enlarged view of the immense extent of the Sea-Frontier (indented with innumerable Bays and Rivers, the Shores, towns and villages of which are constantly exposed to the predatory incursions of the enemy, without the possibility of defending more than a few of the most important points,) call upon the Government for a force competent to protect each point. 15

Secretary Jones replied to Captain Isaac Hull in a similar vein when that officer requested more men to help defend the ship-of-the-line whose construction he was supervising at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Jones stated that it would be better to burn the ship on her stocks, thereby removing her as target of attack, rather than diverting precious manpower from the northern lakes, where sailors were desperately needed to man newly built ships. 16

Some communities were able to contribute to their own naval defense by building or purchasing ships for the Navy’s use. The city of Philadelphia built several barges, a gunboat, and a schooner that it then sold to the government for use in the Navy’s Delaware Flotilla, while Baltimore leased schooners to the Navy for patrolling the waters between that city and the entrance of the Chesapeake. 17 Sometimes the defensive measures proposed by public officials put them at odds with local Navy commanders. In the summer of 1814, William Bainbridge feared that U.S. warships would be blockaded in Boston Harbor—not by British warships cruising outside the harbor but by derelict ships, or hulks, sunk inside the harbor at the order of the city fathers. 18

A few naval officers faced indifference, if not downright hostility, from governmental authorities in matters of local defense. Such was the case of Isaac Hull whose Portsmouth command was situated on the border between two Federalist states. “I see no disposition on the part of the people to secure their harbour,” a discouraged Hull informed Jones. “We must therefore endeavour to defend ourselves.” 19

Beginning in 1813 with raids on Hampton Roads, Virginia, and the North Carolina coast, the Royal Navy began to execute a series of hit-and-run amphibious operations against which the federal government had no answer. British raids in 1814 targeted the length of the eastern seaboard, ranging as far south as Cumberland Island, Georgia, to Passamaquoddy Bay, Maine, in the north. The most destructive of these campaigns took place in the summer of 1814 in the Chesapeake Bay, culminating with the capture and burning of Washington, D.C., on 24 August.

The British closed out the year with an attempt to seize New Orleans. The joint expeditionary force gathered for this undertaking represented the mightiest British assemblage of ships, guns, and men during the war, one that was expected to achieve a decisive victory over the Crescent City’s American defenders. Instead it met with ignominious defeat before Major General Andrew Jackson’s battle lines on 8 January 1815, suffering more than 2,000 casualties.

Echoes of 1812

Just as the maritime character of the nation’s frontiers had shaped how and where the War of 1812 was fought, likewise did it shape how the country would prepare for its next conflict. Given that Great Britain was expected to be the most likely antagonist in another war, the focus of those charged with improving the country’s defenses necessarily looked seaward. Governmental leaders moved on two fronts in this regard. First, Congress directed the Navy and War departments to survey the nation’s coastlines, bays, and harbors to determine the best sites for a network of naval arsenals and large, shore-based fortifications. The powerful stone-masonry forts that were built as a result of this survey were designed and sited based on lessons learned in defending against British amphibious operations in the War of 1812. These new, post-1812 forts became part of the “Third System” of American coastal defense forts. 20

Second, having seen how naval unpreparedness had left the nation vulnerable to a powerful maritime enemy, Congress now acted to improve the Navy’s odds in any future clash at sea by passing an aggressive program to expand the fleet. In a landmark piece of legislation, federal lawmakers authorized the construction of “nine 74-gun ships-of-the-line, twelve 44-gun frigates, and three experimental steam-driven ‘batteries’” for harbor defense. 21 Congress funded the new ship construction with an annual appropriation of $1 million over an eight-year period. For a variety of political and economic reasons, this ambitious scheme of naval expansion was ultimately called into question and scaled back.

Despite this setback, the Navy remained high in the American public’s esteem. Congress might continue to debate the Navy’s size and funding, but it no longer questioned that service’s legitimacy as an instrument of national defense, as some members had in the 1790s and early 1800s. The Navy’s officers and sailors had settled that question for good by their heroic performance in the War of 1812.

