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US Naval strategy in the War of 1812

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Initial post: Jan 16, 2012 5:21:00 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 16, 2012 5:22:39 PM PST
The general strategy adopted by the Americans against the British during the War of 1812 was of guerre de course (commerce raiding). Conventional wisdom says this was a necessity as the American Navy could not have stood against the British battleline.

Is this really true though? The American fleet was indeed small, consisting of 8 frigates, 12-14 smaller vessels, and no ships of the 3rd rate or larger. By contrast, the RN had over 600 ships, including more than 80 in American waters.

There is no doubt that the commerce raiding strategy stung the British, who were obviously very reliant on worldwide trade, but my question is, if the commerce raiding had been left to privateers and smaller vessels (which did most of the damage in that area anyway) and gotten all the frigates together to challenge the British in a fleet action, what would have been the outcome?

On the surface, it seems easy, no ships of the line vs. lots of ships of the line. However, all of the RN ships were not in one place. A more typical fleet would size would have been the force that captured the USS President (4 frigates, including a very heavy razee frigate).

It is not out of the question that the 3 heavy 44-gun frigates of the US Navy could have potentially gone toe to toe with a 3rd rate. Their general structure actually was more along the line of a 3rd rate than of the average frigate of the day.

What do you all think, given fairly even numbers, who would have prevailed?

Lets say a US fleet consisting of the 3 big US frigates (Constitution/President/United States), plus 3 smaller ones, and 2 sloops of war against a 74-gun liner (HMS Royal Oak or similar), a 50 gun 4th rate, 2 large 38-44 gun frigates and 2 smaller 28-32 gun frigates and 3 unrated ship-sloops. Nine ships to eight.

Also, its worth noting that while the Americans won numerous frigate engagements throughout the war, showing themselves very skilled at ship handling and gunnery, commanding even a small fleet in action is something else again, and the British had lots of practice at this.

Anyway, I'm eager to see what you all think.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 17, 2012 8:43:56 AM PST
Ku says:
Sounds to me like you want to gamble the entire miniscule USN on one battle with a tiny portion of the Royal Navy.

If you lose that encounter, it's curtains for the war effort.

Because the British could then boss the entire Atlantic seaboard with impunity. Blockading, landing troops for raids, whatever took their fancy.

Even if you win that one battle, the ships will likely be so damaged that they have to return to harbor for repairs.

Meanwhile, the RN can replace their lost ships at the drop of a hat because there are so many in the theater of operations.

Well, you wanted to hear what somebody thought.

I've been looking at Mahan's book on that war online. Guerre de course was the option where the most damage could be inflicted on the British. And the British did indeed have to allocate a number of warships out of all proportion to the size of the American fleet in order to defend their merchant shipping and communications.

And this was while they were approaching the final stages of a to-the-death struggle with a dangerous French despot.

Posted on Jan 17, 2012 10:35:47 AM PST
I'm not necessarily advocating this course as a strategy, but merely exploring whether it would have even been feasible.

However, it is certain that attempting such a gamble and losing would have had absolutely disastrous effects on morale at home in the US, and might have steeled British resolve to carry the war on to a more decisive conclusion. However, other than these moral effects, I don't think that losing even the bulk of the US fleet would have necessarily been that decisive as far as the overall outcome of the war.

The British already essentially owned the Atlantic seaboard. Once they got their blockade locked down tight on the major ports, there was nothing that could be done to stop their movements and landing wherever they desired from a naval perspective. The US frigates were scattered out, and 3 of them at least eventually captured. The remaining ones won some spectacular victories, but were unable to prevent the RN from doing whatever it wanted, whenever it wanted. Once bottled up in a harbor they lost one of their best attributes (speed and maneuverability). Shore batteries are more dangerous to ships trying to raid or land troops, than anchored ships anyway.

I certainly would not underestimate the psychological effect of losing a battle like that would have had on the Americans. On the other hand, losing a fleet action might have had the same effect on the British. While not actually altering their worldwide naval superiority in any meaningful way, it might have made them tire of the war earlier than they in fact did.

Thanks for the comments, it is exactly what I am looking for. Basically I have 2 things I am interested in thinking through here.
(1) The relative merits of a commerce raiding based strategy vs one focused on the enemies navy.
(2) Whether or not the "heavy" US 44's could take on a 74 gun SOTL with any hope of success.

