Great Sea Fights 6: USS Constitution v HMS Guerriere 1812 – Part 3 Inside the US Navy
In this, the sixth episode of our Great Sea Fights series, we explore the remarkable events of 19 August 1812 when the powerful frigate USS Constitution fought and destroyed the British frigate HMS Guerriere in one of the greatest shocks to the Royal Navy in its history and one of the most ferocious single-ship actions ever fought.
It is an extraordinary story – how did the United States get to a stage where not only could they build and maintain ships but compete with – and in the case of this battle triumph over ships from the world’s largest navy with centuries of shipbuilding expertise and naval tradition. It’s a story that allows us to look into the complexities of what took to build, maintain, man, fit out, provision, and send fighting ships to sea for extended periods of time and how men could be recruited, fed, clothed, and kept healthy in unhealthy environments. And all of this within the broader context of how and why Britain decided to go to war with America even though Napoleon was as yet undefeated; and how how and why America chose to pick a fight with the most powerful nation on earth.
This episode – Part 3 – presents the work of the American historian William S. Dudley who has explored the birth of the US Navy in the late 1790s and its workings in the war of 1812 in his recent book Inside the US Navy of 1812-1815. Make sure you catch up on Part 1 -The Events and Part 2 – The Eyewitness Accounts.
USS Constitution has also featured in one of our Iconic Ships episodes so be sure to check that out.
- View The Transcription
From the Society for Nautical Research, in partnership with Lloyd’s Register Foundation, I’m Sam Willis and this is the Mariner’s Mirror Podcast, the world’s number one podcast dedicated to all of maritime history.
Hello everyone and welcome to this our sixth episode in our Great Sea Fight series in this particular episode being part three of our special on the battle between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere on the 19th of August 1812. If you’ve yet to check out our Great Sea Fight series, please do so; there is so much to find. Each ‘Special Edition’ consisting of several episodes: we have recently covered a Tudor sea battle in the reign of Henry VIII, it was one of the Mary Rose first battles, it was also the first time that a naval battle was fought between ships firing out of gunports; we’ve also covered the mighty clash between Russia and Japan at Tsushima in 1905, in which the Japanese utterly annihilated the Russians, that comes with a brilliant animation of an eyewitness Battle Plan, which you can see on our YouTube channel; we’ve also covered the Battle of Jutland, that great naval battle of the First World War; Nelson’s heroics at St. Vincent in 1797; and the Battle of the River Plate from the very beginning of the Second World War. Today, we’re continuing the story of the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, from the war of 1812. A ferocious single ship engagement that rather turned the tables on what everyone was expecting from a naval fight between Great Britain and the United States. Episode One explained the events in a narrative, Episode Two presented the eyewitness accounts written by the ships’ captains, and fabulous they are too. So, if you’ve come to this episode fresh do, please check out episodes one and two – so you’ve got a sense of what happened during that battle. Today, we bring you the work of the American historian William S. Dudley, who has explored the nitty-gritty of how on earth, the US managed to create itself a Navy out of nothing.
William S. Dudley
Why have I come to do this? I wanted to write this book because I had read so many books that depended on describing the warfare at sea, and individual manoeuvres of each ship, of fleets of ships. And in effect, it was all, you know, effective, glorious action by one Navy or the other. What I perceived when I was working for the documents project, was that there really needed to be a history of what made a Navy work, how did it function, and were the material needs adequate to the needs of the Navy. And it’s my conclusion that that book had not been written. And so, when it came time for me to write this book, ‘Inside the US Navy of 1812-1815’, that was the book that I wanted to write. So, in terms of materials, I had already read through the documentary materials, and I knew which ones to select for this book. So, in effect this book, it’s a rather comprehensive view of the US Navy during that period of war. It also is a new interpretation, because it emphasizes the material side, rather than the operational side of the US Navy during that war. So, I feel that this is the contribution of my book.
What I’m really interested in talking about today is how the Americans managed to get their Navy to sea; how they managed to build, maintain, man, fit-out, provision, all of those very difficult things that were required for a Navy. And it had to come very quickly. Let’s start with the Navy Yards.
