Military history

Proclamation of blockade, February 1813 (The National Archives, U.K.)


Walls of Wood

IT TOOK at least forty days for news of each of the British defeats to reach London, the delay only adding to the sense of unreality and stunned disbelief that each left in its wake. British commentators found themselves literally at a loss for words, or at least rational words, to explain how the world could have been turned so upside down. “Another frigate has fallen into the hands of the enemy!—The subject is too painful for us to dwell on,” was all that the editors of the Naval Chronicle could at first find to say at the news of the Java’s defeat.1 The Times found it simply incredible that such things could be: “The public will learn, with sentiments which we shall not presume to anticipate that a third British frigate has struck to an American.” The news came atop a report that Lloyd’s had just listed five hundred British merchantmen captured by the Americans in the first seven months of the war:

Five hundred merchantmen, and three frigates! Can these statements be true; and can the English people hear them unmoved? Any one who had predicted such a result of an American war, this time last year, would have been treated as a madman or a traitor. He would have been told, if his opponents had condescended to argue with him, that long ere seven months had elapsed, the American flag would be swept from the seas, the contemptible navy of the United States annihilated, and their maritime arsenals rendered a heap of ruins. Yet down to this moment, not a single American frigate has struck her flag. They insult and laugh at our want of enterprise and vigour. They leave their ports when they please, and return to them when it suits their convenience; they traverse the Atlantic; they beset the West India Islands; they advance to the very chops of the Channel; they parade along the coasts of South America; nothing chases, nothing intercepts, nothing engages them but to yield triumph.2

Many British commentators noted that one, or even three, frigates amounted to a trivial material loss to the Royal Navy. But the symbolic consequences were positively incalculable. “It is not merely that an English frigate has been taken,” the Times averred after the very first British defeat, “but that it has been taken by a new enemy, an enemy unaccustomed to such triumphs, and likely to be rendered insolent and confident by them. He must be a weak politician, who does not see how important the first triumph is in giving a tone and character to the war.” And to Britain’s aura of invincibility throughout the world: “We have suffered ourselves to be beaten in detail by a Power that we should not have allowed to send a vessel to sea,” the Times added as the losses mounted. “The land-spell of the French is broken; and so is our sea-spell”; just a few more years like this would “render our vaunted navy the laughing-stock of the universe.” Above all, it was now essential that no effort should be spared to achieve the one essential object, “the entire annihilation of the American navy.”3

Stunned disbelief among the British public was equaled by frantic efforts by British officialdom to explain away the defeats. A perfunctory court-martial of Captain Dacres was quickly convened in Halifax upon his arrival there and promptly concluded that the loss of the Guerriere was simply due to bad luck, a result of “the accident of her masts going, which was occasioned more by their defective state than from the fire of the enemy.” Dacres, and his officers and men, were “honourably acquitted” of any blame.4 The Macedonian’s court-martial sat for four days and took much more extensive testimony, but focused almost entirely on demonstrating that there was not “the most distant wish to keep back from the engagement” and that the captain and his officers “behaved with the firmest and most determined courage,” as the court concluded in its final judgment.5 Exactly why the Macedonian was defeated was never particularly examined, discussed, or considered.

Letters poured into the Naval Chronicle and other publications indignantly defending the honor of the defeated British ships’ officers and crews. Several writers went so far as to insist that not only was there nothing shameful about the British defeats, there was actually something contemptible about the American victories. “Not a tarnish is to be found on the trident of the seas,” declared one correspondent after the Guerriere’s defeat. Another writer to the Naval Chronicle, signing himself “An Englishman,” opined that “the Americans are welcome … to amuse themselves for three wonderful victories over the haughty Britons; it is a triumph worthy of themselves, a success which would disgrace an honourable foe, and cause no emotion but regret in the bosom of a high spirited enemy, in having gained success only by an unequal contest.” “America, like an ungrateful and malignant minion, turns upon her benefactor,” said the London Evening Star. “Is Great Britain to be driven from the proud eminence which blood and treasures of her sons have attained for her among the nations, by a piece of striped bunting flying at the mastheads of a few fir-built frigates, manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws?6

Many suggested it was little more than a dastardly trick for “a navy so small we scarcely know where to find it,” as one writer put it, to call such large, powerful, and heavily manned ships frigates. “Is not the term frigate most violently perverted when applied to such vessels?” asked the Evening Star.7 British writers repeatedly referred to the “overgrown American frigates,” those oversize vessels that “the Americans choose to call frigates,” those “disguised ships of the line” that had enticed brave British captains into believing they were challenging an equal foe, only to be surprised by overpowering force. By the traditions of naval honor there was nothing shameful in declining combat with a superior enemy; the Americans had thus resorted to dishonorable deception to secure their victories.

That face-saving excuse was picked up with alacrity by the defeated British captains, who made a point of calculating the relative weight of metal thrown by the broadsides of their respective ships, stressing the relative sizes of their crews, and concluding that the Americans had a 50 percent or greater advantage. “On being taken onboard the Enemys Ship,” Carden wrote after his loss of the Macedonian, “I ceased to wonder at the results of the Battle; the United States is built on the scantline of a seventy four gun Ship … with a Complement of four Hundred and seventy eight pick’d Men.”

It also quickly became an article of faith in British naval circles that a vast proportion of the crews of American men-of-war were British themselves, which helped to explain the American successes as well: the British navy was actually facing its own best men, trained by British captains, enticed into dishonorably taking up arms against their own country by the machinations of an unscrupulous foe. “I have no hesitation in believing that their crews are three-fourths composed of deserters from our own navy,” declared “An Englishman” in the Naval Chronicle. Defending himself at his court-martial, Dacres asserted, “I felt much shocked, when on board the Constitution, to find a large body of the ship’s company British seamen, and many of whom I recognized as having been foremost in the attempt to board.” By contrast, he declared, the Guerriere had been “considerably weakened” by his own chivalrous conduct in allowing the ten impressed Americans of his crew to sit out the fight.8

AS THEODORE Roosevelt would later wryly observe in his history of the war, Dacres’s argument taken to its logical conclusion meant that the Guerriere was defeated because the Americans in her crew were not willing to fight against their own country while the Britons in the Constitution’s crew were. But the fact was that only a handful of British subjects were still serving on American ships of war once the war began.