Posted on Jan 18, 2012 8:26:51 PM PST
Guerre de course (commerce raiding) was virtually the only viable option for the U.S. ocean-going navy. The American super-frigates were faster, more heavily-armed, and more stoutly built than comparably-sized British ships. Given their speed, sea-keeping ability, and American seamanship, it is interesting to contemplate whether an American 44 could have maneuvered around a British 74 to destroy its rudder and eventually destroy it. It might have come down to the weather gauge advantage.

However, as fascinating and morale-building as the big ships' sea battles were, the key squadron/fleet actions of the War of 1812 were on Lakes Erie and Champlain. These successful fleet actions secured key flanks of land campaigns and led to decisive victories (Lake Erie helped secure the campaign that led to the Battle of the Thames and Lake Champlain helped secure victory in The Battle of Plattsburg).

Posted on Jan 19, 2012 12:01:20 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 19, 2012 1:15:04 PM PST
There is only one precedent that I am aware of where a frigate defeated a 74, and there were mitigating circumstances there. The Indefatigable and the Amazon drove the French liner, Droits de l'Homme onto a lee shore after an extended action.

However, all the following factors were in the favor of the British:
- The Indefatigable was a cut down (razeed) 3rd rate herself, so was unusually strong for a frigate.
- There were two frigates vs the one French vessel.
- The weather was extremely bad, resulting in the French ship not being able to use her lower deck (removing the heaviest half of the guns carried by the ship). The weather also greatly impacted the accuracy of the French fire, and prevented the possibility of boarding.
- Ultimately the ship was destroyed by being driven ashore. In calm seas further from land the outcome may have been very different
- Capt Pellew was in command on the British side. He was an extremely aggressive leader and skilled seaman.
- The British seamen had the advantage of spending much more time at sea than the French, which enabled them to escape a bad situation afterwards (although the Amazon was also driven ashore and lost).

Despite all that, the Droits de l'Homme was a vastly more powerful ship than even the two frigates combined. I am not aware of another instance during the entire Napoleonic era where frigates, even acting in concert were able to overwhelm a ship of the line of the 3rd rate or greater. There are however plenty of instances of 3rd rates destroying or capturing 1st rates, and of unrated vessels capturing frigates, so fighting above your weight class was not unprecedented during that time.

If any ship could have done it though, I would think the big American 44's would have been the ones. Having been aboard the USS Constitution and the replica of the HMS Rose (Surprise stand-in for the movie Master and Commander), you can see the vast difference in size and power that exists within ships that are rated as frigates. A 24 gun ship like the Rose would have been hopelessly outclassed by an ultra-heavy 44 like Old Ironsides, which was much more like a 4th rate.

Posted on Jan 19, 2012 1:10:26 PM PST
The American 44s were the most powerful frigates in the world at the time. R.G. Grant states that "Constitution" carried 52 cannon and 476 men on board to "Guerriere's" 38 cannon and 280 sailors. Throw in its hull design and its being built of stout "live oak" planking, and it was a real handful. I believe the British were most surprised at the seamanship the Americans consistently displayed.

You had mentioned you had been aboard the "Constellation." I have as well. What is your take on the controversy surrounding this vessel? Is it the true original 1797 frigate or a cut-down ship from a later era?

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 19, 2012 1:20:08 PM PST
I edited that to say Constitution as that was what I had intended in the original post.

However, I have also been on the Constellation as well, and having researched the issue somewhat extensively, I personally believe that it was of later construction, although probably using some of the original materials from the original Constellation. I think the general scholarly opinion is leaning toward that as well. The museum itself takes this position.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 19, 2012 2:15:55 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 19, 2012 2:16:07 PM PST
From what I've read, the Constellation was a sloop of war from the post war of 1812 era. But she wa still about the same size as the original Constellation. If I remember, I'll check my copy of Chappele tonight to verify it.

Posted on Jan 19, 2012 4:16:44 PM PST
A good article on the War of 1812 on the high seas is found in "Naval History" magazine, Vol. 22, No. 8, (August 2008), Pages 16-25: "A British View of the Naval War of 1812," by Jeremy Black.

