The Navy's War


By George C. Daughan

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At the outbreak of the War of 1812, America’s prospects looked dismal. It was clear that the primary battlefield would be the open ocean — but America’s war fleet, only twenty ships strong, faced a practiced British navy of more than a thousand men-of-war. Still, through a combination of nautical deftness and sheer bravado, the American navy managed to take the fight to the British and turn the tide of the war: on the Great Lakes, in the Atlantic, and even in the eastern Pacific.

In 1812: The Navy’s War, prizewinning historian George C. Daughan tells the thrilling story of how a handful of heroic captains and their stalwart crews overcame spectacular odds to lead the country to victory against the world’s greatest imperial power. A stunning contribution to military and national history, 1812: The Navy’s War is the first complete account in more than a century of how the U.S. Navy rescued the fledgling nation and secured America’s future.


Praise for 1812: THE NAVY'S WAR:

"Frequently [the War of 1812] is seen as a sequence of freestanding, intensely dramatic events rather than as the tightly intertwined series of battles, military campaigns, diplomacy, and domestic politics that it was. But if a compulsion to concentrate excessively on the more spectacular bits and pieces of the conflict has been an endemic problem among academics and writers, this volume is an antidote. Daughan not only thoroughly illuminates the emotion triggering events of the conflict; he also adds the background that connects the highlights."
The Weekly Standard
"[Daughan] deftly situates the naval story within the broader contours of the war, exploring diplomacy, the dustup over impressment, the Napoleonic wars, and the ill-fated Canadian campaigns. Much of the book's originality lies in its conclusion. Historians have long recognized the overmatched Navy's exploits against the British colossus—a David-versus-Goliath contest—but they have tended to denigrate its strategic importance. Daughan argues that the naval captains' bravery helped bring about a decisive change in European attitudes toward the United States."
American Heritage
"Daughan does a terrific job of explaining [the war's] origins. . . . With painstaking attention to detail and the ability to make complex naval confrontations understandable, even gripping, Daughan pursues the war north to the St. Lawrence River, east to the British coast where American privateers harassed British shipping, and south to New Orleans."
Providence Journal
"This gripping history details how a 20-ship American Navy upset the goals of Imperial Britain, which commanded the seas with a fleet of more than a thousand men-of-war."
Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
"Daughan . . . comes into his own in describing the battles that took place on water. His accounts of the single-ship duels in which the Americans prevailed . . . are especially exciting."
—Gordon S. Wood, New York Review of Books
"Every American should read George C. Daughan's riveting 1812: The Navy's War. Daughan masterfully breaks down complicated naval battles to tell how the U.S. thwarted the British armada on the Great Lakes and the high seas. Highly recommended!"
—Douglas Brinkley, Professor of History, Rice University
"1812: The Navy's War is a sparkling effort. It tells more than the naval history of the war, for there is much in it about the politics and diplomacy of the war years. The stories of ship-to-ship battles and of the officers and men who sailed and fought form the wonderful heart of the book. These accounts are told in a handsome prose that conveys the strategy, high feeling, and courage of both British and Americans. In every way this is a marvelous book."
—Robert Middlekauff, author of The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution, 1763–1789
"At last, a history of the War of 1812 that Americans can read without wincing. By focusing on our small but incredibly courageous Navy, George Daughan has told a story of victories against awful odds that makes for a memorable book."
—Thomas Fleming, author of Liberty!: The American Revolution
"In this vitally important and extraordinarily well-researched work, award-winning historian George Daughan demonstrates the often overlooked impact of the twenty ship U.S. Navy's performance against the 1,000 ship British Navy in the War of 1812. Daughan makes a compelling case that the Navy's performance in the war forced Europe to take the U.S. more seriously, initiated a fundamental change in the British-American relationship, and enabled us to maintain a robust Navy even in peacetime."
—Lawrence Korb, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of Defense
"The War of 1812 was a difficult test for the United States, still wobbly on the world stage nearly two decades after formal independence. That Americans received a passing grade was due in no small part to the exceptional performance of the U.S. Navy, which humiliated the legendary British Navy time and time again. With verve and deep research, George Daughan has brought those gripping naval battles back to life. For military historians and general historians alike, 1812: The Navy's War restores an important missing chapter to our national narrative."
—Edward L. Widmer, author of Ark of the Liberties: America and the World
"The War of 1812 was America's first great naval war and George Daughan tells the story, from the coast of Brazil to the Great Lakes, from election campaigns to grand strategy to ship-to-ship combat. Sweeping, exciting, and detailed."
