William Jones’s shrewd strategy was the key to America’s asymmetric warfare against the Royal Navy in 1812.
In June 1812, on the eve of America’s headlong plunge into mad war against the mightiest seaborne power in the world, old John Adams confided to his grandson his opinion of the young nation’s chances. “Our Navy,” the crusty former president wrote, “is so Lilliputian that Gulliver might bury it in the deep by making water on it.”
For years, the very same Republicans who were now beating the war drums the loudest had blocked every effort to expand the tiny navy of the United States. A parsimonious Congress routinely rejected bills authorizing the construction of a few new frigates—or any of the much larger ships of the line. With 17 vessels, 5 of which were in such a state of dilapidation that they would need to be practically rebuilt even to be seaworthy, the United States Navy in 1812 had fewer guns (447) than the Royal Navy had ships (1,048). The British had 250 frigates to America’s 7; 200 ships of the line to none for the United States.
On the North American station alone, the British squadron of one 74-gun ship of the line and five frigates outmatched the entire U.S. Navy. Indeed, on a fair day British men-of-war stood in plain sight, unchallenged, just outside—sometimes inside—New York’s harbor, seizing with impunity American merchantmen bound for Napoleon’s France, sending the prizes to Halifax, and pressing seamen from the ships into service in the Royal Navy.
But over the next three years, Americans would somehow defy British sea power, stunning the world and creating a new reality on the seas. Never again would European powers treat American independence or the principle of freedom of the seas cavalierly.
How was America’s “Lilliputian” navy able to so defy the odds to hold off—and even humiliate—the mightiest seaborne power on earth? Certainly, American victories in a series of dramatic frigate-to-frigate battles early in the conflict rallied domestic public opinion at a crucial moment when the country had almost splintered over the war. Captains Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, and William Bainbridge became household names and much-needed national heroes.
Equally important, the brash courage displayed by America’s fighting captains would be matched by the strategic adroitness of the young navy’s leader, William Jones. The navy secretary from January 1813 skillfully employed his vastly outnumbered force throughout the war to keep the Royal Navy off balance and unable to seize the initiative, even after May 1814 when the British, having defeated Napoleon, poured close to a hundred ships into the fight to tighten their blockade of American ports. By turning his navy into a fleet of raiders, Jones provided an early lesson in what would in a later day be called “asymmetric warfare,” and it proved to be an astonishingly effective strategy.
As Augustus Foster, the British ambassador to Washington, acknowledged at the end of the war: “The Americans have had the satisfaction of proving their courage—they have brought us to speak of them with respect.”
In the summer of 1812, even as they agitated day by day for a declaration of war against Great Britain, the Republican war hawks in Congress stood fast against naval appropriations. Everyone agreed the coming war was at its heart a fight over principles of freedom of the seas—allowing neutral American ships to trade freely and free from the galling British practice of impressment (some 7,000 American sailors had been pressed into service by the British since 1803). Yet as they had for years, the Republicans still denounced the very idea of a navy as undemocratic and expensive.
Opposing even President James Madison’s modest proposal in January 1812 to build 10 new frigates, the Republicans in Congress declared that throughout history naval power had led nations only to despotism, expansionism, and endless warfare.
“Every nation that has embarked to any extent in Naval Establishments has eventually been crushed by them,” declared one congressman. Others argued that spending millions on new warships would simply be throwing money into the deep, since the Royal Navy would inevitably snatch the ships at the very outset of hostilities. “We cannot contend with Great Britain on the ocean,” said Pennsylvania’s Adam Seybert. “Our vessels will only tend to swell the present catalogue of the British navy.”
The House and Senate both rejected the naval bill on close votes, along with proposals to build ships of the line and a repair dock.
The best policy for the U.S. Navy if war actually came, said the war hawks, was just to put the ships in mothballs, sheltered safely behind harbor defenses where they would not have to be tested against the British foe. Primarily young members of Congress from the West and South, the war hawks were convinced that a mere show of American resolve would cause Great Britain to capitulate; failing that, the fight would best be taken by land to Canada, their primary objective, where American militiamen would be greeted as liberators and a swift and easy victory would force Britain to sue for peace.
