I recently reviewed another War of 1812 title, 'Lord's of the Lake', covering the naval war on Lake Ontario by the Canadian historian Robert Malcomson, see the link below;
In the preamble to that review I remarked about my apprehensions when choosing titles to read covering this early 19th century struggle, between the two great English speaking nations of the world, given the national bias that has been a feature of some of the works in this area and that Canadian historians have brought an interesting and fresh look at the war.
So it was with great interest that when purchasing Lords of the Lake I also picked up another naval history on the theme of 1812 by another Canadian historian, Nick Kaizer, a Halifax based historian from Nova Scotia, a part of the world that took a front seat in the maritime clashes between Britain and the United States with Halifax being home to the British North American Squadron during the war.
The title, 'Revenge in the Name of Honour' captures one of the key themes of this study of the single ship actions at sea and in particular the actions between the opposing frigates, picking out as it does the peculiar nature of these actions to capture the imaginations of the American and British public at the time, despite the fact that the war as a whole and these small scale battles at sea had little to any worthwhile strategic effects on the outcome of the war or the larger conflict of the Napoleonic war that was the main focus of the British Royal Navy at that time.
As Kaizer points out, this aspect is very difficult for a modern audience interested in these actions to fully comprehend, especially from a British perspective, where the national war aims of defending an independent Canada, denying the American demands on rights of maritime navigation and forcing peace negotiations through blockade, bankruptcy and the defeat of Napoleon were all met.
|The USS Constitution, 'Old Ironsides' as she became known after 18-pdr shot from HMS Guerriere was observed to bounce off the American frigate, seen here as the oldest naval warship in commission and still afloat, in Boston harbour in 2006.|
An anonymous British lieutenant aboard HMS Guerriere commented to the Naval Chronicle after the action with the Constitution;
"No one that has not seen the Constitution would believe that there could be such a ship for a frigate, the nearest ship in the British navy, as to her dimensions and tonnage, is the Orion, of 74-guns...."
The fact of the matter was that despite all those factors, the Royal Navy through its dominant position at sea established in the French Revolutionary War and to the climax of Trafalgar in 1805 had established an aura of invincibility in the minds of the British public and those in its wider empire, particularly Canada, and that invincibility induced a feeling that British ships and particularly frigates should simply win every time, no matter what the opposition.
In addition, the record of success against European navies had seemingly caused that feeling of invincibility to permeate through the ranks of a very large Royal Navy, now engaged in reaping the benefits of its dominance by policing the high seas against small scale incursions by France and her allies and supporting the main British land offensives in the Peninsular War and those of her allies in eastern Europe as the war turned against Napoleon; with it seems many Royal Navy commanders thinking that they only needed to run up their colours to defeat any enemy force encountered no matter what its size in comparison to their own vessel, with no heed to training their crews in competent gunnery or sailing skills.
Kaizer's account of the court-martial of the commander of the 18-gun Cruizer-class brig HMS Epervier, Commander Richard Wales, after loosing his ship in action with the 20-gun sloop USS Peacock, whilst escorting a convoy off the coast of Florida, makes remarkable reading, revealing a captain who, among other facts, never trained his crew on the guns by firing live ammunition, preferring to run through mock drills and thus save money on the cost of expended shot and powder.
|The action between the USS Peacock and HMS Epervier reveals how badly commanded and trained some Royal Navy ships had become through complacency after years of victory.|
This lack of training by Wales not only meant that his crew was totally unprepared for the shock of firing their guns in anger and not practiced at aiming their fire, but also that the corroded bolts anchoring the guns, after the brig had been raised following its sinking in Halifax during a hurricane, were only revealed once she was in action with the Peacock rather than if she had preacticed with them in the first place!
With this overall picture underpinning the War of 1812, Kaizer sets the scene for the shock delivered to a British government and Royal Navy, unprepared to meet the threat posed by the tiny American naval force of six frigates supported by a handful of smaller sloops, and in particular its squadron of three heavy frigates, Constitution, President and United States.
The book documents the series of naval engagements that occurred through the conflict, detailing each one, the subsequent Royal Navy court martials and enquiries and US reactions that followed each action and the consequences that followed for the commanders involved, whilst capturing the wider public reactions in the press and various naval journals that voiced opinion about them; showing the range of opinion and the differences between those in British and American naval circles and that of the wider British press compared to that circulating in Halifax often forced to rely on early news of a British defeat from American papers and reports mixed with Haligonians concern and pride for crew members serving in the North American Squadron.
|Captain James Dacres, commanded HMS Gurriere |
in her action with USS Constitution 19th August 1812
Perhaps the most interesting opinions of the first encounters with the US heavy frigates are those of the captains of the British frigates, Gurriere, Macedonia and Java and the conclusions they drew for their respective defeats. Whereas Captain James Dacres of the Guerriere focussed on his misfortune and concluded with a bold claim to look forward to causing a different outcome should he get a similar opportunity, Captain John Carden emphasised the superior dimensions, broadside and crew size of the USS United States and initially the Admiralty concluded that;
'under the right conditions and with the right tactics an 18-pounder frigate had the ability to tackle and defeat a 24-pounder adversary at close action'.