Richard Brookhiser, author of James Madison
"Daughan again has penned a contributory history that is at once enjoyable to read and informative in its disclosures. . . . With considerable skill, the author has interwoven the political strife with the naval actions to form a coherent and well-written story of that important transitional time in American history."
Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
"[A] deep and detailed page-turner of a book. With crystal clear maps and unadorned prose, [Daughan] gives new life to the personalities, strategies, and desperate struggles of the consequential, yet ultimately unproductive War of 1812. . . . Daughan narrates the story of the all-important naval war with a palpable sense of expectancy on nearly every page—with the clock ticking and the battle at hand."
The Advocate (Baton Rouge)
"Daughan has made a great story even better."
Proceedings, Notable Naval Books of 2011
"A solidly researched, well-crafted account of U.S. sea power in the War of 1812. . . . Daughan's achievement is contextualizing the effect of [the Navy's] victories. . . . What kept the peace, Daughan argues provocatively, was America's post-war commitment to 'a strong navy, an adequate professional army, and the financial reforms necessary to support them'—in other words, an effective deterrent."
Publishers Weekly
"[A] fine new account of the somewhat neglected War of 1812. . . . The book provides a crisp treatment of the naval war on the high seas, the Great Lakes, and the all-important Lake Champlain, with meticulous attention to the ships, their captains and crews, and their armaments and sailing qualities. . . . An excellent military history."
Michigan War Studies Review
"A naval expert's readable take on the U.S. Navy's surprising performance in the war that finally reconciled the British to America's independence. . . . A smart salute to a defining moment in the history of the U.S. Navy."
Kirkus Reviews
"[1812] should become a standard text for the serious history student. . . . But why, one may ask, is this war . . . a fit subject for present-day discussion? Because, as the author strongly emphasizes, it not only upheld our rights to freedom of the seas, but served notice to European and other monarchies that the American flag was to be respected, even feared. . . . This book will do well to remind us, in times of danger and uncertainty, of how welcome a bulwark is a powerful navy."
Roanoke Times
"A compelling sequel to his award-winning If By Sea. . . . Daughan offers a rousing retelling of the war, strongly recommended for general readers, high school students, and lower classmen."
Library Journal
"Daughan unravels the story of a nation that, without allies, sundered by partisan politics and sporting a military establishment that barely qualified as third-rate, managed to hold its own against the greatest power of the day. . . . [A] finely researched volume. . . . Complementing the well-written and exciting narratives of naval action are concise analyses of the Americans' abortive land campaigns along the Canadian border . . . , the burning of Washington and the final redemption of the U.S. military at New Orleans. . . . Readers are unlikely to find a more engaging or stirring recounting of the conflict and its place in the rebirth of the U.S. Navy."
Military History
"Today's historians privilege analysis, but the roots of history lie in stories. George Daughan is proudly old-school, and 1812: The Navy's War tells a rousing story of a war that transformed Anglo-American hostility into an amicable 'special relationship.' . . . Daughan makes us see and hear the wooden ships slicing the water, topgallants set to wrest every bit of speed from the breeze."
"This volume belongs among the best of those published to mark the bicentennial of the war because it so expertly delineates the role naval operations played in determining the war's outcome. Highly recommended."
"The fledgling U.S. Navy had advantages that would surprise, infuriate, and ultimately impress the British, as renowned naval military historian George C. Daughan wonderfully illustrates in his new work, 1812: The Navy's War. . . . Daughan's love of the sea and naval history is infectious. The book's glossary helps readers understand nautical terms, but the detail and clarity of his writing allow readers to get the gist of the action without having to understand all the nuances of sailing ships."
American Spirit
"This is a splendid history. While documenting the courage, skill, and luck of the tiny American Navy, Professor Daughan describes the machinations of the then principle players on a world stage in vastly greater breadth and detail than is usually thought about or studied in the United States."
Naval History Book Reviews
"[An] excellent naval history of America's most misunderstood war. . . . Daughan uses his considerable research and writing skills to present a vivid and exciting history of how a few stout warships, bold captains, and brave crews were the nation's primary offense and defense facing the world's largest navy, and a powerful and arrogant Great Britain that wanted to destroy its only maritime rival and reestablish British dominance in North America."
Kennebec Journal
"Thrilling. . . . A tiny team of battle-tested American commanders, seamen, and privateers took on the greatest naval power of the day, and won time and again epic sea battles that still stir the imagination. This is a book not to be missed!"
Sea Classics

