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War of 1812 Essex Defeats Alert - History

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War of 1812 Essex Defeats Alert - History

Detail from View of Essex, Centerbrook & Ivoryton, Conn. 1881, Boston, MA: O.H. Bailey & Co, 1881
- University of Connecticut Libraries', Map and Geographic Information Center - MAGIC

By Jerry Roberts for Connecticut Explored

On a cold April night in 1814 a British raiding force rowed six miles up the Connecticut River to burn the privateers of Essex, then known as Pettipaug. Before the raid was over they had torched 27 ships and taken or destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of rigging materials. The raid resulted in the single greatest loss of American shipping of the entire war.

During the War of 1812 the British navy’s blockade of Long Island Sound nearly shut down commerce along the Connecticut coast. In shipbuilding towns such as Pettipaug many hard-pressed merchant ship owners were unable to carry out the normal coastal and West Indies trade that their livelihoods depended on. Some began arming their vessels as privateers. These were privately owned warships meant to attack and capture British merchant ships on the high seas. The captured vessels and their cargos were sold at auction and the profits split between the owners, the captain and crew, and the US government. For the young United States with its extremely limited federal navy, privateering was an important part of the war effort.

Despite the obvious risks, the building and financing of privateers represented a potentially lucrative investment opportunity while also serving the national cause. Pettipaug was already a well-known shipbuilding center. That several vessels were now being armed and new privateers were being built there did not escape the Royal Navy’s attention.

Going In

But a raid on Pettipaug would not be easy. Essex is located six miles up the Connecticut River from Long Island Sound and a great sand bar at the mouth of the river prevented large naval vessels from entering. A raiding force would have to penetrate deep into the American heartland without the direct support of warships. Still, the British recognized that the chance of destroying a large number of privateers in one place, rather than having to hunt them down one by one on the high seas, was worth the risks involved. The raid was led by Captain Richard Coote of HMS Borer and involved crews mustered from four British warships of the squadron blockading New London and the Sound. They anchored off the mouth of the Connecticut River on the evening of April 7 and dispatched 136 sailors and marines in six heavily armed ships’ boats.

Detail from the map Connecticut, from actual survey, Hartford, CT: Hudson & Goodwin, 1811 – University of Connecticut Libraries’, Map and Geographic Information Center (MAGIC)

Their first task was to secure the fort at Saybrook, which dominated the mouth of the river, so the raiding force would not be trapped on the way out. Unbelievably, two years into the war, the British found the fort without a garrison, guns, or ammunition. They continued to row upstream against wind and tide, arriving on the Pettipaug waterfront at 3:30 the next morning.

According to Coote’s report to the Admiralty, “We found the town alarmed, the militia all on alert, and apparently disposed to oppose our landing with one four pound gun.” But the British had come with overwhelming force, their boats undoubtedly armed with swivel guns and carronades. “After the discharge of the boat’s guns and a volley of musketry from our marines,” Coote continued, “they prudently ceased firing.”

No one in the sleepy village had expected the war would be brought so far inland. But here it was. According to a report published in the Connecticut Gazette a few days after the raid the British made a simple ultimatum to the town’s people gathered there in the wee hours. “Captain Coote informed them that he was in sufficient force to affect the object of his expedition, which was to burn the vessels and that if his party were not fired upon, no harm should fall upon the inhabitants, or the property unconnected with the vessels…” In other words, the message was, stay out of our way and you can keep your town. The good people of Pettipaug looked at the marines, did the math, and withdrew. Quietly, riders were sent out into the night to seek military assistance from New London and surrounding communities.

As British marines secured the town, sailors set to burning ships and removing naval stores from waterfront chandleries and warehouses. They also took the town’s considerable stocks of West Indies rum, an important commodity in an age when soldiers and sailors on both sides were issued half a pint of rum a day as part of their compensation.

As the harbor blazed throughout the night, several heroic but futile attempts were made to save individual ships by towing them out of sight or extinguishing flames with buckets of water. Despite these efforts, however, by 10:00 the next morning the British had torched 25 vessels, keeping meticulous records of the names, tonnage, rigs, and potential armaments of each, from the 400-ton ship Osage to 25-ton coastal sloops. They loaded the stolen chandlery supplies and rum into two captured privateers, the brig Young Anaconda and the schooner Eagle. With militia from neighboring towns beginning to reach the area, it was time for Captain Coote and his men to make their escape.