William S. Dudley
Yes, let’s. So, in order to do this, we sort of reviewed the political situation and the matter of trade between nations. The United States, in order to have built a Navy in the first place, had to provide the logistics for the Navy. How do you do that? Well, you have to concentrate the timber, the canvas, the lumber, the ironwork, that all goes into constructing ships, and you would do that in a Navy Yard. The Washington administration, 1799, created six Navy Yards from Norfolk (which was called Gosport) to Washington DC, to New York, to Boston, to Portsmouth, and Charleston. The Washington Navy Yard was the one that was earliest. But there were also private shipbuilders in most of these cities. And at first, the Navy had to be built in the private yards. But after a while, say a dozen years, the Navy Yards had begun to function as a proper Navy Yard should. And what they have is hundreds of men, are specialists in all sorts of things, from creating rope of all sizes to creating, making sails. They went into recruiting of hands, from the merchant community, into the Navy. Many of the sailors actually happened to be British or of British origin, well so was the United States at the time. So, it’s a very young country, and what they’re trying to do is build up the infrastructure in order to have a Navy worth calling itself a Navy.
This process was a slow one but had to be done thoroughly. And what had happened by the time 1812 came around the small US Navy had fought a war against the Barbary pirates. They had fought several actions against the French, both French official warships and private French privateers in the Caribbean. So that the officers and crew of the small Navy we had were quite well trained in what they were supposed to do, there just weren’t enough of them. And as a result, there were only sixteen vessels for the US Navy at the very beginning of the war of 1812. About seven of them are Frigates, and the rest were Briggs and Corvettes. So, that’s the origin of the Navy and that sort of explains where we were at the beginning of 1812. What we didn’t have was the infrastructure to create Navy ships up on the Great Lakes, and the Great Lakes it happens was essentially a second front. The United States had to fight a two-front war, one on Lake Ontario, another one on Lake Erie, and another on Lake Champlain, in addition to the war on the Atlantic, which stretched 1,500 miles of around 1,500 miles or so of coastline from the coast of Maine or Massachusetts, all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
Where did they get the men to man all of these ships? Because one challenge is being able to create ships out of nothing, and how difficult that is, but then you’ve got to fill them up with men. How do they manage that?
William S. Dudley
Well, the men, let’s go back a little bit more. The United States had had a seagoing population for years. In fact, if you would say it clearly, United States was a maritime nation. It was not terribly urban, it was mostly agricultural, up to the Appalachian Mountain chain. And most of their sailors are out, were either coming from the farms or had been in merchant service for years before the revolution. And so, when the Navy was created, this is the source of most of the men who ultimately were served in the Navy at the war of 1812. They were by the landlubbers who came from the farms, and they would become the lowest level of manpower in the Navy. The more experienced men were either Ordinary Seamen or Able Seamen, which is a higher degree of skill and experience. And then beyond that, the ones who are most experienced often became the petty officers in charge of the men on the different details of running a ship.
The officers, most of them came from the merchant service. But several had served in the British Navy before the American Revolution, actually, and then emigrated to the United States and I can give you one example, was Commodore Tingey. Tingey was not a Commodore of the British Navy, he was a captain, a young man who came from service in the Royal Navy in the 1770s and emigrated to the United States and ultimately, was dwelling in Philadelphia. But had run into some wealthy individuals in the merchant trade, who got to know him during the 1780s and 90s. And Robert Morris is one of these individuals, a very wealthy man, who was said to have financed the Revolution personally by himself, which is not true. At any rate, Tingey was nominated by these gentlemen, to Secretary of the Navy, Robert Smith, as a person who was capable of being trusted with the Washington Navy Yard. The amazing thing is that Tingey, not only do this job well, but he was there for a long time. And he eventually died in the Washington Navy Yard, in 1729, having been the only Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard. So, this is a small example of a British officer who becomes an officer in the United States Navy and then rose to nearly the top in terms of running a short activity of the Navy.
And there are lots of civilian Navy agents as well working with the Navy Yards for the procurement of timber, how was all that set up? And how did that work?
William S. Dudley
Well, this goes back to the very first building of the Navy ships. The First Secretary of the Navy set out the requirements for how you contract with a ship, you have to use the civilian contractors for many of the small drops that are needed to be done 100 ships, they lay this out in instructions on exactly what must be done. As the Navy grew, there had to be agents of the Navy, who would do the contracting for the Secretary of the Navy, they would remain more or less dwelling in seaports. So that if a ship came in, needing anything, could be food or cordage, or ammunition, the Navy agent would be the one that would go out to the civilian contractor community and find the right source for the ships and make the arrangements – make the contracts. That’s the Navy agent. But in each navy ship, there was an officer called a purser, and the purser was in effect a money man of the individual naval ships. He was under responsibility, to the captain, to make sure that ship was provisioned with everything it needed. And this goes from clothing for the seamen, to the beverages that they drank, to the food they ate. And it had to be purchased in bulk in order to make a ship survive over three to four or five months of a cruise, there had to be a huge amount of food stored – the person was responsible for the arrangement of that, for the delivery of it to the men. He was answerable to the commanding officer if he did not conduct his job right. The purser was allowed to charge a small commission on the goods that he sold to the seamen in terms of articles of clothing or small comfort items such as tea or sugar, which they required but was not provided by the ship officially. So, it was like a little ship store and the purser was in charge of doing that, for the sake of the men. He was in charge of portioning out of rum or wine for the ship’s mess. The instructions for the purser were very clear, they were laid out in the Navy administration – Naval rules and regulations – that the purser had to be careful not to favour the officers in the distribution of special cuts of meat, or special spirits, wine or brandy, and that kind of thing. So that the commanding officer would not have a problem on his hand. Now, beyond that, if a ship were to put into port where there was no Navy agent, then the purser would have to go ashore and make his own arrangements with the civilian suppliers wherever they were.
