The Naval War of 1812: A Tale

On Oct. 27, 1812, three American warships weighed anchor and sailed into history.

They bore fabled names: The 44-gun frigate USS Constitution, Commodore William Bainbridge commanding; the 32-gun frigate USS Essex, Captain David Porter in charge; and the USS Hornet, an 18-gun sloop, Master Commandant James Lawrence on the quarterdeck. The Constitution and the Hornet sailed in company from New York; the Essex sailed from Chesapeake Bay to join them.

Their orders: Cruise the coast of Brazil; take, sink or destroy all British ships they find.

American success in the Naval War of 1812 was at its flood. The British had drawn first blood by taking the 16-gun brig USS Nautilus in July 1812. But in mid-August Porter and the Essex took the 18-gun HMS Alert; Alert had been hunting the Essex. Later that August the Constitution, under Captain Isaac Hull, sank the HMS Guerriere, an aging 38-gun frigate. And in October the USS Wasp, the Hornet's sister ship, took the HMS Frolic, an 18-gun sloop, off Bermuda. The Wasp was almost immediately captured by a 74-gun British ship-of-the-line, but all the Americans -- or the British -- could remember was that the Frolic had struck her colors.

American success threw Britain into an uproar. For 50 years, often against great odds, the Royal Navy had swept all before it. It had whipped French fleets at the Nile, on the Glorious First of June, off Capes Trafalgar and St. Vincent, and in single-ship actions across the world's oceans. By 1812 the French fleet was bottled up in Marseilles and Toulon in the Mediterranean, and in every French port on the English Channel. In England, it was an article of faith that the arrival of the Royal Navy meant victory. How, believed the British, could it be otherwise?

Plus, the American Navy was puny; 11 frigates -- two unseaworthy -- and nine sloops and brigs, one of which, the Oneida, was on Lake Ontario. The Royal Navy, more than 1,000 ships strong, had 245 frigates and 50-gun ships alone, and if most of the Navy was blockading the French fleet, the nation could certainly spare some ships to teach upstart Americans a lesson. To the typical English mind, it was -- or should have been -- merely a matter of issuing orders.

But what the American Navy lacked in numbers, it made up in other ways. American officers were the professional equal of their British opposites. American crews were paid volunteers serving limited enlistments; British crews were basically slaves -- kidnapped from their hometown streets by press gangs and confined to their ships for eight years, by which time many were dead. And while the typical British frigate, built from traditional designs, carried 38 18-pound cannon, American frigates were superior-bigger, newer, stronger-built, and carrying 44 24-pound guns.

But to the British, these details bore little weight; to them, British naval superiority was a matter of fact. So the string of American naval victories was less a shock to the British mind than it was a challenge to the natural order. Their newspapers were filled with accusations of underhanded American behavior -- about what could be expected from a race of mongrel rebels with nary a gentleman amongst them -- and demands for revenge, and restoration of national honor. Thus began what amounted to a massive duel between the two officer corps, fought with ships instead of pistols.

The road to the duel was long and circumstantial. There was, for instance, the matter of professional honor. Officers of the Royal Navy certainly loved their country and had every reason for pride in their service, which had a long, storied tradition of service to the Crown, and for 20 years had been ranging the world's oceans giving battle to Napoleon and Imperial France.

But American officers were just as proud. They had all been raised in post-Revolutionary America. To them, there was no difference between their nation and the cause of liberty, and this truth became more precious as Revolutionary France, which had shared those ideals, veered to anarchy, blood, and terror. Finally, France had accepted an emperor. Looked at this way, the survival of America meant the survival of republican government and human liberty itself, so that glory or failure on the part of American officers could only reflect on that ideal.

That idea was magnified by the even greater awareness, in their parent's generation, that they were creating a new thing under the sun; for the Founders, honor or disgrace, achievement or failure, meant the reification of the Revolutionary ideal, or its defeat. In this way, the achievements of Washington, of Adams, of Jefferson and Madison, were all of a piece with the country they had established, so that fame for them meant the persistence of their republic -- of the freedom of mankind. Living up to that standard would have been a challenge for anyone; for young men, it must have been a constant spur to their own struggles to become themselves.

And for Bainbridge and Lawrence, it must have been much more; both were sons of Loyalists. Lawrence's father had even been imprisoned for collaborating with the British, and later emigrated to Canada. James Lawrence had been raised in genteel poverty by his sisters, and later forsook study of the law to seek glory, and possibly redemption, at sea.

Then there was the matter of national honor. In the 21st century, honor is a vague, even quaint concept, although many could say otherwise; but in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, honor was a living thing, something that defined and carried one through life, something that could be lost, and must be defended. It was reputation, standing, the idea society held of who you were. Losing honor was very different from embarrassment: In the stratified society of the day, honor meant life itself; if it was lost, so was the life you'd known. And if for individuals losing one's honor meant losing one's place, for nations, always playing a rough game, lost honor meant disregard, insult, and, possibly, extinction, since no competitor would scruple to see how far they could go. Sooner or later, every nation had to fight -- or else.

This is the opening section of the preface to my book, LOOSED UPON THE SEA. To read the rest, go to my web site
, Reinbach's Observer.