Even Navy Secretary Paul Hamilton, a stalwart champion of the young service under his charge, was cast into gloom and defeatism at the very thought of engaging the Royal Navy. In February 1812, in a discussion with President Madison of possible war strategies, Hamilton had agreed that keeping the American force at home might be the only prudent course; to send the ships to sea would risk losing the entire fleet in one blow. Madison countered that by the same token, the American navy was so small it could be replaced if it were lost.
Hamilton quickly acceded to the president’s wishes, which were also strongly backed by his own captains—young, aggressive, and spoiling for glory as they almost uniformly were—but the secretary’s gloom only deepened as war approached. “In our Navy Men I have the utmost confidence,” he confided to his son-in-law shortly after America’s declaration of war in June, “but when I reflect on the overwhelming force of our enemy my heart swells almost to bursting, and all the consolation I have is, that in falling they will fall nobly.”
In the two decades preceding the start of the War of 1812, the Royal Navy had logged 200 single-ship actions, many of them against enemies of superior size and firepower—and had won all but five of those engagements. British belief in the invincibility of its navy was an article of the most ingrained faith. At the start of the war with the United States, the Times of London had perfectly captured the disdain for the upstart American navy almost universally held by the British public and officialdom. “A few fir built frigates with strips of bunting, manned by sons of bitches and outlaws,” opined the voice of the British establishment, were no match for Britain’s 600-ship flotilla, the victors over Napoleon’s fleets at the Nile, Copenhagen, and Trafalgar.
The very few dissenting voices fell on deaf ears. The British journal The Statesman warned, “The Americans will be found to be a different sort of enemy by sea than the French. They possess nautical knowledge, with equal enterprise to ourselves. They will be found attempting deeds which a Frenchman would never think of.” And with even greater foresight, Augustus Foster had warned Vice Adm. Herbert Sawyer, the British squadron commander at Halifax, that British captains should avoid single-ship engagements with American warships: losing even a single ship would be a serious setback in the war for public opinion.
When news reached London that British frigates had surrendered to an American not once but three times in the first six months of the war, Foster was proved all too correct. “The subject is too painful for us to dwell upon,” was all that the Naval Chronicle, the semi-official British naval journal, could bear to offer when reports arrived of the third loss: the frigate Java had surrendered to the Constitution off the coast of Brazil in the last week of 1812.
The London Pilot, another voice of the British maritime establishment, added the observation that “anyone who had predicted such a result of an American war this time last year would have been treated as a madman or a traitor. He would have been told, if his opponents had condescended to argue with him, that long ere seven months had elapsed the American flag would be swept from the seas, the contemptible navy of the United States annihilated, and their maritime arsenals rendered a heap of ruins.”
The London Chronicle concluded, “Every individual in the country must feel humiliated at this succession of disasters, which thus mock and render nugatory our boasted naval superiority.” George Canning, a member of Parliament and a former foreign secretary, stood in the House and declared, “It cannot be too deeply felt that the sacred spell of invincibility of the British navy was broken by these unfortunate captures.”
Soon enough the excuses began to pour forth. One that British historians would repeat throughout the 19th century was that the three American frigates were not really frigates at all; the British ships had been forced to surrender to much more powerful “ships of the line, in disguise.” British frigate captains had been decoyed into accepting one-on-one engagements with much more powerful ships. In a fair fight, they seemed to imply, the Royal Navy would have shown its usual mastery. They had simply been outgunned, not outfought.
One of the first to advance this line of reasoning was one of the humiliated British captains himself, John S. Carden of HMS Macedonian. After taking 70 broadsides in an hour and a half from the United States in late October 1812, his ship’s rigging and spars were almost completely shot away, and a third of his crew lay dead. Carden was forced to strike colors in as ignominious a defeat as ever befell a British captain. “On being taken onboard the Enemy’s Ship,” Carden reported to the Admiralty, “I ceased to wonder at the result of the Battle; the United States is built with the scantline of a seventy four gun Ship, mounting thirty long twenty four pounders on her Main Deck, and twenty two forty two pounders, Carronades, with two long twenty four pounders on her Quarter Deck and Forecastle.”