Two "Naval History" magazine articles on the "Constellation controversy" are:
1) Vol. 16, No. 5 (October 2002), Pages 39-41: "Preview: 'Constellation' Oldest Warship," by Geoffrey Footner, ("pro-1797", and challenges Chapelle) and,
2) Vol. 17, No. 3 (June, 2003), Pages 24-29: "Exhuming the 'Constellation,'" by Dana Wagner, ("con-1797").

Posted on Jan 19, 2012 5:15:45 PM PST
I think the "new" Constellation was built alongside the original frigate, utilizing much of the original material. I think there are even contemporary newspaper articles in existence that said as much.

Its worth noting that even the USS Constitution, whose provenance is undisputed, only has a certain percentage of the original materials left in it. The proverbial "grandpa's hammer" comes to mind.

Posted on Jan 19, 2012 6:44:47 PM PST
I agree this is probably the case. Afterall, these frigates were made of wood, constantly in water. During sub-waterline rebuilding, why not use the latest technology and techniques in the ship overall, while utilizing as much of the hardware and fittings of the "old" ship as possible? Makes perfect sense in a very militarily cost-conscious period in our history. "Constellation" is probably an amalgamation of old and new construction/techniques.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 19, 2012 10:25:38 PM PST
I just checked my The History of the American sailing Navy by Howard Chapelle, and the original Constellation was broken up in 1852 at Norfolk, the new Constellation was classed as a Corvette and was built between 1853 and 1854 in Norfolk. She was about ten feet longer than the original. Chapelle states that the original Constellation was in very bad shape so rumors that any significant part of her was included in the new ship were probably false.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 20, 2012 7:42:30 AM PST

Good information...Thanks!

Posted on Feb 1, 2012 4:27:41 PM PST
It is interesting to note that the closest thing to fleet actions that occurred between the Americans and the British in the 1812 war both occurred on inland waters (as High Plains Drifter already pointed out) at Lake Erie and Lake Champlain. Both of these were American victories. Perhaps there was an overconfidence that was starting to set in for the RN after years of domination over the French and other European countries at sea. You see this as well in the frigate actions where they unhesitatingly engaged with the big 44's, even when heavily outgunned. This aggressiveness served them well against the French, but resulted in several stinging defeats against the Americans. Once they got more cautious, and started using their numbers, they started winning some sea battles (capturing the Essex and President in battles where they had superiority in numbers, but losing one more against the Constitution despite the 2:1 odds).

The ultra high level of professionalism, skill, and bravery of the Royal Navy are unquestionable, but I wonder if the cockiness that can come with a near unbroken winning record might have resulted in complacency that could have resulted in a major fleet action defeat as well on the high seas? Note that at Lake Champlain a near identical strategy to the Battle of the Nile was employed, but with disastrous results.

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 2, 2012 8:08:09 AM PST
A lot of the trouble the Royal Navy had with the Americans was based in the fact that generally American ships were much more heavily manned and the quality of the crews were higher than in the Royal Navy. Very few Royal Navy ships could fight both broadsides at the same time, but the US ships were manned at that level as a matter of course. The crews of the Royal Navy ships were essentially draftees, imprisoned on their ships and poorly paid. US crews were professional seamen volunteers and fairly well paid. Most Royal Navy commanders didn't believe in long range gunnery, using close range rapid fire instead. The US Navy commanders spent a lot of time training crews to fire accurately at long range, as well as firing radiply and accurately at short range.

Couple the manpower advantages with the superior ships and any Royal Navy Commander had a hard row to hoe in anything resembling an even match with a US ship.

The Great Lakes battles were the only time the US Navy was able to match the Royal Navy quantitatively since both sides were starting from scratch building their fleets.

Posted on Feb 13, 2012 5:45:44 PM PST
Interestingly, the Royal Navy actually built a 1st rate ship of the line on the Great Lakes. The HMS St. Lawrence (112 guns) was built in about 5 months, and so shifted the balance of power that the US fleet never set sail once it was completed. You can still see this ship today if you are a diver, as parts of it are visible where it was sunk in 30' of water off Kingston, Ontario.
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Discussion in:  History forum
Participants:  4
Total posts:  16
Initial post:  Jan 16, 2012
Latest post:  Feb 13, 2012

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