Great Sea Fights 6: USS Constitution v HMS Guerriere 1812 – Part 4 The Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812
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.
This, the final episode in our investigation of Constitution vs Guerriere, explores the broader context of other single-ship actions in this war – for this war of 1812 was very unusual for the amount of single ship actions that took place – as opposed to fleet battles, and the historian Nicholas Kaizer helps us get to the bottom of that curious issue.
Nicholas Kaizer is a young Canadian scholar and teacher, who studies the cultural history of the Royal Navy during the War of 1812, in particular analysing Anglo-Canadian responses to single ship losses of that conflict. He is the author of Revenge in the Name of Honour: The Royal Navy’s Quest for Vengeance in the Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812.
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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 and this particular episode being part four, the final part of our special on the battle between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere from 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’ve covered a Tudor sea battle in the reign of Henry VIII, the first time that a naval battle was fought between ships firing out of gunports; recovered the mighty clash between Russia and Japan at Tsushima in 1905, in which the Japanese utterly annihilated the Russians, and it comes with a brilliant animation of an eyewitness battle plan that you can find on our YouTube channel. We’ve covered the Battle of Jutland, that great naval battle from the First World War; Nelson’s heroics at St. Vincent in 1797; and the Battle of the River Plate from the Second World War. Today, we are continuing the story of 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 and Episode Two presented the eyewitness account written by the ship’s captains and very splendid they are too. The third episode explores the infrastructure behind the US Navy in 1812, with legendary historian of the US Navy Bill Dudley telling us all about that. Today we have the final episode exploring the broader context of other single-ship actions in this war, for this War of 1812 was very unusual for the amount of single-ship actions that took place as opposed to fleet battles. And today we have the historian Nicholas Kaizer, helping us to get to the bottom of this curious issue. Nick’s a young Canadian scholar and teacher who studies the cultural history of the Royal Navy during the War of 1812. In particular, analysing Anglo Canadian responses to single ship losses of that conflict. He has an MA from Dalhousie University and is the author of ‘Revenge in the Name of Honour, the Royal Navy’s Quest for Vengeance in the Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812’.
Nick, thanks so much for speaking to me today.
Sam, thank you, it’s a pleasure.
So, what is going on in this war? Why are there so many single ship actions?
It’s really a consequence of really the size of the American Navy in this conflict relative to the British Navy. So, the two naval forces involved couldn’t be any more different. So, the North American Squadron, so it’ll be Royal Navy forces that were operating in North America in 1812, it was only a small portion of the British Navy. Because at this point, Britain’s got engaged in a war in Europe against Napoleonic France. But the North American Squadron even reduced in size is still vastly superior in size to the United States Navy. There’re only about twenty vessels, mostly small sloops, in the American Navy only about seven or eight frigates. Even if they had numerical superiority, of course, the British are pretty overstretched in a region, so they had to send out lone ships to patrol shipping lanes, defend convoys, look up after enemy ports. Meanwhile, the Americans, with only twenty-odd ships, are pretty limited in what they can actually do in this conflict. It’s a lot like the Germans before-during World War One and World War Two, where they have these isolated cruisers out in the Pacific in the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic, who are cruising alone to try and attack British shipping. And they’re operating alone so that if they are caught by the Royal Navy and defeated it’s not going to be a huge calamity for the Americans, because they only have a handful of ships.
So, a single ship action is only going to occur if certain conditions are met. One you have to be in command of a ship on your own without any friendly forces operating around you. Two you have to then find an enemy warship also operating alone, which isn’t very common. Most ships at this period in the French, British, Spanish navies operate in small groups or even large fleets. So, once those two ships meet, they then have to be close enough in size and firepower that both captains are willing to risk an engagement. If one ship is vastly superior, they are going to flee. Because the Americans are only ever operating groups of one or two, there’s a much higher chance that you’re going to run into a Royal Navy ship also operating alone. So, during the wider war against France, they’re only about forty-five single ship actions between British and French ships in about a twenty-three-year period. In about three and a half years of the War of 1812, there are thirteen single-ship actions. So, almost all over twice as many.
