The most elegant ball held in Washington early in the War of 1812 was given in honor of the Navy on December 8th of that year. Captains Isaac Hull, conqueror of the Guerriere, and Charles Stewart, commander of the Constellation, were honored guests, along with their officers and "all the grace and beauty of official Washington." Suddenly the news ran through the hall "like an electric shock" that another British ship of war had been brought in . A special courier had carried the captured British battle flag to the nation's capital that very evening. Hull and Stewart presented it to President James Madison's wife, Dolly, amidst the stirring strains of "Hail Columbia." Captain Stephen Decatur's United States (54) had simply overwhelmed HBMS Macedonian (49) in a brilliantly conceived and executed action lasting an hour and 20 minutes. Patriotic fervor and enthusiasm for the Navy reached new heights; it was obvious to the assembled multitude, and to the nation at large, that our ships were more powerful, and our men braver and more skillful, than any in the world. Stephen Decatur, hero of the Barbary Wars and conqueror of the Macedonian, was presented a gold commemorative medal struck off by a grateful Congress. The very states vied amongst themselves to do him honor, and when the United States and the Macedonian entered New York for much-needed overhaul, the reception was spontaneous, tumultuous, and without parallel in the history of the new nation.
Stung to the quick by the humiliating string of successes written by the heavy American frigates, the Royal Navy retaliated by imposing a strict blockade on the entire Atlantic seaboard. The Napoleonic Wars in Europe were coming to a close, and by the spring of 1813, ships and men were available for this campaign in overwhelming numbers. Hostile squadrons appeared near the approaches to each major port and by their very presence succeeded in halting completely the remnant of a once -burgeoning ocean commerce.
At New York, repairs were completed to the United States and the Macedonian, and by late spring they were remanned and made fully ready for an extended cruise. The two ships were joined by the Hornet, a sloop-of-war of 18 guns; and the whole formed in a squadron under command of Commodore Decatur. Weary of six months' inaction, Decatur determined to run the blockade off New York harbor and clear to the open sea as soon as possible; however, he soon found himself unable to pass Sandy Hook in the face of a vastly superior British fleet. Therefore, he pushed through Hell Gate and cruised Long Island Sound aiming to slip out between Montauk Point and Block Island. Here, he was frustrated by Sir Thomas Hardy (captain of Nelson's flagship Victory at Trafalgar) in command of two 74s and several frigates.
Appreciating full well the disparity in force arrayed against him, Decatur was forced to abandon the attempt to run the blockade, and on 1 June, the squadron retreated under the guns of Forts Griswold and Trumbull at New London. Sir Thomas did not attempt to force an immediate decision, but wisely contented himself with keeping the Yankee squadron bottled up in port by close blockade.
Decatur remained at readiness for an immediate departure, and within a few days, he was rewarded with the news that the majority of the British had apparently retired. A solitary sail, identified as the Ramillies (74), remained three miles below the river mouth. The squadron sailed almost immediately, the United States in the van followed closely by the Macedonian and the Hornet. Determined to engage the Ramillies with his flagship to cover the escape of his consorts, Decatur saw his expectations shattered by the appearance of the Valiant (74) and the remainder of the British squadron bearing up towards the scene from Montauk. There was nothing for it but for the United States to cover the ignominious retirement to the temporarily safe refuge at New London once more.
The proximity of Sir Thomas' vessels were of concern to others besides Decatur; the older residents recalled for a horrified populace the burning of New London and the slaughter at Fort Griswold by the turncoat Benedict Arnold in 1781. Alarms and excursions were immediate and frequent throughout the countryside. The militia was called out, and women and children with all the household goods they could manage were evacuated in great haste from the towns on both sides of the River Thames.
By mid-June, the full realization of the overwhelming force arrayed against him became more apparent to Decatur, and he determined to improve his position. The three vessels were lightened somewhat and moved across the shallows upstream about eight miles to Gales Ferry. There, sheltered behind Allyn's Point, the squadron was further protected by an earthwork - called Fort Decatur, not surprisingly - thrown up on the crest of Dragon Hill. This latter afforded a fin e view of the river and commanded the approaches from both land and sea. Iron stakes and ring bolts were driven into the bed-rock on each side of the river and a heavy chain suspended across the narrows to prevent British vessels from proceeding upstream to the besieged squadron.
Today, all that remains at New London to mark this monument to the Navy's impotence are the vague outlines of trench and breastwork, blurred by time and nature, and an inscription in stone placed by the local historical society in 1898. The ring bolt and stake still rust at the edge of the Thames River.
The British fleet, reinforced until in July it numbered no less than seven ships of the line and frigates, used their commanding position to great advantage. Controlling the important eastern end of Long Island Sound, Hardy "resolved to leave nothing afloat. The Sound was alive with petty warfare. Every creek, bay, and river were searched, and nothing in the form of boa t, sloop, or smack suffered to live." The city of New London and its environs, dependent largely upon an infant whaling industry and seaborne commerce of all types, fell upon extremely hard times. Never a popular war in New England at best, the conflict followed the Embargo Acts and brought financial ruin to much of the area.
As the focal point of the local blockade, Decatur and his crews found themselves the subject of scathing remarks implying cowardice, duplicity, and other invectives of the like. After all, with the British warships drawn to New London, the enterprising Yankees of the port found it well-nigh impossible to turn an honest dollar by slipping out to sea for a bit of privateering or blockade running. The apparent inactivity of Decatur's squadron, in the face of such a formidable force, lent further credence to the cries of those who were pacifists that the war was lost and that peace must be sought at any price. From the toast of the nation after the capture of Macedonian, in just six short months Decatur found himself beset on all sides by those who questioned his courage and resolve. Rancored by the passive role he was forced to play and frustrated by his inability to find a solution, Decatur found "New London to be utterly out of join t with the war, the Navy, even with his predicament." How often has this lament found its echo in our own time!
