As 1813 began, Britain was revitalized by Napoleon’s debacle in Russia. Sensing a historic turn in events, the British stripped their country of troops and reinforced Wellington’s army, with the intention of not only driving the French from Spain but also of crossing the Pyrenees to invade France. The Baltic ports were reopened to British trade just in time to prevent economic collapse. And Britain had new partners in the struggle against the French. Paid by British gold, Sweden joined the war on Britain’s side, and the Prussians, once again switching sides, allied themselves with the Russians. Revolt flared in Germany.
These developments were hardly good news for the Americans. The Yankees had banked on the bulk of the Royal Navy being tied up in European waters, but with Napoleon reeling, the British were able to reinforce their squadrons in North American waters. As a result, the frigates that had easily gotten to sea in the opening months of the struggle were bottled up in port on their return from their victorious cruises. Some did not get to sea again for the remainder of the war. Constellation, for example, was blockaded in Norfolk, and United States and the captured Macedonian were locked up in New London. Convoys also were established to protect merchantmen from the attacks of Yankee commerce-raiders. And the British soon got their chance to cheer a triumph at sea.
James Lawrence, as a reward for his victory over the British sloop Peacock, had been given command of Chesapeake, which was being fitted out in Boston. A few weeks before, John Rodgers had managed to evade a British blockading squadron with President and Congress and captured a dozen trading vessels, so Captain Philip Vere Broke, the British commander off Boston, resolved that Chesapeake would not be allowed to escape. He sent Lawrence a message saying he was sending away his supporting vessels and challenging him to an encounter between Chesapeake and his ship, the thirty-eight-gun Shannon, off Boston Light. Lawrence had put to sea on June 1, 1813, before he received this challenge, but he made no effort to elude Broke’s vessel.
Lawrence had considerable difficulty in manning Chesapeake because she was considered an unlucky ship, and many sailors had already succumbed to the lure of privateering. A large number of those who did sign on were foreigners and green hands, and she was hardly in fighting trim. An officer of Lawrence’s energy and experience would have improved the efficiency of his ship after a few weeks at sea, and rather than offering battle, he should have reined in his enthusiasm and slipped away to terrorize British commerce. In contrast, Broke was the Royal Navy’s most efficient and innovative gunnery enthusiast and had been in command of Shannon for seven years. Unlike many British officers, he drilled his men at the guns every day and had personally sighted in each piece. “Don’t try to dismast her,” Broke told his crew as they put to sea to deal with Chesapeake. “Kill the men and the ship is yours.”
Undoubtedly because his crew was inexperienced, Lawrence sailed Chesapeake to within fifty yards of Shannon without maneuvering for a raking position, and both ships unleashed broadsides at point-blank range. The intensive training that Broke had given his gun crews quickly paid off. The British fired far faster and more accurately than the Americans. British shot pounded Chesapeake’s hull and shrieked across her quarterdeck. Lawrence and several of his officers were mortally wounded. Taken below, he implored his remaining officers: “Don’t give up the ship!”
Badly damaged, her headsails shot away and her stern swinging in the wind, Chesapeake fouled her opponent, and the two vessels were lashed together. “Boarders away!” cried Broke as he led fifty men onto the deck of the American frigate. With most of their officers shot down, the ship’s polyglot crew fled below, and only her marine detachment made a stand. Gathered about the mainmast, they fought with bayonets and clubbed muskets until only a handful were still on their feet. “The enemy fought desperately, but in disorder,” related Broke, who suffered a serious head wound in the melee but recovered. Within fifteen minutes of the firing of the first broadside, Chesapeake was in British hands. The “butcher’s bill” was high—twenty-three British seamen killed and fifty-eight wounded, while forty-eight Americans were killed and ninety-nine wounded.
The sight of Chesapeake being shepherded into Halifax with the white ensign flying above the Stars and Stripes sent British spirits soaring, and the Royal Navy regained a portion of the luster lost in previous engagements with the Yankees. Broke was knighted, and his gunnery reforms were adopted by other officers.
Little more than two months later, the brig Argus, which had captured twenty British merchantmen in British waters, was brought to bay by the brig Pelican, off Cornwall. The night before, Argus had captured a wine-laden vessel out of Oporto. The ship was burned, but not before some of the American sailors got into the cargo, which probably influenced their performance in action. Although Argus could have shown her heels to the slower British vessel, Master Commandant William H. Allen chose to give battle. The two vessels were almost equal in force, but the British fire was brisk, and in short order Argus struck her flag. The action reflected little credit on Allen, who lost a leg and died of his wounds. Like James Lawrence, he displayed a romantic élan but showed no understanding of strategic reality. To have continued Argus’s successful career as a commerce raider would have been far more damaging to Britain than the capture of an insignificant brig—and even that was bungled.