Getting Out

As the British towed the two captured ships down river against the wind on a falling tide, the Young Anaconda went aground a mile south of the town. Its cargo was transferred to the schooner, and the brig was torched. Despite being exposed to sporadic musket fire from shore, Coote decided that proceeding through the narrower stretch of river farther downstream in broad daylight posed a greater risk than waiting for the cover of darkness. He anchored the schooner and his boats and waited for nightfall.

Detail of a letter to the Commander of the British Marine forces requesting his surrender signed by Major Marsh Ely – Connecticut Historical Society

At this point, Major Marshe Ely, commanding the growing American militia forces from Lyme and Saybrook, sent a small boat under a flag of truce to deliver a message to the British. Ely was confident he now had Coote at his mercy: “Sir, To avoid the effusion of human blood is the desire of every honorable man. The number of forces under my command are increased so much as to render it impossible for you to escape. I therefore suggest to you the propriety of surrendering your selves prisoners of War and by that means prevent the consequence of an unequal conflict which must otherwise ensue.”

Coote disagreed with Ely’s assessment. In his report to the Admiralty he wrote with typically British understatement, “My reply was verbal, assuring the bearer, that tho’ sensible of their humane intentions, we set their power to detain us at defiance.”

At sunset the British transferred the stolen supplies and rum to the boats, set fire to the schooner, muffled their oars, and began slipping downstream under cover of darkness. US marines dispatched by Stephan Decatur from New London had begun to arrive, along with federal troops and additional militia and volunteers. Several artillery pieces were quickly set up on both sides of the river. The British came under increasing musket and cannon fire from both banks. Two British marines were killed as the boats ran the gauntlet, now illuminated by bonfires and picket boats with torches. The musket and cannon fire from the narrows (today spanned by the I-95 Baldwin Bridge) was intense. Coote reported, “I believe no boat escaped without receiving more or less shot.” Yet the black of night and the swift outbound current enabled the British to drift silently past the fort at Saybrook, drawing only ineffectual parting shots from the defenders now gathered there.

By 10:00 p.m. the raiding party had reached the safety of the British warships. For the loss of only two men killed and two seriously injured the British had torched more than two dozen American ships and taken or destroyed thousands of dollars’ worth of supplies and equipment—not to mention all that rum. It was perhaps one of the most successful small boat raids in history.

The Aftermath

“List of vessels destroyed by the British at Pettipauge”, April 8th, 1814 – American Mercury

The British raid devastated the local economy and nearly ruined the handful of old shipbuilding families who owned most of the vessels that had been destroyed. The prevailing local attitude was that the disaster had resulted from the federal government’s total neglect of its duty to protect this important shipbuilding community. This was made clear in a letter from the selectmen of Saybrook (which at the time included Pettipaug) to Connecticut Governor John Cotton Smith. “Your Excellency must be sensible that the Inhabitants of this Town feel Indignant at the General Government for declaring a war of offence & then leaving…the Mouth of the Connecticut River unprotected… under the guns of a large squadron of the enemy.”

Four months later the British bombarded Stonington. Unlike the strategic raid on Pettipaug, the attack on Stonington was a punitive bombardment of an extremely exposed, and as it turned out tenaciously brave, coastal town. Two weeks after that, on August 24, the British burned the nation’s capital. The raid on Pettipaug had been eclipsed, and the town did its best to forget this dark chapter in its history. Within two years it had changed its name to Essex, and the raid passed into obscurity and folklore.

Jerry Roberts, formerly the executive director of the Connecticut River Museum.

© Connecticut Explored. All rights reserved. This article originally appeared in Connecticut Explored (formerly Hog River Journal) Vol. 10/ No. 3, SUMMER 2012.

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The bicentennial of the War of 1812 is approaching, and after 200 years it’s time to change how we think about that war. To support that proposal, I’m going to explore what I believe the narrative of that war has been and how we might change it to make it more accurate and more relevant to our own lives and times.

Battle of Lake Erie (Mural in U.S. Naval Academy, NH 43575-KN)

In the past there have been heated—and mostly partisan—arguments about who won. Then in recent years, it became fashionable to claim that the war was a stalemate, with the further claim that it was simply a horribly stupid waste of life.