The British press quickly chimed in their agreement with this face-saving rationale: “Is not the term frigate violently perverted when applied to such vessels?” asked the Naval Chronicle.
No one disagreed that the victorious United States, Constitution, and President were the best frigates in the world. Designed in 1794 by Joshua Humphreys, a noted Philadelphia shipbuilder who had skillfully converted merchantmen to fighting ships during the American Revolution, they incorporated a number of innovations to give them strength, speed, maneuverability, and firepower. Humphreys explained that his goal was to build ships that would overmatch the firepower of any ship they could not outsail, while being able to outsail and thus evade action with any more powerful enemy, even in light winds.
Twenty feet longer than their British counterparts, the victorious U.S. frigates were clad in live oak—a wood five times as dense as ordinary oak, available only from the forests of the southeastern United States—and braced with an extensive network of framing and interlocking deck planking that allowed heavy guns to be carried nearly the entire length of the main upper deck in addition to the lower gun deck usual for frigates. Indeed, the American frigates did outsail and outshoot their opponents. The British frigates, nominally rated at 38 guns, typically carried 49 guns on a single deck; the large American frigates (rated as 44s) carried 54. As with the British ships, they were equipped with 32-pounder carronades, short-barreled guns effective only at short range but capable of wreaking huge destruction. Un – like the British ships, their complement of long-barreled, long-range guns consisted of 24-pounders, which substantially outranged the British 18-pounders.
The American frigates were still a far cry from a true British ship of the line. Even the smallest of Britain’s ships, a nominal 74- gun vessel, threw a broadside of half a ton of metal, roughly twice that of the United States’ ships. The charge that the American ships were “disguised ships of the line” rather than frigates was far more propaganda than reality.
The British Admiralty itself began repeating the mantra none theless. In a secret order issued July 1813 forbidding British captains to enter into any more single-ship engagements, Secretary to the Admiralty John Croker asserted that “the larger Class of American Ships…though they may be called Frigates, are of a size, Complement and weight of Metal much beyond that Class, and more resembling Line of Battle Ships.”
The other claim that would become a fixed part of British naval historical lore was that if the Americans had fought better, it was only because their ships were manned by experienced seamen, most of whom had deserted from Britain’s own navy. This was the excuse put forth by the defeated captain of HMS Guerrière after he struck his flag to the Constitution in August 1812; in his statement to a court martial, Capt. James R. Dacres claimed, “I felt much shocked, when on board the Constitution, to find a large portion of that ship’s company British seamen.”
Future British historians would take up this argument in earnest, asserting that as many as 45 percent of the Constitution’s crew and a third of the entire American navy were British sailors.
The evidence suggests that fewer than a dozen of the 450 crewmen of the Constitution were British subjects. While it was true that many British seamen had served on American vessels before the war, most had already been dismissed from service as a result of a Navy Department order issued in 1807 to employ only American citizens, and most of those who had remained had requested transfers to shore duty once the war began, precisely to avoid the danger of being hanged as deserters or traitors if captured by a British ship. (At least some seamen British writers identified as “British deserters” were actually American seamen who had been impressed by the Royal Navy and subsequently escaped.)
As the history of the naval War of 1812 became a transatlantic battle for honor, American writers countered with their own nationalistic arguments asserting that the patriotic zeal, know-how, initiative, and native superiority of the American people lay behind their country’s David-like triumph over the British Goliath. The 23-year-old Theodore Roosevelt would become the most prominent among them, with his monumental 1882 history of the war on the high seas, The Naval War of 1812.
“The stern school in which the American was brought up forced him into habits of independent thought and action which it was impossible that the more protected Briton could possess,” boasted TR. “He worked more intelligently and less from routine, and while perfectly obedient and amenable to discipline, was yet able to judge for himself in an emergency.”
