Military history


Fortunes of War

FOR 1814 William Jones foresaw “a bloody and devastating summer and autumn.”

On December 30, 1813, a British schooner under a flag of truce had sailed into Annapolis, bearing an offer from London of direct negotiations, and throughout the spring rumors of impending peace again began to swirl. But Jones was gloomy over the reports coming back from the peace commissioners. The British absolutely refused to budge on the matter of impressment, and with Napoleon’s defeat and abdication on April 11, 1814, a triumphant Britain would be even less inclined to make any offers of conciliation. The American army’s land campaign had gone nowhere since its victory at the Battle of the Thames in October 1813; in March 1814 Wilkinson was relieved of his command after one final attempt to advance into Quebec ended in disaster yet again, and the prospects of any decisive American triumph against British Canada seemed to have vanished for good.

“Britain will have changed her character if under the dominating and intoxicating circumstances of her fortune she should display any thing like a rational disposition,” Jones wrote Madison. “My mind is made up for the worst and my consolation is that whatever disasters we may sustain, the vindictive desperation of the enemy will unite and purify the country and I trust enable us to sustain the conflict and preserve our institutions undefiled.”1

Jones had continued his double duty as navy and Treasury secretary but wrote a friend that the burden had become “intolerable.” He called himself “as perfect a galley slave as ever laboured at the oar.” Congress was also growing impatient with the extraordinary indulgence Madison seemed to be granting Gallatin in holding his place open indefinitely. In February 1814 Madison finally nominated a permanent replacement as Treasury secretary, but no one of knowledge and ability had been willing to touch the job, and even Jones would privately admit that the man who did accept it, Senator George Washington Campbell of Tennessee, was “entirely out of place in the Treasury.”2

Signals and instructions for ships under convoy (The National Archives, U.K.)

Federalist congressman Samuel Taggart of Massachusetts sarcastically suggested that the new secretary’s initials stood for “Government Wants Cash!” Jones, in one of his final tasks as acting secretary, had given Congress an estimate of expenses and revenues for the coming year, and the numbers were staggering. The cost of the war, he projected, was going to rise 50 percent over what it had been for 1813, $24.5 million for the army and $7 million for the navy. Only two-thirds of the $6 million in taxes so reluctantly approved the previous summer were likely to be collected, leaving a shortfall of $29.35 million to be raised through loans. On top of that, Madison, frustrated over the continuing failure to halt the illegal trade with the enemy and still convinced that withholding American goods could strike a lethal blow to British power, had requested and received approval from Congress for the most draconian embargo yet: no ships were allowed to leave American ports carrying any cargoes, and even fishermen had to put up large bonds before being allowed to put to sea. The loss of customs duties cut even deeper into the small stream of government income.

New England bankers, overwhelmingly Federalists, refused to subscribe to the new Treasury loans unless the administration agreed to drop impressment as an issue in the peace negotiations, and they put pressure on major banks in New York to follow suit. When the Treasury offered a $10 million loan in April, half was finally taken by a single New York financier, Jacob Barker, but he defaulted on a third of his commitment. Eventually the Treasury was offering a discount rate of 20 percent and still could not fill more than half the new loans it tried to offer. With the government floating new loans just to pay the interest on old ones, the United States was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.3

So was William Jones himself. He wrote a long letter to Madison in April, laying bare his dire financial straits and begging to be permitted to return to private life so he could begin paying off his debts and redeem his personal honor. He had never sought public office; he did not regret the pecuniary sacrifice it had entailed; but “circumstances over which I have no control” now required him to leave office as soon as the next meeting of Congress was concluded, he told Madison.

I trust you will believe me when I declare that nothing but the purest attachment to the independence honor and welfare of our happy country and its inestimable institutions, for the maintenance of which we are engaged in a war more just and inevitable than even that of our glorious revolution, could have prevailed upon me to accept the appointment with which you have honored me.

Every motive of private interest convenience prudence and settled social habits urged me to remain in private life; but the same indignant feelings which impelled me, not to the “tented field,” but to the frozen untented heights of Princeton, Pluckamen, and Morristown, when but just turned of fifteen prompted the acceptance of my present situation, with the hope of doing some good until an honorable peace should again bless our land; beyond which I never contemplated to remain in office.

Apologizing for the “egotism” of his letter, he continued:

I am poor, Sir—nay more I am embarrassed by the result of my mercantile affairs, which the untoward events of the last five years have reversed from a state of approximate independence to an inability to meet my obligations.

His voyage to India in 1808 had left him with a debt that he now had given up hopes of clearing. Due to the embargoes and America’s other self-imposed trade restrictions, he had had to sell his ship for half the $47,000 it had cost him; $90,000 worth of indigo cloth he had brought back from Calcutta had sat in a warehouse at considerable expense for three years, then shipped to Archangel, then eight hundred miles by land to St. Petersburg, then finally to Vienna seeking a market. He had just now learned that a few months ago his agent had disposed of it at a considerable loss. Jones’s debts totaled more than $14,000, which even his generous salary of $4,500 a year as navy secretary was not going to begin to pay off. It was time for him to go, as soon as Madison would release him from his duties.4

ON JUNE 3, 1814, Madison summoned his cabinet to a meeting for the seventh to decide, in effect, the future of the entire war.

Besides whatever “dominating and intoxicating” effects victory over Napoleon had brought Britain, it had also thrown open the whole continent of Europe to British trade. That had undermined whatever coercive power the American economic embargo had left, and on March 31, Madison had taken even his own party by surprise when he announced that the restrictive system that had been his article of faith for a decade and a half of public office was a dead letter, and asked Congress for immediate repeal of the three-month-old embargo. Large majorities in both houses swiftly agreed. Jones had argued several weeks earlier that repealing the embargo was the only way to restore some confidence in the government’s soundness in the financial community, but Madison’s reversal on so key a matter of principle was a harbinger that another one of those long-thought-out Madisonian conclusions, brewing since the news first began to arrive of the victories of Britain and her allies against Napoleon the previous fall, was coming to a head. Simply, the war was no longer winnable on the terms that Madison had launched it, and the challenge now was not to win but to find an honorable, or even a face-saving, way out.5

William Jones’s strategic thoughts had been running on a parallel course for some time. A few weeks before the June 7 meeting he laid out for Madison a strong case for going over to the purely defensive on land, essentially conceding that the conquest of Canada was impossible. While assuring the president that he would not see “the slightest relaxation” in the navy’s attention to the lakes—everything that “could or can be done has and shall be done”—Jones pointed out that offensive military operations could not seriously be contemplated, given the enemy’s secure positions at Kingston and on the Niagara peninsula. The stalemate on the ground meant that the war on the Canadian frontier was now “exclusively a naval contest” for control of the lakes, and the danger was that America was being drawn into a naval war of attrition it could never win.6 The American navy was approaching a force of 10,000 officers and men, with more than 3,000 of them on the lakes. If the buildup on Lake Ontario continued as planned, the number of men required for service on the lakes would have to more than double, to 7,000, within the next year. Even with a 25 percent pay bonus for lake duty voted in April it was proving difficult to find enough men, and then the increasingly generous bounties Congress kept voting to try to fill the chronically undermanned army had cut deeply into navy recruiting across the board. The army was now offering a bonus of $124 plus 320 acres of land to any man who agreed to enlist for the duration of the war; the most the navy could offer was a $48 bonus, and Jones reported that the frigate Congress, ready for sea at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, “has been waiting a long time only for 100 men and cannot get them.”7

But the continuing British influx of men and ships to the lakes, Ontario especially, had a more ominous strategic consequence: to “tempt us to follow his example and thus free him from trouble on the ocean and expose our Atlantic frontier to his depredations,” Jones warned. The British strength at Kingston meant that they could choose the “time circumstances and force,” always controlling the all-important military factor of initiative in the war on that front. “Not so on the ocean where twenty of his ships cannot check the depredations of one of our ships.”8

On the ocean, though, the American navy’s presence was down to the sloops of war that Jones had championed a year before. The Constitution was bottled up in Boston after barely escaping capture by the British frigates Junon and Tenedos in a mad dash into Marblehead in April, during which the ship had thrown tons of water and supplies overboard. She had subsequently slipped into Salem and then down to the navy yard at Charlestown, but there were now at least two British seventy-fours and four frigates in Boston Bay, and until the winter storms once again returned to blow them off station and provide a welcome cover of fog and snow, the Constitution’s chances of getting to sea were nil. At Portsmouth the Congress was now in ordinary, her crew dispatched to Lake Ontario; the President was still trapped in New York, the United States and the Macedonian in New London, the Constellation in Norfolk.