Almost all the assertions by British writers about the relative firepower of the two navies’ frigates were equally hyperbolic. All warships carried more guns than their nominal ratings, and while there was no doubt that the large American forty-fours were more heavily armed than the British thirty-eights they had defeated, the disparity was not that great. The American ships mounted a broadside of twenty-seven guns versus twenty-five on the British ships, and while the American guns were heavier in caliber, the Americans’ solid iron shot was less dense by about 7 percent due to defective casting; the result was that the total weight of metal in the broadside of the Constitution was only about 10 or 20 percent greater than the Guerriere’s or the Java’s. The United Statesmounted massive forty-two-pounder carronades on her spar deck, which theoretically increased the weight of her broadside to 40 percent over the Macedonian’s, but nearly all of that battle was fought out of carronade range, and the difference in weight of broadside from the two ships’ long guns was at best 30 percent.9

Although the “disguised ship of the line” charge would become an enduring part of British lore of the war, in fact a British seventy-four threw a broadside with twice the weight of metal of even the large American frigates. Even some in England mocked that face-saving excuse at the time. William Cobbett, an English journalist who began his career as a fire-eating Tory, spent several years in the United States in the 1790s propagandizing for Britain, and in the early 1800s called for an unremitting stance against American maritime pretentions, had since done a complete about-face and become a thoroughgoing radical and supporter of America; just a few months after his release in June 1812 from a two-year sentence in Newgate Prison for treasonous libel, he published in his Cobbett’s Political Register some sarcastic doggerel in response to the shilly-shallying excuses being offered for the British naval setbacks:

For when Carden the ship of the Yankee Decatur

Attacked, without doubting to take her or beat her,

A FRIGATE she seemed to his glass and his eyes:

But when taken himself, how great his surprise


If Jonathan thus has the art of disguising,

That he captures our ships is by no means surprising:

And it can’t be disgraceful to strike to an elf

Who is more than a match for the devil himself—10

Once the initial shock began to wear off, a number of more thoughtful correspondents to the Naval Chronicle began to assess the situation more objectively, suggesting in effect that it might be more productive to figure out how the British navy could start winning again rather than invest so much energy defending its losses as honorable ones. To be sure, defending British courage and honor was not merely a matter of national pride: much of Britain’s real deterrent power upon the seas rested on its captains’ undimmed reputation for courage. Yet it was clear to more than a few navy men that it was time to worry less about honor and more about practicalities. “It is not in our national character to despond, let us rather endeavour to trace the evil, that a remedy may be found,” wrote “A Half-Pay Officer,” who wondered whether the Americans had different equipment for their guns that enabled them to “have astonished us, not merely by taking our ships … but by taking them with such little comparative loss, and in so short a time.”11 Several noted the decisive advantage of the longer-range twenty-four-pounder guns employed by the American ships and recommended that British frigates needed to emulate this innovation.

One of the few signed letters, from Captain William Henry Tremlett, asserted that while “much has been said about their superior weight of metal, and size of the vessels,” it was the Americans’ superior handling of their guns that was infinitely more important. The long neglect of gunnery in the Royal Navy was at last coming home to roost: “The first and grand cause is, that the American seamen have been more exercised in firing at a mark than ours—their government having given their commanders leave to exercise whenever they think proper, and to fire away as much ammunition as they please.” It would eventually come out that in their six weeks at sea, the crew of the Java had fired a total of only six broadsides before meeting the Constitution, all of them blanks. And Captain Tremlett noted that the damage done and the loss inflicted by American gunnery in all the battles was three to one, in one case ten to one, as great as what the British crews had been able to do, far beyond what any difference in the relative size and force of the ships could explain.12

A number of writers to the Naval Chronicle even dared to offer blunt criticism of the most time-honored practices of the Royal Navy, suggesting that it had grown too large, too dependent on the dregs of society to man its ships, too addicted to brutal punishment of a kind long abandoned by the rest of civilized society. “The absurdity of our antiquated naval institutions and ‘customs,’ ” declared “Albion,” had produced a “dread of the service of their country among sailors.” That had made impressment a necessity to fill the navy’s ranks—which in turn both weakened the quality of the service and helped contribute to the very causes of the war that was now going so badly against Britain. “A Naval Patriot” agreed; the navy was manned by a very small number of real seamen and the rest the “good, bad, and indifferent, viz. ordinary seamen, landsmen, foreigners, the sweepings of Newgate, from the hulks, and almost all the prisons in the country.” With “such a motley crew,” he wrote, it was no wonder it was so hard to produce a well-disciplined and efficient fighting force.

Another writer, denouncing the “system of coercion” that was equal to “the meanest capacities to execute,” called for an end to flogging and its replacement with a “system of attachment” that would inspire British seamen to work together for reward rather than punishment. “Want of feeling and sense generally associate,” he observed; “the wise and good” must take a stand against brutality, which had only weakened Britain’s claim to mastery of the seas.13

·    ·    ·

IN PARLIAMENT, the wrath of criticism fell squarely on the government. Speakers berated the Admiralty for failing to issue proper orders to its admirals in North America, failing to equip the navy with frigates equal to the Americans’, failing to send enough ships to the American coast, above all failing to emphasize sternness over forbearance in its prosecution of the war. “The arm which should have launched the thunderbolt was occupied in guiding the pen,” declared George Canning, America’s old nemesis. He took the government to task for sending out “not an Admiral, but an Ambassador; with instructions to carry, not fire and sword along the enemy’s coasts, but a flag of truce into his harbours; and instead of sinking, burning and destroying the American Navy, His Majesty’s ships were cooped up in the Halifax harbour, humbly awaiting the event of these overtures and negociations.”

All agreed it was time for vigorous measures to teach the Americans a lesson for the “insolent spirit” they had shown. Britain had made magnanimous concessions only to have them spurned, had now suffered mortifications and insults intolerable to a nation that commanded Britain’s place in the world. Britain had not sought war, but now had no choice but to crush American recalcitrance and reassert British military ascendency, all the more so because of the danger that continued American resistance posed to Britain’s ability to concentrate its might on the more important struggle against France. “The paramount duty of British Ministers,” asserted the Times, “is to render the English arms as formidable in the new world as they have become in the old.”

