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Welcome to the first post in an occasional series about the War of 1812.

–by Alexander Milnikel, USCHS intern

At the start of the War of 1812 in June 1812, Americans, both in the government and amongst the citizenry, did not expect that very much decisive success in the war would be found at sea. As hostilities broke out, the first war aim for both Congress and President James Madison was the successful invasion and conquest of Canada, which many Americans believed, as best expressed by Thomas Jefferson, would only be “a matter of marching,” placing great faith in the abilities of the American regular army and militia forces. (Gardiner, 11) The fledgling United States Navy, on the other hand, remained consistently neglected by both the American public and federal government, albeit not without reason. Building and maintaining warships was expensive, and the U.S. had struggled with debt ever since the end of the Revolutionary War. The U.S. Navy was still less than 20 years old and far from being the super-power naval force that it is today; at the time, the whole of the United States Navy consisted of “fourteen vessels ready for sea-service: the three 44-gun frigates United States, Constitution, President; the smaller frigates Congress, Essex, and John Adams; the ship sloops Hornet and Wasp; brig sloops Argus, Syren and Nautilus; and the smaller brigs Enterprise and Viper,” 5230 seamen, and less than 1000 marines. In contrast, the Royal Navy consisted of “113,600 seamen and 31,400 marines in 1812, and had 548 cruising warships in commission, 102 being line of battle ships.” (Gardiner, 11-30)

Oldest known depiction of the USS Constitution (1813, gouache, attributed to Michele Felice Corne)

Taking these statistics into account, it is not surprising that America’s primary naval strategy throughout the war directed the few seaworthy ships at the USN’s disposal, along with “privateers fitted out by the merchant community,” at inflicting damage on British trade rather than setting up major naval engagements with the Royal Navy itself. (12) However, the American captains, hungry to make both a name for themselves and the young USN, vehemently “sought the glory of capturing British warships,” and they and their crews were certainly up to the task. (12) Despite the youth and small size of the USN, the captains and crew within the ranks already had much wartime experience from combating both the French in the Quasi-War (1798-1800) as well as the Barbary pirates in the First Barbary War (1801-1805). Furthermore, the British were waging a world war with France at the time in the Napoleonic Wars, which placed an enormous strain on Britain’s economic and military resources as well as its manpower. As a result, the British ships sent to fight in the less pressing American conflict, especially in the first year of the war, were generally smaller warships manned by under strength and inexperienced crews, some of which consisted of foreign sailors. Thus, all the pieces were in place for a series of surprise and desperately needed American naval victories. These victories would not only establish the legitimacy of the USN but also serve a valuable political role as well. By consistently defeating the Royal Navy, “the bedrock of British power” and the most powerful naval force in the world at the time, the USN would effectively demonstrate to both the American public and the world that the U.S. could win both on land and at sea against even the toughest of opponents. (Gardiner, 12)

The 44-gun frigate USS Constitution was by far the most successful American warship in the War of 1812 at legitimizing both the USN and America’s sea power. Launched in 1797, the ship and five other frigates had been designed by ship builder Joshua Humphreys in 1794 as part of the founding generation of ships in the USN, serving as America’s capital ships throughout much of its early history. Carrying a main armament of 24-pounders, Humphreys’ 44-gun frigates were original “in having a continuous upper deck – instead of separate quarterdeck and forecastle – allowing them to mount a second complete battery on this so-called spar deck.” (31) Humphreys himself proudly predicted that “the commanders of them [the frigates] will have it in their power to engage, or not, any ship they may think proper; and no ship, under sixty-four (guns), now afloat, but what must submit to them.” (31-32)

During America’s Quasi-War with France, the Constitution escorted numerous merchantmen, sailed multiple times as part of American naval squadrons, and captured six vessels. In the First Barbary War, she served as Captain Edward Preble’s flagship throughout the blockade of Tripoli Harbor, primarily providing gunfire support in the bombardment of Tripoli’s shore batteries, and, after hostilities with the Barbary pirates came to a close, spent months observing the French and Royal Navy operations in the Napoleonic Wars. The true test of Constitution’s mettle, however, came in the War of 1812, in which she would win worldwide fame, the adoration of the American public, and her everlasting nickname “Old Ironsides.” (Gardiner, 31-32)

The USS Constitution’s first action of the War of 1812 was noteworthy, though far from the glorious victory over a British warship that she was looking for. On July 5, 1812, less than a month after Congress declared war on Great Britain, the Constitution sailed from Annapolis under the command of Captain Isaac Hull. She was supposed to link up with Commodore John Rodgers’ naval squadron, but unluckily, on July 18 she ran into “a strong British squadron off the Jersey coast under Captain Philip Broke.” (35) This squadron consisted of the 38-gun frigate HMS Shannon, the 64-gun ship of the line HMS Africa, the 32-gun frigate HMS Aeolus, the 36-gun frigate HMS Belvidera, and finally, the 38-gun frigate HMS Guerriere.

Constitution's escape from the British squadron after a chase of sixty hours, 1815 engraving by William Hoogland (Library of Congress--their summary: "Print shows rowboats towing the USS Constitution away from the British fleet as the British frigate Belvidera fires its cannons. In the background, rowboats tow the British frigate Shannon. Other ships in the squadron are HMS Africa, HMS Aeolus, and HMS Guerriere.")

The Constitution immediately fled from the hotly pursuing squadron, beginning what eventually turned into an epic three-day struggle to evade capture by the persistent British warships. Over the next three days the Constitution’s captain and crew employed a myriad of methods in their attempt to outrun the pursuing squadron; first, Hull resorted to boats to tow the Constitution, but the British quickly followed suit. Many of the more distant or slower ships even sent their boats to assist the nearest frigate, the Shannon. Eventually, both sides “turned to the backbreaking expedient of kedging – carrying small anchors ahead in the boats, and then heaving in on the capstan (35).” Although they occasionally crept closer from time to time, even to the point that they were able to fire off a few shots at the elusive American frigate, despite their best efforts, the British pursuers simply could not close the gap on the Constitution. By July 19, “in gradually rising winds the Constitution was gaining;” on July 20, “Captain Hull set his crew to wet the sails, to retain more wind, and by the middle of the morning the American frigate was so far ahead that the British squadron gave up the chase and returned to their blockade station off New York.” (36-37) Hull, unable to keep his rendezvous with Commodore John Rodgers’ force, decided to head for Boston, relieved to have escaped his British pursuers.

Chase of the Constitution, July 1812, by Anton Otto Fischer (u.S. Navy Art Collection)

Despite the fact that the Constitution’s escape was hardly the glorious naval victory that the American public so desperately desired, it was an impressive showcase of both the seaworthy capabilities of the American frigates as well as the skills and seamanship of U.S. naval officers and sailors. Escaping five warships of the Royal Navy was no small feat, and this fortunate escape was only the beginning of the USS Constitution’s illustrious wartime service in the War of 1812, in which both she and many other ships in the USN would truly legitimize their own branch of service as well as show that the United States was a truly formidable sea power worthy of combating the most powerful naval opponents of the nineteenth century. (Gardiner, 35-37)

Read what came next for the USS Constitution…

Source Cited:
Robert Gardiner, The Naval War of 1812 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1998), 11-37.