Though virtually forgotten by history, William Jones was instrumental in creating the U.S. Navy that stunned Britain’s Royal Navy in the War of 1812.
Naval history is replete with stirring tales of brave captains and stalwart crews, of swift and deadly warships, and of furious sea battles that changed the course of history. The War of 1812 offers particularly colorful examples of maritime warfare, including the Battle of Lake Champlain, USS Constitution’s victory over HMS Guerriere and Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory on Lake Erie.
As astonishing and important as these battles were, however, much of the credit for America’s naval successes in that second war with Britain—and in the subsequent rise of American sea power—must go to a man who not once during the conflict set foot aboard a warship. He made his contributions from behind a desk in Washington, D.C., where he served as secretary of the Navy between January 1813 and December 1814. His name was William Jones, and you may be excused for never having heard of him.
The organizational development of American sea power was inconsistent, at best, before Jones’ appointment as its civilian leader. The Continental Navy, established in 1775, was a hastily formed force, and its very existence was not a settled issue: In 1785 Congress mandated the sale of the frigate Alliance, the last remaining ship of the wartime fleet, and for nine years after the United States actually had no navy at all. The ad hoc composition of the Revolution–era Navy carried over to its rules and regulations. Continental Navy captains often secured appointment on the basis of regional politics, and state navies competed with the Continental Navy for good seamen. While Captain John Paul Jones had made noteworthy efforts to introduce professionalism to the service, legislators largely ignored his efforts.
In March 1794, responding to the depredations of the Barbary corsairs, Congress authorized the construction of six frigates to protect America’s rapidly growing maritime commerce. Even then the lack of a well-organized naval department was a stumbling block, as was a pervasive political ambivalence about maintaining a standing navy. In his American Naval History, author Jack Sweetman summarized the political debate over establishment of the U.S. Navy:
A Congressional resolution calls for the establishment of a navy to protect American shipping from the Algerines. Supported by Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist Party, which speaks for the Northeastern mercantile and maritime community, the bill is bitterly opposed by Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans, who represent the agrarian South and inland areas. The latter fear that a navy will be a ruinously expensive, aristocratic institution, subversive of democratic ideals, whose glory-hungry officers will drag the country into unwanted adventures overseas.
Among those opposing a standing navy was William Maclay, a Jeffersonian Republican from Pennsylvania who argued that it was cheaper to pay ransom for American sailors held by the Barbary pirates than to establish and maintain a navy. Another congressman who opposed the idea of a permanent navy warned that if a such a force was established, “this country may bid farewell to peace; because you thereby organize a class of society who are interested in creating and keeping up wars and contention.” Others worried that a standing navy would prompt a pre-emptive attack by Great Britain akin to the Royal Navy’s attack on Copenhagen in 1807.
In such an environment it was not surprising that the management of the U.S. Navy that emerged during the Barbary Wars and the 1798–1800 Quasi-War with France continued to be problematic. Compounding the problems at the onset of the War of 1812 was a thoroughly ineffective secretary of the Navy, Paul Hamilton. Appointed by President James Madison in 1809, Hamilton is aptly characterized in recent histories of the War of 1812 by such terms as “ineptitude,” “vacillation” and “defeatism.”
William Jones reluctantly accepted the appointment by Madison as secretary of the Navy at the begin- ning of 1813. During the American Revolution, Jones had served in a company of volunteer infantry at the Battles of Trenton and Princeton, then sailed as a privateer in the Continental service under Thomas Truxtun. In the latter capacity he was twice wounded and twice captured by the British. Following the war Jones had sailed in the merchant service, founded a successful shipping company and served in Congress.
Despite his lengthy public service Jones then had little interest in becoming a political appointee and had turned down Jefferson’s earlier offers of the job. But Jonathan Roberts, a former colleague in Congress, wrote a compelling letter to Jones, appealing to his patriotism: “The nation and the Navy point to you as the fittest man we have, and what is to become of us if the fittest man will not come forward in a moment of public danger?”