Those two latter conclusions are easy to slide into if one simply concentrates on the war’s military actions. For example, of 25 noteworthy naval actions, the U.S. Navy won thirteen and the Royal Navy won twelve. And along the Canadian borders there were bloody battles won and lost but no major change in the border. Then on the one hand the U.S. Navy won the critically important fleet actions on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain and American privateers had a significant effect on Britain’s vital sea lines of communication. But on the other hand, the Royal Navy was able to apply a punishing blockade and a series of successful expeditionary warfare raids against America’s Atlantic coast.

And so the discussions have rolled on. But while it’s true that there was no unconditional surrender by either side, and in a compilation of the results of individual actions there was no clear winner, there were indeed some very important, bottom line gains and losses for each side. And those gains and losses had long term, geopolitical implications for both the United States and Great Britain—and in fact for the world. But I’ll come back to that particular point towards the end of my remarks.

One of the biggest problems with the current narrative of the War of 1812 is, I believe, that there has been a tendency to focus on the main events as if they were free standing, rather than parts of a stream of interconnected campaigns, battles, policies, and decisions. And the corollary of seeing the War of 1812 as a series of free-standing events is that tactical matters inevitably overshadow strategic matters.

There is a very interesting new book out. Some of you may have read it already. The book’s title is 1812—The Navy’s War, written by George Daughan. Towards the end of the book there is, for me, a particularly enlightening passage. The passage quotes from a letter from the Duke of Wellington to the British prime minister at the time, Lord Liverpool. The prime minister had suggested that Wellington go to Canada and take over leadership of the land war along the Canada-U.S. border. At that point Wellington had a deserved reputation as a successful field commander in the Peninsula Campaign against Napoleons’ army. Wellington’s response focused on an important point. This is what he said:

“That which appears to me to be wanting in America is not a general, or a general officer and troops, but a naval superiority on the Lakes….The question is, whether we can obtain this naval superiority….If we cannot, I shall do you but little good in America.”[i]

Wellington understood the continuing strategic issues of the War of 1812, in this case the question of whether or not the British could take control of the communication and supply routes represented by the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain. Wellington wasn’t thinking tactically. He was confident that he could dominate in the field in most situations with his experienced troops. He was instead emphasizing the kind of strategic issue that gives context to individual actions and decisions.

And the importance of context is nowhere more important than when trying to establish the true causes of the War of 1812. The American declaration of war in June 1812 is generally attributed to America’s need to assure “free trade and sailors’ rights.”

In the book Sea Power—A Naval History edited by E.B. Potter and Admiral Chester Nimitz, the circumstances behind that battle cry are spelled out succinctly:

“In the post-Trafalgar period the intensifying commerce warfare between Britain and France left the United States the only major neutral trader on the high seas. American merchant shippers enjoyed unprecedented prosperity both in the general carrying trade and as exporters of American wheat, tobacco, and cotton. At the same time American merchantmen and even naval vessels, caught between Britain’s Orders in Council and Napoleon’s retaliatory Decrees were subjected to increasing interference that eventually grew intolerable.”[ii]

That’s fine as far as it goes, but in reality there was more—much more—to the story than a simple desire for free trade and sailors’ rights.

As the war approached, there were also strong, emotionally- laden political and diplomatic cross currents that shaped the decisions of President Madison and then-British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval. And politics, as we know, is often a force unto itself.

President James Madison (by Asher Durand after Gilbert Stuart, KN-10921)

While Madison was the leader in the House of Representatives, he steadfastly resisted the pressure of those in Congress who were inclined towards war with Great Britain. Those advocating war were mostly from the South, along with expansionists from the then-western states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio, who were anxious to push the United States’ borders to the west.

Notwithstanding the pressures coming from those inclined towards war with Great Britain, Madison acted on his belief that he could avoid armed conflict by convincing Prime Minister Perceval that a major clash was inevitable, unless Britain dealt with the issues of free trade and impressment. Madison was further convinced that Great Britain’s preoccupation in Europe with Napoleon would make Britain reluctant to open up a new global warfront.

Madison was wrong on all of the above. In fact Perceval believed that the regional political divisions within the United States, along with America’s obvious military weakness would force America to accommodate Britain’s maritime policies, no matter how onerous or economically damaging. In addition Perceval and many around him believed that U.S. complaints could be quieted with a limited application of military pressure. All of the foregoing created perceptions on the part of the British leadership that were as important as the actual circumstances involved.