More frustrating, there was now the certainty that none of the new American ships being built at Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington—including three of the six new sloops of war, all three of the new frigates, and one of the three seventy-fours—was ever going to make it past the tight British blockade of the Chesapeake and Delaware. The seventy-fours at Portsmouth and Boston were at least further along than their stranded sister ship in Philadelphia, despite continued tinkering with their plans by Hull and Bainbridge and continual sparring by the two commodores over sharing the limited supplies of live oak stockpiled at their two yards. At Jones’s orders Hull had kept sending requests to Bainbridge—“For God’s sake give me all the timber you can, especially futtocks”—and received only grudging replies. Hull visited in person in March 1814, eliciting a barbed observation from Bainbridge in a letter to Rodgers: “Hull is as fat and good natured as ever.”9

On June 18, in a ceremony meant to coincide with the second anniversary of the declaration of the war, the Independence, America’s first ship of the line, slid eighty feet down her ways at Charlestown Navy Yard, then stuck and came to a halt. Bainbridge blamed the humid weather and the failure of the tallow that had been applied to the ways to adhere to the unseasoned wood; the next day a master joiner working to free the ship was struck and killed by a falling block. After several more days’ unsuccessful struggle, Bainbridge ordered boiling tallow and oil poured on the ways; and on June 22, before a crowd of twenty thousand, the ship splashed into the harbor. The fiasco gave critics of the war a great field to exercise their wit. Federalist newspapers widely reprinted the quip attributed to a gentleman in Philadelphia when he heard the news: “It was no wonder she stuck.… The war itself sticks; the recruiting sticks; the loan sticks; in short everything connected with the transaction of that illfated day sticks; and no wonder the 74 sticks.”10

But three of the new sloops of war had gotten to sea that spring of 1814. The Frolic, sailing from Boston in February, was captured after a thirteen-hour chase by a British frigate and schooner in which she threw everything including her guns overboard and almost made it; but the Peacock, which had slipped out of New York on March 12, more than made up for her fate by taking the British brig Epervier in a sharp action off Cape Canaveral on April 28, at a cost of two slight casualties to the British ship’s twenty-three, including nine dead. The victory netted $200,000 in specie the Epervier was carrying; the prize was manned and successfully brought into Savannah, the Peacock daringly decoying away two British frigates that tried to intercept them and then outsailing the larger enemy ships and making it safely to port two days after her prize. On May 1 the newly completed Wasp, built at a private shipyard in Newburyport, put out of Portsmouth on a commerce-raiding foray to the British isles; on June 4 the Peacock, ready for sea again, headed forth on the same orders. “Our new Sloops of war are a fair class of Vessels and sail to admiration,” Jones wrote Madison, determined to use his new weapons to their utmost effect.11

Jones’s strategic logic notwithstanding, the cabinet meeting in Washington on June 7 approved four ambitious plans to press on with the land war on the Canadian front: an expedition to Lake Huron in the far west, a landing on the north side of Lake Erie and a thrust toward York, a movement north of Kingston to secure the St. Lawrence River, and an advance toward Montreal to cut off Kingston from Quebec.

Three weeks later, Secretary of State Monroe sent the American peace commissioners a secret instruction that spoke more truly of Madison’s as-yet-undeclared, but unmistakable, decision to end the war: “On mature consideration, it has been decided,… you may omit any stipulation on the subject of impressment, if found indispensably necessary.”12

NEARING DUSK on the evening of July 6, 1814, a small boat came tossing through the rough surf near the town of Babylon on the south side of Long Island, and when with some difficulty it reached shore, a man in the uniform of a navy captain scrambled onto the beach. He was promptly taken prisoner by the local militia, and the story he told sounded so incredible that at first it seemed only to confirm the militia officers’ suspicions that they had captured a British officer on a secret mission. Only when their prisoner produced his U.S. naval commission identifying himself as Captain David Porter did they believe he was who he claimed to be. They gave him three cheers, fired a twenty-one-gun salute from a small swivel gun, and provided him a horse and carriage to take him to New York and an oxcart to haul the boat and his six-man crew, and the news of Porter’s return spread like lightning.13

His story was indeed incredible, and the tumultuous welcome he and the 125 other surviving men of the Essex received upon their arrival in New York two days later was probably more a tribute to their seemingly miraculous reappearance after nearly two years at sea than to any laurels of victory they could claim. When Porter crossed the ferry from the Brooklyn Navy Yard to Manhattan, a cheering crowd unhitched the horses from his cab as soon as he stepped in and over his protests pulled him up and down the streets of the city to roaring cheers. “The return of this distinguished naval officer,” the New York Columbian opined, “… has created in the hearts of his fellow citizens a kind of melancholy joy scarcely ever equaled on any similar occasion.”14

The melancholy came from the immediate news that Porter brought with him: the Essex had been taken in a murderous battle in Valparaíso harbor on March 28, 1814, leaving 60 percent of her 255 men casualties, including 89 dead. The American frigate had received some fifty broadsides during the two-and-a-half-hour fight; her carpenter reported counting two hundred 18-pound shot lodged in her hull.15

But their entire odyssey since leaving New York at the very start of the war had been nothing short of Homeric, and their very survival seemed, as the Columbian’s editorial writer put it, testimony to the “incomparable zeal” of the American sailor, even in defeat. The full story would be told by Porter in his published memoir the following year, but many of the details were in the newspapers in days, both from information Porter provided the editors and from his lengthy report to Secretary Jones, which was immediately made public.

On leaving the Galápagos the previous fall, the Essex and her prizes had made an easy three weeks’ sail due west, and on the morning of October 25, 1813, the flotilla stood into Taiohae Bay on the Marquesas island of Nuku Hiva. The water was crystalline and smooth, and as they opened the bay a long ribbon of white beach stretched before their eyes. Behind it several neat villages clustered amid the trees in the valleys between the mountains.

The wind seemed unfavorable for reaching moorings close to shore, so Porter anchored four miles away, just inside the mouth of the harbor, and shortly afterward a boat put out from the beach and headed their way. As it neared, Porter was astonished to see it that carried three white men, one of whom had clearly gone native, as he was dressed in nothing but a loincloth and his bared body was covered in ornate tattoos in the style of the local Polynesian tribes. He turned out to be an Englishman named Wilson who had arrived on the island under mysterious circumstances several years earlier and, having acquired the language, was able to interpret for Porter. The other two were Americans from a merchant ship that had left six of her crewmen on the island to collect a cargo of valuable sandalwood while the ship proceeded to Canton, but their ship had not returned and four of the men had since died; one of the two survivors was a navy midshipman on furlough, John M. Maury, who promptly requested to enter into service under Porter.

All along the hilltops they could see clusters of men, and Porter learned that the Ha’apa’a, a neighboring tribe that occupied the mountains, had been staging raids against the villages of the valley Te I’i tribe for several weeks, destroying their houses and killing their breadfruit trees. Porter ordered four boats armed and manned and went to shore at once to make a show of both force and friendship to the Te I’i. He passed out fishhooks and old iron barrel hoops, had the marines put on a demonstration of musketry, and made a short speech promising to be “as brethren” to the people of the valley and protect them against the mountain tribe.16

“When I wished to assemble my officers and men to return on board,” Porter recounted, “I perceived they had formed with the female part of the community, an intimacy much closer than that which brotherly relationship gave them a title to; they had soon made themselves understood without any aid of interpreters; and had wandered to the houses or perhaps the bushes, which suited their purpose as well, to ratify their treaty, the negotiating of which neither cost them much time or trouble.”17

Word spread instantly through the ship that the girls were as lovely and accommodating as the most vivid tales they had been spinning for weeks had imagined them to be, and the crew immediately volunteered to warp the ship in to her moorings rather than stand back out to sea and wait for more favorable wind to sail in, as Porter thought advisable. When the ship was brought in, the shore was completely lined with females waving in invitation, the sailors agog at the bare breasts and slender waists exposed by the girls’ white robes slung and knotted over their shoulders. Porter found it impossible to hold out against the “many applications” to go ashore, and soon it was a “perfect Bedlam,” with the girls and women coming back to the ship and staying through the whole night until put back ashore the following morning, “with whatever was given them by all such as had shared their favours.”18

Porter was disarmingly frank about the sexual mores of the islanders and the predictable reaction of his crew, at sea for over a year—at least when he wrote the first edition of his published journal.