Wow, it’s extraordinary, isn’t it? And who was the first one?
The first one was actually one of the least talked about – it was HMS Alert. So, a small sloop of war, built as a coal-carrying vessel – a collier – converted into a warship, and USS Essex, which is a 32-gun frigate. So, it wasn’t actually an even fight. And what happened was Alert was sailing, the war had just broken out, and they spot a ship off in the distance, and that is Essex under Captain David Porter of the US Navy. And they go to investigate. By the time they realized that they are facing an American ship, they realise that they are actually kind of in a bad situation. They’re a slower ship, and now they’re pretty close to the Americans. So, the British attempt to try and cut in front of the American ship, maybe they can knock away a few spars if they fire up their guns and then try to flee. It doesn’t work; Alert is captured pretty easily by the Americans. But the British captain’s attempt to seemingly attack Essex is what it looked like to the Americans, really had a huge impact on certainly Essex’s Captain, David Porter, who wrote home saying, you know, we vastly outnumber these guys, we have like twice as many guns, you know, over twice as much firepower, but they still attacked us like. This is really what the Royal Navy is to the Americans. They see them as these bold, expectation-defying, group of men. And then the record of Royal Navy time kind of showed that. Captain Cochran of HMS Speedy had done something similar, he and his 14-gun sloop had attacked a Spanish frigate. That made headlines around the world, especially in the United States. So, even though Laugharne tried to defeat Essex, her actions fulfilled the expectations of the Americans of what the British were supposed to be doing at sea.
Where does the Constitution and the Guerriere fit into all of these single-ship actions, going chronologically, was it at the beginning or in the centre or towards the end?
So, it’s I think about a week or two after Alert is defeated. So, just early on, it was the first single ship action between frigates of the war. And that’s what the historiography and the public press had always focus on at the time. And Guerriere’s exploits really actually go back to the outbreak of the war itself. So, one of the key factors in the outbreak of the War of 1812 was the issue of impressment of Americans by the British Navy. So, during wartime, the Royal Navy, according to British laws, was allowed to impress any British sailor, it was a British subject who was the sailor, to serve in the Navy as it needed a huge body of manpower to man the fleet. And that created a problem with the Americans because there are contrasting notions of what citizenship meant. So, in America, in this new American Republic, citizenship was something that could be earned and revoked, potentially anyway. So, if you were a British subject, you could leave Ireland or England or the Canadian colonies, and go to America join a ship, and you would be given American citizenship and you give up your British subjecthood. That’s how the Americans understood that notion. The British didn’t understand that that way. For the British, if you were born a British subject, you stayed a British subject. So, under British law, anyone on an American ship who was born in a British colony or on the British Isles was legally allowed to be impressed into the Royal Navy. And so, during the war against France, the British were particularly bold and pretty inflammatory, in terms of seizing American ships, they would search them for anyone who they reasonably expected to be British. They would have spoken the same language had similar names, so there was a lot of confusion in this case.
