Ships of the War of 1812

The war on the water was an essential, if not the most important, aspect of the War of 1812. Great Britain was obviously at a disadvantage geographically when trying to defend its colony Canada in a conflict with the United States. The British Navy had ruled the high seas since Lord Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar in 1805, but the Americans were beginning to challenge that supremacy and had some stunning victories in the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Britain’s maritime supply line to Quebec was never threatened.

More problematic for the British were the supply lines to Upper Canada. The largely agricultural colony lacked any manufacturing capacity to provide the troops or militia with weapons, ammunition and most forms of equipment. As a result, most provisions (and regular troops) essential to the war effort had to be shipped from Great Britain to Upper Canada, via Quebec and Montreal. There being no reliable road communications, transportation to Upper Canada had to proceed via the vulnerable St Lawrence River to Lake Ontario. Farther west, control of Lake Erie was essential to the movement of troops and supplies to the western forts. Control of the two great lakes was hotly contested and the results on Lakes Ontario and Erie were quite different.

The following is a brief description of some of the types of fighting ships that took part in the War of 1812.

Brig

A brig is a sailing ship with two square-rigged masts. The mainmast—the aft mast—also has a gaff sail. Brigs were built as both naval and merchant vessels for coastal trading routes and ocean voyages as well. A naval brig might carry 10 to 20 guns. Being quick, they served in the War of 1812 as couriers and as training vessels. Brigs of the early US Navy won distinction on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812. Because square rigging required a large crew, merchant brigs became uneconomical, and in the 19th century they began to give way to vessels such as the schooner and the bark.

Ship of the Line

The “ship of the line” was named for these warships’ place in the line of battle used by navies at the time of the War of 1812. Sea battles of the time were not subtle affairs. The ships of the line simply formed two opposing lines and battered away at one another. Hence these ships were large and mounted 60 to 110 guns. The heaviest and most accurate broadside usually won the battle.

The ships-of-the-line were rated according to the number of guns they mounted: 1st Rate (ships with over 90 guns and three decks), and 2nd Rate (ships with over 80 guns, also three-deckers), and 3rd Rate (ships with over 54 guns and two decks). The 4th Rate (over 38 guns, used for communications and convoy duty), 5th Rate and 6th Rate ships were considered too small to take part in large sea battles.

Schooner

The schooner was one of the most elegant and manageable sailing vessels of the age of sail. The name likely is of Dutch origin, meaning “beautiful” or “lovely.” Typically a schooner had two masts, a main mast and a foremast, with the forward mast being shorter than the rear mast. Most schooners were “gaff” rigged (a configuration in which the sail is four-cornered and is controlled by a spar called the gaff.) This arrangement almost doubles the area of sail that can be carried by a typical mast and boom. (Canada's most famous ship, the Bluenose, was a schooner.)

The schooner was the most common ship seen on Lake Ontario at the beginning of the 19th century. The schooner’s sail configuration meant that it could "point up higher" or "work windward" to a greater degree than other vessels. The Hamilton and Scourge (see below in Surviving Ships) were schooners.

In the War of 1812, schooners were popular as transports (the schooner Nancy has been recovered in Georgian Bay and is now a historic site) and as privateers. The Liverpool Packet was a privateer schooner out of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, that captured 50 American prizes during the war.

Frigate

At the time of the War of 1812, the term “frigate” referred to ships that were often as long as a ship-of-the-line and were square-rigged on all three masts. They were faster, with lighter armament (about 28 guns), and were used in the war for patrolling and escort. The loose term "frigate" was also extended to smaller two-decked ships.

The HMS Shannon was likely the most famous frigate of the War of 1812. Launched in Kent, England, in 1806, Shannon was one of the largest frigates built by the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1813 Shannon captured the USS Chesapeake and towed it back to a triumphant welcome in Halifax.

Sloop

“Sloop” is another naval term that was loosely applied, in this case to a ship smaller than a frigate. Nevertheless, some sloops carried up to 20 guns and were formidable fighting ships. In rigging, a sloop (another word of Dutch origin) was a single-masted, fore-and-aft-rigged sailing boat with a short standing bowsprit, though the word referred not so much to the sail plan as to the purpose of the ship. The Royal Navy began buying or building sloops with the intention of countering the menace of privateers, which ships-of-the-line simply could not catch. Examples of sloops from the War of 1812 were HMS Detroit, which served on Lake Erie, and HMS Wolfe, which served as the flagship of Commodore James Yeo on Lake Ontario.

Surviving Ships or Wrecks of the War of 1812

At least 15 wrecks have been discovered of ships from the War of 1812. The most impressive discovery came in 1973 when the US schooners Hamilton and Scourge were found with side scan sonar deployed from a Canadian government research vessel in 88 metres of water on the floor of Lake Ontario. Both had capsized in a storm on 8 August 1813, with all but 16 of 100 men lost. The vessels had landed upright and are well preserved under 90 metres of water.

The hull of the schooner HMS Tecumseth (sic), raised in 1953, can be seen at Penetanguishene, along with the remains of the Scorpion and the bow ribs of the brigantine Naawash. The remains of the schooner HMS Nancy, a British supply ship sunk off the Nottawasaga River, is now a national historic site. HMS St Lawrence, HMS Prince Regent, HMS Wolfe and the US sloop Jefferson have all been identified on the floor of Lake Ontario. Similarly the remains of the brig USS Eagle, schooner USS Ticonderoga and the sloop HMS Linnet have all been found in Lake Champlain.

The most famous rebuilt ship from the era is the frigate USS Constitution. It has served as a school and a training ship and was re-commissioned in 1940 and refitted and rebuilt numerous times. A million people visit the ship every year in Charleston Harbor.

Another rebuilt ship of the War of 1812 is the brig USS Niagara, originally part of Admiral Perry’s squadron on Lake Erie. The ship was completely rebuilt in the 1980s and launched in 1988. A replica of the schooner HMS St Lawrence was built 1976-77 and sailed around the world until it sank in a squall in 1986.

Canadians began to rebuild the sloop HMS Detroit, commodore Barclay’s flagship. The original was raised in 1837 and renamed Veto by Americans who wanted to send a message to President John Tyler by sending the Veto over the Falls. The keel was laid for a replica in 2000 but funds dried up.

Recently a salvage company identified what is thought to be the very well-preserved wreck of the Canadian-built frigate Caledonia. A US court ruled against the company’s intention to raise the Caledonia for the bicentennial and display it at Erie. The Caledonia controversy has raised moral and other issues about the disturbance of what essentially are the graves of perished seamen.

Author: James Marsh

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