In vivid contrast, early in 1813 David Porter took the stoutly built Essex around Cape Horn into the Pacific, on what became a classic raiding voyage. Porter’s objective was to destroy Britain’s Pacific whaling fleet off the Galapagos Islands, and at the same time to protect American vessels engaged in the trade. Within six months he captured a dozen whalers as well as several other ships with a total value of $2.5 million. Porter accomplished all this even though he had no base from which to operate and lived off captured supplies and gear. Prizes were so plentiful that twelve-year-old Midshipman David Glasgow Farragut, the captain’s ward, was assigned to one of them. When Essex required a refit, Porter sailed her three thousand miles across the Pacific to the Marquesas, where his crew had a taste of life in the South Seas while they overhauled their ship.
Early in 1814 Essex put into Valparaiso, Chile, where two British vessels, the frigate Phoebe and the sloop-of-war Cherub, which had been searching for the raider, caught up with her. Although Essex was rated at thirty-two guns, she actually mounted forty-six. Phoebe was similarly armed, and Cherub mounted twenty-six. Essex could have dealt with either of the enemy vessels singly, but together they were more than a match for her. Moreover, the American ship’s main battery consisted of short-range carronades, while Phoebe carried long eighteens, which meant she could stand off and demolish her opponent at long range without danger to herself. The ships lay in sight of each other for the better part of a month while waging a propaganda war. Essex hoisted a large white flag emblazoned “Free trade and sailors’ rights”; the British countered with “God and country, British sailors’ best rights.”
On March 28, 1814, the wind blew up and Essex slipped her cable and headed for the open sea. Escape seemed possible until a sudden squall struck her, sending the frigate’s main-topmast by the board. Phoebe and Cherub bore down on the disabled vessel as she lay in a small cove about three miles from Valparaiso. Porter made excellent use of his few long twelves and forced his opponents to draw off to make repairs. Taking up positions where Essex’s guns could not bear, they began systematically to shoot her to pieces. Midshipman Farragut later recalled that one gun was manned three times, one crew after another having been wiped out. As he helped work another gun, a single shot killed four of the gunners. Unable to close with the enemy, Porter tried to run Essex ashore and put the torch to her, but there was no escape. The spectacular Odyssey of the Salem frigate was over, and more than half her crew were either killed or wounded.
Increasingly, as the British blockade of the U.S. Navy’s warships tightened, the task of twisting the lion’s tail fell to the privateers that had fanned out across the sea lanes at the beginning of hostilities. It is estimated that at least 515 privateers were commissioned, mostly from Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland. They were credited with capturing 1,346 vessels, and probably took others that were not reported. Many of these vessels were bagged off the coast of Portugal and Spain, where the victims were engaged in carrying supplies to Wellington’s army. Navy ships captured another 165 prizes.
To meet the needs of the privateersman, as well as those of slavers and smugglers, ship designers had developed the swift-sailing Baltimore clipper, a topsail schooner with a slim hull crowned by two tall masts and an immense spread of canvas. Usually armed with one “Long Tom” and several smaller guns, they were among the most graceful ships ever built, leading even a landsman such as Henry Adams to rhapsodize:
Beautiful beyond anything then known in naval construcion … the schooner was a wonderful invention. Not her battles, but her escapes won for her the open-mouthed admiration of the British captains who saw their prize double like a hare and slip through their fingers at the moment when capture was sure. Under any ordinary conditions of wind and weather, with an open sea, the schooner, if only she could get to windward, laughed at a frigate.
Privateer skippers often matched their ships in dash and daring. Captain Thomas Boyle of Baltimore raised havoc in the waters around Britain, first in the Comet and then in Chasseur. The profits from one cruise alone were $400,000. Taking a leaf from the British, Boyle, in the summer of 1814, published a mock proclamation putting the British Isles under blockade. Within two months he captured eighteen ships, burning them after removing their cargoes, which were valued at $100,000. The Baltimore schooner Kemp snatched five of the seven vessels in a convoy from under the nose of the escort and returned to port—all within eight days. The prizes were sold for $500,000, making this probably the war’s shortest and most successful cruise.
Although privateers were not supposed to engage British men of war, Captain Samuel Chester Reid of the seven-gun brig General Armstrong successfully violated this rule. Having captured twenty-four enemy prizes, Reid had taken shelter in the neutral port of Fayal in the Azores, where on September 26, 1814, the harbor was sealed by a squadron of British warships. Captain Robert Lloyd sent four boats carrying a hundred men rowing towards the Armstrong. Reid opened fire with his nine-pounders and the British withdrew.