Some sources estimate that something like 10,000 American citizens, or people with some degree of American citizenship, were actually impressed into the Navy. Three thousand of those were later released. That’s still seven thousand sailors who in American eyes were American citizens and were illegally pressed into British service; that created a lot of contentions. And there’s one event, just a little over a year before the war breaks out, and that’s when Guerriere, while patrolling in American waters, stops an American warship (much smaller ship) and actually impresses several Americans out of the ship onto theirs. So, they stopped an American ship of war, take some British subjects off, and sails away. And this is the second time this had happened in the period – HMS Leopard previously had done the same to USS Chesapeake. So, the Americans were incensed. And so several American ships were dispatched to patrol British waters, or American waters, to try and dissuade the British from doing that again. And one of those ships was USS President, so, this is a sister ship of Constitution, rated 44-guns, carrying something like 54 guns, and it comes across a sloop of war named Little Belt, this is a small vessel, 18-guns, it’s really a pipsqueak compared to President. And we’re not quite sure what happens but they end up engaging in action. Someone on one of the two ships fires a gun and they fired a broadside. Little Belt is smashed to pieces because it’s a much smaller ship. And in the months following the action, President’s captain claimed he had mistaken Little Belt for a frigate like Guerriere, which he had been out kind of looking for, as it had just stopped another American ship. So, when the War of 1812 breaks out, Guerriers Captain, James Dacres, remembers Little Belt being attacked, being mistaken for his ship, and he actually paints a slogan on her foretopsail [lost in recording] Little Belt. So, when she goes into action with Constitution, she has that painted on her foresail.
‘But not the Little Belt.’
So, there’s another weird history of slogans in this war as well. In Valparaiso, in Chile in 1814, two British ships were trapped at neutral harbour, they couldn’t attack each other and break to the neutralities, so they’re trying to tempt each other to fire the first shot. And so, they sort of bind flags with slogans on them – things like “King George”, “Free Trade” and “Sailor’s Rights”, they sang, they did chants, at each other, they wrote poetry towards each other, trying to tempt the other side to break the neutrality first.
That’s excellent. I love the idea of the sails being used almost as like a kind of an advertising board. And I wonder who was the first person to do that? I suppose, thinking back to the Armada, where the Spanish ships had huge crucifixes painted on their sails. And their flags. That’s fascinating, isn’t it? And also, it’s an important reminder that when you look at a single ship action, like Constitution versus Guerrier, as a historian, you really do need to be very careful to look at what’s happened before, both in fleet actions, but also other single-ship actions, to get a sense of why things happened as they did. There’s a huge magnetic pull of history into the behaviour of naval officers.
Yes, exactly. And these actions in particular, single-ship action, especially for the British and for the Americans had a really an outsized importance. They’re very rare events, historically, only about an average of 1.9 happened throughout the Napoleonic Wars. So, when one happens, it’s a huge newsworthy event. And when it came to the British versus the French, and Spanish and the Dutch, during that period, the Royal Navy won almost every action it fought. And so the public were used to, you know, every half a year maybe hearing news of a great British victory, you know in a one on one action. And they were really notable and really newsworthy, probably because they were, well, they’re all seen like duels, so affairs of honour. Unlike a great fleet action, which might have, you know, one side has more ships than the other, more guns than the other, single-ship actions usually were between ships that are roughly of the same class. And so, it really, in terms of public understanding, was a way to show, you know, who was the, you know testing one crew against the other and showing how one crew is vastly superior to the other.
It really made me think of the action of the la Belle Poule against the l’Arethusa, which is right at the start of the war of the American Revolution and it kind of signals the French involvement in the war. And that was unusual because it was a single direction, but it was particularly unusual because the British lost. And I wonder if anyone was aware of that heritage in 1812?
I imagine they would have, just based on my research into how, certainly how the public and the newspapers, followed these actions. But it was almost an obsession for especially papers in Halifax. There would be gossip about rumours of where Constitution was in 1814, for example. I am sure that anyone who was old enough to remember the American Revolutionary War would have remembered those single-ship actions and would have been thinking about them.
Yes, definitely. This role of the public in the way that these battles have come down to us is really interesting. Is there a big difference between the way that the public understood the battle to have happened and what actually happened?