Lord Liverpool, the prime minister, struck a tone of aristocratic regret at the necessity of chastising Britain’s wayward offspring, but he left no doubt he meant to see the war through. While America might have legitimate grievances, he told Parliament, “she ought to have looked to this country as the guardian power to which she was indebted not only for her comforts, not only for her rank in the scale of civilization, but for her very existence.” Augustus Foster, who had been elected to the House of Commons upon returning from Washington, completed the picture of wounded British pride by observing during the debate on the war that Americans “generally speaking … were not a people we should be proud to acknowledge as our relations.” The debate concluded with an unopposed vote in favor of vigorous prosecution of the war, though not without a few opposition members cautiously suggesting that Britain would ultimately have to give way on impressment if the war was ever to end. But for now the government had the solid backing of British opinion for its policy of strong military action.14

The attacks on the Admiralty’s management of the war, however, had hit home politically. In the first two weeks of January 1813 the London newspaper the Courier ran a series of daily letters “on the subject of the naval war with America” under the pen name “Nereus.” They were a thinly veiled counterattack from the government, trying to undo the political points that had been scored against the Admiralty. Their author coyly disavowed any inside knowledge of government policy, but with all the mastery of a practiced parliamentary debater, he mercilessly skewered the government’s critics and the jingoistic newspapers that had been so loudly denouncing the government for its supposed missteps and incompetence. Nereus mocked the very idea that Admiral Warren had been dispatched in the “character of a nautical negociator.” Admiral Duckworth in Newfoundland had been given positive orders to “attack, take, sink, burn, and destroy all American ships” as soon as war was declared. Far from having an “inadequate” force on the American station, the navy had positioned there at the outbreak of the war “a total of 85 sail, to oppose 14 American pendants.” Since then at least two more ships of the line and other additional ships had been dispatched. It was “mere accidents” that had caused the Constitution and the United States to fall in with lone British frigates rather than one of the five line-of-battle ships that were present on the station and which could easily have defeated them. And it would have been an absurd misallocation of resources for the British navy to have built and manned all of its hundreds of frigates with forty-four guns and five hundred men apiece just on the off chance that one of them might fall in singly with one of the large American ships, of which there were threeto be found in the entire world. “Though the plodding pedantry of the Times should coalesce against me with the flippant ignorance of the Morning Chronicle,” Nereus asserted, he was confident the facts would show that there had been no negligence of any kind on the part of the government nor any hesitation on the part of its admirals to do their duty.15

The Morning Chronicle for its part had a pretty good idea who it was dealing with. In an editorial replying to Nereus, the Morning Chronicle referred to him as “a poet,” “a lawyer,” “an Admiralty scribe”—and also as Harlequin, since he wears a “half-mask.” In fact, Nereus was none other than John Wilson Croker, secretary to the Admiralty Board. Croker (pronounced “Crocker”) was a young, ambitious, Irish-born lawyer, already a rising literary and political star when elected to Parliament at age twenty-six in 1807. The author of lyrical poems, anonymous satires about the Dublin stage and Irish society, and a serious and influential pamphlet on the state of Ireland, he was a mercilessly partisan debater and polemicist, famous for vituperative personal attacks on political opponents both on the floor of the House and on the pages of literary reviews. One victim of his literary criticisms called him “the wickedest of reviewers,” claiming he took morbid delight in inflicting pain on fellow authors.

But Croker was also deservedly known as an indefatigable administrator. Shortly after being appointed secretary to the Admiralty in 1809 he had courageously exposed a senior naval accountant, a personal protégé of the king’s, who Croker discovered from a close examination of the files had embezzled more than £200,000. “I am almost always to be found at my desk,” Croker wrote an acquaintance. He told his wife not to bother writing “private” on any letters she sent him at the office, “as I open all letters myself.” Years later, looking back on the two decades he had continuously held the post at the Admiralty, he remarked, “I never quitted that office-room without a kind of uneasiness, like a truant boy.”16

The secretary was nominally no more than a staff assistant and administrator to the Lords of the Admiralty, who determined policy and issued orders to captains at sea, but in practice when the secretary wrote “My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty command me to acquaint you” or “My Lords have thought fit to” or “Their Lordships are not prepared to,” it was John Wilson Croker and not their lordships at all who had often made the decision. So firmly had Croker taken control of the office in three short years, and so widely regarded—or at least mythologized—was his power among naval officers, that John Surman Carden was convinced to his dying day that the reason he never received another sea command after losing the Macedonian was not that he had lost a ship but that he had put his foot wrong with the secretary by incautiously referring to “their Lordships of the Admiralty’s” wishes in a way that suggested they, and not Croker, held the power to make decisions. “Woe to him who did not pay homage to this Tyrant,” wrote Carden.17

Nereus may have been supremely confident of the conduct of the naval war with America and the complete correctness of the government’s handling of it to date, but Croker and the Admiralty privately were unmistakably alarmed by the unexpected turn the war had taken. At the very same moment Nereus’s letters were appearing in the Courier, the secretary was hurriedly ordering new strategies, weapons, tactics, and commanders into place. Among the steps were some of the very ideas Nereus heaped scorn upon in public. The Admiralty immediately commissioned a private yard to build five large forty-gun frigates as soon as possible to meet the threat posed by the more powerful American ships, and ordered the eighteen-pounder main guns of the Royal Navy’s one existing frigate of this class, the Endymion, replaced with twenty-four pounders during the extensive repair she was currently undergoing at Plymouth, expected to be completed in mid-1813. To reduce the weight and construction time of the new frigates, the Admiralty ordered them built of softwood rather than wait for increasingly scarce supplies of oak to become available—the jibes about America’s supposed “fir-built frigates” notwithstanding. A design for an even larger fifty-gun frigate of about fifteen hundred tons was produced in three days, and orders for two were placed. And as a stopgap, three old seventy-four-gun line-of-battle ships—the Majestic, Goliath, and Saturn—that were about to be taken out of service and converted to prison hulks were ordered to be cut down instead as “razees” and sent to the American station: stripping off their top decks would quickly produce something that approximated the sailing qualities and firepower of the American forty-fours.18

While Nereus was expressing indignation at the suggestion that Britain’s naval commanders on the scene had been lax, Croker was hectoring Warren with a series of increasingly impatient instructions, along with blasts of reproof for his lack of accomplishment and energy to date. The secretary was thirty-two now, just a little over half Warren’s age, and he had all of three years’ experience in naval affairs. But with the withering superiority that had become a deadly weapon in his hands, he proceeded to let Warren know exactly where he stood, instructing him on his defects in everything from his requests for additional force to the choice of words used in his dispatches, and warning him that the Admiralty now expected quick results.