The next night Lloyd launched another attack, this time with twelve boats carrying four hundred men. The attackers were badly cut up but kept coming. When the British boats bumped against the side of their ship, the Yankee privateersmen heaved cannonballs down into the craft, punching holes in the bottoms of several. Undeterred, the British swarmed on board the Armstrong. Reid and his ninety men met them with cutlass, pistol, and pike and the battle surged back and forth along the vessel’s deck. The slaughter among the boarding party was appalling. In forty minutes, Reid estimated, nearly two-thirds of its members were casualties, and the survivors plunged into sea. Two Americans were killed, seven wounded.
Lloyd declared that he would have the privateer at all costs. At daybreak, he sent the 18-gun sloop-of-war Carnation to finish the Armstrong. Reid replied as best he could, but his ship was shot to pieces. He scuttled the vessel, and as she sank, the surviving Americans swam ashore and took refuge in a convent outside Fayal. Claiming that several of the privateer’s crew were deserters from the Royal Navy, Lloyd had them rounded up. But he could not prove his claim, and the Portuguese authorities ordered the Americans released.
Yet, for all the enthusiasm with which Americans embraced privateering, it was not an effective weapon of war. Privateers damaged British commerce and sometimes captured valuable cargoes, but they were no substitute for a navy. They did nothing to weaken the stranglehold that the British had on the American coast, and possibly half the prizes captured by the privateers ended back in British hands when they were caught trying to make port. Throttled by the blockade and British privateers, which cost the Yankees some fourteen hundred vessels, American trade sank to disastrous levels. Exports dropped to only $6.9 million in 1814. A Boston newspaper presented a gloomy picture of conditions: “Our harbors blockaded, our shipping destroyed or rotting at the docks; silence and stillness in our cities; the grass growing upon the public wharves.” The American merchant marine was paying a stiff price for the Jeffersonian theory that it was not necessary to have a seagoing navy to protect the nation’s shipping.
With the war at sea now going against the Americans, attention was increasingly focused on the Great Lakes. The defeat of General William Hull on the northern frontier in the opening months of hostilities convinced President Madison and his advisers that control of the lakes was essential to successful operations against Canada. Few roads existed in the wilderness, and the chain of lakes provided the only satisfactory means of moving large military forces. Captain Isaac Chauncey was given command of American naval forces on the lakes and the task of overcoming British naval supremacy there. He made his headquarters on Lake Ontario, where both sides’ strongest forces were deployed.
Chauncey proved to be a conservative and methodical officer. Except for a few indecisive skirmishes, he and his British opposite number, Captain Sir James Yeo, conducted “a warfare of Dockyards and Arsenals” in which one side and then the other won temporary supremacy on Lake Ontario. By the time the war ended, the British had completed a 102-gun ship of the line and the Americans had two three-deckers of 120 guns each on the stocks.
Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, who directed the American naval effort on Lake Erie, was more vigorous than Chauncey. The twenty-seven-year-old Perry had been in command of a gunboat flotilla at Newport and had sought more active service. When he realized the magnitude of the task given him, he may well have wondered at the wisdom of his request: his mission was nothing less than to build a fleet in the wilderness and use it to wrest control of the lake from a superior British force. Perry established his base at Presque Isle (now Erie, Pennsylvania), toward the northern end of the lake, early in 1813, and there, with the assistance of two remarkable craftsmen, Adam and Noah Brown, Perry set about building a fleet.
Originally the Browns were carpenters and house-builders rather than shipwrights, but they had opened a shipyard in New York a year before the war. With the outbreak of hostilities, they designed and built several privateers that were notable for their clean lines and speed. Using the green timber that grew beside the lake, Noah Brown, who was in charge of construction, built Perry two twenty-gun brigs—Lawrence and Niagara—and a flotilla of smaller craft. Iron, cordage, canvas, oakum, almost everything required for the building of the ships, as well as guns and munitions, had to be hauled overland from Pittsburgh or sailed from Buffalo. “The amount of work that Brown accomplished with about two hundred men, without power tools, and in a wilderness during the worst winter months, makes some of the modern wartime production feats something less than impressive,” notes Howard Chapelle, a historian of the sailing navy. “The man was tireless and ingenious.”
Although Perry had brought the nucleus of his crews with him from Newport, his ships were still shorthanded. Most seamen in the coastal ports avoided service on the lakes, even though a bonus of 25 percent was offered. There was little prospect of prize money in this frontier region, and Secretary of the Navy William Jones observed that such service was regarded as “one of peculiar privation, destitute of pecuniary stimulus.” Perry pleaded for men from Chauncey’s near-idle force, but Chauncey released only a handful. Relations between the two officers were so strained that Perry submitted his resignation, but the Navy Department refused it. To fill out his crews, Perry recruited untrained militiamen, Indians, and even one Russian who spoke no English. Fully one quarter of the men signed on and trained as sailors and marines were black.