Yes. For one thing, the public. Well, the public wasn’t really aware of the finer details of what a [lost] class was or the details of armaments. So, the public initially they first hear news of Guerriere and Constitution; Alert doesn’t even really make the headlines till much later, it’s not very important. But they hear news of Guerriere, and the public is shocked, loudly shocked. And in the news of the next few submissive actions the Macedonian’s loss, and then the Java’s loss, all before the end of 1812. And the public doesn’t quite know what to think at first. Because in the public understanding a frigate as a frigate, and so they hear one of our frigate’s been defeated by enemy frigate – what happened? They’re not used to hearing about British defeats at sea in this period. There are so infrequent appeared of a number of victories of all types of actions. Over time, as more naval educated individuals start writing into newspapers, the public begin to realise that the American frigates in these actions were actually vastly superior in size and firepower to the British. The British frigates in each three cases, Guerriere, Macedonian, and Java, were all the standard modern fifth-rate for survey work, rated at 38-guns, they actually carry more like 46-48-guns, and they had a main battery of 18-pounders. So, the shot that those cannons fired weighed 18 shots. The American frigates on the other hand, they were rated as 44-gun frigates, they usually carry between 54 and 56 guns in total. And their main battery consisted of 24-pounder guns, so they were longer guns, you could fire at longer range – did more damage. And in terms of the broadside weight, so the weight of all the shot of each gun weighed together, the Americans had about a 50% advantage over the British ships. Once the public begins to learn of this, they begin to latch on to that fact, and it’s used by the British to justify their understanding of British naval might and inherit wisdom. So, once the British learned that the British for gunned, they begin to understand that ‘Oh, well, our naval heroes weren’t defeated honourably, they’re defeated by a superior enemy.’ Now
It sounds as though the Americans were cheating.
Essentially, yes. And in some cases later on their accusation, especially in a Halifax paper, that the Americans were actually cheating in several ways, they used like grenades and other things, and they made up facts.
That’s very interesting. It does highlight a kind of an expectation of behaviour in warfare, doesn’t it?
Absolutely. And especially the papers wanted to highlight the gentlemanly conduct of British officers and crew versus the piratical republican conduct of American captains; wasn’t actually born out in fact, but that’s how the paper tried to spin it.
So, the newspapers are focusing on the sort of extreme difference in the broadside weights. How did the serving officers sort of conceive of what was going on – what was their view?
So, it actually depended on if you were at the Admiralty Tier or in high command or in command of individual ships. So, if you were working in the Admiralty, or you were the Commander in Chief of North American Squadron, you were really concerned about this. Because you do recognise that these American frigates, Constitution, United States and President, they really do outmatch what the British have. The British only have a few frigates armed with 24-pound guns; they’d experimented with them in the 1790s, the French experimented with them as well. But the British stop building and manning ships with 24-pounder guns. They found that they were able to defeat a French 24-pounder frigate with one of their smaller frigates. And 24-pounder frigates were more expensive to man, more expensive to maintain, and so they started to phase them out. With the War of 1812, however, the British learn in quite a shocking way, that they can’t actually, they couldn’t expect the Americans to be as an easy target as the French had been. So, the American heavy frigates are a real grave threat.
So, the Admiralty starts issuing orders that increase in severity and specificness prohibiting British frigates from attacking those American frigates one on one. In July 1813, an explicit order is given that no captain is to allow the ship to fight Constitution, United States, President, alone. If you were a captain on individual ship, or Lieutenant on board an individual ship, the reaction was almost a polar opposite. These captains from the accounts that I’ve been able to read seem to entirely reject that premise. The premise being these American heavy frigates are too powerful for us to deal with. They flat out reject the idea. Some are concerned about a larger number of sailors on board the American frigate, they see that as a threat, but they don’t seem to accept that the larger number of guns and the heavier guns are really worth worrying about. And so, some of these serving officers and captains actually do attempt to engineer fights with the enemy.
