How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy's Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815
The title is a bold one, and it’s not mine. It belongs to a book published in 2011, written by one Brian Arthur, which offers the most comprehensive look at the economic impact of the War of 1812 to date. In doing so, it dispels one of that little-known and ill-understood war’s most lingering myths.
The story goes that a gallant US navy, involved in its first
ever full-scale maritime conflict, punched well above its weight, embarrassed the far larger, more experienced
and better-funded Royal Navy with a string of plucky victories, and savaged
British trade on the high seas. The conflict proved that the US Navy had what
it took to beat a world power, and provided an example of the fighting quality
of American seamen.
Unfortunately, one broadside of hard facts leaves such a
pride-inducing narrative holed below the waterline.
For starters, while it’s undoubtedly true that the entirety
of Britain’s Royal Navy was far larger than that of the United States in 1812,
the idea that Britain could bring its full weight down upon
the USA in isolation is ludicrous. Regardless of what US-centric narratives of the war
may say, the conflict of 1812 was never more than a sideshow to the British,
eclipsed as it was by the momentousness of the latter part of the Napoleonic
Wars. The Royal Navy in 1812 was required not only to continue to suppress
France and her allies, but also to maintain the defence of far-flung British
colonies across the globe, as well as protect vital supply links with the other
nations fighting Napoleon. As the US Naval Institute states;
Captain William Hoste, a
protege of Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s and a master of frigate
operations, held the Adriatic in awe in 1812-14. Napoleon had rebuilt his fleet
after its heavy defeat at Trafalgar in 1805, and the British had to devote much
effort to blockading French ports and supporting land operations in Europe,
especially in Iberia. There was great concern about the Toulon-based French
fleet. The Royal Navy was stretched in the Mediterranean, and there was
particular anxiety about enemy sorties from Toulon in 1811 and 1812. British
naval resources were also strained elsewhere. (Jeremy Black)
Because of all this, Britain had 85 ships in American waters
at the start of the war. Even this is an unrepresentative figure however, since
a number of these squadrons were on station in the Caribbean, and presented
little direct threat to the US Navy. In
reality the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies Station consisted of one
small ship of the line, seven frigates and fourteen smaller sloops or
schooners. The US Navy, meanwhile, had eight frigates and fourteen sloops.
Sender as it was, a numerical advantage in terms of ships
was the only thing going for the supposedly mighty Royal Navy in 1812. The
Americans had two major advantages. The first was that in the years before the
war the United States had embarked on a shipbuilding project which resulted in
the commissioning of three heavy frigates. These ships mounted 56 to 60
24-pound cannons, while the British equivalents possessed only 38 to 50 18-pounders.
The US ships were also of the latest design, their heavy timber flanks more
resistant to the lighter British roundshot. The second American advantage lay
in the fact that, while they had more ships, the Royal Navy was severely short on
manpower. Indeed, the Royal Navy’s illegal seizing of American sailors to crew undermanned
British ships was part of the reason for America’s declaration of war in the
first place. Britain’s Mediterranean and Channel fleets received the lion’s
share of sailors for the war with France while those ships stationed in American
waters were typically under-crewed. What crew there was were also typically
inexperienced and below-average regarding the “requirements of the
The eve of war therefore sees Britain’s navy with the most
ships, but with the Americans possessing better-armed, better-built and
better-crewed vessels. It should be little surprise, therefore, that the
American Navy appeared to come off well during the war’s opening broadsides. Indeed, most of the initial US victories in the naval war were won by the three
new heavy frigates, which overpowered their smaller British rivals. Far from a
British Goliath tumbling before the little American David, the British
Admiralty issued orders that British ships were not to engage the larger American
frigates unless they possessed a clear numerical advantage over them. The
previous battle experience and numerical advantage of US crews had also given
their brigs and sloops an edge over the overstretched Royal Navy.
From the start of the war, the Royal Navy’s strategy was
that of blockading. Obviously there was to be no large-scale invasion of the US
with the objective of conquest or major annexation. The Americans had started
the war, and the British government wished to bring an end to it via terms
which gave no concessions on their part, whether regarding territorial claims
in Canada or the right to impressment. With the termination of the war in mind,
the Royal Navy set out from the start to strangle the US economy and force it
to end the war by blocking up its ports and fisheries. This thy did with a
high degree of success. The individual ship-on-ship victories won early in the
war by the US Navy had no tangible effect beyond raising American morale and
convincing the British government to deploy slightly larger and less aged ships
and crews to the American theatre. As the Speaker of the US House of
Representatives admitted, “brilliant as they are… they [our naval
victories] do not fill up the void created by our misfortunes on land.” By
May 31st 1814 the entirety of the eastern seaboard was subjected to a British blockade.
