In Desolation Island and The Fortune of War, Jack Aubrey and the rest of the Royal Navy are portrayed as being quite depressed over America’s unexpected victories at sea. The fact is that though Britain was an established naval power, the Americans fared surprisingly well against them for the whole of the War of 1812.
1812 to 1815
Despite having their coastline bottled up by an almost-watertight British blockade, the American raiders who eluded the Royal Navy net caused considerable damage to Britain’s trade. By mid-1814, more than 800 British vessels had been taken, forcing the Royal Navy to escort trade convoys.
19 August: USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere
Having broken through the British naval blockade, the 44-gun Constitution took on a 38-gun Guerriere off Nova Scotia. Within 30 minutes the American crew had crippled its smaller opponent.
18 October: USS Wasp vs HMS Frolic
The Wasp and the Frolic were each 18-gun sloops and set to battle off the coast of Virginia. For more than 40 minutes the crews hammered at each other until the British vessel was reduced to little more than a wreck. The American’s sails and masts, however, had been so badly damaged it was unable to sail away from an arriving British 74-gunner and it was forced to surrender.
25 October: USS United States vs HMS Macedonian:
The 44-gun United States, under Captain Stephen Decatur, took on the British 38-gunner Macedonian off Madeira. Bombarding from long range, the United States pulverised the enemy ship and forced it to surrender. To add insult to British injury, the Macedonian was repaired, reflagged and fought again – this time for America.
29 December: USS Constitution vs HMS Java
The duel between these frigates took place off Brazil and, once again, ended in an American victory. It took two hours, but the Java was left a wreck and its captain forced to surrender.
24 February: USS Hornet vs HMS Peacock
In just 11 minutes, the Peacock was sunk off Brazil.
1 June: HMS Shannon vs HMS Chesapeake
Freshly built and with an inexperienced crew, the Chesapeake took on one of the Royal Navy’s best ships in the Shannon. Both were 38-gunners, but the British were able to out-sail and out-shoot the Americans and within minutes had inflicted enough damage to board the Chesapeake. The British suffered 83 casualties, while the Americans lost 146 men. The captured vessel was reflagged and served Britain with distinction.
14 August: HMS Pelican vs USS Argus
The 18-gun Argus was enjoying a very profitable commerce-raiding voyage in the English Channel – in which she had sunk or taken 20 prize ships – when she ran into the Pelican. The 20-gun British sloop exacted quick revenge and sank the raider.
3 September: USS Enterprise vs HMS Boxer
Sailing off New England the British 14-gunner was intercepted and taken by the Enterprise.
29 April: USS Peacock vs HMS Epervier
A 45-minute battle off Florida saw the British 18-gunner strike its colours.
21 March: HMS Phoebe vs USS Essex
For almost a year-and-a-half, the 38-gun Essex had been raiding British trading routes and had at least 40 scalps to its credit. Sailing with a smaller ship, the Americans found themselves blockaded in a Chilean port by the Phoebe and an 18-gun sloop, Cherub. A risky breakout in heavy weather proved disastrous for the Essex as its main mast snapped and it was forced back to port. The British then fired upon the stricken vessel from long range until it was smashed into wreckage.
28 June: USS Wasp vs HMS Reindeer
The Wasp engaged the Reindeer in the English Channel and sunk it within 30 minutes. She then went on to capture 13 prize vessels.
1 September: USS Wasp vs HMS Avon
This night action saw the 18-gun Avon sunk by the successful American raider.
Courtesy of The Napoleonic Guide.
Dr. Maturin suggests further reading:
- Napoleonic Era Naval Tactics (3/5): Types of Shot and Dismasting
- 12.29.1812 USS Constitution Burns HMS Java Gallery
- Account of the Action Between HMS Macedonian and USS United States
- A Word of Captain Caution: Myths About Privateers in the War of 1812
- The Two Greatest Uses of Trash Talk in the History of (Naval) Warfare