Jingoistic as this all undeniably was, it contained a germ of truth, as did the British point that they had been overmatched by more heavily armed opponents in the three widely celebrated frigate engagements. (Roosevelt had quite sensibly conceded the truth of these British claims, while noting that a victory is a victory and suggesting that in any case it was hardly something for Americans to be ashamed of that they had come to the fight with better weaponry; a war was not a duel of honor. “It was creditable to us as a nation that our ships were better made and better armed than the British frigates,” Roosevelt wrote.)
There was certainly substance to the claim that American sailors were better motivated and more skilled than their British counterparts. The United States could draw upon a large body of experienced merchant mariners. Many American seamen had also grown up acquiring practical skills such as carpentry and blacksmithing that would be of value in an emergency.
All U.S. Navy crewmen were volunteers, serving for fixed enlistments of a year or two, paid better and generally treated much better than their British counterparts. As many as 10 to 20 percent of American crewmen were free blacks. For them the early 19thcentury American navy offered a rare opportunity for equal pay and the chance to exercise martial skills they would be ill-advised to use in the civilian world. Isaac Hull, the captain of the Constitution, praised his black sailors for their fearlessness during the frigate’s victorious clash with HMS Guerrière: “They fought like devils,” Hull observed, “possessed with a determination to outfight the white Sailors.”
By contrast, something like three-quarters of British sailors by 1812 were being obtained forcibly by press gangs. And as historian Wade Dudley observes, “The life of the crew on board a British man-of-war varied from harsh to hellish.” Crews were kept at sea for years, often being transferred from one vessel to another when a cruise was completed, never setting foot on dry land. Many captains made liberal use of flogging to enforce discipline, and some 2,500 British sailors were deserting every year, preferring the risk of hanging to the certainty of continued brutality aboard ship.
Though flogging was an accepted part of discipline aboard American ships, too, at least some American captains, notably Isaac Hull, abhorred the practice, and in general the lash was taken out of its canvas bag far less often in the American navy.
There were also tangible differences in American and British leadership and attitudes toward study and training. In 1812 the American navy had 234 officers to the Royal Navy’s 5,500; and exactly no admirals to the Royal Navy’s 201. Not one of America’s naval captains was over age 40. But what they lacked in numbers or experience they made up for in seriousness and professionalism. More than a few British captains and admirals owed their positions more to family or political connection than ability.
The American captains were a small and proud group who had risen through proven merit during the Quasi-War with France and the wars with the Barbary pirates in the previous decade. Keenly aware of their lack of experience, they applied themselves to learning in a way a British captain would have disdained.
Most remarkable was the “prison school” 1st Lt. David Porter had organized during the months of captivity that he and fellow crewmen endured in Tripoli after the American frigate Philadelphia ran aground and was captured in 1803. Their captors were constantly threatening to burn them alive, especially after Stephen Decatur’s daring raid that penetrated right into Tripoli’s harbor and burned the Philadelphia to keep the enemy from using it against them. Rather than give way to despondency, Porter and his fellow officers used their imprisonment time to hone their knowledge of naval tactics. The prisoners spent hours upon hours solving the tactical problems of naval battles by moving wooden blocks across the floor. With the blocks, they gauged wind and relative motion, weighing maneuver versus fire power, American versus British tactics, the long-range accuracy of guns versus the heavier hitting power of carronades. Most often they fought and refought the tactics by which one ship might take on two, or a ship to the lee might turn the tide against the traditional advantage of the weather gauge, and carry the fight against all odds.
Years of complacent contemplation of British naval supremacy had led to a wholesale neglect of the finer points of maneuver and gunnery among Royal Navy commanders. Wearying blockade duty in the war against France had taken further toll of efficiency and initiative. Admiralty regulations added layers of red tape, so much so that captains were sternly discouraged from expending shot and powder on gunnery practice.