Jones was aware of the ugly side of Washington politics and understood his predecessor was leaving behind a nonfunctioning office. Yet America was facing a conflict with the country possessing the most powerful navy in the world. Jones swallowed his misgivings and stepped forward to become the Navy’s civilian head. The “organization” he inherited was squeezed into three small rooms in a brick building just west of the White House. On hearing of Jones’ appointment, friend Captain William Bain bridge commented: “You mention the inorganized [sic] state of your department.…There never was any system in it, and for the want of it great abuses have crept in.” After just one day on the job Jones wrote to his wife about “the Herculean task I have to encounter.” He addressed that task with considerable energy and intelligence, and an estimably organized mind.
Jones promptly replaced the office’s chief clerk with Benjamin Homans, a former merchant ship captain who shared the secretary’s understanding of the challenges ahead. Jones then issued a stream of orders and correspondence that addressed such basic management issues as personnel and shipbuilding. Historians have described his writing style as verbose and overbearing, but it also reflected his scrupulous honesty and dedication. His authoritative tone provoked some senior naval officers, who felt that Jones’ new regulations compromised their authority as captains. Jones persevered, formalizing such administrative matters as transfers, promotions, officers’ complaints and the redeployment of the ineffective gunboat fleet created by Jefferson. Jones established a correspondence system that adhered to the chain of command, enjoining, for example, junior officers from writing directly to the secretary.
On the matter of ship construction Jones brought his management skills to bear, establishing uniformity in design, effective control of construction and maintenance costs, and oversight of the recruitment and retention of skilled shipyard workers. At one point he wrote to two captains in charge of construction and maintenance, showing his determination to bring order to what had been a haphazard process:
Herewith you will receive the dimensions of masts, spars [etc.] for the sloops of war building under your inspection, to which you will please call the builders strictly to adhere, as well as to the precise position of the center of the masts, as designated in the draft in the gun deck line.
Jones’ methods might today be termed micromanagement, but they brought positive results: While he was secretary, the government-owned yards constructed the first U.S. ships of the line, several heavy frigates and a number of sloops of war designed for commerce raiding. In addition the government contracted local yards to build the ships on-site that later carried the day for the Navy at the Battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.
Jones’ administrative innovations were a big step toward establishing a functional department, but his most significant wartime efforts focused on America’s naval strategy. “His primary energies had to be devoted to the immediate business of fighting,” wrote naval historian Christopher McKee in his 1991 book A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession. The strategic naval situation facing the United States at the beginning of the War of 1812 was, to say the least, challenging: The Royal Navy had deployed more than 100 warships on the North American Station, including 11 ships of the line and 33 frigates. Opposing the British, the U.S. flotilla comprised 16 ships, none larger than a frigate, and many in need of repairs.
That imbalance of the opposing forces made clear the need for a naval strategy of asymmetrical warfare. Fortunately for Jones, Madison and most of the Navy’s captains already agreed on the essentials of a realistic strategy: Attack the British sea lines of communication with single ships while establishing and controlling the lines of communication on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. Commodore Stephen Decatur articulated the first element of that strategy in a letter to Jones’ predecessor, Paul Hamilton:
[The] best use of the Navy would be to send single ships out with [a] large store of provisions so that they can cruise at a distance from the United States, and no more than two frigates together.
Jones himself spelled out the second element of the naval strategy to Commodore Isaac Chauncey, senior naval commander in the Great Lakes region:
It is impossible to attach too much importance to our naval operations on the lakes—the success of the ensuing [land] campaign will depend absolutely on our superiority on all the lakes— and every effort and resource must be directed to that object.
Jones’ primary achievement in the strategic area was, however, in applying the strategy dictated by the president, and doing so with consistency and clarity. In a February 1813 letter to the commanders of Navy ships then refitting he wrote:
Our great inferiority in naval strength does not permit us to meet them on this ground [in squadron action] without hazarding the germ of our national glory. We have, however, the means of creating a powerful diversion and of turning the scale of annoyance against the enemy. It is therefore intended to dispatch all our public ships now in port as soon as possible in such positions as may be best adapted to destroy the commerce of the enemy from the Cape of Good Hope to Cape Clear and continue out as long as the means of subsistence can be procured abroad in any quarter.
