roundshot

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 service.”

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 ship.

In addition, the British were often successful in conflicts between individual ships. On 1 June 1813, HMS Shannon beat the Chesapeake off 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 Dudley)

This 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. 

Sources.

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 Conflict (Chicago, IL, 1989).

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).