All of this told in the frigate battles of 1812. The Constitution’s logbook was filled with notations of gunnery practice, firing with live rounds at targets, in addition to drilling and firing blank cartridges. By contrast, the Java in its six weeks at sea before dueling with the American frigate had fired a total of six broadsides, all blanks. In the battle, Bainbridge repeatedly outmaneuvered his British opponent while pouring in a withering, accurate fire that first cut Java’s spars and rigging to shreds. During the second hour of action, Java’s foremast and mizzenmast went by the board and its main topmast was shot away. The American ship closed to do frightful execution with carronades. The British fire was inaccurate and apparently largely unaimed, so did little damage; British casualties—130 killed or wounded, including the Java’s captain—were five times those of the Americans.
A British sailor aboard the Macedonian offered testimony to the equal accuracy of the American fire from the United States, under Stephen Decatur’s command. “Grapeshot and canister were pouring through our portholes like leaden hail; the large shot came against the ships’ side, shaking her to the very keel, and passing through her timbers and scattering terrific splinters, which did more appalling work than the shot itself.” Boarding the surrendered enemy ship, Decatur found dead everywhere, “the decks slippery with blood.”
As much as the frigate victories of 1812 cheered Americans and satisfied the captains’ zeal to distinguish themselves, it was clear to cooler heads that this was no sustainable strategy for victory. An increasingly effective British blockade of American ports from the Chesapeake to Boston was choking both merchant and military naval operations. The Admiralty sent out urgent orders to forego spit and polish in favor of gunnery practice, reversing two decades of neglect, and to start employing British superiority of numbers against American men-of-war. When encountering an American frigate, captains were ordered to keep their distance until joined by other members of the squadron and they could be certain of overwhelming force.
As bold—and lucky—as the American frigates had been to date, the U.S. Navy had neither the numbers nor the experience in squadron maneuvers to take on more than a single British ship at a time.
It was at this moment that the unsung hero of America’s war on the high seas, William Jones, came onto the scene. Navy Secretary Hamilton had been chosen for the post largely for political reasons. A South Carolina planter and former governor, he had no knowledge of ships, or even basic office management. Even in the best of times, he had been a passive presence, deferring to his captains and letting things run themselves.
As the war progressed, his office was in disarray, records and accounts were in chaos, and soon Hamilton was drinking so heavily that his fellow officials found it pointless to try to transact any business with the navy secretary after noon each day. President Madison accepted his resignation at the end of the year.
The man Madison chose to replace him was Hamilton’s complete opposite. William Jones was a former officer in the Continental Navy, had been a merchant ship captain and militia captain, and was now a prosperous Philadelphia ship owner and merchant. He had turned down Jefferson’s offer to appoint him navy secretary in 1801, but now his friends implored him not to refuse again. “The Nation and the Navy,” wrote Pennsylvania congressman Jonathan Roberts, “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?”
Though he abhorred Washington society and being separated from his wife and family, and was fully aware of the enormous task he had taken on, Jones threw himself into the job with single-minded intensity. He wrote his wife back in Philadelphia, “Those of my friends whom I casually meet with greet me with pleasure and express great confidence, but commiserate with me on the Herculean task I have to encounter.…In my lodgings I am a hermit & slave. In my office like a public pump kept constantly wagging by any one who thirsts after honors or emoluments which they run off with whilst I am left dry.”
The new secretary began at once to issue a flurry of orders on matters large and small, everything from the medical care of sick sailors in Charleston to the purchase of timbers in Boston to the shore defenses of Savannah, while also dismissing almost the entire civilian staff of his department and replacing them with more competent men of his own choosing. He also made it clear to his captains that he expected them to obey his orders. Above all, Jones saw, was the need to formulate a clear strategy that would coordinate the hitherto largely hit-or-miss American movements of individual warships on the high seas.
Hamilton, to his credit, had tentatively begun the search for a coherent strategy in the weeks before the coming of war. In May 1812 he had written to his two most experienced officers, Commodores John Rodgers and Stephen Decatur, asking them each “to state to me, a plan of operations, which, in your judgment, will enable our little navy to annoy in the utmost extent, the Trade of Gt Britain while it least exposes it to the immense naval force of that Government.”