“My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty,” Croker wrote on January 9, 1813, “had hoped that the great force placed at your disposal … would have enabled you to obtain the most decided advantages over the Enemy, and to blockade their Ships of War in their Ports, or to intercept and capture them at Sea if they should escape the vigilance of your blockading Squadrons. In this expectation their lordships have been hitherto disappointed.”19 Warren’s unaccountable failure to keep their lordships apprised of Rodgers’s and Bainbridge’s movements, Croker told the admiral in a subsequent message, “has obliged them to employ six or seven sail of the line and as many frigates & sloops … in guarding against the possible attempts of the Enemy.” These deployments had required pulling ships from other vital duties to patrol the seas around Madeira, St. Helena, and the Azores. “My Lords cannot but hope that the reports which you state of swarms of American Privateers being at Sea, must be, in a great degree exaggerated,” the secretary continued, “as they cannot suppose that you have left the principal Ports of the American Coast to be so unguarded as to permit such multitudes of Privateers to escape in and out unmolested.” Their lordships were surprised to learn that the Spartan—this was the frigate Warren dispatched to Madeira to pick up a shipment of wine for the squadron—“was seen on the 28th Novr. in Latitude 39°.41.—North Longitude 25 West,” near the Azores, in spite of their understanding that she had been specifically instructed to sail in company with the Africa and in spite of the admonition from the Admiralty that frigates should not sail singly and be exposed to the superior force of the enemy. Their lordships desired that the logs of the Spartan be transmitted at once, as “they cannot suppose that with a knowledge that Commodore Ro[d]gers and Bainbridge with their respective Squadrons were likely to be at sea, you could have authorized the Captain of the Spartan to expose himself to the danger of meeting them, unnecessarily and out of your Station.”20

And in a final, unmistakable slap at Warren’s authority, the secretary informed him that “my Lords have thought fit to appoint a Captain of the Fleet to serve with your Flag”—but without consulting Warren on the choice of the man to fill the post. As their lordships “were not aware of any individual” whom the admiral might prefer, they were naming Captain Henry Hotham to serve under him. Although Hotham was able to relieve Warren of much of the weight of his administrative duties in the coming months, he was also unmistakably the Admiralty’s man, sent to light a fire under the commander in chief while also keeping an eye on him and reporting back directly to the Admiralty in a series of private letters describing the true state of things on the North American command.21

Still, despite their lordships’ considerable disappointment in Warren’s failure to use the considerable force at his disposal, Croker informed him, “as it is of the highest importance to the Character and interests of our Country that the Naval Force of the Enemy, should be quickly and completely disposed of, my Lords have thought themselves justified at this moment in withdrawing Ships from other important services for the purpose of placing under your orders a force with which you cannot fail to bring the Naval War to a termination, either by the capture of the American National Vessels, or by strictly blockading them in their own Waters.” The additional forces nearly doubled the number of large warships on the American stations, giving Warren a total of ten ships of the line, thirty frigates, and fifty sloops of war.

On December 29, 1812, Warren had sent another plea for reinforcements, complaining that many of the promised ships had not yet arrived on station, and when that message arrived in London in early February 1813, it triggered an even more withering response from Croker. “Under these circumstances,” the secretary wrote, “their Lordships are not only not prepared to enter into your opinion that the force on your station was not adequate to the duties to be executed, but they feel that … it may not be possible to maintain on the Coast of America for any length of time a force so disproportionate to the Enemy as that which, with a view to enabling you to strike some decisive blow, they have now placed under your orders.” If some of the additional ships had not yet joined Warren’s flag owing to their being detained on convoy duty, that was entirely the admiral’s own fault for failing to do his job of blockading the American coast: “the necessity of sending such heavy Convoys arises from the facility and safety with which the American Navy has hitherto found it possible to put to Sea.”

Croker’s orders left no doubts about what was now expected. As instructed in a secret order dated November 27, 1812, to be carried out in the event the American government rejected the British proposal for a cessation of hostilities, Warren was to immediately institute a complete blockade of all American ports in the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River. He was to destroy the American navy and as soon as the job was done return some of the extra line-of-battle ships to England.22

Their lordships had also decided to send the admiral some energetic assistance in the business of waging war. His new second in command, already sailed for Bermuda with a reinforcing squadron, was to be Rear Admiral George Cockburn. Sixteen years earlier, as a twenty-four-year-old frigate captain, Cockburn had distinguished himself by capturing a more heavily armed Spanish ship in an action that had so impressed Nelson he had awarded the young captain a gilt-handled sword he personally ordered made for him.23 Admiral Cockburn’s name was pronounced “Coburn,” but Americans would soon be taking grim, sarcastic pleasure in pronouncing it as written, and with the stress on the second syllable.24

WARREN WAS in fact neither as hesitant nor as bereft of success in his first few months as Croker implied in his verbal keelhaulings of the admiral, nor were his excuses for his failure to seal off the American coast without some justice. By the end of 1812, the force under Warren’s command had already sent 120 prizes in to Halifax, 50 to Bermuda, 40 to the Leeward Islands, and 30 to Jamaica—some 240 ships in all.25 Besides taking the American navy brig Nautilus at the outbreak of the war, British warships had since captured two other American men-of-war, the eighteen-gun Wasp and the fourteen-gun Vixen.

Yet defeat seemed to stalk even British victories. The Wasp was taken on October 18, 1812, about 350 miles north of Bermuda by a British seventy-four, the Poictiers, that appeared on the scene only after the American ship had already triumphed two hours earlier in a savage forty-five-minute battle against a slightly more powerful British brig, the Frolic; in an action fought in a heavy sea, the Americans’ deadly accurate gunnery left only 20 of the Frolic’s 110-man crew unharmed.

The Vixen was also taken by a vastly superior British warship, the thirty-two-gun frigate Southampton; the American brig was captured on November 22 in the West Indies, but five days later, as the frigate and her prize were making their way through the Crooked Island passage bound for Jamaica, both struck an uncharted reef in the night. Daylight found the Vixen a total loss, her bows penetrated by a rock and her bilge filled, the Southampton impossibly wedged between the rocks and a leak sprung. “Lives were the only possible things that could be saved,” wrote one of the Vixen’s men in an anonymous published account that described the harrowing shipwreck, the rescue of the two ships’ crews on Conception Island, and the Americans’ subsequent tormenting imprisonment packed belowdecks in sweltering and airless prison hulks on Jamaica.26

Capping the ill-omened mischances that seemed to plague the British command that first year of the war were a series of disasters, natural and unnatural, that struck in December. The brig Plumper hit the ledges off Dipper Harbor, New Brunswick, sinking instantly and taking fifty men and £70,000 in specie down with her. And in a simply bizarre incident that same month on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, a British captain went berserk, challenged town officials to a duel, and engaged in a three-day standoff with the local authorities and soldiers of the British army garrison, at one point ordering his marines to open fire on the townspeople, before he was finally subdued and arrested.27

And though the Royal Navy was the world’s unquestioned master of the naval blockade, it was never so simple or straightforward a tactic as Croker implied in his impatient letters to Warren demanding results. That was especially so when it came to trying to seal off a coastline as long as America’s, and so punctuated by a myriad of creeks, bays, inlets, and rivers.