For Mary, Mark, Alex, Tyler, and Kay with love

"If our first struggle was that of our infancy, this last was that of our youth; and the issue of both, wisely improved, may long postpone if not forever prevent a necessity for exerting the strength of our manhood."

1. Flying jib
2. Jib
3. Fore topmast staysail
4. Fore staysail
5. Foresail, or course
6. Fore topsail
7. Fore topgallant
8. Mainstaysail
9. Maintopmast staysail
10. Middle staysail
11. Main topgallant staysail
12. Mainsail, or course
13. Maintopsail
14. Main topgallant
15. Mizzen staysail
16. Mizzen topmast staysail
17. Mizzen topgallant staysail
18. Mizzen sail
19. Mizzen topsail
20. Mizzen topgallant
21. Spanker

"SAIL HO!" CRIED a lookout from the main masthead of the USS President. It was six o'clock in the morning on June 23, 1812, and the 44-gun heavy frigate was sailing in latitude 39°26' north, and longitude 71°10' west, one hundred miles southwest of Nantucket Shoals. Commodore John Rodgers stepped quickly on deck and took a well-used bronze telescope from a binnacle drawer. The sails of a large ship came immediately into view. Before long it was plain the stranger was a frigate sailing alone. Rodgers could hardly believe his good luck. She could only be British, probably out of Halifax or Bermuda, and she was standing toward him.
At nearly the same moment, the officer of the watch aboard His Majesty's 36-gun frigate Belvidera informed Captain Richard Byron that a lookout had caught sight of the upper sails of five ships in the southwest. Byron had orders from Admiral Sawyer, commander of the British North American Station at Halifax, to intercept the French privateer Marengo, expected to sortie from New London, Connecticut. He was not expecting to run into an American squadron, much less a hostile one, for the news had not yet reached him that the United States had declared war on June 18. There had been rumors and speculation in Halifax before he left, certainly, but nothing more. The British government, worried about Napoleon's growing strength in Europe, was determined to avoid a conflict. The Admiralty had directed commanders in American waters to "take special care" to avoid clashes with the U. S. Navy and to exercise "all possible forbearance towards the citizens of the United States."
Uncertain whether the five sails were British or American, Byron stood toward them. When he was within six miles, he made the private signal but received no reply. Instead, Commodore Rodgers hoisted flags ordering a general chase. He was leading a powerful squadron comprised of nearly all of the navy's serviceable warships. This included his own 44-gun President; the 44-gun United States, under Captain Stephen Decatur, the navy's most famous officer; the 36-gun Congress, under Captain John Smith; the 18-gun sloop of war Hornet, under Master Commandant James Lawrence; and the 16-gun brig Argus, under Master Commandant Arthur Sinclair. The President, being the fastest ship, took the lead close-hauled on the larboard tack, while Decatur trailed behind in the slower United States.
Seeing how aggressively the Americans (their identity no longer in doubt) were approaching, and how outnumbered he was, Byron tacked from his pursuers and made all sail to the northeast with the wind on his larboard beam. At 8:30 he edged away a point and set topgallant studding sails. The slower ships in the American squadron lagged behind, but the President gradually drew closer to the Belvidera, and at eleven o'clock Rodgers ordered the ship cleared for action.
A marine drummer beat the familiar call to quarters, as the crew raced to battle stations alow and aloft. By now the breeze had hauled around to the westward and was lighter. Rodgers positioned himself at the starboard bow chaser on the forecastle with two midshipmen acting as messengers.
Despite his very best efforts, Byron was unable to get away. The President kept creeping closer. At 11:30—still confused as to what was happening—Byron hoisted British colors in answer to the President and her lagging companions, which were already flying American standards.