The final testimony of Lieutenant Henry Chads, following the death of Captain Henry Lambert commanding HMS Java, reveals a crew of landsmen worked hard to upgrade their sailing skills and despite only being exercised on the guns once during the voyage out to India managed to put up a good fight when she encountered the USS Constitution off the coast of Brazil on the 29th December 1812; with Java getting the better of her opponent in the early exchanges, cutting away some of the American's rigging and smashing the ships wheel whilst stern raking her with her fire and proving the superior sailor.
|USS Consttution vs HMS Java - Patrick O'Brian|
Indeed Commodore William Bainbridge was struck down by musketry from the Java as she passed close by, but the damage to Java's rigging eventually caused her to miss a tack whilst attempting to stay on the stern of the American frigate and she was caught whilst attempting to pass through the wind and suffered a devastating stern rake in return.
|The respective tracks of HMS Java and USS Constitution.|
What comes out from the reactions to the successful American actions, particularly involving the large US frigates is a sense of disbelief, followed by rationalising (rational-lies) the reasons for the defeats, ranging from more guns on the American ships, larger crews, to just plain bad luck that would be reversed on the next occasion.
Once the realisation had sunk in that the American large frigates and sloops were a much more formidable design than first imagined, with the large frigates in particular giving them the structure and strength of a third rate and carrying heavier (24-pdr) and far more guns in general than their frigate rating of 44-guns would seem to suggest, a more practical approach to dealing with the threat emerged; specifically leading to a directive from the British admiralty to avoid tackling these larger vessels one to one with the more common 18-pdr British 38-gun fifth-rates, but to resort to blockade with multiple ships on station supported by the odd third-rate, fast sailing, 74-gunner.
However this more considered approach to managing the American problem, whilst the British/Canadian military successfully dealt with US invasion attempts and Napoleon was driven back behind France's pre-1793 borders, didn't deal with the chivalric code that permeated both American and British naval captains, with a few exceptions, that demanded that the American ships should be met one on one in a so called 'fair-fight', so beloved by wargamers with points systems.
This romantic notion of the bloody business of war reminded me of the similarity of opinion seen in the second 'Great War' as the publics of France, Great Britain and Germany delighted in the adventures of First World War ace pilots, meeting their opponents over the trenches of Flanders.
This despite the fact that meeting the Constitution, President or United States in a 38-gun fifth-rate was anything but a 'fair-fight' with, for example, Constitution's broadside shot weight being 700 pounds in comparison to the Guerriere's at 500 pounds, and with a war to win, what has fairness to do with it anyway!
Likewise the American administration started to realise that despite the propaganda advantages of the victories over British warships, the damage caused to the American ships in these actions often meant their early return to a US port to make repairs and a termination of their principle mission, namely to attack and destroy British maritime trade, and saw them likewise issue guidance and orders to American commanders not to seek out these naval duels.
Kaizer details the manoeuvres made by both American and British commanders such as Captain Philip Broke on board HMS Shannon, issuing challenges to American commanders to come out and meet him one on one, in defiance of Admiralty orders, leading to his eventual action with USS Chesapeake on the 1st June 1813, which was perhaps the most even fight of the conflict and fortunately for Broke ended successfully whilst also ending the run of US successes from 1812 and offsetting his flagrant disregard of orders that engineered the action in the first place.
In fact Broke's actions off Boston stands in stark contrast to those of Captain James Hillyar in his action on board HMS Phoebe 36-guns against the USS Essex 36-guns off Valparaiso on 28th March 1814, with the battle-hardened veteran Hillyar, long past any notions of chivalric one on one actions, determined to complete his orders from the Admiralty to destroy the Essex and bring an end to its cruise against British whalers in the Pacific.
Refusing Captain David Porter's offer to meet in a one on one action, with the American captain keen to garner his career with such laurels, instead bringing the force of his long-gun advantage over the American short range carronades and the support of the sloop HMS Cherub to batter the American frigate and her consort Essex Junior into submission after another violation of neutral waters proved one too many and Hillyar elected to end matters.
As the ability for the American large ships to get to sea decreased, the burden of taking the war to the British fell on the smaller ships of the US navy and the American privateers, more able to slip past the blockade, with the notable cruises of the USS Argus and Wasp in British home waters covered, but noting that the victories of the small ships grabbed little attention in the press when compared to the frigate actions.
Despite the success of blockade on the US coastline and the aggressive counter-attack led by Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, encouraging US slaves to flee servitude and join the Royal Navy in its struggle, and a series of large scale raids that lead to the burning of Washington and its state buildings, the defeats by the US heavy frigates early in the war still caused a feeling of lingering shame to Haligonians and the North American Squadron determined to put the matter right at the first opportunity by capturing one of the three enemy large ships.
