At the start of the War of 1812 the young US Navy won a series of dramatic two ship actions, in which their 'super frigates' overwhelmed their British opponents. The US frigates carried more guns than their British opponent, and those guns were heavier. As designed the standard US frigate had a broadside of 528lb, compared to 342lb for most European frigates. The American ships were normally better build and better manned as well, so these naval victories perhaps shouldn't have come as as much of a surprise as they did. The victories won by USS Constitution andUSS United States came as a great boost to American morale after early defeats on land, and came as a great shock to a British public reared on tales of Nelson's great victories.
The period of American victories ended rather dramatically on 1 June 1813 when the British frigate HMS Shannon defeated the USS Chesapeake in a battle close to the US east coast. On the same day another British force chased two US frigates into port, where they remained for the rest of the war. The captain of the Shannon, Philip Brooke, survived to become a national hero. His opponent, Captain James Lawrence, was mortally wounded early the battle. His last words, reportedly 'Don't Give Up the Ship', became famous and almost the motto of the US Navy (despite the fact that his crew almost immediately did give up the ship).
This was quite a short battle, so the papers presented here cover a wide range of related topics. We start with three articles looking at the causes and impact of the war in Britain, the United States and Canada. The authors are almost all critical of the American political leadership of the period for leading the United States into an entirely party political war, then for running it so very badly.
The articles on the wider topic of the War of 1812 make some interesting points on its long term impact. In Britain it was largely ignored, overshadowed by the greater drama of the defeat of Napoleon, and in particular the Battle of Waterloo. In the United States it helped break the remaining links with the mother country, but also nearly bankrupted the country. In Canada it helped create a national identity in an area that had previously been very divided.
The articles on the background to the battle look at the Prize Laws and the blockade, the failure of US captains to carry out their main role (disrupting British commerce), Broke's early career and life and his theories on gunnery. This last section reveals something of a theme with the Royal Navy in the Nineteenth Century - Broke was a rare example of a commander who was interested in accurate gunnery and gunnery practise, in a navy that could often drift into complacency.
The battle itself stands out as almost a formal duel. On the day before the battle Broke actually sent a note into port challenging Lawrence to a fight. Lawrence never got this letter, but his decision to come out on 1 June can only have been carried out with something similar in mind. The battle itself was short, at only 11 minutes, but also very brutal. The Shannonlost 34 dead and 49 injured, a higher proportion of losses than on all but two of the British ships at Trafalgar. The examination of the battle is excellent, looking at the reasons for the very quick British victory against a well manned and equally powerful opponent.
This is a fascinating account of a key moment in the War of 1812, supported by a range of interesting articles that provide us with the context for both the battle and the men who fought it and comes highly recommended.
1 - The War of 1812: A Perspective from the United States, John B. Hattendorf
2 - Sideshow? British Grand Strategy and the War of 1812, Andrew Lambert
3 - Canada and the War of 1812, Chris Madsen
4 - Prize Laws in the War of 1812, Gabriela A Frei
5 - Victories or Distractions, Honour or Glory?, Tim Voelcker
6 - Broke - His Youth and Education, John Blatchly
7 - In Arctic Waters, Michael Barritt
8 - Letters to his Wife 'Loo', Ellen Gill
9 - A Gunnery Zealot: Broke's Scientific Contribution to Naval Warfare, Martin Bibbings
10 - The Battle, Martin Bibbings
11 - Broke's 'Miraculous' Recovery, Peter Schurr
12 - Representing Nations: Caricature and the Naval War of 1812, James Davey
13 - Halifax and its Naval Yard, Julian Gwyn
14 - HMS Shannon's Later Commissions, Martin Salmon
15 - Chesapeake Mill, John Wain
16 - Ballads and Broadsides: The Poetic and Musical Legacy of the Shannon and the Chesapeake, Richard Wilson
17 - The Peace and its Outcome, Colin Reid
Editor: Tim Voelcker