1. On the importance of Roosevelt’s work in shifting the focus of 1812 scholarship, see Mark Russell Shulman, “The Influence of History upon Sea Power: The Navalist Reinterpretation of the War of 1812,” Journal of Military History 56 (April 1992):183–206.

2. For the text of Madison’s war message, see Madison to Congress, 1 June 1812, 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–), 1:73–81.

3. For documents relating to the Chesapeake-Leopard affair and the President–Little Belt affair, see Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , 1: 27–34, 41–50.

4. Jefferson to William Duane, 4 August 1812, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson , Retirement Series, ed. J. Jefferson Looney, vol. 5 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 293.

5. For an excellent analysis of how the Great Lakes figured in American strategic thinking before and during the War of 1812, see Jeff Seiken, “‘To Obtain Command of the Lakes:’ The United States and the Contest for Lakes Erie and Ontario, 1812–1815,” in David Curtis Skaggs and Larry L. Nelson, eds., The Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 1754–1814 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001), pp. 353–71. General Hull’s nephew, Captain Isaac Hull, commanded the U.S. frigate Constitution in her victory over HMS Guerriere .

6. See Hamilton to Chauncey, 31 August 1812, and Hamilton to Macdonough, 28 September 1812, in Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , 1:297–301, 319–20.

7. For a treatment of Hamilton’s and Jones’ views on naval strategy and the deployment of the American fleet, see Linda Maloney, “The War of 1812: What Role for Sea Power?” in Kenneth J. Hagan, ed., In Peace and War: Interpretations of American Naval History, 1775–1978 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), pp. 46–62.

8. Jefferson to Duane, 4 August 1812, Papers of Thomas Jefferson , 5:293.

9. Statistics on U.S. privateers draw upon Faye Kert, “Cruising in Colonial Waters: The Organization of North American Privateering in the War of 1812,” in David J. Starkey, E. S. van Eyck van Heslinga, and J. A. de Moor, eds., Pirates and Privateers: New Perspectives on the War on Trade in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Exeter, Devon, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1997), pp. 145, 148.

10. See C. J. Bartlett and Gene A. Smith, “A ‘Species of Milito-Nautico-Guerilla-Plundering Warfare’: Admiral Alexander Cochrane’s Naval Campaign against the United States, 1814–1815,” in Julie Flavell and Stephen Conway, eds., Britain and America Go to War: The Impact of War and Warfare in Anglo-America, 1754–1815 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004), pp. 173–204.

11. Cochrane to Robert Saunders Dundas Melville, 3 September 1814, in Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , 3:270.

12. C. Winton-Clare, “A Shipbuilder’s War,” Mariners Mirror 29 (July 1943):139–48.

13. Madison to Dearborn, 6 February 1813, in J. C. A. Stagg et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison , Presidential Series, vol. 5 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2004), p. 646.

14. Winfield Scott, Memoirs of Lieut.-General Scott, LL.D. Written by Himself , 2 vols. (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1864), 1:113.

15. Jones to Patterson, 7 March 1814, National Archives and Records Administration (Hereafter NARA), M149, Roll 11, pp. 234–35.

16. William Jones to Isaac Hull, 17 June 1814, NARA, M441, Roll 1, vol. 2, pp. 107–8.

17. For documents on Philadelphia’s contribution to the Delaware Flotilla and Baltimore’s lease of schooners to the Navy, see Dudley and Crawford, Naval War of 1812 , 2:231–32, 348–54.

18. For example, see Bainbridge to Jones, 7 July 1814, NARA, M125, Roll 37, No. 137; and, Bainbridge to Jones, 13 September 1814, NARA, M125, Roll 39, No. 50.

19. Hull to Jones, 5 June 1813, quoted in Linda M. Maloney, The Captain from Connecticut: The Life and Naval Times of Isaac Hull (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1986), p. 229.

20. David A. Clary, Fortress America: The Corps of Engineers, Hampton Roads, and United States Coastal Defense (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990), pp. 32–37. See also, John R. Weaver, II, A Legacy in Brick and Stone: American Coastal Defense Forts of the Third System, 1816–1867 (Missoula, MT: Redoubt Press, 2001).

21. Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776–1918 (1966; reprint, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1990), p. 111.



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