The opportunity finally came on the 15th January 1815 following the delay by the US Congress to ratify the peace treaty signed in Ghent on December 24th 1814, and, with the war continuing, seeing the USS President under Commodore Stephen Decatur attempt to evade the blockade off New York with a planned offensive against the British East India Company and its merchants, brought to bay by the fast sailing British 24-pdr heavy frigate HMS Endymion 40-guns.
|HMS Endymion yaws to rake USS President 15th January 1815 - Thomas Butterwoth|
Taking full advantage of Decatur's damage to his ship after he had grounded on leaving the harbour and his desire to evade Endymion's consorts of four other frigates including the 56-gun razee, HMS Majestic, which saw the American concentrate on trying to take out the British frigate's rigging and slow her down, whilst Endymion used her heavy guns to fire into the President's hull, eventually yardarm to yardarm, with her 24-pdr main battery causing great damage and casualties and slowing the large American frigate to allow the British squadron to close and capture her.
HMS Endymion was a new class of British heavy frigate but was probably still not a match for a one on one engagement with the USS President and the capture of the latter is most likely down to the fact that Decatur was forced to fight a running battle that allowed Endymion to do the job of so crippling the American frigate that she could not escape.
However the British commodore commanding the squadron was quick to heap praise on Captain Henry Hope commanding Endymion and made it clear in his report that the capture of President was due to to the action fought with Endymion despite the the later drawing off to make repairs as the squadron came up to secure the prize.
I found this book a thoroughly good read, giving an interesting insight to the British reaction to the losses they suffered and the response which developed amid a debate within naval circles as to what that response should be; and Nick Kaiser has really pulled out the differences in opinion between the captains in the Royal Navy's North American squadron, desperate to put the record straight with one on one challenges to the Americans and the senior command, focussed on winning the wider conflict and keen to prevent the American ships from interfering with that wider strategy.
In addition we see a Royal Navy striving to find the balance in its post action court-martial proceedings after each loss to find the lessons to be shared among the fleet whilst not exposing to public scrutiny the weaknesses in practice such enquires could reveal, but often finding a way to punish incompetence through future unemployment if not always meted out in a just way.
As well as providing much in the way of scenario set ups and objectives for wargaming the actions described, particularly if you want to test out the Admiralty's pronouncement;
'under the right conditions and with the right tactics an 18-pounder frigate had the ability to tackle and defeat a 24-pounder adversary at close action'.
the book contains sixteen colour profile plates of the British and American ships discussed, drawn by Florian Richter which was a very nice discovery when I first flicked through the pages of the book
|Florian Richter's gorgeous full colour ship profiles really adds extra value to this book for the naval wargamer|
Whilst working my way through the various chapters I found myself recalling two other books I had read previously and reviewed here on JJ's and I would highly recommend getting and reading with this title, namely;
Revenge in the Name of Honour is another great title from Helion & Company and consists of 217 pages which includes the following;
List of Maps
1. Actions along the Eastern Coastline of British North America and the United States, 1812-1815.
2.Actions in the West Indies and along the Eastern coastline of South America, 1813-1814.
3. Actions in European and West African Waters, 1812-1815.
4. Operations in the Pacific, 1814.
1. 'A Perfect Unmanageable Wreck': Opening Acts in the Naval War of 1812.
2. 'It is with the deepest regret': The defeats of Frolic, Macedonian and Java.
3. 'The unlooked for revers of the medal': Impact of the losses in Britain and Nova Scotia.
4. 'Very happy to meet any American frigate': Crisis for the Admiralty and the Officers of the North American squadron.
5. 'Hope yet of an honourable encounter': Philip Broke, Thomas Capel, and the blockade of Boston.
6. 'All I request is that both ships may quickly meet': Victory, defeat, and stagnation, 1813-1814.
7. 'Defended so long as she could be with any prospect of success': Lost sloops and elusive frigates, 1814.
8. 'Gallantry and spirit on both sides': Triumph of the Endymion and Constitution in the war's final months, 1815.
I Careers and fates of the British naval officers.
II Dispositions of Frigates in North American waters, July 1813.
If I were to make one small criticism of the book it is that it doesn't have an index which is a little frustrating for an historical wargamer likely to come back to the book for reference around a particular engagement and it would have been nice to have avoided flicking through pages to find the particular action and ships involved, that said I would have no hesitation in recommending having the book on any Naval War of 1812 book shelf and it makes a welcome addition to my own.
Revenge in the Name of Honour retails through Helion Books for £25 and is in paperback but can be purchased at the time of writing for just under £13 from other retailers.
Next up: More adventures along the Welsh border in Carolyn and my recent trip away, post lockdown and more All at Sea additions with three more Spanish third rates about to be fitted out in JJ's shipyard together with an at anchor version of L'Orient ready for her date with destiny at the Battle of the Nile, more anon.