There was another important psychological factor among much of the British leadership. As a result Prime Minister Perceval and his successor, Lord Liverpool, who became Prime Minister in May 1812, had a desire to settle scores with the United States. In the first chapter of his book, Daughan is blunt:

“The Treaty of Paris…hardly reconciled the king or his people to colonial liberty. Bitter about their humiliating defeat, the British watched with satisfaction as the thirteen states floundered without a central government….Many in London expected the American experiment in republican government to fail.”[iii]

The Evening Star in London put things in more colorful terms:

“England shall not be driven from the proud pre-eminence, which the blood and treasure of her sons have attained for her among nations, by a piece of red, white, and blue striped bunting flying at the mastheads of a few fir-built frigates manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws.”[iv]

As we know the feelings were mutual, and it’s difficult to overemphasize the importance of sentiments such as those when discussing the reasons for the War. Yet they usually get little emphasis, if any.

The miscalculations on both sides that contributed to the U.S. declaration of war continued into the armed conflict. For example the British leadership failed to recognize the importance of the U.S. Navy’s early, morale-boosting, tactical victories in the early single-ship actions.

Those stunning single-ship actions were shrugged off at the Admiralty and Whitehall as embarrassing but basically non-determinants in the war, when they were in fact hugely important in sustaining a fighting spirit in the U.S. Navy. And of greater importance, those early naval victories sustained the will of the American political leadership and the public to fight on in the war.

The British were not alone in this pattern of miscalculations. For example the U.S. political leadership constantly misjudged the determination of most Canadians to remain part of the British Empire. A month into the war, then-former-president Jefferson, famously opined: “[T]he acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.”[v]

The serious misjudgments were still evident—not surprisingly at this point—during the peace negotiations that began at Ghent in August 1814. In the early phases of those deliberations, for example Madison doggedly believed that the British were anxious for a negotiated peace. When in truth Prime Minister Liverpool was convinced that with the pressures of Britain’s blockade and expeditionary warfare raids—particularly the presumably devastating psychological impact of the burning of Washington—the United States would not, could not, sustain the war for much longer.

So we see that the War of 1812 was launched and sustained to a significant degree by one false impression after another and a high degree of emotion on both sides. It wasn’t until the connected Battles of Lake Champlain and Plattsburg that the direction of the negotiations at Ghent finally changed. And at that point they changed radically.

With Commodore Macdonough’s victory over a British fleet on Lake Champlain on 11September 1814 and U.S. Brigadier General Alexander Macomb’s accompanying repulse of British General Prevost at Plattsburgh—along with the subsequent withdrawal of Prevost’s army to the north—the strategic nature of the War of 1812 was suddenly altered.

Battle of Lake Champlain (Edward Tufnell, Navy Art Collection NH 51480-KN)

The Battle of Lake Champlain became the main tipping point by stopping a British thrust down Lake Champlain and the Hudson Valley and into the commercial heart of America. Such a campaign, if successful, would in all probability have shattered the United States geographically and ended the nation then and there. The coincidental repulse of the British attack on Baltimore was the exclamation point on the new strategic equation.

Let’s shift focus now to assess the outcome of the war. On the positive side for Britain, the period of relative peace that followed the war allowed Britain to benefit economically from her foreign trade and to firmly establish her de facto dominance of the seas. The latter would prove to be an unchallenged and immeasurable geostrategic benefit to Britain for a century. The end of the war also helped Britain to focus on the Industrial Revolution’s early stages and to quickly become the world’s largest economy. These were obviously important and very positive outcomes of the War of 1812 for Great Britain. It should be noted, however, that notwithstanding those positives, there were many in Britain who felt that their nation had conceded too much at Ghent.

On the positive side for the United States, the dominant position of America in Florida and Louisiana was confirmed and the possibility of a massive buffer Indian nation in the territories that would become Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan was eliminated. And U.S. foreign trade was once again able to contribute to America’s burgeoning economic might.

In addition and arguably most important of all, the United States gained international stature that did not exist before the war. The companion to that new stature was the recognition in the United States that a strong, standing military was an essential component of national security, and both the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy emerged from the War of 1812 as more professional military services.