And that’s another really strange aspect of this naval war, is that they were, like directly written challenges issued between captains to one-on-one fights or two on two fights. The most notable one was in June, well written in May 1813. And that was between the captain of HMS Shannon, Philip Broke, and the captain of USS Chesapeake, James Lawrence. And that’s a well-known event where Shannon engages and defeats Chesapeake. A couple of months before that, however, Captain Broke had issued an earlier challenge. So, he had been part of a blockading squadron watching Boston, one of the chief American naval bases. So, it was a squadron of about three frigates, two ships of the line, a couple of sloops, and inside the American port was USS President, so one of those big, heavy frigates, and then another smaller frigate – both ready to sea, ready to sail. So, Captain Broke, he goes to his commanding officer, Thomas Cappal, and he says, ‘You know what, I bet if we send the bulk of our forces, far away to Cape Sable, (which is the southern tip of Nova Scotia, which is a little over a day sail away) we can tempt those two American ships to come out – if it’s just two of us here. Rather than just sit here and blockade, I think we should tempt them into a two-on-two fight. So, me and my friend Hyde Parker, captain of HMS Tenedos, can defeat them and we can avenge the losses from the last year, from USS Constitution’.
Now, so the bulk of the British ships leave, leaving two British frigates off Boston, Boston port. And Broke sends in several verbal messages by fishermen coming in with their catches into Boston, to the captain of President, John Rogers, basically saying, ‘Come on out, let’s have a two-on-two fight’. Now John Rogers didn’t really fall for it. He had a mission, and his mission was to get out to sea and do as much damage as possible. By this point, the American government were thrilled with their victories in 1812. But they were worried about the risk of losing ships, because they only had you know, twenty-odd. So, they issued an order basically asking American captains not to engage in needless fights at the enemy – to focus on attacking British merchant ships and convoys. So, John Rogers uses the opportunity to escape because two frigates weren’t enough to properly watch Boston Harbour. And that’s a – it’s a calamity for the British. Because they’re strategy at this point is hinged on blockading American ports. And now two frigates and one of the heavy frigates has escaped. And word of that reaches Britain pretty quickly. The Admiralty starts to panic. They begin diverting ships to cover convoys and start searching for President because they don’t want another loss to occur, especially in British waters, which is where President ends up sailing. And the Admiralty begins to ask questions too because they’re outraged that this blockade failed. And so Broke remains off Boston with his ship and his companion. The rest of the blockading squadron, which had left, they go and try to search for President. And about a month later, Broke, who is still off Boston, running low on supplies, he sends his companion ship home to Halifax, he stays there, because now there’s a third American frigate ready to sail – USS Chesapeake. And so he writes up an explicit letter, basically inviting Chesapeake to come out, he can choose the location they’re going to have – hopefully they can have a one on one fight. Engineered agreed to both promises that if ever British ships arrive, he will signal Chesapeake and allow her to get back home. He offers to let him choose where they want to fight and the conditions. But he says, just let us fight. Let us settle this contest between ourselves, like gentlemen. And as it turned out, he didn’t actually need to write the letter. Because Chesapeake’s Captain, James Florence, was just as obsessed with fighting one of his actions as broke was and he set sail before letter even reached him in Boston.
Is there a sense of the Royal Naval officers being unusually bold, maybe a sort of a sense of competitiveness within the ranks? Is that why they’re behaving like this?
Absolutely, yes. And that comes down, well, in part to a long tradition of British, the British Navy. This is a Navy that in late 1754 or 6, maybe, had court-martialled and shot Admiral Byng, who had failed to engage an enemy fleet in the Mediterranean. At a time when he judged his mission to have been a failure anyway, and it wasn’t worth risking his fleet. But the British were outraged he’d not done, to quote the Articles of War, his utmost to engage the enemy. This is also a Navy, which had court-martialled Admiral Robert Calder in 1805, after he had fought an engagement with a French fleet off Cape Finisterre, and had only actually taken two ships, he hadn’t destroyed the fleet. And that was unacceptable to the British Navy, he should have engaged further.