Far from seeming to consider it an offence against modesty, they seemed to view it only as an accommodation to strangers who had claims on their hospitality. They attached no shame to a proceeding which they not only considered as natural, but as an innocent and harmless amusement, by which no one was injured.… With the common sailors and their girls, all was helter skelter, and promiscuous intercourse, every girl the wife of every man in the mess, and frequently of every man in the ship; each one from time to time took such as suited his fancy.19

Porter suggested that some of the officers formed more serious attachments but was circumspect about his own activities, only saying, “The women were inviting in their appearance, and practiced all the bewitching language of the eyes and features, which is so universally understood; and if an allowance can be made for a departure from prudential measures, it is when a handsome and sprightly girl of sixteen, whose almost every charm exposed to view, invites to follow her.”20

Within a few days the Americans had established a small village on a plain behind the beach, overlooking the valleys, with a cooperage to build new water casks, a rope walk to spin new rigging, and an oven made from a load of bricks found aboard one of the prizes baking fresh bread for all the men every day. The Essex was careened down on the beach, and the local men were employed scraping the barnacles off her bottom with half coconut shells. Work went to four o’clock each afternoon, and then a quarter of the men were allowed to stay each night ashore. David Farragut recalled that he and the other youngsters were placed under the close supervision of the ship’s chaplain but were allowed to wander about during the day on the island with the native boys their age, learning to swim, throw a spear, and walk on stilts. One day four thousand men from all the nearby villages appeared, and by nightfall they had constructed houses to replace all of the Americans’ tents; there were dwellings for the officers, a cooper’s shop, a sail loft, a sick bay, a guardhouse.21

The entire population of Nuku Hiva was about forty thousand, divided among three dozen often warring tribes. Porter had sent the Ha’apa’a a message offering friendship and offering to buy their hogs and fruit, but warning he would “send a body of men to chastise them” if they did not cease their raids on the valley. That had elicited only a derisive response that the Americans were clearly afraid to fight, since all they did was make threats. Lieutenant Downes then led a detachment of forty sailors and marines from the Essex Junior followed by a large body of the Te I’i up the mountain. There they were met by four thousand Ha’apa’a warriors, who launched a volley of stones and spears, then a barrage of contemptuous scoffs, and then “exposed their posteriors to them.” Realizing that their entire position on the island was now in the balance, Downes called on his men to charge; with three cheers they stormed the wooden fortress at the top of a hill where the enemy warriors had retreated, and rushing through another volley of spears and stones, they shot dead five of the natives at point-blank range. At that the battle was over.22

Almost immediately the Americans were plunged into an even larger war with the most aggressive tribe on the island, the Taipi, who were even more contemptuous of Porter’s offers of peaceful trade and told him if he was so powerful he would obviously just come and take their hogs; the fact that he did not obviously proved that he was unable to. This time Porter himself led a small expedition and was ambushed in an attack that he was lucky to escape from with his life; Downes’s leg was shattered by a stone, and the men beat a hasty retreat. “Perfectly sick of bush fighting,” Porter again tried to get the Taipi to back down by pointing out the superiority of his force and weapons, but the Taipi sent word back that they were unimpressed by the Americans’ muskets, which “frequently missed fire, rarely killed, and the wounds they occasioned were not as painful as those of a spear or stone.” Only after Porter led two hundred men on a three-day expedition into the Taipi strongholds did the tribe at last sue for peace, and Porter told them because of the trouble they had caused him they would have to pay four hundred hogs as an indemnity. They agreed.23

By December 9, 1813, the repairs of the Essex were complete and a full stock of wood and water was aboard, the decks crowded with hogs and heaps of bananas and dried coconuts. Porter had ordered the crew to remain aboard the last few days preparing the ship for sea, and the men were predictably “restless, discontented, and unhappy.”

One of the Essex’s men, while visiting the Essex Junior on a Sunday, boasted that they were going to refuse to weigh anchor when the order was given. “I was willing to let them ease their minds by a little grumbling,” Porter recalled, “… but a threat of this kind was carrying matters rather too far.” The next morning he mustered all the men and strode onto the deck, his cutlass in his hand, which he laid on the capstan and, as David Farragut recalled, “shaking with anger, addressed the crew.”

“All of you who are in favor of weighing the anchor when I give the order, pass over to the starboard side.”

To a man they all did, including the sailor Porter knew had been shooting his mouth off on the Essex Junior, a man named Robert White. Porter walked right up to him and demanded what he was doing on the starboard side. The man, trembling, tried to deny he had ever uttered any insubordinate words, causing Porter to reply, “You lie, you scoundrel!” and told him he had better run for his life. White leapt over the starboard gangway, was picked up by a passing canoe, and made for shore. Porter then turned back to the assembled men and told them that before he would ever let a mutiny succeed on his ship he would put a match to the magazine “and blow us all to hell.” With that he gave the order to weigh, and as the fiddle struck up “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” the anchor “fairly flew to the bows,” Farragut recalled, and the Essex and the Essex Junior made sail and put out to sea.24

PORTER’S DESTINATION was Valparaíso, his intent another one of those tests of honor that had already cost the American navy far too much. Since September, Porter had known that the British squadron under the command of Captain James Hillyar was on his trail, and Porter was determined to “bring them to action if I could meet them on nearly equal terms,” as he would later explain in his official report to Secretary Jones. “I had done all the injury that could be done the British commerce in the Pacific, and still hoped to signalize my cruize by something more splendid before leaving that sea.” Believing that Hillyar “would seek me at Valparaiso as the most likely place to find me,” that was where he accordingly would go.25

The Essex arrived there on February 3, 1814, and a few nights later Porter gave a ball for the citizens of the town aboard the ship. Early the next morning the Essex Junior signaled from the end of the harbor that two enemy vessels were in sight. At eight o’clock the British warships Phoebe and Cherub sailed into the harbor and began at once what would prove to be a two-month-long test of nerves as each captain tried the limits of the other’s willingness to respect the neutrality of the port. The Phoebe made straight for the Essex and luffed up on her starboard bow, coming within ten or fifteen feet. The two captains knew each other from the Mediterranean: Porter had been a frequent guest of Hillyar and his family at Gibraltar.

“Captain Hillyar’s compliments to Captain Porter, and hopes he is well,” the English captain called from the quarterdeck.

“Very well, I thank you,” Porter answered, “but I hope you will not come too near, for fear some accident might take place which would be disagreeable to you.”

The Essex had been at quarters for some time, the deck crowded with boarders armed with cutlasses and a pair of pistols apiece, the gun crews at their stations with the smoke wafting from their slow matches, and at one gun an American—who Farragut said was still recovering from the revelries of the night before—thought he saw his opposing number on the English ship smirking at him through the gunport. “I’ll stop your making faces,” the American muttered, and he was just about to touch off his gun when the lieutenant caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and knocked him to the deck. “Had that gun been fired, I am convinced that the Phoebe would have been ours,” Farragut would later write.

Above decks the conversation between the captains had quickly dropped the pretense of politeness. Hillyar innocently declared that if his ship did fall on board of Porter’s it would only be by accident.

“You have no business where you are,” Porter called back. “If you touch a rope-yarn of this ship, I shall board instantly.”

For a few incredibly tense moments the standoff continued. Porter too clearly had his later regrets that he did not seize the opportunity then and there, especially as Hillyar’s near approach was such a flagrantly hostile move that it could have offered the justification of self-defense for an attack by the Essex. “The temptation was great,” Porter wrote, but Hillyar raised both his hands, apologized profusely, and said he had had no intention of running his jibboom across the Essex’s forecastle. The Phoebe drifted on past, anchoring a half mile away.26

Over the following days the officers and crews of both ships frequently saw one another ashore and even paid some friendly calls. Porter kept trying to goad Hillyar into challenging him to a one-on-one fight between the two frigates, but Hillyar replied that he was not prepared to send away the Cherub and abandon the advantage of superior force, and he intended to keep the Essex blockaded in the harbor. The Americans launched a campaign of sarcastic provocations; every night the Essex’s men serenaded the British ships with choruses of “Yankee Doodle” adapted with new lyrics of “nautical sarcasms,” and every day a flag flew from the masthead with the motto “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.” The British tried to reply in kind. Porter observed, “The songs from the Cherub were better sung, but those of the Essex were more witty, and more to the point.” The Phoebe’s attempt to answer “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” with its own pithy saying similarly fell flat: “God and Country; British Sailors’ Best Rights; Traitors Offend Both.” A subsequent taunting challenge from the American sailors, again proposing that they send the Cherub away and fight it out ship to ship, was addressed to “their oppressed brother tars, on board the ship whose motto is too tedious to mention.”27

But time was clearly on the British captain’s side. Porter had received word that the sloop Raccoon, which had been dispatched to attack the American fur-trapping station on the Columbia River in Oregon, would soon arrive in Valparaíso and that three other British frigates were on their way to the Pacific to join the pursuit of him as well. On March 28, 1814, with a strong wind blowing from the south directly out to the sea, the larboard anchor cable on the Essex parted and her starboard anchor dragged free, and Porter decided to make sail at once and try to make good his escape. The Essex raced for the sea and was on the verge of getting to windward of the two British ships, squeezing between them and the westward edge of the harbor’s mouth, when a squall struck and carried away the main topmast, plunging the men aloft into the sea, where they drowned.