The blockade was a natural recourse for a superior naval power, a way to replace the chance and fortunes of war with the methodical application of overwhelming force to strangle an enemy, and two crucial innovations of the previous two decades had made it possible for British ships to stay on station for the months at a time that blockade duty required. One was the Royal Navy’s belated recognition, in 1795, of British scientific discoveries made a half century earlier regarding the cause and prevention of scurvy. As late as the 1780s a single six-week cruise of the Channel Fleet resulted in 2,400 cases of scurvy among the crews, and at one point in that decade nearly a quarter of the entire 100,000-man force of the Royal Navy was on the sick list from the disease. The subsequent addition of lime juice and fresh fruit to the shipboard diet alone greatly extended the time that British warships could remain at sea. The other almost simultaneous innovation was the use of copper cladding to protect the wooden hulls of warships. In warm waters, boring worms could do enough damage to an unprotected hull in just a few years to require a ship to be taken out of service for a nearly complete rebuild. In all waters, seaweed, barnacles, and other crustaceans accumulated so fast that in as little as six weeks the speed of an unclad ship was noticeably reduced, and in as little as six more weeks the ship might have to be careened, scraped, and recaulked to remain seaworthy at all. By taming the ravages of scurvy and weed, a ship could stay at sea for as much as four to six months, if resupplied with water and provisions, before accumulated wear finally required putting into port for a refit.

Still, blockade duty was a voracious consumer of ships and men. To be recognized and enforceable by admiralty law, a blockade had to be maintained continuously and with sufficient force to be effective. A blockade was a complete interdiction of all seagoing traffic in or out of an enemy port, neutral vessels included; and a blockading force had to match its words with actions, otherwise every belligerent could simply proclaim a blockade as a pretext for seizing any neutral vessels it happened upon in the vicinity of an enemy’s coast. Maintaining a blockade on a port was debilitating, boring, but exacting work: the blockading squadrons sailing back and forth, tacking again and again across the same stretch of water day after day, the danger of a lee shore constantly looming and the chance for glory or even a respite from the tedium nil.28

And even with the ships’ extended sea time, probably a third of the blockading fleet at any given moment would be undergoing repairs or traveling to or from the yard. Warren looked at the previous British experience blockading the American coast, during the Revolution, and found that in 1775 his predecessor had calculated he needed fifty ships for the job. But even that did not take into account the need to rotate ships on and off station; factoring that in increased the number to around ninety—in other words, virtually the entire nominal force under Warren’s command. When Warren attempted to point this out, it predictably earned him another stinging rebuke from Croker, who replied that the comparison was “by no means just; you will recollect that at the former period the fleets of France were actually in the West Indies and American waters, and it was chiefly to oppose them that so great a force was necessary.”29

But the Admiralty itself kept up a barrage of maddeningly contradictory instructions to Warren that kept tying up his ships for other duties—or potential duties. Both Warren and his masters in the Admiralty had a long list of contingencies they constantly worried about, chief among them the nightmare scenario that the French navy would indeed take advantage of the moment to strike a blow at the otherwise preoccupied British naval force on the North American station. The Royal Navy’s blockade of France, involving hundreds of ships constantly patrolling the coast and adjacent waters of the Atlantic and Mediterranean, had managed to keep Napoleon’s naval power almost completely at bay in the years since the defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar in 1805; French warships all but abandoned any further attempts to put to sea, and Napoleon began reassigning thousands of sailors to infantry duty as the decisive struggle between France and her enemies shifted to a series of climactic land campaigns, on the Peninsula, the Continent, and Russia. By the start of the war with America, the Royal Navy had seized all of France’s colonies and secured unchallenged control of the sea lanes needed to ferry troops and supplies for Wellington’s campaign on the Peninsula.30 Though the French navy never did succeed in breaking out and joining the battle in American waters, its mere existence was a danger that could not be ignored; sheltered within fortified ports, the French fleet was an ever-present threat that might take advantage of bad weather or good luck to allow a powerful squadron to slip out and fall on the back of Warren’s force.

Meanwhile, the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Melville, was privately cautioning Warren against withdrawing any of his ships from the Caribbean stations for offensive operations against America, given the political clout of the West Indian merchants and the “clamour” that they had created in London over fears that their merchant vessels might be left unprotected against the ravages of American privateers. Though these fears were “apparently unfounded,” Melville conceded, it would be best not to upset such a powerful constituency. In frustration, Warren replied that since the addition of the West Indies stations to his command had only increased his administrative burdens without augmenting his useful force, the Jamaica and Leeward Islands commanders ought to be placed under his direct orders only if the French appeared. This earned him still another barbed reply from Croker. “If you should find that you are unequal to the management of so extensive a duty,” the secretary sniffed, then their lordships would prefer to have three distinct and fully responsible commanders in chief under them, rather than the “divided authority and mixed responsibility” that Warren proposed.31

But Warren got the message. In early February 1813 he arrived at Lynnhaven Bay aboard his flagship San Domingo, issued a formal declaration of blockade of all ports and harbors on the Chesapeake Bay and Delaware River, and, leaving five frigates, returned to Bermuda and immediately dispatched Cockburn, who had arrived there in mid-January aboard the seventy-four Marlborough, with a huge additional force to the Chesapeake. Along with the ships already in place at Lynnhaven Bay and the Marlborough, Cockburn had at his command three other seventy-fours (Poictiers, Victorious, and Dragon), two additional frigates, a sloop of war, and a schooner.32

A few weeks later Warren issued a new standing order to all his captains conveying their lordships’ admonition to increase gunnery practice, even if it meant forsaking some of the painting, shining, scrubbing, and polishing that was so ingrained in the traditions of the service. “Upon … the expert management of the Guns the preservation of the high character of the British Navy most essentially depends.” Those endless spit-and-polish tasks “on which it is not unusual to employ the Men are of very trifling importance, when Compared with a due preparation (by instruction and practice) for the effectual Services of the day of Battle.” Blockade duty was notorious for magnifying the obsession with appearance, with the ships constantly under the bored and disapproving eye of the admiral; even running out the guns in dumb show tended to mess their polish, and so gun drill was often abandoned altogether during the months ships spent at sea blockading an enemy coast. But scouring iron stanchions and ring bolts was now to be gradually phased out, the Admiralty reiterated in a subsequent circular message to the admirals, and “the time thrown away on this unnecessary practice be applied to the really useful and important points of discipline and exercise at Arms.”

