Archive for the 'War of 1812' Category

Mar 23

USS Hornet Captures HMS Penguin, 23 March 1815

Wednesday, March 23, 2011 12:01 AM

Though the United States had ratified the 24 December 1814 Treaty of Ghent on 18 February 1815, thus formally bringing the War of 1812 to an end, this information took a long time to reach ships at sea. Thus, in the late morning of 23 March 1815, when the U.S. sloop-of- war Hornet, under Master Commandant James Biddle, sighted the British brig-sloop Penguin (of similar size and force) off Tristan d’Acunha island in the south Atlantic, neither vessel was aware that their two nations were now at peace.

The two sloops approached each other on roughly parallel courses, Penguin to windward, and opened fire at about 1:40 p.m. They exchanged broadsides (Hornet firing to starboard, Penguin to port) for some fifteen minutes when the British commanding officer was mortally wounded while attempting to run down his adversary. Penguin’s bowsprit then caught in Hornet’s rigging and, as the two separated, broke away, taking with it her foremast. Disabled and very much the worse off from American gunfire, the British warship surrendered shortly after 2 p.m. She was too badly damaged to save, and her crew was sent to Rio de Janeiro in the U.S. schooner Tom Bowline, which arrived on the scene in company with U.S. sloop-of-war Peacock soon after the battle.

Hornet and Peacock remained in the vicinity for about three more weeks, then sailed for the East Indies, still unaware that the war was over. While en route on 27 April they sighted HMS Cornwallis, a 74-gun ship of the line, and mistook her for an East Indiaman. A long chase ensued when they discovered their error. By skillful seamanship, assisted by the British ship’s poor gunnery, the two Americans escaped. However, Hornet had thrown overboard her spare spars, boats, nearly all of her guns and ammunition, and other equipment and supplies to gain speed. She thus was obliged to return to the U.S., arriving at New York on 9 June 1815.

Mar 1

Trusty Son of Neptune: Boatswain’s Mate William Kingsbury

Tuesday, March 1, 2011 12:01 AM

Just as it did for commissioned officers, service on the high seas during the War of 1812 provided opportunities for petty officers to distinguish themselves and thereby earn promotion, as the experiences of sailors in frigate Essex illustrate.

Violent weather in rounding Cape Horn in late February and early March 1813 tested Essex’s crew. By 1 March “the sea had increased to such a height, as to threaten to swallow us at every instant.” Captain David Porter recalled, “the whole ocean was one continued foam of breakers, and the heaviest squall that I ever before experienced, had not equaled in violence the most moderate intervals of this tremendous hurricane.” The storm’s climax came in the wee hours of the morning of the gale’s third day.

About 3 o’clock of the morning of the 3d, the watch only being on deck, an enormous sea broke over the ship, and for an instant destroyed every hope. Our gun-deck ports were burst in; both boats on the quarters stove; our spare spars washed from the chains; our head-rails washed away, and hammock stanchions burst in; and the ship perfectly deluged and water logged, immediately after this tremendous shock.

When the sea broke over the ship, one of the prisoners, taken in a British packet captured by Essex, cried out in a panic that the ship’s side had been stove in and the frigate was sinking. The torrent of water cascading down the hatchways lent credence to this statement and increased the crew’s alarm, especially of those men who had been “washed from the spar to the gun-deck, and from their hammocks.” “This was the only instance,” in which future admiral David Glasgow Farragut, then a midshipman, “ever saw a regular good seaman paralyzed by fear at the dangers of the sea.”

Fortunately for all, several men, including those at the wheel, held fast and maintained their stations, and most of the men below responded promptly to the call for all hands on deck. Boatswain’s Mate William Kingsbury, whom Farragut remembered as the “trusty old son of Neptune” who played the role of Neptune when Essex crossed the line earlier in the cruise, led the men and heartened them, roaring with the voice of a lion, “Damn your eyes, there is one side of her left yet!”

The petty officers who “distinguished themselves by their coolness and activity after the shock” Porter advanced one grade by filling up posts vacated by men sent away in prize ships. Since the boatswain’s post was occupied, Boatswain’s Mate Kingsbury’s recognition had to wait. In May, when Porter converted a captured British whaler into a cruiser rechristened Essex Junior, he appointed Kingsbury its acting boatswain.

Nov 16

OpSail 2012

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 10:09 AM

This 2012, Operation Sail and the US. Navy will once again bring the glory of tall ships to the American seaboard to celebrate the bicentennial of our national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner.

A parade of magnificent tall ships and warships, from over 25 nations, will sail to five historic ports: New Orleans, Norfolk, Boston, Baltimore, and New York City and join America in commemoration of this national milestone.

Operation Sail, (OpSail), a national non-profit organization dedicated to promoting goodwill among nations, and the development of youth through sail training, was conceived in 1961 by Frank Braynard and Nils Hansell. Following the endorsement of President John F. Kennedy, OpSail came to life in 1964 by successfully bringing the remaining tall ships of the world to New York City in conjunction with the 64’ World’s Fair.

Since then, OpSail events have taken place in 1976 for the Bicentennial, 1986 for Lady Liberties 100th, 1992 for the Columbus 500th, and 2000 for the Millennium—and each event has been larger than the last.

Oct 18

Wasp and Frolic: October 18th, 1812

Monday, October 18, 2010 8:38 AM

Image is from the Beverly R. Robinson Collection, United States Naval Academy Museum.

Oct 15

America’s Naval Technological Surprise in the War of 1812

Friday, October 15, 2010 12:13 PM


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.

Sep 13

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry and the Star Spangled Banner, 13-14 September 1814

Monday, September 13, 2010 12:01 AM

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.

Sep 11

Unsung Heroes of the Battle of Lake Champlain

Saturday, September 11, 2010 12:01 AM

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.

Sep 10

The Battle of Lake Erie, 10 September 1813

Friday, September 10, 2010 12:01 AM

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.

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