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When Washington burned

American historians have long claimed victory for their country over Britain in the War of 1812. However, as the 200th anniversary comes around, Andrew Lambert argues that it was the British who had greater reason to rejoice

An American privateer is shown repelling a British attack during the War of 1812. Despite some notable successes, the British regarded the entire conflict as a sideshow and quickly forgot it. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)
Published: May 7, 2012 at 1:54 pm
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This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 


Late in the afternoon on 1 June 1813, some 20 miles outside Boston harbour, two fifth-rate frigates met in single combat. On board HMS Shannon Captain Philip Broke led a well-drilled veteran crew. He had been preparing them for this moment for seven long years, anxiously seeking a suitable occasion to secure honour and glory. His opponent, Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake, had earned his promotion in battle only months before.

While Lawrence’s crew was significantly larger than Broke’s, he had only been in command for a few weeks. Lawrence had orders to destroy the troopships and transports supplying the British army in Canada. The previous day Broke had sent a written challenge to Boston, offering Lawrence the chance of glory in equal combat, and implying a stain on his honour if he refused. Lawrence never received the challenge; he needed no prompting.

When the Americans put to sea Broke skilfully led them out of sight of land before backing his sails. Then he spoke to the crew, urging them to do their duty in silence, relying on discipline and training. There was not a hint of bravado, or bombast:

“Don’t try to dismast her. Fire into her quarters: main deck to main deck; quarter deck into quarter deck.

Kill the men and the ship is yours. Don’t hit them about the head, for they have steel caps on, but give it them through the body. Don’t cheer. Go quietly to your quarters. I feel sure you will all do your duty; and remember you have the blood of hundreds of your countrymen to avenge.”

Honour and glory

It was an auspicious day to fight – the anniversary of the ‘Glorious First of June’, Lord Howe’s great victory over the French fleet in 1794. Broke’s themes of honour and glory, heritage and hurt, pride and, above all, professionalism provided a potent stimulus.

Broke manoeuvred skilfully to deny Lawrence the opportunity for long range action, drawing him into the close quarters killing zone, where fast, accurate gunnery would win the day.

As the American ship ranged alongside from astern, Broke ordered his gun crews to fire directly into each successive enemy gun-port. His 18‑pounder cannon were loaded with two round shot, or a single shot and canister, a tin case full of musket balls.

Each gun was fired with precision: within a minute the British had killed or wounded half the American gun crews and put several guns out of action. On the upper deck Broke’s 32‑pounder carronades repeated the tactics, while smaller 9‑pounder guns carefully targeted the Chesapeake’s wheel, her officers and helmsman.

After just one broadside, as thick acrid smoke began to shroud the two ships, it became clear that the Americans had lost the battle. Lawrence was the only officer left standing on the quarter deck, known as the ‘slaughter pen’ in the United States navy.

Below decks more officers were down, along with key personnel.

After two broadsides, the American gunnery teams had been devastated. Worse still for the Chesapeake, Broke’s men had shot away the American wheel, and cut key parts of her rigging. As the Royal Marines picked off any Americans remaining on the upper deck, Lawrence was hit in the groin by a one-ounce musket ball, severing the femoral artery. He was carried below in agony.

Leaderless and out of control, Chesapeake drifted up into the wind, exposing her flimsy stern galleries to British guns that inflicted further losses. Minutes later the ships collided. Broke immediately led 50 men onto the Chesapeake and drove the shattered remnants of her crew off the upper deck. The fighting was all over in 11 minutes – timed by the gunner in the Shannon’s powder magazine.

He may have won the greatest frigate battle of all time, but Philip Broke had no time to celebrate. In fact, soon after ending the Chesapeake’s resistance, he was attacked by three American sailors.

He killed one with his sword, but the second hit him on the head with a musket, while the third smashed a cutlass blade into his skull, splitting the cranium open to the brains. Within seconds, enraged British tars were hacking the assailants to pieces. All three men were later identified as British deserters.

Despite his horrific wound Broke survived to become a national hero and the father of professional naval gunnery. Lawrence was not so lucky.

