Great Britain and the United States of America have cooperated in two World Wars, the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror. When considering these military theatres it can be forgotten that these two countries have fought one-another. The War of 1812 is one such example. The growing US strength in the aftermath of the War of Independence is revealed by the two ship-on-ship engagements which I will examine. Though Britain won this war with overwhelming naval control, the USS Constitution sank two Royal Navy warships in an impressive display of seamanship.
Here, Toby Clark considers the background to the War of 1812 and the battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriére.
Background to war
The naval war was driven by the British Royal Navy’s aggressive impressment of United States’ Navy sailors into British service.In fact, the British warships would stop and send Marines aboard the American ship and forcibly remove Royal Navy deserters. In naval terms, impressment is the term for forced servitude on board ship and is best known from ‘press-gangs’ which searched harbor towns for Royal Navy recruits. In his popular study of the USS Constitution Donald Macintyre views the British infringement on the United States’ shipping as deeply wounding to American national pride.Today this diplomatic incident may have resulted in increased naval activity or tense diplomatic discussions but in 1812 the only viable option for the US Government was war. This decision could not be taken lightly by the United States because the Royal Navy was not only highly skilled but also superior in size. For instance, at the outbreak of war the Royal Navy had 83 warships in American waters, and by 1813 this number had increased to 129 warships, including a number of 74 gunned ships of the line.Macintyre makes the point that only a fraction of the Royal Navy would be dispatched to the US; but regardless of British focus on Napoleon in Europe, victory against the United States seemed to be assured.
In contrast to the Royal Navy, the United States Navy appeared woefully inadequate. However, whilst the US Navy was hopelessly outnumbered there were three initial advantages. Firstly, the US Navy was fighting in home waters in close proximity to friendly harbors which meant that repairing and resupplying ships was straightforward. Compare this to the British, who had to sail across the Atlantic Ocean to Britain or northwards to Halifax in Canada in order to reach home bases. This was a key component of A. T. Mahan’s famous thesis on sea power which predicted victory for a navy with closer port facilities.Secondly, the crews of the US ships were well-trained and led by officers who possessed skill and ability. Captain Isaac Hull, Commodore Stephen Decatur and Commodore William Bainbridge are notable figures who each gained successes against the British and whose actions will feature shortly. Thirdly, the US had commissioned a new fleet of frigates whose size and armament was superior to the Royal Navy’s frigates. As an example, a typical British frigate HMS Java carried 49, 18-pounder cannons whilst the USS United States mounted 55, 24-pounder cannon.Clearly, the American frigate, which was a sister-ship to the USS Constitution, possessed a firepower advantage in both numbers and size of shot. So with these local advantages the US frigate fleet put to sea; let us focus on the USS Constitution.
USS Constitution versus HMS Guerriére
Interestingly, the first confrontation between the USS Constitutionand the Royal Navy took the form of a wager back in 1798. Challenged by a Royal Navy frigate, Constitution agreed to race into the wind for one day and the winner would receive a cask of Madeira, a highly desirable fortified wine. The US trumped the British in the race, thus foreshadowing later US successes.
The first battle under examination was fought by the Constitutionon August 19, 1812 when Captained by Isaac Hull, the USS Constitution met Captain James Dacre’s HMS Guerriére whilst patrolling off Nova Scotia. If the British were confident of victory before the battle, they certainly had a right to be pleased once the engagement began. With a better initial position, HMS Guerriére was able to fire broadsides at the Constitution whilst the US frigate was still attempting to maneuver alongside. The British held the advantage because whilst the Constitutionremained to the rear of the British frigate, the US crew held their fire. In contrast, the British loaded and fired but without much effect.
At this point however the battle turned as Isaac Hull brought the Constitution alongside the Guerriéreand finally authorized the cannon to open fire. Having held a slim advantage up to this point HMS Guerriére was unable to out-maneuver the Constitution because Captain Dacre worried that his ships rotten masts would not handle the strain.Unable to escape from Isaac Hull’s grasp, the greater size of the crew, armor and armament of the US frigate left the Royal Navy warship riddled with jagged holes. Furthermore, following deliberate targeting by the US cannon Guerriére’s masts had been felled and the British frigate was motionless. Having fired a number of broadsides into the stricken warshipHull accepted the British surrender from Captain James Dacre. The battle was over and the Americans’ had suffered fourteen casualties, compared to the British with seventy eight casualties.
The imbalance in casualties can be attributed to superior US gunnery which was faster and more accurate, and the construction of the Constitution meant that British rounds did not penetrate. It is worth mentioning that USS Constitution’s nickname, ‘Old Ironsides’, was borne of her wooden walls which were thick enough to cause British cannon balls to bounce-off. The result was further illustrated by the need to scuttle the British warship because the damage was so severe that towing the prize back to the US was impossible. The once proud HMS Guerriére was set alight and left to burn in the lonely ocean.
The second and final part of the series is here.
What do you think of this naval battle? Let us know below.
Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, 18 February 1813:Address Respecting the War with America (Vol. 24, pp: 593-649)
https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1813/feb/18/address-respecting-the-war-with-americaDate accessed: 05/02/2019)
Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships (London: Hamlyn, 1975), 36.
Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber and Faber, 2012), 196 and 243.
Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 36.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783(The Project Gutenberg eBook: September 26, 2004, accessed: 22/04/2019. Originally published: Little, Brown and Company, 1890), 535.
Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39 and 43.
Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 77.
Andrew Lambert, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, 75-76.
Donald Macintyre, Famous Fighting Ships, 39.