The difficulty of communication between Washington and the naval stations, differing views on the part of the captains over whether it was best for American warships to cruise singly or as a squadron, and then the rush of events that had reaped such surprising warship-to-warship victories, had largely placed the question of how best to harry British trade on hold. In general, the American captains thought the best plan was to let them each cruise wherever they wanted. While no captain positively disdained taking enemy merchant ships, or the prize money that went with such captures, the lure of glory that came only from engaging an enemy man-of-war was always foremost among men of ambition.
Commodore Rodgers, chasing after a British frigate in the President in the opening month of hostilities, missed a chance to snap up the homeward-bound British plate fleet, and returned to Boston almost empty-handed after a long and fruitless cruise. In all of 1812, American warships took only 46 prizes. Although British Admiralty court records from other key ports for this period have been lost, records from Halifax show that the British navy brought in 144 prizes to that port alone that same year.
This was not a strategy for American victory, or even for staving off defeat. Jones now made it clear, tactfully yet firmly, that the captains would use their ships at Washington’s direction. With the British blockade tightening, the only sustainable strategy was to divert the enemy’s attention away from the American coast, force him to respond in costly ways that would tie up his naval forces, and generally create the maximum annoyance at the least cost.
In February 1813 Jones sent an order to all commanders of ships then in port explaining the new policy: “Our great inferiority in naval strength does not permit us to meet them on this ground without hazarding the precious Germ of our national glory—We have however the means of creating a powerful diversion, & of turning the Scale of annoyance against the enemy.”
To coordinate the movements of the American warships, and ensure that they would be dispersed as much as possible across the ocean for maximum effect, Jones ordered each commander to submit—for the navy secretary’s advance approval—where he proposed to cruise.
In the coming months, Jones personally reiterated to his captains that the key to victory against the Royal Navy lay not in direct attacks on warships but indirectly, through attacks on British commerce: the days of glorious warship-to-warship actions, although they bolstered the nation’s courage, were a closed chapter. “Be assured, Sir, that the confidence of our country cannot be enhanced by any new achievements of our gallant Navy,” he wrote one captain; “it is now entire and the services of an officer will now be estimated by the extent of injury he may inflict upon the vital interest of the enemy in the destruction of his commerce.”
Even raids that were economically insignificant to a mighty economy like Great Britain’s could be of huge significance in the “astonishing sensation” and diversion of British naval resources they would provoke, Jones explained, and would have many times the indirect cost on the Royal Navy than a direct engagement with its men-of-war: “On the ocean, five British frigates cannot counteract the depredations of one sloop of war.”
Many naval historians have argued that beginning in 1813 the crucial theater of naval operations shifted to the Great Lakes, where the United States and Great Britain engaged in a feverish naval construction race for control of the lakes, and by extension, of Canada. But as Kevin McCranie of the U.S. Naval War College has observed, American commerce raiding on the high seas under Jones’s new strategy imposed a crushing opportunity cost on the Royal Navy for the duration of the war. The high seas were still very much the central front.
Jones’s shift in strategy began to tell at once, annoying the British every bit as much as he had hoped. American privateers would take five times more British merchantmen than would U.S. Navy vessels, even after Jones’s change in strategy. Totals for the war are estimated at 1,400 seizures by privateers versus 257 for the navy. Nevertheless, American warships raiding commerce had a hugely disproportionate impact. The chance that the raider they encountered might be a heavily armed American frigate forced the British to reinforce their escorts much more heavily than they would have if the threat were limited to small privateers armed with a few guns and lean crews. And while the privateers favored easy pickings, the regular navy ships carried out increasingly daring raids right into British home waters.
To protect British shipping, the Royal Navy began escorting convoys, a significant diversion of warship strength. Though the 100 British ships then on the American station should have been adequate to enforce the blockade, so many were diverted to convoy duty, futile chases of American warships, and other purposes that at any given time there were rarely more than 25 available for blockading American ports.
