Atlantic Campaign of the War of 1812

The War of 1812 as it was fought on the high seas included a variety of activities related to sea power, including clashes between ships, naval blockades, coastal raids, joint operations with the army and a commerce war involving privateers and letters of marque.

War_of_1812_1_US_Civil_Service.flv
This documentary, produced by the US Civil Service Commission in 1979, focuses on the naval engagements in the Atlantic throughout the War of 1812, with an emphasis on tactics (public domain).

The maritime war was conducted in three phases, each equating to the calendar year. In 1812, the advantages lay with the Americans who won several spectacular single-ship actions. In 1813, the British naval presence in North America increased as additional ships were sent to Halifax and a blockade of the American coast was implemented. By 1814 the Atlantic seaboard was dominated by the Royal Navy and American trade had dwindled to a fraction of pre-war levels.

Naval Power Before the War of 1812

The United States Navy was formed in 1794 and entered the conflict as the best prepared of the two American services. In 1812, the navy had 7200 sailors and marines; its officers were professional and the volunteer seamen were experienced. Many had seen action during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) and in the Barbary War of North Africa (1801-1805). The navy also suffered from inadequate funding and uncertain doctrine in the pre-war years. Dockyard facilities were limited. In 1812, the ocean-going fleet included 13 vessels. Three of them were the “super frigates,” three were regular frigates; the other vessels included five sloops and two brigs. There were also 165 coastal vessels, 62 of which were in commission.

The Royal Navy was the most powerful naval force of the time. In 1812, it had 145 000 men and 978 ships, of which about 70% were in commission. Despite the decisive victory at Trafalgar in 1805, France continued to challenge Britain’s domination of the seas, which kept the Royal Navy in European waters and prevented it from reinforcing the western Atlantic. The number of French ships-of-the-line increased from 34 in 1807 to 80 by 1813, with another 35 under construction. In contrast, the equivalent vessels in the Royal Navy dropped from 113 in 1807 to 98 in 1813. The world-wide commitments of the Royal Navy also dissipated its strength and expertise, resulting in it sending many poorly constructed vessels with ill-trained crews to sea. Given these challenges, the sheer weight of the navy could not be employed against the United States until the war in Europe ended.

The Royal Navy maintained two squadrons in North American waters. The North American Squadron was based at Halifax and the other squadron was based in Newfoundland. Both were considered backwaters. In 1812, the North American Squadron had 27 ships, including one of the line, eight frigates and seven sloops.

Before the declaration of war, the United States deployed its warships in the Atlantic. They were to protect their merchantmen, while attempting to seize British commercial vessels and engage naval ships. Between 1812 and 1815, there were 26 encounters between individual ships or combinations of vessels from both fleets. While much is made of the success of the American super frigates against smaller, less well armed British vessels, the total victories were equally divided between the two navies. British losses represented less than one percent of their fleet, while the American navy lost 20% of their men-of-war.

Naval Blockade

The naval blockade of the United States began informally in 1812 and expanded to cut off more ports as the war progressed. Twenty ships were on station in 1812 and 135 were in place by the end of the conflict. In February 1813, the blockade extended from the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. New England was originally exempted from the blockade as the British hoped to foment anti-war sentiment in that region, while enjoying merchants’ willingness to sell grain and foodstuffs to the British for use by their army in the Iberian Peninsula. In March 1813, the blockade was expanded to include Savannah, Port Royal, Charleston and New York. In mid November, it was broadened again to include the entire coast south of Narragansett Bay. In May 1814, following the abdication of Napoleon, and the end of the supply problems with Wellington’s army, New England was blockaded.

The blockade made it difficult for American naval vessels to sortie. The blockade also devastated the American economy. Between 1811 and 1814, the value of exports and imports fell from $114 million to $20 million, while custom rates used to finance the war were more than halved from $13 million to $6 million. Many American merchant vessels did not risk leaving port. British trade on the other hand increased significantly, from £91 million in 1811 to £152 million by 1814.

The Royal Navy also damaged American shipping, commerce and communities by staging raids with marines, colonial marines, regular troops, and foreign troops in British service. Campaigns were undertaken in the Chesapeake Bay between March and September 1813 and April and September 1814. The Admiralty was not altogether certain these attacks aided the war effort and the 1814 attacks were designed to support offensives based from the Canadas. The results of the 1814 coastal attacks were mixed: Washington was occupied and its public buildings destroyed, while an attack on Baltimore failed. The Gulf Coast campaign occurred between May 1814 and February 1815 and included four actions near New Orleans and the capture of Fort Bowyer. Between July 1814 and April 1815, much of the Maine coast was occupied by British forces from Halifax.

Privateering

A final activity undertaken during the war also sought to diminish the trade of their opponent, through the employment of privateers, which were private vessels that were outfitted with guns and given state sanction to raid and capture the opponent’s merchantmen. Initially considered as a dubious, sometimes lawless activity, privateering emerged from the War of 1812 and Napoleonic Wars as a respectable, legitimate and effective means of maritime defence. This activity was a business venture in which a successful captain could, following a cruise, sell the vessels he seized for money, which was then shared by the crew. This was different from the “letter of marque,” which allowed merchants to arm their vessels for self-defence or to take aggressive action to avoid capture.

Privateering was already under way before the War of 1812 began and included a number of participants. British captures were made by the Royal Navy and British, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia privateers. By 1810, the British had taken nearly 1000 American ships, while France had taken 500; another 300 fell to Danish, Neapolitan, Spanish and Dutch flags. Between 1812 and 1815, Britain captured another 500 American vessels. The loss of 2500 vessels over a ten-year period was proportionally more damaging to American trade than the 10 000 British vessels lost over the same period; 2000 of these alone were taken between 1812 and 1815. The Royal Navy recaptured at least 750 prizes, while others were handed back to neutrals or lost at sea.

Compulsory Convoys

One means of reducing losses was the adoption of compulsory convoy, which made it more difficult to locate merchantmen and also provided protection from escorting warships. By 1808, all shipping leaving Nova Scotia was subject to the Compulsory Convoy Act, which was further improved in 1813.

Naval Goals Met

The maritime War of 1812 on the high seas is difficult to isolate from the larger activity of the war in Europe. It was played in a vast theatre and demonstrated the importance of sea power in achieving war aims. Despite several setbacks, the Royal Navy was able to dominate the high seas and had free range over the American coastline through most of the war. Nonetheless, the United States Navy demonstrated that it had a professional officers' corps, excellent sailors, an aggressive doctrine and good ship designs.

Author: John R. Grodzinski

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