Warren concluded: “The issue of the Battle will greatly depend on the cool, steady and regular manner in which the Guns shall be loaded, pointed & fired.”33 Tradition was one thing, winning wars another. The Americans had already changed the traditional rules of what it took to win.

IN JANUARY 1813 the headquarters of the United States Department of the Navy consisted of three not very large rooms in a two-and-a-half-story brick building located about two hundred yards west of the White House, which it shared with the State and War departments. The four clerks were crowded into one room on the second floor, the secretary of the navy had another, downstairs the nine men of the navy accounts department filled the third, and everywhere hung an air of disorganized neglect. Secretary Hamilton’s successor arrived in Washington at three o’clock in the afternoon on January 23, and the friends he ran into that very first day, he wrote his wife that evening, mainly “commiserate me on the Herculean task I have to encounter.”34

The new man was William Jones of Philadelphia, whose Republican credentials, knowledge of ships and the sea, and experience in running an efficient and businesslike operation were matched only by his extraordinary reluctance to face the ordeal of public office. He had been one of the four men to turn down Jefferson’s offer of the navy post in 1801, and had turned down two approaches by Madison for positions since, one to be consul in Denmark, the other to take on the job of commissary general of the army, a post newly created in the spring of 1812. Jones had considered taking the latter position until he read the statute governing it and realized it would be an unremitting nightmare, a figurehead fully responsible for the purchase of military supplies for the entire army but without any real authority to keep the process honest.35

On December 28, 1812, Pennsylvania congressman Jonathan Roberts wrote Jones to advise him that Hamilton was about to be dismissed and that Jones was Madison’s first choice to replace him. “The vacancy about to occur has not been effected thro a hope of getting your services but from the impossibility of proceeding with Mr. Hamilton,” Roberts wrote. Nonetheless, he begged Jones not to say no this time. “The Nation and the Navy point to you as the fittest man we have & what is to become of us if the fittest man will not come forward in a moment of public danger.”

Besides having run a shipping business for decades, served as a member of Congress from 1801 to 1803, and sailed around the world from 1805 to 1807, Jones had seen the face of war firsthand. As a fifteen-year-old volunteer during the Revolution he had fought at the battles of Trenton and Princeton; later in the war he had served under Thomas Truxtun aboard an American privateer, then joined the Continental navy and been wounded and taken prisoner. In 1795, while living in Charleston where his merchant shipping business had taken him, he was elected captain of a local militia unit, the Charleston Republican Artillery Company, and during that time he wrote a manual for artillery drill.36 In January 1813 he was fifty-one, had the substantial air of a prosperous merchant of the previous century, and was happily married to a wife to whom he wrote long, affectionate letters notable not only for their kindness but for the way he addressed her as a complete equal in business and political matters. He and Eleanor were childless but he was the guardian of Eleanor’s nephew, whose father had died impoverished, and they had a comfortable and extensive social life among friends and family in Philadelphia.

Jones hated Washington society, dreaded the political attacks and slanders that he knew were to be his inevitable lot, missed his wife and home, but threw himself into the job with the encouragement of the many naval officers he knew and with a sense of urgency that the full discovery of the disorganized state of the office only galvanized all the more. “I can scarcely believe that you would have been drawn into Public life, knowing how little ambitious you are in that pursuit,” his old friend William Bainbridge wrote. “Yet it was what I most sincerely wished … You mention the inorganized state of your department. I well know it. And without reflecting on the former head of it (the last a person I sincerely esteem for the goodness of his heart) I can say there never was any system in it, and for the want of it great abuses have crept in. And you will find, my dear sir, that even with your capability & exertions, it will take some time before you can fully correct them.” Lieutenant George Read wrote from the United States in New York, “I see by the papers you are to be our secretary and permit me to say it is the best news not only to me but to all my profession, we have heard for some time.”37

The mess that Hamilton left had settled deeply into the working of the office. The chief clerk, Charles W. Goldsborough, had let things slide as had his boss, and Jones decided immediately to get rid of him. “It required some little address to remove him from office without exciting his resentment,” Jones wrote Eleanor, but “I effected my purpose” by appealing to the “no small share of pride” he had detected in his character, allowing Goldsborough to present his departure as his own decision and letting him stay on “until it had the public appearance of his own act and convenience.” Jones dismissed another clerk whom Hamilton had apparently hired more out of pity for his impoverished state than for any ability he had; Jones informed the man, an unsuccessful physician named James Ewell, that “the necessity of substituting … an accurate and well qualified accountant and good hand writer” left him no choice.

Jones’s new chief clerk fully confirmed the “exceptionally disordered and confused state” of the office that their predecessors had left them. Benjamin Homans was an experienced clerk as well as a former merchant captain; he had gained a good reputation for straightening out the office of secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts when he held that post from 1810 to 1812, but even he seemed overwhelmed by “finding an office in such a state” as the Navy Department was. It was impossible to tell the state of supplies in the navy stores or gunpowder in the magazines. There was no regular system for resupplying each ship. “The Captains in the Navy have not made regular returns of their Muster Rolls on Sailing, and of their Prisoners on arriving in Port.” The wooden cases in the office are “almost useless for filing away letters & papers.” He discovered in the attic a room “filled with Books, old Letters & papers of various kinds (some important) in great disorder & dirty.” Most of the really important papers, though, were in the hands of the accountant, who jealously guarded them and made difficulties whenever Homans tried to examine them or ask a question about office matters. The constant stream of visitors through the clerk’s room made it hard to get any work done, and Homans wanted the clerks moved to a quieter room but told Jones he dared not propose “any innovation” himself as it “would be illy received and add to the jealousy and ill-will that appear to prevail against me.”38