Both sides also engaged in privateering and attacks on
merchant vessels. The Royal Navy initially struggled to protect its merchant
fleets headed to and from Nova Scotia and Halifax, but quickly became adept at
dealing with American raiders. Over the course of the war a total of 1,175
British traders were captured, but 373 of these were retaken, usually soon
after. The British had therefore suffered a loss of 802 ships by the war’s end,
but only 254 were actually seized by the US Navy, the rest being snatched up by
American privateers. Conversely, the Royal Navy (with little assistance from
privateers) seized 1,407 American ships over the three years of conflict.
The combined impact of the capture of so many American
merchant ships, and the fact that so many more were bottled up in port (along
with, eventually, the three heavy US frigates, which could no longer single out
lone British prey now that Royal Navy ships had learned to hunt in packs)
ultimately crushed the USA’s capacity to carry on the war. The US Navy was only
able to capture around 7.5% of Britain’s merchant fleet throughout the war, a
blow light enough to mean it didn’t impede the flow of supplies to and from
British North America or result in a rise in insurance losses. Conversely, US exports plummeted from $130
million in 1807 to just $7 million in 1814. Even worse for the US, a portion of
this $7 million was actually garnered by New England grain merchants who sold
their stock to the British to feed the redcoats fighting in the Peninsula War.
Throughout the war New Englanders frequently proved willing to do business with
the British in defiance of their own Congress, and even contemplated secession.
By the close of 1813 the Royal Navy had also redressed the
balance in terms of individual ship strength, and wiped away some of the stains of previous defeat:
In the frigate Essex ,
Captain David Porter had successfully attacked British commerce in the South
Atlantic and the South Pacific, capturing 12 whalers and their valuable cargo
off the Galapagos Islands in 1813. This was part of a major extension in American
trade warfare, but two British warships forced Porter to surrender off
Valparaiso, Chile, on 28 March 1814 after they cannonaded his disabled ship
from a distance. Six months later, the British suffered far more casualties
than the Americans when they attacked the privateer General Armstrong in the
Azores’ Faial Harbor, but the Americans eventually scuttled and burned the
addition, the British were often successful in conflicts between individual
ships. On 1 June 1813, HMS Shannon beat the
Boston in a bloody clash fought at close range in which a lack of preparedness
on the part of the American commander was a key factor. On 14 August 1813, the
USS Argus was
captured off Wales by the similarly gunned Pelicanafter
the British gunners proved superior. The
next year, the British frigate Le Rhin captured
the largest privateer to sail from Charleston, the Decatur , which
had boarded and seized the British sloop Dominica in
August 1813. (William Dudley)
As an extension of the blockading strategy, the British
also undertook numerous effective amphibious operations. The impotence of the
US Navy was highlighted by the British ability to land substantial troops almost
anywhere they pleased, which could then strike inland at will. The most famous
instance of these raids was, of course, the burning of Washington DC on August
24th 1814. There were many more however, and they would continue unabated until
peace brought an end to operations. Indeed, it seemed as though the Treaty of
Ghent arrived just in time for the citizens of New York, for a British force
under Admiral Sir George Cockburn was poised to attack it just before peace was
declared. Despite the well-demonstrated British capacity for combined services
operations, amphibious raids, even large ones like the attack on Washington,
were always secondary in strategic considerations when it came to the blockade.
The First Lord of the Admiralty wrote that landings “must be given up” if
such missions interfered or detracted from the blockade.
Ultimately the blockade ensured that “the parlous American economy was thrown into chaos with prices
soaring and unexpected shortages causing hardship.” (Donald Hickey) In the past decade a number
of revisionist historians have put the naval and maritime activities during the
War of 1812 into their full perspective, namely that;
British economic warfare had deprived the
US government of the means of continuing the war into 1815. Dramatically lower
customs receipts, a major source of government income, created budget deficits
which forced the government to depend increasingly on public credit. The
curtailing of American coastal trade meant that goods had to proceed to and
from markets by land, taking more time and at greater expense. In Arthur’s
view, the result of all this was unemployment and currency inflation which
created popular hardships and discontent with the war. The US Navy’s few
unblockaded frigates were unable to lift the British blockade and to prevent
British amphibious landings. The number of American merchant ship owners
willing to risk voyages declined sharply meaning there were far fewer vessels
engaged in foreign trade. (William
view only has one serious modern challenger, Wade
G. Dudley, whose work attempts to prove that far from being economically
strangled, the USA ‘was quite self-sufficient – no one starved, and the
implements of war continued to be produced – its government had little money,
thanks to the tremendous expenses associate with warfare, Madison’s embargo,
and the blockade.’ Brian Arthur’s latest addition to the subject,
however, puts down Dudley’s challenge early on - 'Dudley’s conclusion that the
British blockades [commercial and naval] of the United States were
comparatively unsuccessful neither appraises their consequences nor bears close
examination.’ Arthur continues:
The successful British naval blockade, by incarcerating much of the United States Navy, protected Britain’s commercial blockade and facilitated the capture of Washington. The fiscal and financial consequences of the resultant run on American banks far exceeded the value of property destroyed. The Royal Navy’s damage to the American economy, although sometimes indirect, was decisive. Britain achieved its most important war aim in retaining its ‘right’ to stop and search neutral vessels in wartime and to impose maritime blockades on continental enemies, as in 1914 and 1939.