Many—perhaps most—would agree that at the center of that new American global stature was the U.S. Navy, a force that had established emphatically that it not only would fight against the best, but it also could win decisively at that level. And it could win not only in a tactical context but in a strategic context as well.

Frequently the War of 1812 is referred to as America’s second war of independence, and it was that. It was also the validation of the implausible vision of John Paul Jones who wrote in 1778:

“Our Marine (Navy) will rise as if by enchantment and become, within the memory of persons now living, the wonder and envy of the world.” [vi]

Representative of the new U.S. Navy that was shaped during the War of 1812 was a group of officers referred to as “Preble’s Boys.” They were named for Commodore Edward Preble, who noted the youth of his officers when he was in command of a squadron in the Mediterranean during the Barbary Wars. All his captains were less than 30 years old—some were in their early 20s. After a few months of action in the Mediterranean, however, “Preble’s Boys” established themselves as exceptional warfighters, officers who were forward-leaning if not downright aggressive in their combat doctrines.

Among the “Preble’s Boy’s” who went on to distinguish themselves in the War of 1812 were William Bainbridge, victor in the action between USS Constitution and HMS Java Stephen Decatur, who defeated HMS Macedonian while in command of USS United States Isaac Hull, victor over HMS Guerriere while captain of USS Constitution Thomas Macdonough, victor at the Battle of Lake Champlain David Porter, who, as captain of USS Essex captured HMS Alert, the first British ship captured in the War of 1812 and Charles Stewart, who captured HMS Cyane and HMS Levant in a single extended action.

“Preble’s Boys” were part of the new breed of professionals who bridged the gap between the inward-looking and basically defensive attitudes that followed the American Revolution and the global sea power concepts that came to maturity at the beginning of the twentieth century with President Teddy Roosevelt and Admiral A. T. Mahan. In a book by Allan Westcott titled Mahan on Naval Warfare—Selections from the Writings of Rear Admiral Alfred T. Mahan, the Introduction includes the following:

“[T]he historian of sea power (Mahan) had much to do with the emergence of the United States in 1898 as a world power, with possessions and new interests in distant seas. And no one believed more sincerely than he that this would be good for the United States and the rest of the world.”[vii]

It was “Preble’s Boys,” along with those who fought with them and paid a heavy price in blood, who connected ideas of liberty with the steady progress of globalization that continues up to our own times.

In his book On Seas of Glory, former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman wrote at the beginning of his chapter on the War of 1812:

“Before the War of 1812 the young republic did not have an organized naval service in the truest sense. Gradually, the need to defend the commerce of the fragile new nation against warring European powers, Barbary pashas and pirates created the foundation of the U.S. Navy in fits and starts.”[viii]

At the end of the chapter Lehman’s focus is far reaching:

“The early efforts of Adams, Jones and Barry to establish institutional permanence were now accomplished, complete with a rich store of custom and tradition, borrowed liberally from the British and French navies, but very distinctly American….The new republic now had a formidable instrument to build a global commerce, enforce a Monroe Doctrine, and when the test came, to preserve the Union from rebellion.”[ix]

At the beginning of my remarks, I said there were a lot more than tactical victories and defeats during the War of 1812 and that there were very important gains and losses at the end of the war that had long term implications for both the United States and Great Britain—and in fact for the world.

To that point and in closing, I suggest that what the victories and defeats, mistakes on both sides, and the good and bad luck of the War of 1812 all added up to was a happening that is still playing out. That happening was the emergence of the United States as a global—eventually preeminent—naval power.

Our security and prosperity, as well as that of much of the world, is to a significant extent based on U.S. naval power, a global force that came forth in a brilliant flash of history between 1812 and 1814. It was a marriage of democratic political concepts to sea power. It was a phenomenon that harks back to Themistocles and the triremes of the Athenian empire of the fifth century BC.

The conjunction of American theories of liberty with global sea power in 1814 is, in my opinion, the single most important outcome of the War of 1812. And it was an enormously important—and mostly positive—outcome that has born heavily on world history. We ignore that message from history at great risk.

