Archive for the 'War of 1812' Category
The original six frigates of the US Navy were ahead of their time in design. Though ships have changed dramatically, we still hearken to the days of USS CONSTITUTION and her five sister ships before we were a major naval power. It wasn’t possible for our fledgling nation to build a fleet which could surpass the Royal Navy’s ships of the line. So a design was required which could both outfight anything it couldn’t out sail, and out sail anything it couldn’t outfight. A Philadelphia ship designer by the name of Joshua Humphries was hired to design the new ships.
To achieve the required speed and gunnery advantage, several advances were required in the design of the Humphries’ frigates. First, was a problem of carrying a superior number of guns per displacement. When too many guns were loaded, ships’ keels could become overstressed causing a dangerous condition known as “hogging”, where the middle of the keel is slowly bent upward over time. In addition to negatively affecting the sailing characteristics of the ship, this condition could eventually make the ship unusable.
The solution to this problem was installation of pre-stressed diagonal riders rising from the keelson to major deck beams; effectively distributing the load across the entire keel. Further assisting with the distribution of the weight of guns was lock-scarphed planking, which “hooked together” thick planks, providing significant longitudinal strength. Another innovation involved the use of live oak, which was plentiful in the Americas, in the hull. Live Oak is much denser than the White Oak, which was widely used for hull construction at that time. To further enhance hull ruggedness, the gap between framing was reduced to only two inches, compared with two to four times that for other frigates of the day.
The capability of this new class of heavy frigates came as a surprise to the Royal Navy. After the battle of USS CONSTITUTION vs. HMS JAVA, British frigates were prohibited from engaging the American heavy frigates in single combat. Instead they were required to have a numerical advantage before they were allowed to offer combat.
Following the capture of Washington in late August 1814, British expeditionary forces under Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane moved to attack Baltimore. As the third largest American city and home to privateering operations that had netted over 500 British merchantmen, the Maryland port offered a tempting target for a destructive, retaliatory blow. Fort McHenry, a star-shaped masonry fortification guarding the entrance to Baltimore harbor, held the key to the city’s defenses. U.S. naval forces not only helped garrison Fort McHenry but manned shore and floating batteries protecting the water and land approaches to the American bastion.
On 12 September the British landed approximately 5000 soldiers and sailors at North Point, launching a landside attack on Baltimore’s eastern defenses. While the British assault succeeded in rolling back the city’s defenders, it failed to breach the main American lines. It also resulted in the death of Cochrane’s second-in-command, Major General Robert Ross. To aid his stalled land forces, Cochrane ordered a bombardment of Fort McHenry on the morning of the 13th. For twenty-four hours the American garrison withstood the bombs and rockets hurled at them from enemy vessels lying off the fort. The stout Yankee resistance displayed by McHenry’s soldiers and sailors ultimately compelled Cochrane to abandon his attack on Baltimore.
Francis Scott Key, a young D.C. lawyer and amateur poet who witnessed the bombardment from the vantage point of the British fleet, was so inspired by Fort McHenry’s resolute defense that he composed a poem to honor its gallant defenders. This poem, set to the English tune “Anacreon in Heaven,” was soon published in sheet music form as “The Star Spangled Banner.” The Star Spangled Banner gained steady popularity as a patriotic tune in the nineteenth century. It became our nation’s national anthem on 3 March 1931.
On 11 September 1814, the U.S. Navy squadron on Lake Champlain won the most decisive naval engagement of the War of 1812. The U.S. squadron completely defeated its British counterpart and denied the English naval mastery of Lake Champlain. The failure of the British squadron to gain naval supremacy, in turn, forced the commander of an eight-thousand-strong British invasion force to break off a land assault in mid-battle and withdraw his army to Canada.
Credit for this victory rightly belongs to Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough, USN, as it was secured because of his strategic placement of the ships under his command, his prudent preparation and wise execution, and the example he set of courageous perseverance during one of the deadliest naval battles of the entire war. But credit also belongs to the sailors who stood to their guns alongside their commander on that fateful and bloody day, and particularly to Sailing Master Philip Brum, whose practical skills solved a baffling tactical problem at a crucial moment in the battle.