The wind would not let Porter get back to the anchorage, but he sailed across the harbor’s mouth and anchored within a pistol shot of the shore at the eastern edge. The Essex now had only Chilean neutrality to protect her; she was crippled and in a vulnerable position, and Hillyar’s intentions were soon unmistakable. The Phoebe came up under the American ship’s stern, the Cherub off her bow, and a little before 4:00 p.m. opened up a merciless fire, both keeping out of range of the Essex’s carronades. Three times during the fight the Essex’s men managed to get a spring attached to the anchor, a line running from the anchor cable to the capstan so that the ship could be hauled around to get her broadside to bear; each time the line was shot away by enemy fire. At one point Hillyar’s first lieutenant, William Ingram, protested that it was “deliberate murder” to lay off and shoot at an enemy ship “like a target” when she was unable to return fire, but Hillyar brushed him aside and said he had his orders and was determined not to risk anything to chance.28 It was an absolute bloodbath aboard the Essex. The cockpit, steerage, wardroom, and berth deck were overflowing with wounded, and nearly all of the Essex’s guns were out of action. One gun’s crew had been manned three times; each time the entire crew was killed, fifteen men in all. At 6:20 p.m. Porter ordered the colors hauled down.

David Farragut’s only injury was when a two-hundred-pound sailor ahead of him on the ladder was struck in the face by an eighteen-pound shot and fell on top of him, covering him with blood and gore and knocking him unconscious for a few moments, but leaving him no more than badly bruised. He worked through the night helping the surgeons tend to the rows upon rows of wounded and the next morning was brought aboard the Phoebe and ushered into the steerage. Shortly afterward he was roused from the tears of despair that had finally engulfed him when he saw a passing boy of the Phoebe’s crew with a pig under his arm and recognized it as his own pet pig, Murphy. Farragut demanded it back; the British sailor claimed it as a prize; “we usually respect private property,” Farragut retorted. Some of the British sailors then suggested that the boys wrestle for it. Farragut agreed, quickly trounced his opponent, and emerged with the pig and the “feeling I had in some degree wiped off the disgrace of our capture.” Shortly afterward Farragut was invited to join the two captains for breakfast in Hillyar’s cabin, but his “heart was too full” to eat anything. When Hillyar kindly said to him, “Never mind my little fellow, it will be your turn next perhaps,” Farragut quickly excused himself and left the cabin “to keep from crying in his presence.”29

Hillyar agreed to let the survivors return to America on parole in the Essex Junior, and provided them a passport allowing them to pass unmolested through the blockading squadrons. On leaving, Porter thanked Hillyar for his consideration but said he would be equally frank in telling the world how Hillyar had attacked him in neutral waters. Hillyar looked stricken, grasped Porter by the hand, and said, “My dear Porter, you know not the responsibility that hung over me, with respect to your ship. Perhaps my life depended on my taking her.”30

The Essex Junior set sail April 27. On July 5, approaching Sandy Hook, the ship was boarded by the British razee Saturn. Her captain looked at the passport, said Hillyar “had no right to make such an arrangement,” and ordered the Essex Junior to remain under his lee for the night. Porter replied that in that case the conditions of his parole had been violated; he considered himself a prisoner of war and thus “at liberty to effect my escape if I can.” The next morning he had the whale boat manned and armed and ordered the Essex Junior to keep between the Saturn and the boat as he pulled off for the shore sixty miles away, quickly disappearing into a fog bank. The Essex Junior was finally allowed to proceed to New York with the rest of the crew, and after a subsequent investigation both American and British authorities agreed that the Americans had been discharged from their parole as a result of the British officer’s actions in detaining them.31

Back at Nuku Hiva, Porter had left his marine lieutenant, John M. Gamble, with the three remaining prize vessels and twenty officers and men with orders to finish preparing the ships for sea. Gamble would have an even longer and more amazing odyssey. The Americans’ situation on the island began to deteriorate almost immediately. Several men deserted, joining up with Robert White, the mutinous sailor Porter had chased off the Essex on his departure. There were six English prisoners as well under Gamble’s charge, and on May 7, Gamble was aboard the Seringapatam when he was suddenly grabbed and thrown to the deck, had his hands and leg tied, and was dragged into the cabin below, where a few minutes later he was joined by his two midshipmen. One of the mutineers accidentally shot Gamble in the ankle with his pistol. Later that night they put the officers into a leaky boat, and the Seringapatam sailed off under English colors.

Ashore things were clearly going wrong simultaneously. Possibly instigated by the Englishman-gone-native Wilson, and certainly emboldened by the Americans’ sudden weakness, the once friendly Te I’i, whom Porter had praised for never having once stolen a thing from the Americans, had begun plundering the camp. When Gamble sent all his remaining hands to retrieve the items still left on shore, they were attacked by the islanders, and Midshipman William Feltus and three others were massacred. The survivors clambered into the boat and rowed for the Sir Andrew Hammond, where Gamble, still in excruciating pain from his bullet wound, watched in horror as canoes put off from every direction trying to cut off the fleeing boat. Hopping on one foot from gun to gun, he fired at the approaching natives with rounds of canister and grape that had already been loaded and managed to drive off the attack. Meanwhile hundreds of other Te I’i tribesmen were swarming over the American encampment, pulling down the houses. Down to a crew of eight, five of them ill or injured, Gamble ordered the Greenwich set on fire, then cut his cables and, with the jib and spanker sails bent, got the Sir Andrew Hammond under way.

Without charts and without enough men to work the ship to windward, Gamble reached the Hawaiian Islands three weeks later, took on provisions, and was heading for Valparaíso still hoping to rendezvous with Porter when he was captured by the Cherub. The British captain kept the Americans in tight confinement on board his ship for five months, the whole way to Rio de Janeiro. Gamble arrived home on August 28, 1815, the end of a voyage that had lasted longer than the entire war.32

ON ASSUMING the North American command, Admiral Cochrane had wasted no time declaring his intention to wage a more uncompromising brand of warfare than his predecessor had pursued. Cochrane had arrived in Bermuda on March 6, 1814, but Warren had brusquely rebuffed Cochrane’s proposal that he take charge at once; perhaps still thinking of the prize money that was due him as long as he retained the position of commander in chief, Warren icily informed his successor that he “must decline entering into any discussion” of an early transfer and would “strictly conform to the Orders of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, as to the delivering over to you the Command of His Majesty’s Ships upon this Station … and therefore am to inform you that I shall not be prepared to place you in the Command thereof until April 1.”33

So Cochrane bided his time but was clearly chafing to get into the fight. The day after taking charge, he issued a proclamation opening a new front in the reinvigorated campaign he was preparing to launch along the Chesapeake with the return of summer, and the expected arrival of considerable reinforcements in men and ships.

WHEREAS it has been represented to me, that many Persons now resident in the UNITED STATES, have expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom,…

This is therefore to Give Notice,

That all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the UNITED STATES will, with their Families, be received on board of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels of War, or at the Military Posts that may be established, upon or near the Coast of the UNITED STATES, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE Settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with all due encouragement.34

The notice nowhere specifically mentioned “slaves,” but it did not need to: everyone knew who it was aimed at. Cochrane had a thousand copies printed up and sent them to Cockburn, who had returned to Lynnhaven Bay a few weeks earlier to begin reconnoitering and prepare a base of operations for the summer campaign. Cochrane optimistically thought he might be getting as many as fifteen thousand troops from France plus several regiments from England and Ireland. In the meantime, Cockburn established a base at Tangier Island, located almost in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, to receive runaway slaves and begin training them for the several companies of “Colonial Marines” he planned to organize. Cochrane also sent him £2,000 for “contingent expenses”: both to buy information and to try to kidnap “Persons of Political Interest” connected to the Republican party, to be held as hostages.