In any event, Decatur busied himself with further preparations for eventually getting to sea, either through the wind of chance or by force as needs be. Training, training, training, was the order of the day; the men were not allowed to grow fat and indolent, but were kept in a high state of preparedness and efficiency by frequent exercise at the guns and yards. A school for the teaching of professional subjects to officers and midshipmen was established hard by the squadron at Gales Ferry, and the garrison at the fort and the row guard were kept at the alert for a sudden onslaught.
With the passing of summer, the longer hours of darkness and the autumnal storms increasingly prevalent along the coat gave Decatur new hope that he might run the blockade. Accordingly, in October, the squadron commenced to work downstream by easy stages to avoid prematurely alerting Sir Thomas' blockades. By mid-November, the three ships were anchored once again in New London harbor; great care had been taken to avoid scenes of undue activity but all remained ready for any immediate departure. Bridling and impatient at seemingly interminable delays, Decatur seized on the night of 12 December for the attempt.
All seemed made to order; "the night proved to be dark, the wind favorable; and when the tide served, they were to start." A heavy sea was running, making it highly improbable that the British boats would leave their ships or post a row guard towards the river mouth. But let Decatur himself describe the scene for us in his report to the Secretary of the Navy William Jones a week later:
New London, December 20, 1813.
Some few nights since, the weather promised an opportunity for this squadron to get to sea, and it was said on shore that we intended to make the attempt. In the course of the evening two blue lights were burnt on both the points at the harbor's mouth as signals to the enemy, and there is no doubt but that they have by signals and otherwise instantaneous information of our movements. Great but unsuccessful exertions have been made to detect those who communicate with the enemy by signal. The editor of the New London Gazette, to alarm them, and in the hope to prevent the repetition of these signals, stated in that newspaper, that they had been observed and ventured to denounce those who had made them in anima ted and indignant terms. The consequence is, that he has incurred the express censure of some of his neighbors. Notwithstanding these signals have been repeated, and have been seen by 20 persons at least in this squadron, there are men in New London who have the hardihood to disbelieve it, and the effrontery to avow their disbelief. I am, sir, with highest consideration and respect, your obedient and humble servant.
As noted, this report was not received with complete credibility by all the local populace; many believed the lights were shown from fishermen pursuing their peaceful trade, or perhaps were merely the reflection of a setting sun. Although many had Federa list inclinations, the thought of traitors or spies in their midst was an anathema to all and reinforced the cries of "Fraud!" and "Sham!" It was said that similar signals were again displayed from the shore in January and answered by the British ships, but no one was ever accused of the crime, and no proof was offered on either side to support or disprove the Commodore's report.
At this date, of course, nothing further may be offered in evidence as to the cause of the blue lights, but the eventual effect is certain. Faced on the one hand with a confident and powerful enemy, and with an unsympathetic and vacillating city on the other, Decatur despaired of ever getting the squadron to sea. Challenges to single ship combats were made by each side, and regretfully declined for various reasons by the other, but no further serious attempt was made to break the blockade in the months that followed.
The British forces were added to beyond the requirements of mere blockade. Major undertakings were rumored to be in progress. On one occasion, a landing force appeared in the Connecticut River and sank or burned 22 vessels and spiked the guns of the local garrison. A detachment from the United States and the Macedonian proceeded overland to engage them but the British fought their way past. Not enough men could safely be spared from the squadron to be effective, and the continuing raids in the area were soon recognized as further enticements by the British to lure the squadron to its destruction in the Sound.
Realizing that the continued presence of his ships and men were proving far more liability than asset, Decatur reluctantly ordered his squadron up river once more. There, well past the shelter of Fort Decatur and the chain barrier, the proud United States and the crack Macedonian were ignominiously laid up side by side. "Their top masts were struck, their yards sent below and all secured ; only the Hornet remained in full commission." Desultory and indecisive skirmishing continued along the Connecticut coast until the Treaty of Ghent, but despite the Hornet's eventual escape in November 1814, it was obvious that the British had won a decisive, if not glamorous, decision. Decatur himself was detached shortly thereafter and, to all intents and purposes, the actual shooting war was over at New London.
It was the same dreary drama repeated with local variations all along the eastern seaboard; proud Yankee frigates, born with the pride and hope of a new nation, and sustained by valor, lay blockaded singly or in pairs: the United States and the Macedonian; the Constellation bottled up at Norfolk throughout the conflict; the Congress at Portsmouth; the Chesapeake and the Essex captured; and fin ally, even the President, under Decatur's command was hounded and captured after a gallant attempt to run the blockade at New York. Only the lucky Constitution managed to get clean away from Boston to conduct a successful cruise, taking both the Cyane (34) and the Levant (20) in a single action - a shade of earlier and brighter days.
Despite the heroics of legendary men and the ships they sailed, the nation was proven fatally weak at sea and suffered the fate of blockade and practical ruin. The war was fought almost entirely on American soil and coastal waters by an enemy who knew and exploited the advantage of seaborne communications and mobility. Only the British disinclination to pay the price for a complete and crushing victory over her former colonies allowed the nation to sue for peace on comparatively reasonable terms. The commercial and shipping interests on both sides of the Atlantic were largely responsible for the conclusion of this war fought by both adversaries for " limited - and largely lost - objectives." Great Brita in, with almost complete control of the sea, and with all that implies, needed only the will and resolve to attain a complete military victory over a politically and economically divided fifth rate power - a situation strangely analogous to the U. S. position in Southeast Asia today.