[i] 1812—The Navy’s War, George C. Daughan (New York, Basic Books, 2011), 356

[ii] Seapower—A Naval History, edited by E.B. Potter and Admiral Chester Nimitz (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1960), 207

[iii] 1812—The Navy’s War, George C. Daughan (New York, Basic Books, 2011), 1, 2

[iv] The Perfect Wreck—“Old Ironsides and HMS Java—A Story of 1812 , Steven Maffeo (Tuscon, Fireship Press LLC, 2011), iii

[v] Perilous Fight—America’s Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815, Stephen Buduansky (New York and Toronto, Alfred A. Knoff, 2010), x

[vi] John Paul Jones: America’s First Sea Warrior, Joseph Callo (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2006), 62

[vii] Mahan on Naval Warfare, Alan Westcott (Mineola, NY, Dover Publications, 1999), xviii, xix

[viii] On Seas of Glory, John Lehman (New York, The Free Press, 2010), 103

Light Frigate USS Essex

Ordered by Congress in 1794, Essex launched just in time for the 1798–1800 Quasi War with France.

Illustration by Tony Bryan, from American Light and Medium Frigates, 1794–1836, by Mark Lardas, Osprey Publishing


Overall length: 141 feet
Beam: 37 feet
Depth of hold: 12 feet 3 inches
Displacement: 850 long tons
Complement: 300 officers and enlisted
Armament in 1799: Twenty-six 12-pounders, ten 6-pounders
Armament in 1801: Twenty-eight 12-pounders, eighteen 32-pound carronades
Armament in 1812: Six 12-pounders, forty 32-pound carronades

Funded by public subscription in Essex County, Mass., laid down in Salem on April 13, 1799, launched on September 30 and commissioned on December 17, USS Essex was one of six frigates the perennially slow-acting Congress had ordered five years earlier. It proved the most successful.

During the 1798–1800 Quasi-War with France, Essex, armed with 32 12-pound long guns and commanded by Capt. Edward Preble, escorted convoys in the Pacific Ocean. On its return the frigate underwent an armament refit, short-range carronades replacing the 12-pounders on the forecastle and quarterdeck. It next sailed in 1801 under Capt. William Bainbridge to fight Tripolitan pirates in the Mediterranean during the First Barbary War. After returning stateside in 1802, Essex returned to the Mediterranean under Capt. James Barron from 1804 to ’06.

While laid up in the Washington Navy Yard through early 1809 Essex underwent a more extensive refit, with 40 carronades and six 12-pounders split between the forecastle and forward gun deck. Though technically more of an outsized sloop of war, it retained its rating as the Navy’s only operational light frigate when war broke out with Britain in June 1812. That same month, with Capt. David Porter at the helm, Essex departed on the first of two voyages during which it would capture the sloop of war HMS Alert and some two dozen British merchant ships. Then, off Valparaiso, Chile, on March 28, 1814, the frigates HMS Phoebe and Cherub captured Essex after a bitter fight that cost the Americans 58 men killed. Essex served the Royal Navy as a troopship and prison ship till auctioned off in 1837. Its ultimate fate is unknown. MH

This article was published in the July 2020 issue of Military History .

Following British occupation in 1814, Maine chose to secede from Massachusetts

From 1647 until the early 1800s, Maine was a province of the state of Massachusetts. But Mainers weren't particularly happy about this arrangement. Mass Humanities reports that Maine's population swelled following the Revolutionary War, and with it swelled calls for statehood. These calls came from both wealthy merchants and poor farmers alike, who believed that the Massachusetts government was unable to fairly represent the interests of the people of Maine.

But it was the War of 1812 that brought the Maine independence movement to a fever pitch. During that war's second year, per Mental Floss, the British navy occupied Eastport, Maine. In a matter of weeks, the entire territory of Maine fell under British occupation. Worst of all: the Massachusetts government did nothing to stop the occupation, with Governor Caleb Strong deciding to withhold military relief from Maine. Even after the war concluded, some parts of Maine were still under British occupation until 1818.

Naturally, per Mass Humanities, Maine was filled with "vigorous campaigning for statehood" in 1815, as any last ties of loyalty to Massachusetts had been torn. And, in 1819, Mainers voted so overwhelmingly for independence that the Massachusetts state government was forced to agree. But Maine's statehood still had to be approved by the federal government — and it was, in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Under that bill, Maine was admitted to the Union as a "free" state, while Missouri was admitted as a "slave" state, which maintained a balance between pro- and anti-slavery territories.

