Naval history: the War of 1812

Many desperate ocean-fights took place during the years 1813-1814, though not with the uniform success for the Americans of those of 1812. On June I, the Chesapeake, lying in Boston harbor, accepted the challenge to battle to the British frigate Shannon, and put to sea, though in no proper condition for fighting. In the battle that ensued the Chesapeake suffered severely; all her higher officers were killed and wounded, Lawrence, the captain, being mortally wounded early in the action. His dying words, "Don't give up the ship," were afterwards displayed on Captain Perry's standard in the battle of Lake Erie, and have become the motto of the American navy. The Chesapeake was, after being disabled, boarded and forced to surrender. In August the British brig Pelican captured the American brig Argus, which had previously captured more than twenty vessels in the English Channel. In September the Americans gained a naval victory, the brig Enterprise capturing the brig Boxer, after a severe battle of forty minutes' duration. During the summer the frigate Essex, under Captain Porter, cruised in the Pacific, and captured a great number of British vessels. Early in the succeeding year she was attacked in the harbor of Valparaiso by the frigate Phoebe and the sloop Cherub, the two being superior to her in force. The Essex was desperately defended, and did not yield till almost cut to pieces.

During the year the ocean swarmed with American privateers, which occasionally did not hestitate to attack war-vessels. The privateer Decatur captured the war-schooner Dominica, and the fishing-smack Yankee, with forty men, surprised and captured, off Sandy Hook, the sloop-of-war Eagle. In March, 1813, the blockade of the coast was extended from Montauk Point, Long Island, to the mouth of the Mississippi, through the British squadron under Admiral Warren was inadequate to make this more than a "paper blockade." The Macedonian, United States, and Hornet were chased into New London harbor by a British squadron, and so diligently blockaded that they were not able to put to sea again. Meanwhile, Admiral Cockburn, Warren's second in command, raided the coast from Delaware to North Carolina, making piratical descents and destroying the property of the defenceless inhabitants with cruel and useless barbarity.

In 1814 the American navy achieved some brilliant successes. The sloop Peacock captured the brig Epervier, while the Wasp captured the Reindeer and sunk the Avon. The privateer General Armstrong was attacked in the port of Fayal by a British fleet, and an attempt made to cut her out by boats. The result was disastrous to her enemies, who were driven off with a loss of one hundred and twenty killed and ninety wounded, while the loss on the privateer was only two killed and nine wounded. Seeing that it would be impossible to save her, the captain and crew left the Armstrong, setting her on fire, and took refuge in a deserted convent on shore, in anticipation of an attack. This, however, the protest of the authorities prevented the British from making. Several hard-fought naval battles took place after peace was declared, but before the ships at sea could be informed of this fact. The President fought the Endymion to a wreck, but before she could take possession of her as a prize she was herself captured by a British squadron. In February, 1815, the Constitution captured the Cyane and Levant off the island of Madeira, and in March the Hornet captured the Penguin off the coast of Brazil. In both these cases the captured vessels were stronger than their captors.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)