And I suppose the effectiveness of that depended on where you actually managed to go ashore. My question is – was each of the Navy Yards as successful and efficient as the other or was there a wide variety?
William S. Dudley
Well, it’s a pretty wide variety. The most efficient yard and the largest one became the Washington Navy Yard. And of course, the centre of the government was established there after 1799. But the ones after this, were in Philadelphia, in New York, and Boston. And to a lesser extent, Portsmouth Navy Yard in New Hampshire. The least effective Navy Yards were in Charleston, it’s not near a real industrial area. And most of the Navy Yard areas had to be surrounded by populations, which provided the Navy with the skills that it needed. So, that’s the variations in terms of size. But unfortunately, the Navy Yards were not equipped to the extent they should have been. That’s would come later, it takes many years to construct all the facilities that ships need in a Navy Yard, such as a dry dock, which would allow the Commandant of the Yard to haul the Navy ship out of the water, in order to clean a hulk or to strip planks off the side, without damaging the ship or without threatening to sink the ship, shall we say, in the water. The normal thing to do if you had to clean the bottom of the ship, in those days, and you didn’t have a dry dock, was you had to haul it over on one side, clean the hull on one side, then haul the ship over on its other side, and do the same thing with that. So, it took a great amount of labour. The ship had to be completely empty, you know, all ballast, guns, ammunition, furniture, as they said, in order to do that kind of thing. So, it was inefficient without that dry dock. And there were times when if a ship couldn’t be properly cared for, say in Boston, they’d have to send it to New York, as they did with the Essex and the Chesapeake, just at the beginning of the war. There were weaknesses in the system to begin with.
So, one of the things that we have discovered in the work that we did on US Navy was to see that most of these logistics were not well prepared for war. And that is because of the lack of finance that went into the Navy. But the Navy wasn’t ready for this war in terms of material. And its logistics had not been really well developed before the war. Now, I haven’t explained what the logistics is, but it basically is providing a ship with everything it needs, when it needs it and where they are. And this had to be done at a time when the roads were out of repair, they didn’t exist in some areas. And for one thing, the heavy timbers that were required to say build the 74-gun ships that Madison wanted ultimately to be built, were not available in the north, they had to cover from the sea islands of Georgia and Florida. And beyond that, later on, they had to be cut on the scene, they had to be shipped already with pieces measured and cut., along the coast back to the Navy Yards to provide the ship fitters, excuse me the shipwrights, with what they needed. But the blockade of that British imposed on the US Coast during the war of 1812, was quite successful in preventing these needed materials to arrive at the time they were needed. And so, as a result of the blockade, the 74-gun ships that were the dream of Secretary of the Navy Jones, never could be completed before the end of the war. This also applied to the heavy armaments, they had to be shipped by land, hauled by horses and oxen, along muddy roads and were taking many, many weeks that could have taken just a few days in a sailing ship.
Let’s just stop and talk about where those guns came from. So, we’re talking about 32- pounder carronades there and twenty-four 18-pounder long guns for the frigates, and smaller guns 12- and 16-pounders for the schooners and the sloops. They all had to come from somewhere. So, where did they get them from?