Macdonough realized that the strategic situation gave him the opportunity to maximize the U.S. squadron’s tactical advantages. The British squadron commander would be obliged to attack in order to prevent the U.S. squadron from supporting the U.S. land troops when the British army launched its assault. Macdonough, on the other hand, was under no necessity of sailing out to engage the British squadron on the lake, where the British preponderance of long guns would tip the odds in their favor. Macdonough therefore decided to fight at anchor. He placed his ships in a defensive formation far enough from the town of Plattsburgh to prevent British ships from supporting the British land assault. The position was also close enough to Cumberland Head, which forms the eastern shore of Plattsburgh Bay, to force the British squadron to fight within range of carronades. A battle fought at short range favored American victory, since in short guns the U.S. squadron heavily outgunned the British.
Macdonough took another precaution, a precaution that won the battle for him. He had each of his four anchored vessels equipped with springs, or hawsers, attached to their anchors in such a way as to allow the vessel to be turned 180 degrees and bring a fresh broadside battery against the enemy. Bights, or loops of rope, held the springs under water, protected from gunshot damage.
At 3:30 AM on 11 September, the winds having shifted, the British naval commander, Captain George Downie, RN, weighed anchor. Downie’s intent was to concentrate the squadron’s fire on Saratoga, for if the Americans’ principal ship were disabled, the smaller warships could not withstand Confiance’s gunfire.
Inconstant and shifting winds and heavy damage received in approaching the American line, including the loss of both of Confiance’s bow anchors, frustrated Downie’s plan. Unable to reach the head of the American line without taking unacceptable losses, Downie ordered Confiance to drop anchor when it came opposite Saratoga.
Confiance’s first broadside, from sixteen 24s, double shotted, carefully aimed, and deliberately fired, had devastating effect, killing and wounding forty of Saratoga’s crew. The two flagships settled down to a slugfest and the carnage on both ships was horrific. About fifteen minutes after Confiance opened fire, a shot from Saratoga knocked one of Confiance’s guns off its carriage and into Downie’s groin, killing him. Macdonough was knocked unconscious twice, but came to and resumed command each time. One by one, the guns on both ships were disabled. The last gun in action on board Saratoga broke off its carriage and fell down a hatch. On board Confiance, the four guns that had not been disabled were too encumbered with wreckage to be worked.
Now Macdonough ordered Saratoga to be winded round. Before the turn was sufficiently completed, the ship could be brought no further round, as it was end on to the wind. At this critical moment, Sailing Master Brum thought of the port kedge anchor cable, which ran forward, then under the bow, and then to an anchor stationed to the starboard of the ship. Brum realized that by transferring the cable to the starboard quarter the crew would be able to heave the ship into firing position. This maneuver quickly executed brought the fresh port battery into play. Lacking Saratoga’s carefully planned anchor placement, Confiance was unable to respond in kind. Confiance hung up when under Saratoga’s raking fire. Sinking, water above the gun-deck, the wounded in danger of drowning, and the crew refusing to stand to quarters, Confiance struck its colors. After two hours and twenty minutes of slaughter, the battle was over.
Without naval mastery of Lake Champlain a British victory on land would not have any permanence. The British general was unwilling to sacrifice men for the glory of a meaningless victory. During the night of 11-12 September, therefore, the invaders’ army withdrew and started back to Canada.
The Battle of Lake Erie was a pivotal naval engagement between British and American forces during the War of 1812. At the beginning of the War of 1812, the United States sent Oliver Hazard Perry to command the American forces on Lake Erie.
When he arrived in Presque Isle (modern-day Erie, Pennsylvania), Perry commissioned several carpenters to build a fleet of ships. Within a year, he had nine ships. However, only two, the Lawrence and the Niagara, were fit for battle. Perry had also assembled a force of about five hundred men to serve under him, and after several months of drilling, they were a capable naval unit.
In September 1813, Perry set sail for Put-In Bay to meet the British fleet, which was under the command of Robert Heriot Barclay. Like the Americans, the English had begun constructing a fleet at the war’s beginning to secure control of Lake Erie. The British were anticipating an easy victory over Perry’s force. On September 10, 1813, the Battle of Lake Erie too!
The Americans had nine ships, while the British had six. Early in the battle, the British were taking a heavy toll on the American ships, principally because the British cannons were much more accurate at long distances. When the British destroyed the Lawrence, Perry took the ship’s flag and transferred to the Niagara. After Perry moved to the Niagara, the battle began to turn for the Americans.