It was also a condition of the size of the Royal Navy relative to the size of the officer corps. So, when the war broke out in 1793, the fleet had rapidly expanded, they had mobilised quickly and so a lot of officers were brought into man these ships, to captain and officer these ships. As the war kept going, more and more officers are promoted their commissions as lieutenants promoted to commander promoted to captain. Especially after any victory, usually, the first lieutenant of any ship is going to be promoted at least. And it gets to the point quickly, where there are twice as many officers, especially commanders and captains, as there are ships to command. So, the competition for just being given a shift of command at sea is incredibly intense at this point. And so, reputation becomes really important. I’m sure any listeners who like me are young and trying to find jobs in the job market can sympathise. Where there are far too many of us for jobs that we’re trying to get. And so Royal Navy officers are well aware that being bold, being zealous, being aggressive are the key virtues that the Royal Navy is looking for in their captains. So, the bolder you are, the more courageous you are, the better your chances, as most people understood it, in getting employed at sea at a time when there really were too many officers.
And it doesn’t just manifest itself in these individual frigate actions does it because they’re these quite notable actions between sloops as well.
Yes, and that’s actually the least discussed in the historiography aspect of this naval War in 1812. But it’s actually the most important because it defies the standard British historical narrative which originated with the public in the War of 1812, who latched on to the superior size of the American frigates as justification so they could continue to understand that their British naval heroes were better than the American ones. That was the key thing that let them continue to believe that. And that the single – and that continues with, really to today. British historians still focus on the superior size of those American frigates as basically to argue that the actions between Constitution and the British frigates were not even contests, and the outcome was never in doubt. Now, that probably was true. That is not how the British captains of time understood it. And James Decrase, in his court-martial after the action, he actually does explicitly say, ‘my defeat was not the result of the enemy’s superiorities of firepower, it was a result of essentially bad luck’. Probably again, trying to sound as bald as possible in his court-martial because he wants to be acquitted, he wants to be back at sea. So, he emphasises how courageous he is. And so, as historians have continued to understand, in Britain anyway, understand these actions as being an unfair contest.
With the sloops, however, that’s not the case, the sloops – there were eight or nine, perhaps of these single ship actions between sloops. And they were for the most part between even forces. Most of the sloops are under 16, or 18-guns, usually the same size of carronades, or a short but like short-range, but pretty heavy naval gun. And a few were British victories, most were American victories. And in these sloop actions, we actually kind of see one of the problems that the Royal Navy is facing at this time. And that is that there’s a serious problem of quality control. Some British captains, like Bill Broke, were undoubtedly brilliant at what they did – his defeat of Chesapeake in an action lasting just 11 minutes was being an exemplar of what the best of the Royal Navy was. But in contrast to Broke, there was Captain Richard Wales who was captain of HMS Epervier, an 18-gun sloop of war, and he demonstrated the absolute worst that the Royal Navy had to offer. So, Wales had commanded Epervier for a little over a year by the time she was taken in action in late 1813. The highlight of his time in command before engaging with the American ship Peacock was the ship sinking out of moorings in Halifax Harbour. She’s later raised, repaired but no effort was made to really check her equipment. So, when she goes into action with the American ship a few months later, the fastenings that keep the guns at the sides of the deck – so when the ship, the gun recoils, it isn’t careening across the entire deck, – start to snap. So, the guns while they are trying to fight the enemy are literally rolling across the deck. And it was a catastrophe, and the ship was completely outmatched. Her crew were not trained properly. They’d only ever fired one gun of live ammunition in their time under Wales. And in the court-martial, later on, the officers all essentially throw the crew under the bus, and they blame their weakness for the defeat rather than their inability to train for the factor for the defeat.
I like that. I think there’s a strong argument that you can make that the world has been shaped more by British naval failure than British naval success. Very few people agree with me.
The whole premise of my work actually has been the impact of mostly defeats on Royal Navy history. So, I completely agree with that idea.
Very good. Very good. Well, I have to come back with you again, Nick. And we’ll talk about that more. Listen, thank you so much for telling us all about these single-ship actions, there is obviously a great deal of important history here. Thank you so much.
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