William S. Dudley
Well, you’d have to go back to the period of the Revolution. There was a time when the United States was very, very weak in terms of being able to produce iron and forge it into the shape of guns that could be used in battle. But very quickly, after the Revolution began, this capability entered into existence. And so, by the time the War of 1812, comes around they were beginning to have some significant facilities that could do this. One was in the Chesapeake Bay, at the very northern part of the bay, and it was providing much of the 24-gun, 18-pound guns, 24-pound guns and 32-pound carronades that were needed. There was also a facility in Washington DC, created by Henry Foxall, who was an Englishman who had learned the trade and had ultimately emigrated to the United States, despite the fact that there were restrictions on talented individuals leaving the United Kingdom because they didn’t want to lose the talent, they knew they needed for their own military purposes. At any rate, Henry Foxall’s family emigrated to the Philadelphia area and soon ended up in Washington DC after the government was established. And it became clear that if you’re going to have a Navy Yard, you better have a facility there nearby that would create the ammunition and the guns needed in by the Navy ships. So, Henry Foxall’s Columbia factory, up along the Potomac, was one of the biggest production facilities of its kind. We’ve jumped back a little bit in 1813, as the British invaded the Chesapeake Bay, they rapidly found the foundries up in the northern part of the bay and have the copper efficiently destroyed every bit of it. So, that wiped out one important source of supply for the Navy. Fortunately, Henry Foxall’s facility near Washington was able to supply what the Chesapeake facility could not supply any more.
Also, let us talk about powder. The manufacturing of powder was a dangerous process. It had been done since before the revolutionary era, but only in small quantities. By 1800, there are several flourishing powder manufactories in the Middle Atlantic states. There was also one in Connecticut, near Salzburg. And in Delaware and Maryland, we had the DuPont facility which was a major facility. The DuPont firm produced much of the powder used by the US military in the war of 1812, but it was the Maryland and Pennsylvania powder factories that came through for the Navy. And there was one in New Jersey called the ‘Bellona’, Goddess of war. There was another ‘Bellona’ in Maryland. And it’s interesting that all these powder factories had to be located near rivers, which would provide the water supply to run the mills to grind the powder in whatever degree of fineness it needed. Powder could be fine or coarse, it depended on what you’re going to want, what purpose you wanted for the powder, you want it to prime the gun, or do you want it to be a very powerful powder to shoot the cannonballs out, say 500 – 1,000 – 1,500 yards, that was the usual need for powder. And it had to be done carefully. When you made powder, you had to test it, you had to prove it, to see how far it would throw a ball. And all these facilities near the Navy Yards had proving grounds. And that’s what they call them ‘Proving Grounds’.
So, this is the killing side of the Navy if you will. The idea being, unfortunately, that when you went to battle in the Navy, basically you’re sailing two forts against each other. And they were of tremendous, destructive power. Not only did they send these enormous cannonballs out, weighing anything from a relatively light 4 pounds, to very heavy 32-pound shot, but then they would send up, like a shotgun would, smaller pellets out in terms of say a diameter of one, or one and a quarter inch, that would spray out and be a man killing machine in effect on a ship’s deck. And beyond that they had all sorts of fancy devices that could twirl in the air and separate the ship sails and snap the ships cordage and so that the spars would fall down on the deck and create chaos. And besides from killing the men, it was very important to bring down the rig so that the ship in effect you’re fighting became a hopeless wreck. And that is exactly the goal of war at sea; eliminate the enemy by best means. And I’ll tell you one more thing is that if they ran out of prepared ammunition, they’d put anything that could fit into a cannon and blow it out, bits of shards of sharp metal, nails, anything that would do damage that’s what the ammunition ended up being sometimes.
Well, and it was all put together by the Navy Yards and all of this extraordinary infrastructure. Bill, thank you very much for talking to us today and explaining everything that went into the War of 1812.
William S. Dudley
And thank you for the opportunity, Sam.
No worries, though, and I would urge all of our listeners to read that book. It really is very splendid indeed. Thanks a lot, Bill.
William S. Dudley
All right. You’re welcome.
That’s it for today. But do make sure you stay tuned for the final episode on this battle coming soon. And that will explore the broader context of other single-ship actions in the war with the historian Nick Kaiser. Do please follow us wherever you are on social media on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube. Particularly, please take the time to check out the videos we’ve been creating on YouTube, you can see that some of these interviews have been filmed, and also that we’ve been working with digital artists to create some really fabulous new ways of presenting our maritime past. For those listening on an iPhone, please take a few minutes to rate or review the podcast. It makes a huge difference to our rankings on iTunes and people picking up the podcast. Best of all, please join the Society for Nautical Research @snr.org.uk. It doesn’t cost very much but it does so much good. It supports this podcast, you get four printed journals a year (and mighty fine are they too), you can sign up to come to our annual dinner on board HMS Victory (that’s a really tremendous event), everyone should do so. And of course, the money supports all of the other worthwhile goodness that the society does to publish the world’s most important maritime history and to preserving our maritime past.
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