At 4:20—more than eight hours after first sighting her—the President at last pulled to within gunshot range of the Belvidera. The wind was from the west-southwest and diminishing. Still unclear as to the intentions of the nearest ship, and seeing the odds stacked mightily against him, Byron did not want to initiate a fight. But his only chance of escaping was to shoot first and smash enough of the President's spars and rigging to slow her down. He decided to run out his stern guns—two thirty-two-pound carronades and two eighteen-pound long guns—and be ready for anything. Not wanting to shoot accidentally, however, he ordered his lieutenants to have the gunners prick the cartridges but not prime the guns. He would wait and see what the Americans intended to do.
Byron did not have to wait long. Rodgers pulled to within point-blank range—less than half a mile—on the Belvidera's weather quarter and, seeing Byron's stern guns out and taking aim, fired two starboard bow chasers, one from the main deck and the other above it on the forecastle, where Rodgers was standing. He aimed and fired the gun on the forecastle himself, directing it at the Belvidera's rigging. It was the first shot of the war. In no time, three balls from the well-trained American gun crews had hit their mark and did considerable damage. One of them struck the Belvidera's rudder coat and careened into the gunroom. Another smashed the muzzle of a larboard chase gun.
Byron was from an old navy family known for its bad luck, and fortune seemed once more to have deserted them. With the rest of the American squadron straining to get closer, and the President's deadly bow chasers firing in convincing fashion, his chances of escaping appeared dim.
This unprovoked attack could only be explained by the Americans having declared war, Byron decided, and so he ordered his four stern guns to return fire, which they did with considerable effect.
The two ships now blasted away at each other for several minutes. Suddenly, the chase gun on the President's main deck (underneath where Rodgers was standing) exploded, hurling the commodore high enough into the air that his leg cracked as he landed. The bursting gun, in turn, ignited the passing box that served it with powder, causing an explosion that shattered the main and forecastle decks around it. Midshipman John Taylor was killed and thirteen others wounded, including the gun captain and a nineteen-year-old midshipman named Matthew Calbraith Perry, who had been standing next to Rodgers.
With the other starboard chase gun on the President's forecastle put out of commission for a time, Byron won a temporary reprieve. Halifax was to leeward, and if Byron lightened his load enough, the Belvidera had a slim chance of escaping. But Rodgers was not about to let this prize slip away, and he refused to go below to have his leg treated. Ignoring the excruciating pain, he continued to direct the battle from the quarterdeck.
The President's starboard chase guns might be useless, but her main deck guns were ready to fire with single shots, and so Rodgers decided to end the whole business with dispatch. Ordering the helm put to starboard, he fired a full broadside aimed at Byron's spars and rigging to slow her down. Some of these balls damaged the Belvidera, but not appreciably. And the time consumed by turning to fire a broadside only allowed Byron to increase his lead.
The erratic wind was so light now that all the ships were moving in slow motion. Byron continued to pull away, however, even as he continued firing his stern guns. Rodgers countered "by altering [his] course a half point to port and wetting [his] sails to gain a more effective position" on Byron's starboard quarter, but all he managed to do was lose more ground. A similar attempt to position the President on Byron's larboard quarter brought no better result, so Rodgers simply steered directly for the Belvidera and blazed away with his serviceable bow chasers, aiming at her spars and rigging, trying to get close enough to turn and fire a conclusive broadside.
Watching the President yaw and launch broadsides puzzled Byron. Rodgers had the faster ship; he had no reason to lose ground by yawing, when he could have run up to the Belvidera, blazed away with his heavy guns, and forced a surrender. "I acknowledge I was much surprised at [the President's] yawing repeatedly and giving starboard and larboard broadsides," Byron would later write, "when it was fully in his power to have run up alongside the Belvidera."