He died six days later, just as the British brought his ship into Halifax, Nova Scotia in triumph. The casualties of this action were extraordinary: Shannon lost 23 killed and 58 wounded from a crew of 320; Chesapeake suffered at least 48 killed and 99 wounded from 370.

Many of the wounded men were beyond help. Such unprecedented losses demonstrated the skill and determination of both crews.

What had they been fighting for?

In June 1812 the United States declared war on Britain, invaded what is now Canada, and launched a massive attack on British merchant shipping in the Caribbean and North Atlantic. Britain was at the time engaged in a European war with Napoleon Bonarparte’s France. President James Madison saw Napoleon’s seemingly inevitable defeat of Russia as an opportunity to seize Britain’s North American territory, and the Spanish province of Florida for good measure.

While Madison’s Republican party, supported by land-hungry southern and western states, saw an opportunity, the commercial, seafaring north and east voted federalist, and preferred to carry on peaceful trading. That said the Americans did have a grievance: Britain’s total war against France was largely conducted by economic blockade and, as a result, the Royal Navy frequently arrested American ships for breaking the blockade.

The Americans were also enraged by the British practice of impressing seamen from these ships, considering any skilled seafarer who spoke English likely to be a subject of the king. In fact most were, although many had bought bogus certificates of ‘naturalisation’ which British law did not recognise. In 1812 the British repealed the economic sanctions, but refused point blank to end impressment, because it was essential to national survival.

The American invasion of Canada was a fiasco. The army at Detroit surrendered without a fight, an invasion across the Niagara river was thrown back in confusion when the New York Militia refused to leave the state. Madison had gone to war without an army fit to fight.

At sea, Britain’s natural element, the situation was equally strange. The tiny American navy, starved of resources for a decade by successive Republican governments, won three single-ship actions in 1812 that stunned the Royal Navy and startled the naval world. Even the French navy took heart; the heirs of Nelson could be beaten. American propaganda exploited these victories to create a sense of moral superiority, arguing that beating the British made them masters of the ocean. Meanwhile a swarm of American privateers, licensed predators, surged out of Baltimore, New York and Charleston inflicting heavy losses on merchant shipping. With the future of Europe on hold, as Napoleon drove ever deeper into Russia, Madison expected Britain to abandon Canada, and lose the European war.

In reality the American successes were far less worrying. The three frigate battles of 1812 were unequal combats. The American frigates were one third larger, and more heavily armed and manned than the standard British frigates. Little wonder that the United States and Constitution defeated British ships. These battles were hardly a ringing endorsement of naval prowess.

Equally significantly, North America had been a backwater of the global war for the past five years, with old ships and inferior officers. Broke was only sent to America in late 1811, as the threat of war increased.

British war aims

Despite public alarm the British government remained calm, moving extra troops to Canada from the West Indies, but not from Spain, while reinforcing the fleet with newer ships and better officers. British war aims were simple: to make the Americans leave Canada alone. This would allow them to get on with the conflict that really mattered: the one with Napoleon.

British strategy was to defend the Canadian frontier, secure merchant shipping and then impose a devastating economic blockade, the strategy already being used against France. Having sent reinforcements over the winter of 1812–13 the British focus shifted back to Europe. As Napoleon retreated from Russia, Britain created new alliances to destroy his empire.

The war at sea turned decisively in Britain’s favour on 1 June 1813, when Broke took the Chesapeake and two more frigates were driven into New London, Connecticut and blockaded for the rest of the war. Tighter convoy discipline, stronger naval escorts, and better intelligence of enemy movements reduced merchant shipping losses to a tolerable level, while blockading the key privateer ports kept many American ships from getting to sea.

Initially the Royal Navy’s economic blockade targeted the southern states that had voted for war. Indeed, until 1813 New England grain was feeding Wellington’s army in Spain. Licensed trade kept American ships and sailors usefully employed, supporting Britain, rather than cruising as privateers. American traders fed British troops in Canada.

By the time Napoleon abdicated in April 1814 the blockade covered the entire American coast, crippling the federal government funding, which largely depended on customs revenue, and crushing domestic economic activity. America ran out of money; by October 1814 it was bankrupt. This was the price to be paid for challenging a global maritime power without a professional army, and a minute navy. Republican zeal was no substitute for trained troops and a fleet, and without cash neither could be created in wartime.

