US Navy Fleet List War of 1812
v.1.0 June 16, 2002

Ravi Rikhye

 

Source: Chronology of the US Navy 1775-1965 David M. Cooney; published by Franklin Watts Inc., New York, 1965

On March 18, 1812, the United States declared war against Great Britain. Between the end of the Revolutionary War and 1812, less than 30 years, the British seized 917 American ships, or more than 30 per year. This figure alone shows how different our world is today.  Shocking as it is, another figure is even worse: in the same period, France, Naples, the Barbary States, Spain, and the Netherlands seized 1500+ American ships. It was very much open season on the young republic. Whether this was because of a general dislike of the first modern democracy or if it was because in those days the weak preyed on the strong as a matter of routine, these losses must have represented large sums of money, to say nothing of the cost to the nation’s pride. Seized shops were either ransomed to the owner, sold off to a third party, or appropriated by the seizing nation.  Clearly, the US Congress was seriously negligent in protecting its merchant ships.  Also clearly, an explanation for the reasons why must lie with those better acquainted with American history, and we invite them to enlighten us.

The case of this war lay with another.  The British and French were at war with each other and Britain insisted that US merchantmen destined for France be searched at British ports.  Even if the US had been inclined to quietly accept this, a habit of the Royal Navy would have gotten in the way: the British, when they seized an American ship, would impress American crews into their service.  The reasoning was that the Americans were British citizens who sailed for America because of higher wages, and surely this must sometimes have been true. Other Americans were imprisoned: there still exist melancholy records at Dartmoor Prison listing American sailors who died there.

To add insult to injury, the French would seize any American ship that had stopped at a British port for inspection.  Between 1803 and 1812 the US lost nearly 1500 ships just to the British and French.

The US Navy at this time had just 17 seaworthy ships – and 4 unseaworthy – with 447 guns and 5,000 men.  The Royal Navy had 1048 ships, 27,800 guns, and 151,500 men. We suspect this fleet at least rivaled or even exceeded in comparative strength the World War II US Navy, the largest in terms of tonnage and manpower the world has ever seen. That the US would even consider declaring war on Great Britain showed of what stuff those first Americans were made.

Yet, to imagine the US Navy could have fought the Royal Navy at these odds is obviously absurd, even given the latter’s worldwide commitments.  To make up for their lack of warships, the Americans commissioned a large number of privateers.  And what privateers lacked by way of disciplined, trained sailors was more than made up by the ingenuity, initiative, and courage of their civilian crews. Five hundred and seventeen privateers armed with 2893 guns fought alongside the US Navy, and the combined haul was 1554 ships in the two-year war. [  http://www.usmm.org/warof1812.html ].

The story of the naval war of 1812-14 is a lengthy one. For now we restrict ourselves to noting that though the war produced some spectacular frigate-to-frigate battles fought by both sides with unlimited determination and very high standards of seamanship and gunnery, these actions were few and did little to affect the outcome of the war. The strategic naval battles were fought on the inland lakes between Americans and British-Canadian forces. Though the Americans generally won, for other reasons the American advance into Canada was checked – as Canadians would gleefully remind anyone who before 1975 claimed the US had never lost a war. The war with Britain was also a standoff and ended tamely with the Treaty of Ghent.  Paradoxically, both sides forgot their grievances, and immediately afterward entered into the firm alliance that has been the bedrock of western international politics for almost two hundred years.

Your editor was reminded, even as he wrote the above words, that as a student four decades ago he was assigned to write on the US Navy in the War of 1812. After several weeks of work and the production of a 50+-page paper, he – and the rest of the class – was shocked when the history teacher, Mr. Schwartz, returned the paper with a big fat B. When your editor asked Mr. Schwartz why, the latter, laconic as always, replied with just one sentence: “I didn’t ask for a war diary; I wanted your analysis.” Your editor just had a whimsical thought: it would have been fun to do the project again, correctly this time. Alas, Mr. Schwartz has long since gone to the place in the sky where great history teachers go.

Ship

Guns

Frigates
President

44

Constitution

44

United States

44

Chesapeake

36

Congress

36

Constellation

36

 
Corvettes
Adams

28

John Adams

28

 
Sloops
Wasp

18

Hornet

18

 
Brigs
Siren

16

Argus

16

 
Schooners
Enterprise

12

Nautilus

12

Vixen

12

Viper

10

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All content © 2003 Ravi Rikhye. Reproduction in any form prohibited without express permission.