At five o'clock—with the Belvidera's stern guns continuing to tear at the President's sails and rigging—Rodgers finally pulled to within point-blank range. But once again, instead of running up alongside his prey, he attempted to end the fight by ordering the helm put to starboard. The President turned and let loose yet another broadside from the main deck guns, which did more harm but did not appreciably slow the Belvidera down.
Byron's fore topsail yard was shot through, causing him some difficulty, but the wind was light and the sea smooth, and he lost little ground. Rodgers continued the chase, while Byron's stern guns kept up their deadly fire until 6:30, when Rodgers, in view of the damage done to his spars, rigging, and main yard, by now hanging by the lifts and braces alone, gave the order to luff across Belvidera's stern and fire two more broadsides. Again they were ineffective.
At one point, noticing something odd in the movement of the President's head sails, Byron thought perhaps she had lost control of her helm, and he suddenly yawed to fire a broadside. When he saw Rodgers's fast reaction, however, he quickly reversed himself and resumed his flight. To increase speed he threw overboard several boats (a barge, yawl, gig, and jolly boat); a number of anchors (one bower, one stream anchor, and two sheet anchors); and fourteen tons of water. Gradually the Belvidera crept away from her pursuers, who were weighed down with the heavy provisions required for an extended cruise.
By 6:45 Byron was out of range of the President's bow chasers, and with a heavy heart Rodgers recognized that, in spite of his having superior power and speed, he had lost the chase. "I now perceive with more mortification than words can express," he wrote in his journal, "that there was little or no chance left of getting within gunshot of the enemy again." Nonetheless, he vainly continued the chase with all the sail he could muster until 11:30, by which time the Belvidera was miles ahead, and Rodgers gave up, signaling the rest of the squadron to do likewise.
The President had three men killed and nineteen wounded, sixteen of them from the bursting of the chase gun. The Belvidera had two killed and twenty-two wounded.
Decatur was unhappy. Watching the Belvidera's sails disappear over the horizon was painful. Had the chase been conducted properly, he believed, she surely would have surrendered. "We have lost the Belvidera; [she] . . . ought to have been ours," he wrote to his fiscal agent, Littleton Tazewell.
Figure Intro.1: Escape of the Belvidera, June 23, 1812 (courtesy of U.S. Naval Academy Museum).
The Belvidera sailed on to Halifax, capturing three surprised American merchantmen along the way, none of whose captains had any idea war had been declared—the Fortune, out of Newburyport, Massachusetts; the Malcolm, from Portland, Maine; and the Pickering, of Gloucester, Massachusetts. When Byron dropped anchor in Halifax Harbor on June 27, however, Admiral Sawyer unexpectedly released the three prizes. He had yet to be officially notified that war had broken out, and so far as he was concerned, his orders were to placate the Americans. The Times of London later declared that Sawyer had acted "in furtherance of that spirit of amity and conciliation so repeatedly displayed" by the British government. This characterization of His Majesty's policies toward America would have brought a sardonic grin to President Madison's face, for they had, from his point of view, been just the opposite.
The clash between the President and the Belvidera was the opening battle in what Americans came to view as their second war of independence. Like all wars, once begun it took on a life of its own, lasting far longer than expected, producing one unpleasant surprise after another, stirring the most hateful passions, precipitating heinous crimes, and sacrificing enough young fighters on land and at sea to touch the hardest heart.

Road to War
FOR PRESIDENT MADISON there was a certain inevitability about the War of 1812. Ever since his initiation into national politics during the latter stages of the Revolutionary War, he had found British policies toward their former colonies to be marked—except for brief periods—by enmity and condescension.


On Sale
Oct 4, 2011
Page Count
528 pages
Basic Books

George C. Daughan

About the Author

George C. Daughan holds a Ph.D. in American History and Government from Harvard University. Author of If By Sea and 1812: The Navy’s War, Daughan lives in Portland, Maine.

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