To maximize the effect, Jones ordered his captains to burn their prizes. As he explained to Master Commandant George Parker, commander of the brig Siren:
Your own observations must have proved how precarious & uncertain is the prospect of getting prizes into a friendly port, and that the manning of a few prizes will soon terminate your Cruise and diminish your force so as to jeopardise the safety of the Siren and your own reputation by a chance conflict with an Enemy nominally your equal, but fully manned. With every patriotic Officer, private motives will yield to considerations of public good, and as the great object and end of our public force is to harass and distress the enemy, and as the most effectual annoyance is the destruction of his trade and Commerce it ought to be the ruling principle of Action with every Commander.
The stunning effect of Jones’s strategy was epitomized by the remarkable cruise of the sloop of war Wasp, under the command of Capt. Johnston Blakeley, in June 1814. Sailing directly across the Atlantic to the English Channel, Blakeley proceeded to take and burn 14 prizes, and engaged and defeated two British man-of-war brigs, before disappearing forever under mysterious circumstances in October off the Cape Verde Islands.
The results of the American guerre de course hit home in Britain everywhere. Insurance rates for shipping skyrocketed. The cost of insuring a vessel sailing from Britain to Ireland rose to 13 percent of its value—“three times higher than it was when we were at war with all Europe!” exclaimed the Naval Chronicle. By August 1814 insurance was practically unavailable for the Ireland–England trade. London insurers and merchants in Glasgow, Liverpool, and Bristol held urgent meetings and sent indignant statements to the government demanding an adequate naval force be dispatched at once to deal with the menace in home waters.
A century later, the American apostle of sea power Alfred T. Mahan decried the American high-seas strategy in the War of 1812 for violating the principle of concentration of force. In Mahan’s view, the Americans should have kept their ships together and sailed as a single powerful squadron. Single ships, he argued, were wasted trying to take on powerfully escorted enemy convoys. But as historian Linda Maloney has pointed out, the facts spoke otherwise: “American naval and privateer commanders learned early how to nibble at the flanks of a convoy and, more important, how to station themselves where convoys scattered for a final run into port.”
Although estimates differ widely, in the end American warships and privateers destroyed at a minimum 6 percent and possibly as much as 25 percent of all British merchant shipping tonnage. The diversion of resources the raids provoked multiplied these direct material effects many times over.
In the War of 1812, Jones hit on the one strategy that could force the nation with the most powerful navy on earth (which outnumbered that of the United States 50 to 1) to come to mutually agreeable terms to restore the peace. It was an unanswerable riposte to the British blockade and combined operations against Washington and Baltimore.
In the end it demoralized the British every bit as much as the Americans’ will to fight had been ground down by setbacks in Canada and the failure to defend the nation’s capital. And Secretary Jones’s decision to turn his navy into a raiding force waging asymmetric war has stood the test of time, and was vindicated by subsequent naval history—notably the devastating effect of the German U-boat operations in both world wars.
Historians on both sides of the Atlantic have often portrayed the War of 1812 as an exercise in futility, with no winners or losers, driven at root by ignoble motives of American territorial lust and party politics, failing in the end even to resolve the issues that had ostensibly triggered America’s declaration of war. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war by restoring only the status quo ante, did not even mention the key issues of free trade and impressment.
Admittedly, the war was something less than the “Second War of Independence” it was quickly hailed as by an American public eager to claim victory. But it was certainly something much more than the portrayal put forth with equal alacrity by British naval writers eager to dismiss and discount the surprising triumphs on the seas attained by America’s vastly outnumbered navy.
While the land battles of the War of 1812 ended almost uniformly in American failures, the U.S. Navy’s successes on the seas threw British public opinion and leadership into a crisis of confidence way out of proportion to their material significance. They took a lasting toll on British determination and morale.
Treaty or no treaty, the British never again impressed an American seaman, even when the Royal Navy rushed to battle stations in response to the renewed threat of war with Napoleon in 1815. The United States, whether it won a definitive victory or not, vastly boosted its prestige during the War of 1812. And never again would penny-pinching congressmen or anti-Federalist speechmakers see the navy as an easy target.
Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.