Before Perry’s arrival on the Niagara, this ship had hardly engaged the British fleet. Now, the Niagara and Perry inflicted heavy cannon fire on the British ships. The commander of every British ship was killed or wounded, leaving the British ships under the command of junior officers with limited experience. Perry took advantage of this situation. The Niagara rammed the British lead ship while the sailors fired rifles at the British seamen.
By nightfall, the British had lowered their flag and surrendered to Perry, who was only twenty-seven years old. Perry sent a dispatch to General William Henry Harrison, recounting the details of the battle. In the dispatch, he wrote, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.” The American victory at the Battle of Lake Erie cut off the British supply lines and forced them to abandon Detroit. It also paved the way for General Harrison’s attack on the British and Indian forces at the Battle of the Thames.
Psychological and economic warfare, with the intention of deflecting American forces from the northern theater, rather than a desire to occupy territory, dominated British strategy in the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812.
The Madison administration’s decision not to harness a force strong enough to repel British raids of coastal settlements left the bay vulnerable to repeated attacks. The inability of Secretary of War John Armstrong to plan for the defense of Washington prompted the British to risk an inland march to torch the American seat of power.
A British invasion force landed at Benedict, Maryland, a port on the Patuxent River, on 19 August 1814, resulting in a chaotic scene. Secretary of the Navy William Jones directed the men in the Chesapeake Bay flotilla squadron under Commodore Joshua Barney’s command to join forces with a contingent of Marines to assist the regular army and militia forces. While the naval forces fought bravely at the Battle of Bladensburg on 24 August, the battle-tested British troops easily overran the American position, leaving the American capital vulnerable to attack, as most of the defenders scattered.
Commodore Thomas Tingey, commandant of the Washington Navy Yard since its founding in 1799, had anticipated that the enemy’s forces would target the shipping there. Fearful that valuable naval stores would fall into British hands, Secretary Jones ordered Tingey to torch the Yard. After setting fire to most of the public buildings in the capital, the British entered the Yard on the 25th and burned much of what remained there. After a scant twenty-four-hour occupation, the British left the humbled city. The Navy Yard alone had suffered half a million dollars in losses.
No significant benefit accrued to the enemy beyond humiliating the Americans, as three weeks later British forces failed in their assault on Baltimore.
On August 12, the NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB), and its partners MD SHA and MHT, successfully completed the first phase of their three-year archaeological investigation of the Patuxent shipwreck believed to be the War of 1812 U.S. block sloop SCORPION. Firstly, a big thank you to our on-site visitors who made the trip out to Upper Marlboro, MD. It was great to see you and we really appreciate your support! We were also glad to welcome members of the press on site to inform them about the SCORPION project, our partnerships and the NHHC and were pleased to see the story covered in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and The Capital (Annapolis).
During the first part of the two-week project, UAB’s team of underwater archaeologists, in cooperation with MD SHA and MHT, measured the site and extent of the wreck beneath the sediment via a process called “hydroprobing.” Based on the data from the hydroprobe, the team was then able to determine which parts of the wreck most warranted investigation. Archaeologists then removed the overburden (overlying sediment) from specific parts of the wreck using dredge systems; the sediment pulled from the wreck was suctioned up the dredge onto the barges where it was screened by capable staff. Some artifacts were also recovered and brought back to the UAB Conservation and Archaeology Lab for stabilization, treatment and documentation.
Again, the UA team is very grateful to MD SHA and MHT as well as URS and SUPSALV. With their help and cooperation, significant progress was made during Phase 1 and we look forward to working with them again on the next phase of the SCORPION project in summer 2011. We’re always glad to talk about the SCORPION project and answer any questions, so feel free to stop by our offices or send us an email (NHHCUnderwaterArchaeology@navy.mil) and stay tuned for more posts!
On July 19, the NHHC Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) along with partners from the Maryland State Historical Trust and the Maryland State Highways Administration, initiated the first phase of a three-year archeological investigation of the shipwreck site believed to be USS SCORPION. SCORPION was the flagship of Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, which he ordered to be scuttled and burned in the Patuxent River to prevent its capture by the British during the War of 1812. The UAB team, led by Dr. Robert Neyland, in collaboration with SUPSALV, will spend two weeks in the field to complete a survey, limited excavation, and documentation of the site. UAB’s underwater archaeologists will carefully dredge overburden to reveal the structure of the ship, and then map the site and any artifacts uncovered in the process. Artifacts recovered will be catalogued and transported to the UAB Archaeology & Conservation Laboratory for stabilization and treatment.
Stay tuned for more project updates next week!