While awaiting the promised reinforcements, Cockburn began looking for likely targets he could raid with the 1,500 or so men he currently had available. “You are at perfect liberty as soon as you can muster a Sufficient force, to act with the utmost Hostility against the shores of the United States,” Cochrane had instructed him, pointing to American actions as justification for harsh retaliation:

Their Government authorizes & directs a most destructive War to be carried on against our Commerce & we have no means of retaliating but on shore, where they must be made to feel in their Property, what our Merchants do in having their Ships destroyed at Sea; & taught to know that they are at the mercy of an invading foe.… Their Sea Port Towns laid in Ashes & the Country wasted will be some sort of a retaliation for their savage Conduct in Canada.35

Cochrane specifically suggested that he choose targets that would best facilitate the exodus of more slaves: “Let the Landings you may make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage, the force you have is too Small to accomplish an object of magnitude—the great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population with them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Maddison will be hurled from his Throne.”36

Hundreds of slaves flocked to Tangier through the spring and summer of 1814. Although they had had time to receive only a few weeks’ training in firearms, Cockburn reported they fought extremely well in several small skirmishes. Unlike the regular troops, there was scarcely any worry of them deserting; they knew the country well; and the fear that armed black men had already induced among the Virginia and Maryland militia units had significant shock value in itself: “They expect Blacky will have no mercy on them and they know that he understands bush fighting and the locality of the Woods as well as themselves.” In one well-publicized incident that sent tremors through slaveholders along the Chesapeake, an escaped slave led a British force to his former master’s home, and while the troops looted the plantation, the ex-slave, armed with a pistol and sword, sat up through the night verbally tormenting his former master. At dawn the troops withdrew, taking the rest of the plantation’s slaves with them.

Cockburn reported after one early raid by his black marines, “They have induced me to alter the bad opinion I had of the whole of their Race & I now really believe these we are training, will neither shew want of Zeal or Courage when employed by us in attacking their old Masters.” In late May 1814 the Colonial Marines had displayed notable courage during an attack on a militia battery at Pungoteague, near Tangier Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore: one of the black soldiers was shot and died instantly, but, Cockburn said, “it did not daunt or check the others in the least but on the contrary animated them to seek revenge.”37

Cochrane’s plans for revenge were on a grander scale, however. In July 1814 he wrote Lord Melville laying out options for the destruction of one of “the principal Towns of America,” Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis, Richmond, and Norfolk among them. He issued sterner and sterner public directives to his commanders to “destroy & lay waste such Towns and Districts upon the Coast as you may find assailable.” While doing so, he added, they should “take every opportunity of explaining to the people” that they would have to look to their own government for compensation, since the British actions were merely “retributory justice” for the “wanton & unjustifiable outrages on the unoffending Inhabitants” of Upper Canada. Yet Cochrane vacillated for weeks over where the brunt of the British sword should fall. He still had received no official word on how many troops would arrive or when. Croker had warily distanced himself from any responsibility for the direction of the land campaign, telling Cochrane, “Their Lordships entrust to your judgment the choice of the objects on which you may employ this Force,” and advising only that he not advance too far inland as to risk having his line of retreat cut, and to give preference to “crippling the Enemy’s naval Force” should such an opportunity present itself.38

Only in mid-July did the first even semi-official word reach Cochrane in Bermuda about the size of the army. After months of buildup in British newspapers, which had been reporting that a vast invasion force was assembling, it must have scarcely seemed believable that only a few thousand troops in the end were on the way. But the news was confirmed the last week of July when two convoys arrived in Bermuda carrying four thousand British infantry. They and a few hundred marines would be all the force available.

Cochrane still hesitated, even toying with the idea of abandoning a campaign on the Chesapeake altogether given the approach of the “sickly season.” He considered instead striking New Hampshire to destroy the ship of the line under construction at Portsmouth, or perhaps Rhode Island. But Cockburn was strongly urging an attack on Washington, and a letter from him that arrived in Bermuda on July 25 aboard a schooner bearing dispatches finally persuaded the commander in chief. On August 1 Cochrane sailed for the Chesapeake with his invasion force: Washington it would be.

On August 18, 1814, a huge British flotilla entered the Patuxent River: four ships of the line, seven frigates, seven transports, and several brigs or schooners. The next day the British force of 4,500 men, led by Major General Robert Ross, a veteran of the Peninsula campaign, accompanied by Admiral Cockburn, landed at Benedict, Maryland. It was thirty-five miles from Washington on a good road, and as one of Cockburn’s captains had predicted a few weeks earlier, the troops met virtually no opposition for the first twenty miles. “Jonathan is so confounded,” Captain Joseph Nourse had written Cockburn, “that he does not know when or where to look for us, and I do believe it would require little force to burn Washington.” He added: “I hope soon to put the first torch to it myself.”

Despite weeks of warning, the defense of the capital city was in utter disarray. Another one of the many inexperienced political generals who were the bane of the United States army was in charge: Brigadier General William Winder put on an air of being knowledgeable about military matters but in fact his major qualification for office was being the nephew of the Federalist governor of Maryland, whose cooperation Madison desperately needed. Winder had spent weeks conducting a personal reconnaissance of the approaches to Washington while scarcely more than a few hundred state militia answered a summons Madison had issued on July 1 for 100,000 troops to defend the city.39 For much of the summer the flotilla of rowed barges that Joshua Barney had organized had kept up a harassing campaign against British naval forces in the lower Patuxent, to the point that it had become a major thorn in Cockburn’s side. But on August 20 Jones sent an urgent order to Barney to fall back, destroy his boats, and dispatch his 400 flotillamen for the defense of Washington. As the British troops marched toward Upper Marlboro on August 22, they heard the booms in the distance of Barney’s flotilla boats blowing up. Barney’s men arrived at the navy yard in southeast Washington soon afterward.40

Winder at last made a decision to organize a stand at Bladensburg, just northeast of Washington, with the Eastern Branch forming a natural barrier ahead of him. He placed the defenders in three lines, but the disposition was all wrong; even a Maryland militia lieutenant saw at a glance that the troops were far too scattered. On the morning of August 24, Barney received orders from Winder to deploy his flotillamen to defend the bridge in Washington across the Eastern Branch and blow it up if the British attempted to cross there; but Jones and Madison soon arrived at the scene, and as Jones noted, it was a ridiculous misallocation of force: the task of blowing up the bridge “could as well be done by half a dozen men, as by five hundred.” Madison personally ordered Barney’s force to head for Bladensburg and join the defense there. Barney’s flotillamen, plus 120 marines from the Washington barracks, took off “in a trot,” hauling three 12-pounder and two 18-pounder naval guns that Jones had earlier ordered mounted on carriages as part of the preparations to defend the yard.

Arriving at Bladensburg, they were placed in the third line, but the position Winder had chosen was too far back to effectively support the second line. Secretary of State Monroe, who chose that unfortunate moment to play general, having first volunteered his services as a cavalry scout and galloping about the countryside, showed up at Bladensburg just in time to make matters worse by repositioning the second line, on his own orders, so that it was incapable of supporting the first. Some seven thousand militia had arrived at last, but most had been marching without rest or food.

At 1:00 p.m. on August 24 the first British troops appeared on the other side of the river, and by 4:00 p.m. the battle was over and the British were marching on to Washington and the American forces were in headlong flight. Only Barney’s men had held their line, pouring a murderous fire of grape and canister into the oncoming redcoats until the British were already completely in their rear. Barney was shot in the thigh and was pouring blood. His horse was killed. Cockburn, learning who the wounded man was, personally came up to him and spoke a few polite words and ordered a British surgeon to tend to his wounds at once.41

When word had arrived of the British invasion force entering the Patuxent, William Jones had ordered Rodgers and Porter from New York to head south to assist in the defense of Baltimore and Washington, but events followed far too swiftly. At the Washington Navy Yard, the chief clerk, Mordecai Booth, had spent days frantically scouring the city trying to commandeer wagons to remove the gunpowder from the yard, but there were hardly any to be found amid the mass exodus of government officers and citizens fleeing with public records and personal belongings. On the evening of the twenty-fourth Booth had been stricken by the sight of the thousands of American troops in full retreat past the yard: “Oh! my Country—And I blush Sir! to tell you—I saw the Commons Covered with the fugitive Soldiery of our Army—running, hobbling, Creaping & appearently panick struck.” With all of the navy yard’s seamen, marines, and even mechanics and laborers pressed into service in Winder’s army, the yard was defenseless. Jones solemnly approved the commandant’s order to set fire to the naval stores—and, with even greater pain, the newly completed sloop of war Argus and the nearly completed frigate Columbia. Shops, timber, casks of provisions, small arms, cordage, paint, tar all went up in the flames. The total loss was more than a half million dollars.42