While Perry was building his fleet, it was protected from British raids by a sandbar at the mouth of the harbor at Presque Isle. Now, he faced the problem of getting Lawrence and Niagara over the shoal in the face of a British blockade. Fortunately for the Americans, the British force, under the command of Commander Robert H. Barclay, a one-armed veteran of Trafalgar, left its station for a few days in August. Seizing the opportunity, Perry removed the guns from his heavier ships, and using “camels,” or pontoons, floated them over the bar. Unexpectedly faced with this powerful force, Barclay wished to avoid battle until he had strengthened his own flotilla, but he was short of provisions and could not afford to delay very long.
The two fleets met about twenty miles north of Put-in-Bay at the western end of the lake on September 10, 1813. Perry’s squadron consisted of nine vessels firing a total broadside of 896 pounds, to Barclay’s six vessels and broadside of 459 pounds. The Americans also had more long guns than the British, even though Lawrence and Niagara were armed primarily with carronades. Flying a blue banner emblazoned with James Lawrence’s dying words, “Don’t give up the ship,” in white letters, Perry led his fleet into battle in Lawrence. Niagara was commanded by Jesse D. Elliott, who had been senior officer on Lake Erie before Perry’s arrival. Four years older than Perry, he was junior to him on the Navy List and was not happy with his subordinate position.
Perry bore down on the British line in a single column, and Lawrence, which was in the van, absorbed the bulk of the enemy fire. Shortly before noon, the band on Detroit, Barclay’s flagship, struck up “Rule Britannia!” as her long twenty-fours pounded the slowly approaching Yankee flagship. Perry could not reply effectively because the range was too great for his guns. Shot thudded into Lawrence’s hull, and lines and blocks trailed from aloft. Large splinters flew about like straw in a wind. Perry closed with Detroit, and the ships engaged at pistol range. Almost all the British fire was soon trained on Lawrence. Some of Perry’s smaller ships and gunboats came to his aid, but Elliott, in Niagara, stood off, taking no part in the action.
The battle was fought at such close range that every shot struck home. Both Detroit and Lawrence suffered terribly. Barclay was badly wounded, as were many of his officers. Lawrence had gone into action with a crew of 103 men; all but 20 were killed or wounded. Many of the wounded were maimed again or killed while they were being treated, because the cockpit was above the waterline. Within two hours almost all her guns had been dismounted, and there were not enough unwounded men to fire those that were left. Perry summoned the surgeon’s assistants to lend a hand at the guns and, when no one else was left, called down into the cockpit: “Can any of the wounded pull a rope?” Several pitiful figures limped up to the deck to help him aim and fire the few remaining cannon.
Finally, at about 2:30 P.M., when Lawrence’s last gun had fallen silent, Perry decided to transfer to Niagara. Taking his twelve-year-old brother James, who was serving as a midshipman, four seamen, his broad pennant, and the flag bearing Lawrence’s words, he had himself rowed a half mile through a hail of shot to Elliott’s undamaged vessel. Lawrence, now an unmanageable wreck, surrendered, but the otherwise engaged British did not take possession of her.
Wasting no time in recriminations, Perry ordered Elliott to take the boat and bring up the remaining vessels of the squadron. Niagara’s sails caught a sudden breeze, and Perry, to the cheers of the rest of his ships, signaled close action and drove the brig, her guns pouring smoke and flames, into the enemy line. The British were in no condition to resist this fresh onslaught, and one after another, the battered ships struck their colors. Perry’s victory gave the Americans complete command of Lake Erie and allowed them to regain control of the Northwest. As soon as the surrendered ships had been secured, Perry penned on the back of an old letter a dispatch to General William Henry Harrison, the military commander in the Northwest:
We have met the enemy; and they are ours. Two ships, two Brigs, one schooner, and one Sloop.
From the heights of the Pyrenees, Wellington’s victorious Redcoats looked down on the fertile fields of France in the autumn of 1813. In the remote distance they could see the Bay of Biscay, where the warships of the Royal Navy were perpetually on the move, and the white sails of transports bearing the men and supplies that had made their triumphs possible. Had their eyes been able to penetrate the misty autumn horizon eastward to the Saxony plain, they would have seen the steely glint of marching armies. Scarcely a French family was not in mourning after the Russian debacle, but Napoleon had bled the nation for another half-million conscripts, many lads of only sixteen.
Near Leipzig in mid-October 1813, three hundred thousand Russians, Austrians, Swedes, and Prussians closed in on two-thirds as many Frenchmen. Some of the most savage fighting of the war followed, and the dead and wounded covered the surrounding fields. “The Battle of the Nations” ended with the utter rout of Napoleon’s army and casualties five times those at Austerlitz. Yet the war was not over. Though his sword was broken in his hand, the emperor rejected the offer of the allied rulers to cease hostilities if France would withdraw to her “natural frontiers” of the Rhine, the Alps, and the Pyrenees. His sense of reality apparently having departed, Napoleon rejected the offer and told Prince Metternich that he might lose his throne, but he would bury Europe in ruins.