If anything the fate of the American “super frigates” at the war’s end is instructive. Of the three, one was captured by the British and another had been reduced to a disarmed, crewless hulk by 1814. One frigate taken, one stripped, and the third still victorious - it sums up the balanced nature of the War of 1812, the war that nobody won.
Arthur, Brian, How Britain won the War of
1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 (London, 2011).
Black, Jeremy, A British View of the Naval War of 1812 (2008).
Hickey, Donald, The War of 1812: A Forgotten
Dudley, Wade G., Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812–1815 (Annapolis, MD, 2003).
Dudley, William, review of How Britain won the War of
1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815, (review no. 1215).
What is so significant about the Catch Me if you Can painting?
I’m so glad you asked!
For those who missed my last post, the painting in question is this one.
That is the USS Constitution during the War of 1812 being pursued by a British squadron. On July 12, 1812 Constitution, under the command of Isaac Hull, was attempting to join the American squadron under Captain John Rogers in President. On the 17th, Hull spotted a squadron of 5 ships near Egg Harbor, NJ. It was initially believed this was Rogers’ squadron, but the next day a lookout determined that they were in fact the British squadron out of Halifax. That squadron consisted of the frigates HMS Shannon, Aeolus, Belvidera, and Guerriere and the 64 gun ship-of-the-line HMS Africa. Hull attempted to avoid them but the British had already spotted him and gave chase.
Over the next three days, Constitution used a myriad of methods to try and evade capture. One of such methods was kedging, which is depicted in the painting. The wind died and all ships found themselves becalmed. Hull, acting on the suggestion of one of his subordinates, had his ship’s anchors placed in small boats and rowed out ahead of the frigate. Then, using the ship’s capstan, the anchors were raised one at a time. Because an anchor does not come off the sea floor until the ship is directly overtop of it, the act actually pulled the Constitution forward through the water.
Ultimately, Hull escaped his pursuers. Unable to rendezvous with Rogers, he instead sailed for Boston.
“The Death of Captain Lawrence” painted by Alonzo Chappel and engraved by H. B. Hall.
On June 1, 1813, after taking command of the frigate USS Chesapeake, Captain James Lawrence attempted to run past the British blockade on Boston Harbor. Sailing out into the harbor, Lawrence was challenged by Captain Philip Broke of the HMS Shannon. Lawrence obliged and the two ships commenced a fierce duel. Shortly thereafter Lawrence was gravely wounded by a musket ball. Lawrence was carried below deck to be tended to. As he left the quarter deck he issued his now famous command “Don’t give up the ship!” There are actually two accounts of Lawrence’s words. The first is “Don’t give up the ship! Fight her ‘till she sinks!” The second is “Tell the men to fire faster! Don’t give up the ship!” Ultimately, the Chesapeake was captured and sailed to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Lawrence died on the way there, June 4, 1813. He was given a funeral and full military honors.
Upon hearing of Lawrence’s death, fellow Captain Oliver Hazard Perry, who was a close personal friend of Lawrence’s, ordered a large blue banner to be made that bore the phrase “Don’t Give Up the Ship” in great white letters. Perry flew the banner from his flagship during the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813. "Don’t Give Up the Ship" quickly became a popular rallying cry for the Navy.
Don’t try to dismast her. Fire into her quarters: main deck to main deck; quarter deck into quarter deck. Kill the men and the ship is yours. Don’t hit them about the head, for they have steel caps on, but give it them through the body. Don’t cheer. Go quietly to your quarters. I feel sure you will all do your duty; and remember you have the blood of hundreds of your countrymen to avenge.
Captain Philip Broke’s address to the crew of HMS Shannon before their duel with USS Chesapeake, 1 June, 1813.
Headline from a British newspaper announcing the capture of USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon. Captain Broke’s victory gave the Royal Navy and British public a much-needed morale boost, but it has to be said, the battle was a bit more even than this paper would have us believe!
In reality, the Shannon’s true complement was 330, while the Chesapeake’s was 379. Although the Shannon, like the Chesapeake, was classed as a 38-gun ship, she actually carried forty-eight guns to the Chesapeake’s forty-nine. Chesapeake was slightly heavier, and had slightly more men, but overall, the two ships were pretty closely matched.