Jones for his part began to send out a veritable gale of orders and correspondence in his first few weeks, going over lists of officers for promotion or transfer, reducing and redeploying the infamous Jeffersonian gunboats—Jones told his brother that they were “scattered about in every creek and corner as receptecles of idleness and objects of waste and extravagance without utility”—demanding that “trees be cut down immediately” for needed timber, asking Congress for reforms in procurement procedures and authorization to hire two more clerks, appointing a competent physician to take charge and straighten out the haphazard system of naval hospitals, which offered equally haphazard care in inadequate temporary buildings scattered around the various ports. He ordered a systematic review of every officer’s fitness, requiring commanding officers to report on each of their officers upon their return from each cruise, or once a year on July 4 for those on shore duty, and developed a form for personnel files that listed mental and physical qualifications; proficiency in mathematics, grammar, and nautical astronomy; and “moral and general character.” He instituted a general order forbidding squadron or station commanders from making any more acting appointments as they had long been accustomed: that power was henceforth to be exercised solely by the secretary, and Jones rebuffed a protest on this point even from his old friend Bainbridge. He ordered junior officers to correspond with the Navy Department only through their superiors and stop bombarding his office with personal requests and complaints. The new secretary was on the job scarcely a month before he reprimanded or cashiered several officers who, through incompetence or corruption, had spent large sums without department approval. To a lieutenant who had purchased an unsea-worthy hulk without authorization Jones wrote a blistering dismissal: “Your irregular and extravagant conduct … prove you utterly unfit for the station with which you have been honoured. You are, therefore, dismissed from the service of the U.S.”39

Every few weeks or sometimes every few days he wrote Eleanor, addressing her as “My dear wife,” “My beloved wife and friend,” signing his letters “Your affectionate friend,” “Your ever affectionate husband, W. Jones.” A few weeks into the job he described to her his new routine: “As to exercise, it is out of the question except the head and hands. I rise at seven, breakfast at nine, dine at half-past four, eat nothing afterward; at dinner take about four glasses of good wine, but have not drank a drop of any kind of spirit since I have been here. I write every night till midnight, and sleep very well when I do not think too much.” His doubts about his fitness for the job and the social role he had to fulfill, receiving and returning formal calls throughout official Washington, nagged at him. “I perceive that my domestic habits have utterly unfitted me for a courtier for all this gives me pain instead of pleasure.”40

He found, though, that “the terrors” of the job “appear to diminish with the serious contemplation I have given the subject. Having accepted the trust with reluctance, but with the purest motives and most ardent zeal for the sacred cause of our Country why should I despair? My pursuits and studies has been intimately connected with the objects of the department and I have not been an inattentive observer of political causes and effects.” He tried to steel her for the “calumny” and “lashing” that he knew he must expect in public office. “If I am faithful and reasonably competent the consciousness of virtue and fidelity I hope will sustain me.… I have only to request you not to mind it when it does occur.”41

To help smooth over his dismissal of Goldsborough, Jones agreed to his former clerk’s request to take over his $300-a-year lease on a house in Washington that Goldsborough could no longer afford, and to buy some of his furniture as well; the house, he told Eleanor, was located in the best situation in the district, halfway between the Six Buildings, on Pennsylvania Avenue at Twenty-first Street, and the Potomac River, with a fine view across to Alexandria. It was two stories tall, forty-four feet wide across the front, with a two-story piazza all along the back; an ell with storeroom, dairy, bathhouse, and library; a dry well in the cellar that went down forty-five feet with a windlass to lower meat and butter to keep them cool; and a garden with a variety of “choice vegetables, fruit trees, grapes,” stabling for a cow, and two fine clover lots.

He was looking forward to having her “snugly located here” with him before long. He asked after their old dog: “Shake Bibo by the paw for me, but I suppose he is going the way of all flesh—and we must soon follow.”42

A MONO THE inheritances left by Paul Hamilton to his successor was the ironic one of having finally persuaded Congress to approve the first new warship construction in a decade. Hamilton and his captains were keenly aware that their sudden successes at sea had produced a political opportunity that needed to be turned to advantage at once. Hull, in Washington for the opening of the congressional session at the end of 1812, made the rounds lobbying with all the power of his new celebrity. “The Navy is now up,” Hull remarked, “and if nothing is done this session it never will be worth remaining any longer.”

The first weeks of the session were filled with a furious debate on the war that brought all other business to a standstill. In June 1812, when the declaration of war was being considered, Federalists in the House had refused to participate in that debate as a protest against the Republicans’ insistence on a secret session; now, as war hawk John A. Harper of New Hampshire complained, the Federalists were taking the “opportunity to deliver themselves of their war speeches with which they were pregnant last session.” In long tirades, members of each party accused the other of exploiting the war for political ends. Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts, charging that for twelve years the country had been mismanaged by “two Virginians and a foreigner”—meaning Jefferson, Madison, and the Swiss-born Gallatin—said that the real purpose of the war was to ensure that the Virginian dynasty remained unbroken with Monroe (“James II”) succeeding Madison (“James I”). Republicans in turn accused Federalists of secretly plotting a treasonous separate peace between the New England states and Britain, and argued that if Federalists really wanted peace the best way to bring it about would be to wholeheartedly support the war, so as to bring it to a quick and favorable conclusion.

Another lengthy debate was occasioned by Madison’s proposal to enact into law the American bargaining position on impressment that the British had already rejected, namely that the United States would bar foreign sailors from the American merchant service in exchange for an end to the British practice of stopping and searching American ships and removing those it claimed as British subjects. More an effort at public relations than diplomacy, it was clearly an attempt to justify the war in the wake of the British repeal of the orders in council, and Federalists denounced it as a meaningless gesture while some of the war hawk Republicans opposed it as craven; but as Madison shrewdly calculated, it put the Federalists in a corner and enough members of both parties found it impossible to oppose the bill, which was passed and signed into law.43

A surprisingly large number of Republicans still saw no inconsistency in opposing new appropriations for the navy even as they denounced opposition to the war as tantamount to treason. But on December 23, 1812, enough broke ranks with the party’s solid antinavalist tradition to join every Federalist in passing a naval expansion bill; by a 70–56 vote the House approved the construction of six new forty-four-gun frigates plus four of the long-planned and long-delayed seventy-tour-gun ships of the line. The Senate passed the bill on an unrecorded vote a week earlier. The total construction costs were estimated at $2.5 million, and the increased annual expense for the new ships was $1.5 million. Treasury Secretary Gallatin’s budget estimates for 1813 projected a $19 million shortfall even without any increases for the army or navy, and with Congress stubbornly refusing even to consider reviving the hated internal taxes of the Adams administration and the prospects of raising a loan of that size seemingly unattainable, Gallatin wrote to Jones in February proposing that the new shipbuilding program simply be scrapped. But as Hull had correctly observed, the navy was “up,” and Jones ordered work on the new frigates and seventy-fours to begin without delay.44

In one sense this was all well and good, but the new navy secretary had another idea entirely about the best way to counter the Royal Navy on the high seas, and that was not to try to beat them at their own game. The American navy could never win a sustained war of attrition against the British, fighting warship to warship, “man to man and gun to gun,” as Jones would later put it, no matter how thrilling and encouraging the three single-frigate victories had been.45 Nor could America directly oppose the British blockade or protect American commerce from the overwhelming might the enemy could bring to bear upon the coastline.

