Last month (June 18) marked the 200th anniversary of the start of the War of 1812. In this “second round” of the Revolutionary War, a weak, aggrieved yet ornery United States confronted its former colonial master, the eminently powerful but also riled Great Britain.
The diplomatic vocabularies of several current international conflicts echo, albeit distantly, 1812’s route to war. Economic sanctions and (backfiring) embargoes aggravated U.S.-British relations. Britain’s apparent lack of respect for U.S. sovereignty angered Americans. The forced “impressment” of U.S. sailors into Royal Navy service, usually backed by the threatened broadside of a RN warship, was a Yankee cause celebre.
The British, however, had legitimate gripes. The U.S., asserting neutrality, sought trade with Britain’s most bitter enemy, Napoleon. The British argued that American goods strengthened the Scourge of Europe. Oh-so-self-righteous Yankee ship owners must cease supplying Bonaparte’s France. The British also suspected the U.S. coveted Canadian territory — with good reason.
In 1812, Great Britain presented U.S. war planners with a very challenging strategic problem, one with contemporary irony given America’s 21st century military might: How do you wage successful war against a global superpower?
Two numbers illustrate America’s quandary. The RN began the war with around 500 warships. The U.S. Navy had 14, though when the war began not all were crewed and seaworthy. Shipping and trade were critical issues to both belligerents, and RN lions ruled the high seas. In comparison, the USN was a poorly funded mouse.
However, as Kevin McCranie demonstrates in his new book, “Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies in the War of 1812” (Naval Institute Press), the tiny USN was a talented, courageous, well-led and therefore dangerous mouse.
McCranie, who is a professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College, addresses the oceanic (blue water) war. McCranie covers the war’s great sea battles, including those of the most famous American vessel, the USS Constitution, Old Ironsides.
McCranie, a specialist in naval conflict in the age of sail, provides colorful descriptions of several engagements. His detailed explanations of sailing tactics, assessments of command decisions and astute use of direct quotations from battle participants add new material to the battle narratives without detracting from the drama. His handling of the Constitution’s near capture (July 16-19, 1812) is a good example.
Off the coast of New Jersey, USS Constitution encountered unidentified ships. Unfortunately, the big American frigate had met a RN battle squadron. The chase was on. Then the wind flagged. Fast British cats closed on the agile American mouse. The Constitution finally escaped by “warping,” rowing a boat with an anchor ahead of the ship, dropping the anchor to the sea bed, then dragging the ship forward by winding up the anchor chain.
The British commander, Philip Broke, later stated, with evident respect, that the Constitution “escaped by very superior sailing, tho’ the Frigates under my Orders are remarkably fast ships.”
McCranie always returns to strategic issues, however, which makes this book particularly valuable. With finances squeezed, Congress had kept the USN small. However, the Constitution and her two sister ships were fast super-frigates, larger than standard RN frigates, something akin to an early World War II German commerce-raiding pocket battleship compared to a British cruiser.
Donald Rumsfeld got scorched for saying it, but you do fight the war with the army, and navy, you have. America’s naval leadership “embraced active operations, far from American waters, targeting British trade.” The tiny USN would not be confined to the U.S. coast. It would fight a trans-Atlantic Ocean war, sinking British merchant ships and stretching British resources strained by Napoleon, with the aim of forcing Britain to negotiate with America. By the end of the war, the USN even sent a two-ship squadron to the Indian Ocean, a small but definitely global deployment.
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