Jones found his family in northwest Washington, then joined Madison across the Potomac in Virginia, where he had fled with other government officials. Cockburn, arriving on the streets of the city not long after, conspicuous astride a white horse with his sunburned face and rusty gold-laced hat, made joking inquiries of the townspeople about President Madison’s whereabouts and personally supervised troops pulling down the building that housed the offices of the National Intelligencer newspaper, telling them to “destroy all the C’s so they can’t abuse my name.” Cockburn then led a detachment into the White House, picked up a few souvenirs, and set the building ablaze. Other troops burned the war and navy department offices, the Treasury, and the Capitol before the British forces withdrew the way they had come and reembarked on their ships to return down the Patuxent to the Chesapeake Bay.43

Another squadron of British ships had meanwhile ascended the Potomac, and Jones, who had returned to Washington on August 27 with the rest of the cabinet in the wake of the British departure, was furious when he saw the abject terms of surrender the town of Alexandria had agreed to. Offering no resistance, town officials had meekly acceded to a huge demand for tribute, including all the produce and merchandise in the town. Rodgers, Porter, and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had now arrived in Washington, and Jones ordered them to attack the British naval force as it sailed back down the Potomac; with fire ships and artillery erected on the heights, they succeeded in delaying, though not stopping, the British force’s escape.44

Jones was sending out a constant stream of orders to the naval detachments in the region, receiving and answering two or three express dispatches in the middle of each night. Eleanor had gone on to Baltimore, and on the way she passed through Bladensburg and was deeply affected by the scene of the battleground. On September 1 she wrote her husband of her safe arrival and her continuing fears for his safety—and for his honor, as the backlash of public opinion turned on the administration over the humiliation of the British attack.

My Dear Husband,

We have separated under such distressing circumstances that I know not what evil awaits me—Now I can indulge a hope of being soon relieved from the most awful apprehensions of your safety.

 … A view of the ground where the Battle was fought, and the Graves of the fallen Men, The cannon near which Come Barney lost his horse and where they buried it excited the most painful sensations, particularly on seeing the foot of one above the earth. Passing the hospitals in Bladensburgh we saw the wounded, Americans, and British, and preparations to bury an English soldier just expired—On the Road we met our heroes of the Navy with their crews, the Marines, Cavalry, and 800 regulars …

May the Almighty guard you

in the hour of danger prays

your Affte Wife

Eleanor Jones45

Admiral Cochrane wrote Melville full of high spirits over “the brilliant success” of the raid on the enemy capital, though he expressed concern that General Ross did not fully share his view that Baltimore, as “the most democratic town … ought to be laid in Ashes” next. Ross, he feared, was inclined to be too lenient on the Americans: “When he is better acquainted with the American Character he will possibly see as I do that like Spaniels they must be treated with great severity before you ever make them tractable.”46

The American navy’s delaying action on the Potomac bought some valuable days to prepare the defenses of Baltimore, where all signs pointed the British would indeed strike next. Here the American forces acquitted themselves far better, making amends for the debacle at Bladensburg by inflicting heavy British casualties even as they fell back behind the city’s prepared defensive works in the attack that began September 12. During the initial assault an American sharpshooter killed Ross: after that the British gave no quarter to any American snipers. But the attack failed, as did the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor by mortars and Congreve rockets on the night of September 13–14, an event witnessed by Francis Scott Key and immortalized in the words he began to set down the following morning in a poem titled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” subsequently published under the title of its most memorable phrase: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” William Jones sent Eleanor, two weeks later, a copy of the “beautiful little effusion written by Mr F. Key a respectable young lawyer of talents residing in Georgetown … He is a Federalist but with such Federalists I can have but a common feeling.”

The British forces again withdrew to the Chesapeake, their next target a matter of intense speculation and anxiety. In the midst of everything else Jones was working “from day dawn to midnight” on a proposal for a reorganization of the Navy Department to leave to his successor and trying to wrap up his personal affairs in Washington. He had told only four congressmen of his final decision to leave office by December 1, but “people however begin ‘to smell a mouse’ as my home is given up,” he wrote Eleanor. “May God preserve all things right at least till after the 1st of December,” Jones continued. “Though all is well and my reputation high I feel as if I was standing upon gun powder with a slow match near it. Public expectation is so extravagant, opinion so capricious, and prejudice and ignorance so predominant, that millions would not tempt me to stay one year longer.… Though I am labouring to smooth the way for my successor I commiserate him with all my heart whoever he may be I predict his ruin if the war continues.”47

He told her he planned to sell either his brown riding horse or their pair of grays and the carriage to begin making good on his burden of personal debt:

After all I shall return to your arms a beggar with the proceeds of our surplus furniture carriage and horses and a few dollars scraped from the late savings in all perhaps sufficient to support us 12 or 18 months in retired economy. Well never mind it, I shall return with a pure heart and peace of mind as cheerful as a lark and with sufficient common sense to keep out of the snares of public life.

He added a lament to his old dog, whose death he had just received news of. “Alas, poor Bibo! I fear he died a misanthrope for man was very unkind to him. He was a dog without guile, he loved and was faithful to his friends—would that man could say as much.”48

ADMIRAL COCHRANE afterward tried to claim that the attack on Baltimore had been intended all along only as a “demonstration” and then blamed Ross, who was no longer around to defend himself, for having persuaded him against his better judgment to approve the failed operation.49

There was a lot of blame-shifting going on among the British leadership over the direction the war was taking. The new American sloops of war Peacock and Wasp had been on a rampage through the North Atlantic since setting out in the spring, leaving British merchants sputtering with outrage they directed almost entirely against their own government. On July 8, 1814, the Wasp arrived at the French port of L’Orient, having burned or scuttled seven prizes from the Irish coast to the mouth of the English Channel; the American ship had also destroyed the British navy brig Reindeer in a brief but furious action on June 28 that left the British captain’s clerk the only surviving officer available to give the surrender to the American boarders that came swarming over her bloody decks nineteen minutes after the shooting began.

After refitting in L’Orient—over the indignant protests of the British government and the undisguised pleasure of the local French populace—the Wasp took seven more prizes while defeating another Royal Navy brig, the Avon, on September 1, before disappearing forever under unknown circumstances after last being seen near the Cape Verde Islands on October 9.

While the Wasp was refitting, the Peacock arrived to maraud through British home waters in July and August, taking fourteen prizes along the coasts of Ireland and the Shetlands. The summer of 1814 also brought a number of larger and more daring American privateers into British home waters; the largest of them were ship-rigged vessels almost as well armed and well manned as sloops of war like the American navy’s Wasp and Peacock, and they too set to plundering with an impunity that astonished the British merchants. The Chasseur of Baltimore carried sixteen long twelve-pounders and a crew of one hundred and haunted the English Channel for months, taking at least fifteen prizes while eluding the frigates and brigs sent after her. Her captain, Thomas Boyle, at one point taunted the British by sending to London on a vessel he had released as a cartel his own sarcastic version of the grandiloquent blockade declarations issued by the Royal Navy’s commanders in American waters:


Whereas it has become customary with the Admirals of Great Britain, commanding small forces on the coast of the United States, particularly with Sir John Borlase Warren and Sir Alexander Cochrane, to declare all the coast of the said United States in a state of strict and rigorous blockade, without possessing the power to justify such a declaration, or stationing an adequate force to maintain said blockade,

I do, therefore, by virtue of the power and authority in me vested (possessing sufficient force), declare all the ports, harbors, bays, creeks, rivers, inlets, outlets, islands, and sea coast of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in a state of strict and rigorous blockade.50

On August 17, 1814, the directors of two major British insurance companies, London Assurance and Royal Exchange Assurance, wrote to Secretary Croker about the “numerous captures of very valuable Ships” that had been made by the American sloops of war and privateers operating in British waters and “most earnestly” requested protection to “prevent a repetition of these ruinous and unlooked-for losses to the Trade of this Country.” Croker at first tried employing the usual overwhelming arrogance that was his first line of defense to any political attack, and answered that he was “commanded by their Lordships to acquaint you, that there was a force adequate to the purpose of protecting the Trade.” Large meetings of merchants, shipowners, and underwriters in Liverpool, Glasgow, Bristol, and other ports involved in the coastal trade passed indignant resolutions. They pointed out that, without any precedent, even American privateers were now burning ships they captured; that insurance rates just for the passage from England to Ireland had quadrupled and quintupled and were now twice what they were even during the worst of the war with France, when the Royal Navy was surely fully occupied dealing with a much more formidable enemy than America; and that “the number, the audacity, and the success of the American Privateers with which our Channels have lately been infested, have proved injurious to the Commerce, are humbling to the pride, and discreditable to those who direct the great Naval Power of this Nation.”