On February 22, 1813, Jones sent a circular to all his captains in port, laying down the strategy of hit-and-run raiding the American navy would henceforth pursue. Rather than strike the enemy where he was strongest, the American navy would seek to draw away as much of his force as possible by striking him where he was weakest, going after British commerce on the high seas, from the southern tip of Africa to the southern tip of Ireland:

There is good reason to expect, a very considerable augmentation of the Naval force of the enemy on our coast the ensuing Spring; & it will be perceived that his policy will be to blockade our Ships of War in our own harbors; intercepting our private cruisers, prizes and trade, and Harass the seaboard.

Our great inferiority in naval strength, does not permit us to meet them on his ground without hazarding the precious Germ of our national glory.—we have however the means of creating a powerful diversion, & of turning the Scale of annoyance against the enemy. It is therefore intended, to dispatch all our public ships, now in Port, as soon as possible, in such positions as may be best adapted to destroy the Commerce of the enemy, from the Cape of Goodhope, to Cape Clear, and continue out as long as the means of subsistence can be procured abroad, in any quarter.

If any thing can draw, the attention of the enemy, from the annoyance of our coast, for the protection of his own, rich & exposed Commercial fleets, it will be a course of this nature, & if this effect can be produced, the two fold object of increasing the pressure upon the enemy and relieving ourselves, will be attained.

Cruizing singly, will also afford to our gallant Commanders, a fair oppertunity of displaying distinctly their Judgement, skill & enterprize, and of reaping the laurel of Fame, and its solid appendages.46

While the secretary said he would welcome the commanders’ proposals for where they would wish to cruise, he also made it clear that unlike his predecessor he intended to issue the final orders, to coordinate the effort and cover as wide a range of the seas as possible. The very same day, Jones wrote the chairman of the Senate’s Naval Committee, Samuel Smith of Maryland, asking for an additional appropriation for eighteen-gun sloops of war—which the new secretary argued would be the most effective weapons in the coming commerce war that he envisioned as America’s best riposte to British naval power. These were like smaller versions of a frigate; strongly built, ship-rigged with three masts but barely half the length and a third the tonnage of the Constitution and her sister ships, sloops of war could be built in as little as three or four months, much more quickly than the new frigates and seventy-tours, and would deliver much greater results for the price, about $75,000 apiece including construction costs, four months’ provisions, and two months’ wages in advance for the crew.

“Their force is inferior only to a frigate,” Jones wrote the senator, “their cost and expenditure only about one third in actual Service; and in pursuit of the Commerce and light cruisers of the enemy three Sloops of the class proposed may reasonably be expected to produce a much greater effect than a single Frigate.… Aided by these vessels our Frigates would be enabled to take a wider range in pursuit of higher game.”47 Less than two weeks later Congress approved the construction of six additional sloops of war of the type Jones requested.

ON THE FIRST day of February 1813, with ice making fast in Annapolis harbor, the frigate Constellation got under way, heading down the Chesapeake for Hampton Roads. Three days later, approaching the capes that flanked the entrance to the Atlantic, the American ship ran straight into two British ships of the line, three frigates, a brig, and a schooner just entering the bay. Charles Stewart, the Constellation’s captain, made a quick decision to make a run for Norfolk, and the winds being calm, he ordered the boats out to kedge the ship to safety.

The tide was running out and so was Stewart’s luck, it seemed, as the ship stuck on the mudflats at the mouth of the tidal James River. There the ship was held fast throughout the day as the crew labored to lighten her by starting her water and removing stores as the British squadron hovered cautiously off, out of gunshot and facing a contrary wind and unfamiliar shoal waters. By seven o’clock in the evening the rising tide lifted the Constellation off the flats, and the boats were able to tow her under the guns of Fort Norfolk. “From the first I was desirous of avoiding this place,” Stewart reported to Secretary Jones; it was too easy to be trapped by the enemy. That same evening the British ships dropped down and anchored at Lynnhaven Bay, effectively sealing off the Constellation’s escape route to the sea.

Jones sent hasty orders to shore up the defenses of Norfolk, close off the entrance to the harbor with a line of gunboats, and dispatch a fasts ailing pilot boat to warn incoming merchant vessels of the British blockade.48

To Eleanor he wrote a few weeks later:

There is great anxiety for Norfolk. The force of the Enemy is very great and may probably succeed in their main object the destruction of the Frigate and Navy Yard, but they will pay dearly for it. All that could be done on our part has been done—it has been impossible to get men sufficient for the Gun Boats there but if they were all manned and the enemy is determined to make the sacrifice it would make no difference.

He added the following day:

No news from Norfolk today … My letters by mail to day from N York announce the appearance of the Enemy Squadron. Whether a new force from Europe or that which was off the Delaware I know not but hope it will be found to be the latter I have been urging the Dispatch of our Frigates from New York and Boston but the weather and the slowness of recruiting has retarded their departure. I am extremely anxious, lest they would be Blockaded.49

On March 3, Cockburn’s squadron arrived at Lynnhaven Bay and dropped anchor, and nineteen days later Warren in the San Domingo joined him. In support of the far more aggressive approach to making war that the government was now expecting, Cockburn was advised he was being sent an expeditionary force of 2,300 men, including two battalions of Royal Marines, each with 842 men and a company of artillery; a detachment of 300 regular infantry from the 102nd Regiment in Bermuda; and two “Independent Companies of Foreigners,” consisting of 300 French prisoners of war who had agreed to fight for Great Britain as “Chasseurs Britanniques” in exchange for their freedom.

To “effect a diversion” that would draw American troops away from the renewed campaign against Canada that was fully expected with the coming of spring, the British expeditionary force was issued orders to capture or burn naval or military stores along the Chesapeake, levy ransoms against civilian property by threatening its destruction, and generally “harass the Enemy by different attacks.” While on “no account” were the British naval and military commanders to foment a general slave uprising—“The Humanity which ever influences His Royal Highness” must oppose a “system of warfare which must be attended by the atrocities inseparable from commotions of such a description”—they were authorized to enlist and guarantee the freedom of any “Individual Negroes” who offered their assistance to the British cause.50

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!