When The Essex Met The Alert

This War of 1812 timeline included the USS Essex vs. HMS Alert (North Atlantic) for August 13, 1812.

. on the 13th of August the Essex fell in with the British sloop of war Alert which engaged her apparently with out perceiving the difference in force. The action lasted only eight minutes. After a few broadsides the Alert surrendered the men deserting their guns in a panic. The sloop had seven feet of water in her hold and three men wounded. The Essex had no injuries or casualties. This was the first capture of a public ship of the enemy made by us during the war.

The capture of the Alert was looked upon by English officers as an accident, a thing of no moment, which was only to precede the extinction of the little American navy.


Your blog is helping us all learn so much about the War of 1812! Thanks for all your diligent work!

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The War of 1812: Writings from America’s Second War of Independence
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Two hundred years ago, on March 28, 1814, the American warship Essex engaged in a climactic life-or-death battle off the shore of Chile—and on board was David G. Farragut, then only twelve years old. Born in Tennessee as James Farragut, he was the son of Revolutionary War veteran and U.S. Navy officer George Farragut. When James was seven years old and living with his family in New Orleans, his mother cared for naval officer David Porter Sr. during his final illness. Shortly after Porter died, James’s mother succumbed to yellow fever and, in gratitude for the Farragut family’s treatment of his father, Captain David Porter Jr. offered to adopt the lad and sponsor his naval career. In December 1810, a mere nine years old, James was appointed as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy. (Midshipmen at the time were usually twelve to eighteen years old.) At some point he changed his first name to that of his adopted father.

During the War of 1812, unable to compete with the superior British Navy, the fledgling American fleet adopted the strategy of raiding and capturing British commercial vessels. Captain Porter was perfectly suited for this type of warfare, having fought against French and Tripoli pirates during the so-called Quasi-War at the end of the eighteenth century. Young Farragut was assigned to the USS Essex, under Porter’s command, and in late 1812 the frigate rounded Cape Horn and became the first American warship to sail in the Pacific. During the following year, Porter and his crew seized a total of twelve British ships, and after one capture, twelve-year-old David was appointed commander of the prize and sailed it back to harbor at Valparaiso. Near this same harbor the Essex finally met its match when the ship lost its topmast and was cornered by two British warships.

Fifty-eight Americans were killed in the resulting slaughter, and dozens were wounded or missing. A well-known passage in Melville’s novel White-Jacket questions the decision of Porter to not surrender once the battle was clearly lost:

As for Farragut, he remained in the Navy until his death in 1870, four years after becoming the first admiral in American history. He is also famous for his victory at the Battle of Mobile Bay, when Union forces under his command captured the Confederacy’s last major port on the Gulf of Mexico. During the battle, he is said to have shouted various commands that have come down through history in shortened form as “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

Notes: A paddy in the cat-harpins is a jack-of-all-trades. (Catharpins are ropes or iron cramps used to brace the shrouds on a ship. See an image here.) During his narrative, Farragut refers to the Essex Junior, which was a British whaler captured the previous year and rechristened by the Americans to assist in their attacks on British vessels.

D uring the action I was like “Paddy in the cat-harpins,” a man on occasions. I performed the duties of Captain’s aid, quarter-gunner, powder-boy, and in fact did everything that was required of me. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.

Guns Off Algiers: Victory and the War of 1812

For the past three years the United States has been commemorating the bicentennial of the War of 1812. It was a war that American popular history tells us the United States won, but historians are less enthusiastic about that claim. Our national memory of the period is so cloudy and confused that this weekend we will repeatedly hear Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” a grand composition written by a Russian to celebrate his country’s victory over Napoleon, and think it was composed to celebrate our conflict with Great Britain and our “second independence.”

The American record in the War of 1812 was a poor one. Former President Thomas Jefferson’s claim that invading and taking Canada would be “a mere matter of marching” turned out not only to be horrific strategic advice, but also quite costly in blood and treasure. The northern theater of the war turned into a stalemate where neither side really made any progress. In the Chesapeake, British sailors and marines raided at will, burning towns and chastising those who might stand against them. The coasts of New England and the southern states remained under tight blockade and American trade collapsed. The economy plummeted. The only export that could be counted on was the grain that was being sold under letters of exception: sold to the British Army to feed Wellington’s troops in Spain. The bright spots of American naval victories by the frigates Constitution and United States early in the war faded quickly when the Royal Navy reinforced its efforts in 1813 and captured the frigates Chesapeake, Essex, and President. Finally, there was the fact that the British took Washington, D.C. and burned the Capitol and the White House. Generally, those aren’t the signs of a successful war.