The war on land, where Madison and his government expected to win, was a stalemate. British regulars, Canadian militia and Native Americans repelled American invasions for three consecutive years. These successes were countered by American victories on Lake Erie in 1813 and Lake Champlain in 1814, denying the British an opportunity to push south. Instead the British used amphibious raids on the Atlantic coast.

In 1813 the Royal Navy took control of Chesapeake Bay, raiding coastal towns, blockading key ports and offering freedom to fugitive slaves. Enlisting former slaves in the Colonial Marines terrified an American tidewater community that lived in perpetual fear of servile revolt. After the war many former slaves settled in Trinidad or Canada.

Despite the downfall of Napoleon the British government decided against sending a major military force to North America. It was more concerned with settling the future of Europe than prosecuting what it regarded as an annoying sideshow, and so despatched a mere 6,000 troops.

In August, 4,000 men led by Rear Admiral George Cockburn and General Sir Robert Ross landed on the Patuxent river in Maryland, marched on Washington, dispersed a larger American army at Bladensburg and occupied the fledgling American capital. The Americans had already burned the navy yard, leaving the British commanders to eat the dinner President Madison had laid on at the White House to celebrate a victory, before burning the mansion, and every other public building, apart from the patent office. They then returned up the Patuxent river without let or hindrance.

Three weeks later the same force landed outside Baltimore to see if the enemy would run away again. Instead the locals tuned out in large numbers to defend their property, putting five times as many men into the field as the British, and after a brief skirmish, in which Ross was killed, the army re-embarked. At the same time a smaller army occupied northern Maine.

By this time most American investors had switched their money into British government bonds. The peace, signed at Ghent in Belgium on Christmas Eve 1814, returned the parties to the status quo before hostilities began – the very terms the British had been seeking since war broke out. Not one American war aim was even considered.

Before the news could reach America, a British attack on New Orleans was beaten off with heavy losses, and then the American flagship, the USS President, was captured while attempting to escape from New York. The American flagship returned to Britain as the ultimate war trophy – her name is still used on the Royal Navy’s London headquarters, in honour of a great victory.

Despite the facts, American historians have spent the past 200 years claiming to have won the War of 1812. Canadians, with better cause, celebrate their success in defending their country. But the British quickly forgot the war. For them

1812 means Napoleon, Russia and the battle of Borodino. In 2012 it may be time to reconsider who really won the War of 1812.

America: a divided nation

Although the War of 1812 was fought between Britain and America, the war masked a deeper sectional conflict within the United States. The decision to declare war exposed a profound, existential struggle to define the culture of a new nation, one that divided the north from the south.

While the north remained a maritime, commercial region linked to Europe, another America had emerged in the years that followed the revolution of 1776. This new, dynamic America of the south and west was continental, expansionist and land hungry, anxious to push the frontiers west at the expense of Native Americans, Spaniards and Britons. These Americans did not share European cultural values, or the commercial impulse of New England. A new America of populist democracy, individualism and expansion was taking shape. This was the America that declared war, and it wanted more territory.

Two 1812 heroes reached the presidency, Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison. Both were western expansionists who spent most of the war killing Indians. If Native Americans lost the war, slavery won, as the amount of land under plantation agriculture doubled.

This explains the hysteria that followed the failed British invasion of New Orleans. After the battle Andrew Jackson’s victorious army rounded up fugitive slaves, rather than pursue the defeated British. After 1815 American politics were paralysed by the same profound cultural division that had been apparent in 1812.

These very different visions of the American future finally came to blows in 1861. Yet even in 1861 secretary of state William H Seward advised Abraham Lincoln to invade Canada, to unify the country and avert civil war.

However, Britain still maintained the crushing naval superiority that decided the earlier conflict, and Abraham Lincoln chose another option.


Andrew Lambert is Laughton professor of naval history at King’s College London. His latest book, The Challenge: Britain Against America in the Naval War of 1812, was published by Faber and Faber in April


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