Croker replied this time that no fewer than three frigates and fourteen sloops of war were actually at sea patrolling the western and northern waters of the United Kingdom but that of course it was impossible to provide complete protection against “the occasional attempts of Privateers”: if losses were occurring, it was the merchants’ own fault for leaving the protection of the convoys. He added that it was their lordships’ determination “to bring to punishment the parties who may have been guilty of such illegal acts.”51

Croker’s petulant responses were reprinted everywhere, accompanied with derisive comments. The Naval Chronicle’s correspondent “Albion” observed that the Admiralty was the party who should be “brought to account,” for “leaving the coast of Ireland and the English Channel blockaded by half a dozen Yankee cruisers!” But then, he added, the entire history of the “ill fated” American war could be traced through the trail of “glaring errors of our naval administration.”

The incensed merchants then appealed directly to the prince regent, noting in their petition to His Royal Highness the “coldness and neglect” with which their earlier appeals had been received by the proper departments of government.52

The nuisance value of a warship engaged in raiding enemy commerce was in principle many times that of a privateer; a defensive patrol or convoy escort sufficient to chase off an opportunistic privateer was one thing, a force that might have a warship-to-warship engagement on its hands another. But several of the especially intrepid American privateers began taking on the enemy’s men-of-war with a show of fight that sent more shock waves through the British naval establishment in late summer and early fall of 1814, when the Royal Navy suffered two of its bloodiest defeats of the war, both at the hands of privateers. On the night of September 26, in Fayal harbor in the Azores, the privateer brig General Armstrong from New York—a very different vessel from the one of the same name whose crew had mutinied off North Carolina in 1813—was attacked by four heavily armed and manned boats from ships of a British squadron that had arrived that afternoon. It was a gross violation of the port’s neutrality, and the British commander later tried to claim he was merely innocently going to “inquire” what ship she was. The American captain, Samuel Reid, repeatedly warned the boats off, and they were close enough to be touching the General Armstrong with a boat hook when the privateer opened fire, killing and wounding several of the British.

Reid then warped his ship under the protection of the fort. At about midnight the British renewed the attack, this time in twelve boats carrying hundreds of men. At one point the British seamen succeeded in boarding over the bow and starboard quarter and were beaten back with swords, pikes, pistols, and musket fire. The British even by their own account suffered more than a hundred killed and wounded; the American accounts put British losses at more than one hundred dead and more than 250 total casualties. The next day, realizing he could not hold out against the enemy determination to destroy his ship—the British captain said he would get the American privateer if he had to destroy the entire town of Fayal to do so—Reid had his men cut the masts down to stumps and blow a hole in the ship’s bottom. Gathering their small arms and clothes, the crew went ashore, leaving the General Armstrong to her fate. When the British captain demanded that the local authorities turn over the Americans as his prisoners, the Portuguese governor demurred and the Americans vowed to fight to the last man rather than be taken, which ended the matter. A week later the whole American crew left for Amelia Island aboard a Portuguese merchant brig.53

On October 11, 1814, the hardest-fought naval engagement of the entire war took place off Nantucket between the privateer Prince de Neufchatel and five barges from the British frigate Endymion in an almost exact replay of the General Armstrong’s defiant holdout. When British boarders succeeded in gaining the forecastle of the privateer, her captain swept them overboard with a hail of canister shot and bags of musket balls fired across the deck from one of her main guns. Again the British regulars suffered a loss of a hundred or more—to the American privateer’s nine killed and nineteen wounded.54

Neither the blockade nor the raids against American coastal cities, including even the capital, had succeeded in knocking America out of the fight. Just as in the Revolution, the British army never would commit sufficient force to occupy and hold territory, and it was most likely an impossible task in any case. Wellington himself had warned the government, when asked his opinion, that the vast and “thinly peopled” continent of America was simply ill suited to an extended military campaign that could tip the strategic balance decisively. “I do not know where you could carry on such an operation which would be so injurious to the Americans as to force them to sue for peace,” he advised.55

The last real possibility of proving Wellington wrong evaporated in September when Governor General Prevost marched from Canada into New York with an army of ten thousand men, heading down the west side of Lake Champlain. Prevost’s advance was a dramatic departure from the string of sharply fought but strategically indecisive clashes along the Canadian frontier all through the bloody summer of 1814, a bid for the decisive breakthrough on land that had eluded both sides for two years. In a two-and-a-half-hour naval battle in Plattsburgh Bay the morning of September 11, 1814, a British squadron of four ships and twelve gunboats sent to support Prevost was soundly defeated by an American force under the command of Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough. At a decisive moment in the battle, with the entire starboard battery of his flagship Saratoga knocked out, Macdonough warped the ship around 180 degrees using a series of anchors and cable springs he had carefully prepared ahead of time to bring the fresh battery to bear. During the battle Macdonough was twice knocked to the deck, once by a falling boom and once when the head of a decapitated midshipman smashed into his face. The British flagship Confiance took 105 shot holes in her hull. The casualties were horrific, with one in four men on each side killed or wounded. Prevost ordered a retreat, and Macdonough instantly became the most famous commander of the war at the time (if not so well remembered today): he was promoted by Congress to captain and showered with rewards of land and gold medals and swords and silver services from New York, Vermont, and other states. “In one month,” Macdonough recounted, “from a poor lieutenant I became a rich man.” He also ended the last serious threat of invasion from the north.56

The failure of the blockade had equally laid bare the impotence of Britain’s might. Not long after taking command in April 1814, Cochrane had extended the blockade to include all of New England, and on paper the entire American coast from Maine to New Orleans was now within the British noose. But, like Warren before him, he was constantly importuning the Admiralty for more ships to make it effective. Although the West Indies stations had been removed from his command, those stations’ ships had never been really available for service on the American coast anyway, and Cochrane calculated he needed more than twice as many frigates, sloops, and smaller vessels as were left him by his predecessor. In fact, the Royal Navy never deployed a force even close to what it would have taken to make the blockade complete. Cochrane concluded that ninety-eight ships were needed to maintain the blockade and that one-fourth to one-third of his force would be out of service at any given time in port refitting. With all the other demands on him to protect convoys, carry dispatches, transport troops, and support land operations, he actually never had more than twenty-five ships available for blockading. It probably would have taken the commitment of a force approaching half the entire strength of the Royal Navy to effectively seal off the American coast.57

The officers enforcing the blockade knew it, and it never was a completely serious endeavor for them. Lieutenant Henry Napier, aboard the frigate Nymphe on blockade duty in Massachusetts Bay in 1814, filled his journal with observations about the pretty girls on the coasting vessels they stopped, the many prizes they ransomed for a thousand or two thousand dollars rather than capturing or burning them, their irritation when British privateers tried to join the effort (“Shannon, privateer, again out. Must drive her off, as she spoils our cruising ground”), and the lobsters, clams, oysters, lambs, potatoes, green peas, newspapers, and every other comfort routinely supplied the British squadron by the local citizens they were supposedly at war with. The accommodations that blockader and blockaded alike were making after two years’ fighting reinforced the sense that the war had long ceased to be about one side or the other winning; it was something to be endured and in the meanwhile made the best of. Unlike the top British commanders on the American station, who had all along overestimated the significance of Federalist opposition to the war and who readily leapt to the conclusion that local collaboration was a sign of impending political upheaval that would knock America out of the fight, Napier thought most of the local “rascals” who eagerly filled the British squadron’s orders for supplies were opportunists, not allies; they only “like the English as a spendthrift loves an old rich wife; the sooner we are gone the better.”

Most of all was the boredom: endlessly plowing furrow after furrow through a field of blue-green waves, enduring nights of “hard rain, fog and anxiety,” writing diary entries oddly echoing those of the prisoners of Dartmoor, as day followed day. “Oh happy Home! when shall I enjoy ye again?” wrote surgeon’s mate William Begg of the frigate Tenedos off Boston, as he battled “the tedious hours” and “the ennui of a long inactive cruise.”58

In Ghent, where the American and British peace commissioners had at last agreed to meet, the weeks wore heavily too. The negotiations began on August 8, and two full months went by with virtually no progress. John Quincy Adams, who headed the American delegation, found the notes presented by the British “arrogant, overbearing, and offensive.” The British envoys were insisting on a series of “nonnegotiable” demands, including American demilitarization of the Great Lakes, cession of territory in northern Maine and the headlands of the Mississippi River, and creation of a huge reservation of land for the exclusive settlement of Britain’s Indian allies, encompassing 250,000 square miles including a third of Ohio and all of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and necessitating the expulsion of 100,000 American settlers. But Adams also suspected the British were simply stalling; every American proposal was referred back to London.