If anything can draw the attention of the enemy from the annoyance of our coast to the protection of his own rich and exposed commercial fleets, it will be a course of this nature.
In prosecuting this element of the U.S. naval strategy, Jones’ merchant marine experience was a plus, as he was able to advise his captains on the best locations at which to intercept British merchant ships. The most significant outcome of commerce raiding by U.S. Navy ships—in combination with hundreds of American privateers—was the capture of thousands of British merchantmen during the war and the ensuing pressure from those in Britain whose livelihoods were based on ocean commerce (as well as their insurers) to end the war with the United States. The result was a softening of the British bargaining position at the peace negotiations in Ghent (in present-day Belgium) that began in August 1814.
The astonishing victories of the U.S. Navy in single-ship actions—including those between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere in August 1812, USS United States and HMS Macedonian that October, and USS Constitution and HMS Java in December—were a most welcome byproduct of commerce raiding. But if the American public focused on the dramatic one-on-one victories, Jones kept those unexpected combat successes in perspective. “I like these little events,” he wrote to Madison at one point. “They keep alive the national feeling and produce an effect infinitely beyond their intrinsic importance.” It is clear Jones well understood the broader naval strategy, while recognizing the importance of civilian morale during war.
Jones actively supported the strategic effort to control the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, although his stance was, for the most part, inappropriately defensive. It seems he had a strategic blind spot about the lakes and an approach at times out of touch with events on the water and in the surrounding regions. At one point Jones wrote to Madison emphasizing the importance of events in the Atlantic over those on the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain:
One-fourth of our naval force [is] employed for the defense of a wilderness, while our Atlantic frontier—our flourishing cities, towns and villages, cultivated farms, rising manufactories, public works and edifices—are deprived of the services and protection of this valuable body of men, the loss of whom by any casualty would be to the nation a deep calamity.
Jones evidently believed that by early 1814 the British were not in a position to threaten American control of Lake Champlain. But on Sept. 11, 1814, U.S. Navy Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough engaged in a sharp naval action on the lake and defeated a British naval squadron. That victory, combined with Perry’s earlier victory on Lake Erie in September 1813, turned out to be strategically crucial. Many consider Macdonough’s victory the tipping point in the war, the point at which U.S. strategy got inside the British decision cycle. No less an authority than Alfred Thayer Mahan, the American prophet of sea power, stated unequivocally, in his book Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812, “The battle of Lake Champlain, more nearly than any other incident of the War of 1812, merits the epithet ‘decisive.’”
But while Jones may have had a blind spot about the importance of the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain, he remained unflagging in the logistic support he provided for on-site construction of the fleets that fought and won the battles on both lakes.
Although Jones has gone largely unrecognized for his exceptional service as secretary of the Navy during the War of 1812, it is clear upon examination of his record that he played a critical role. Neither a strategist nor a charismatic leader, Jones nonetheless forged the essential link between Madison’s strategy and the naval means of executing that strategy. His management skills provided a conduit between Madison’s policies and the courage and skill of the U.S. Navy’s increasingly professional leaders. Thus he was the enabler for such successful naval officers as Isaac Hull, James Lawrence, Bainbridge, Decatur, Perry and Macdonough.
Moreover, Jones did far more than help bring the war to a more satisfactory conclusion for the United States. By his actions in organizing the office of the secretary of the Navy, he strengthened the concept of civilian control of the military that remained, for the United States, a work in progress during the conflict. And with his organizational abilities he established the office as the means of effectively applying sea power during war and as an instrument of U.S. global influence. William Jones was, in plain terms, exactly the man the United States needed as secretary of the Navy at an important juncture in its history.
For further reading Joseph Callo recommends The Navy Department in the War of 1812, by Edward K. Eckert; A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794–1815, by Christopher McKee; and Perilous Fight: America’s Intrepid War With Britain on the High Seas, 1812–1815, by Stephen Budiansky.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.