The British, of course, didn’t do much better. The victory of Oliver Hazard Perry’s squadron on Lake Erie meant that for the first time in history an entire Royal Navy squadron surrendered. Then another was defeated on Lake Champlain. The invasion of New York was turned back at Plattsburgh, and then the final assault on New Orleans became a costly defeat. The attack on Baltimore was rebuffed by a stout defense, something we all know because “the flag was still there.” The British were busy elsewhere and they only allocated the bare minimum force to the conflict in North America. The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo last month reminded us of their real focus.

The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war of 1812, addressed none of the diplomatic issues that Americans said caused the war. It awarded no spoils to either side and made no territorial changes. The problems of impressment and confiscation of American trade with Europe went away, not because of the war in North America but because of Napoleon’s abdication then final defeat. The British simply didn’t need those policies anymore. Diplomatically it was as if the war had simply never happened, which was exactly what the British had been hoping for the whole time.

Despite all these historical facts, however, the War of 1812 was hugely important to the United States of America. Tomorrow marks the 200th anniversary of the first example of why this was the case. On July 3, 1815, the dey of Algiers signed a peace treaty with the United States as a U.S. Navy squadron under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur stood ready to bombard the city and bring war back to the Barbary Coast. If the patterns of our other wars are any indicator, the end of the War of 1812 should have resulted in downsizing and cost savings by the government. Instead two squadrons of naval ships were fitted out to address the fact that Algiers had been attacking American merchant ships while the United States was busy fighting in and around its own territory. As the peace treaty with Great Britain was ratified, the squadrons under Decatur and William Bainbridge raced to be the first to rearm, re-man with veteran crews, resupply, and redeploy for the Mediterranean. Decatur made it there first, taking two Algerian warships captive and sailing to Algiers with his broadsides ready. The dey of Algiers capitulated as quickly as he could, sending a letter to sue for peace only days after the squadron’s arrival.

After the War of 1812, the United States didn’t retrench and cut its Navy back to the defensive gunboat force it had before the war. Instead, it returned to the world stage and even expanded its global presence. Squadrons were dispatched to the seven seas as American merchant ships returned to the trade routes and the global economy. Over the next decades, between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, trade and American interests expanded through previous relationships with Europe and South America but also across the Middle East and the Pacific. The 19th century is commonly viewed as an isolationist and continental period in American history. But new scholarship, like the work Claude Berube has shared here at War on the Rocks, is starting to show that broad generalization to be false.

There is a lot that can be learned from the history of the War of 1812. But as the bicentennial commemorations have come and gone we must remember that, like all wars, there is also much to be learned from its aftermath. As Andrew Lambert has discussed, the years following the war brought with them the birth of a uniquely American culture. And America’s political leaders realized that a capable Navy was just as vital in peacetime as it was during war. Two hundred years ago in the harbor of Algiers, the United States showed that, while it may not have won the War of 1812, it emerged from the war victorious.

BJ Armstrong is a naval officer and PhD Candidate with the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. His second book, 21 st Century Sims: Innovation, Education and Leadership for the Modern Era, was released in February by the Naval Institute Press. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.

It didn't necessarily win the war either. British impressment of American sailors into service to fight France was the major instigation for the war and it was ultimately stopped by the defeat and exile of Napoleon. Blockade of American ports choked trade, which ultimately brought the U.S. to the table to talk peace. And yes, the U.S. attempts to invade Canada to force the British hand failed. The Brits were able to invade Washington, D.C. And burn it, but a storm only allowed them to hold the capital for a day before they retreated and the U.S. reclaimed it. Americans had victories around the Great Lakes and managed to repel attempted British invasions throughout New England and the potential siege in Baltimore. Then, of course, the Americans won at New Orleans, which if the British would've won would've been bad given the already signed peace treaty. In the end, the outcome of the war unified the country in a way even the Revolutionary War hadn't.

This is why this can even be debated and why many historians do view it as ending in a stalemate.

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Watch the video: USS Essex Defeat the Alert (January 2022).