In October, convinced that things were going nowhere, Madison took the risky step of publishing the American envoys’ proposals, revealing publicly for the first time the stunning news that America had offered to drop the issue of impressment. The British opposition was emboldened enough by the news to attack the government for waging a “war of aggression and conquest.”

But the American negotiators remained gloomy, convinced the British were trying to drag out the talks as long as possible in the hope of meanwhile striking a coup on the battlefield that would tilt the political calculus decisively in their favor.59

·    ·    ·

UNLIKE HER predecessor the Independence, the seventy-four-gun ship of the line Washington faultlessly glided into the water at her launching at the Portsmouth Navy Yard on October 1, 1814. But there were no guns to arm her, no men to man her, and no money to make up the lack of either. The navy had been scrambling to find guns and men for the lakes; the only foundries large enough to cast the big guns for the Washington were south of New York, and then they would have to be hauled overland to evade the blockade.

In Boston men were deserting from Bainbridge’s command in droves, and Bainbridge was picking feuds with everyone. He wrote to Secretary Jones bitterly complaining that he could not have his marine guards flogged—under the navy’s regulations, marines were subject to army discipline when ashore, and Congress had outlawed flogging in the army in May 1812—which prompted Jones to gently admonish Bainbridge, “The best examples of discipline in the universe are to be found where corporal punishment is unknown. It may brutalize, but cannot reform.” Bainbridge sent a sarcastic reply to the secretary stating that in that case he presumed he would not be held responsible for the public property under his charge, as he was forbidden to punish guards found sleeping on duty.60

Using the pretext of his seniority in the service, Bainbridge tried to override Hull’s command authority and ordered Captain Charles Morris to send him thirty of his men from Portsmouth, where they had arrived after the sloop of war Adams ran aground off the coast of Maine. Hull had to appeal to Jones to get the men back, and then another even more insolent note from Bainbridge arrived in Washington, informing the navy secretary, “I have received your order of the 26th ulto. and in obedience thereto, however injurious it may prove to the service, I instantly comply with it.”61

But there was no denying the exasperating circumstances. There was no money, for new recruits or even to pay for “the most urgent contingent purposes,” Jones reported to Madison on October 15. “If the salvation of a city depended upon the prompt transportation of a body of our seamen I have not a dollar.” Bainbridge said that even his officers were “really suffering,” with “no money, clothes, or credit and are embarrassed with debts.” Following the attack on Washington, most banks south of New England suspended specie payments, and the entire financial system of the country was on the verge of collapse. Treasury notes were all the government could offer as payment, and in Boston they were circulating at 20 percent discount; the notes of banks that had suspended specie payments were worth nothing at all outside the states where they were issued, effectively freezing the $50 million in bank credits the federal government held in the south and west.

“Something must be done and done speedily,” William Jones wrote the Treasury secretary, “or we shall have an opportunity of trying the experiment of maintaining an army and navy and carrying on a vigorous war without money.” But it was already too late. On November 9 the Treasury suspended interest payments on government debt, effectively declaring itself insolvent. Jones had managed to find some time to write a long proposal to the president on how the $60 million needed to keep the war going another year might be raised through a combination of new loans, a national bank that would lend the government $20 million at 6 percent interest for 12 years, more Treasury note issues, and $16 million in new internal taxes. The only trouble was that borrowing money or raising taxes did no good if it only brought in the same worthless paper the government was issuing in the first place.62

In New England defeatism was becoming the predominant sentiment everywhere. EVENTS OF THE USELESS WAR! ran a typical headline in the Boston Columbian Centinel. Bainbridge was apoplectic when a committee of Boston merchants appointed by Federalist governor Caleb Strong demanded that the Independence and the Constitution be moved outside the harbor so as not to invite a British attack on their city, and he adamantly refused to entertain their request to sink blockships at the harbor entrances. Jones solidly backed Bainbridge’s decision, pointing out that there was no reason to do the Royal Navy’s work for them in sealing off the harbor, thereby “relieving the enemy of the sluggish duty of blockade, to pursue a more active hostility.” A large group of Irish citizens of the town, joined by Harvard undergraduates, then banded together to help erect earthworks on Noddles Island in Boston harbor that Bainbridge recommended to stiffen the more active defenses of the port.63

But other northeasterners flirted openly with treason. Intelligence reports from Americans in Boston and along Long Island Sound flowed into the British squadrons; Decatur’s accusation about “blue lights” signaling the enemy at New London may have been ludicrous, but the willingness of more than a few disaffected northern men to spy for the enemy—even if what they provided was little more than what American newspapers reported—was real enough.64 Many of New England’s Congregational clergy were meanwhile denouncing the war more than ever, and by 1814 were willing to suggest that America had set herself against God himself. If a war was unjust, said one minister, “it will be the duty of the Christian patriot, however contrary to the native impulse of his feelings, to pray for the success of our declared enemies!65

Governor Strong went so far as to send an agent to Halifax to explore a separate peace. And beginning in October the legislatures of the New England states voted to call a convention to demand changes to the Constitution aimed at curing the ills the Federalists believed had led America into the disastrous war in the first place. The convention that met in Hartford in December 1814 approved resolutions to end the disproportionate power of the southern states through the constitutional provision that counted slaves at the rate of three-fifths of a person when apportioning representation in Congress and the Electoral College, break the hold of the “Virginia dynasty” by barring the election of a president from the same state in two successive terms, and require a two-thirds vote of Congress to declare war or restrict trade. They more than hinted that disunion would be the next step if their demands were not met. Madison, when he heard the news, was “miserably shattered and woe-begone,” Washington lawyer William Wirt reported after seeing the president. Madison dismissed New England as suffering a “delusion” comparable to “the reign of witchcraft,” but the outcome of the Hartford Convention seemed to have almost physically beaten him down.66

The Federal Republican, as vehemently anti-administration as ever, predicted in early January 1815 that there was “an explosion at hand; that the President would be called on to resign; and there must be peace by that or a future Administration.” The “explosion” was expected to come from New Orleans: for weeks there had been reports of a huge British naval and military force assembling in Jamaica preparing to launch an attack there. Cochrane had included the city as a likely target back in July in a long list of options he had sent to Melville, and in mid-September approval had come back from London. Whoever controlled New Orleans would control the Mississippi River, and once again Cochrane was convinced the decisive blow was at hand.67

On December 16, 1814, after sweeping aside five American navy gunboats guarding the entrance to Lake Borgne, a British invasion force that would eventually reach 6,000 began disembarking at Isle aux Pois, about thirty miles from New Orleans. An advance column of 1,600 men reached the mainland a week later, and three small battles were fought over the ensuing week as the British force probed the defenses around the city.

Andrew Jackson, now a major general in the regular army and in command of the entire district of Louisiana, had chosen his defensive position well. The Mississippi River held his right flank, a cypress swamp his left, and an earthwork parapet protected by a four-foot-deep ditch sheltered nearly five thousand American troops. Seven artillery batteries spaced at fifty- to two-hundred-yard intervals supported the entrenched position, and before the American lines lay a broad open plain that the British would have to traverse to reach them. The British plan was to begin with a night attack to seize two guns that Jackson had unwisely placed in a weakly guarded position across the river, then turn the guns on the main American line as the major British assault began at dawn. But as the Battle of New Orleans began on January 8, 1815, the British attack fell disastrously behind schedule. It was not until daylight that the two guns were seized, and then it took an hour and a half for the main British force to begin its advance toward Jackson’s breastworks. At first a heavy fog shrouded their movement, but it suddenly lifted as the British were still hundreds of yards from their enemy, and the grape and canister began cutting them to pieces. The British commander, General Edward Pakenham, was eviscerated by a blast of grape three hundred yards from the American line as he rode ahead trying to rally his men forward. In half an hour the British lost 2,000 men, including nearly 200 killed and 500 taken prisoner. Total American casualties were 70, and nearly all of those were among the men in the exposed position across the river; the Americans behind Jackson’s breastworks lost 6 killed and 7 wounded. It was one of the most lopsided battles ever fought.68

Reports of Jackson’s victory reached Washington on February 4, 1815, completely overshadowing the news of a few days earlier that Stephen Decatur had lost the frigate President to the British as he tried to bolt out of New York harbor during a winter storm on January 15.69 Decatur had received command of the President the previous April after it became clear that the New London squadron would never escape to sea; Rodgers was shifted to Philadelphia to take charge of the new frigate under construction there (named, both to honor the American victory and annoy the British, the Guerriere).

It was no secret that Decatur would make the attempt. For weeks it was common knowledge that the President was preparing for sea and was only awaiting a good strong blow to knock the British squadron off station.70 The blow came on the fourteenth, but the British were ready, and even though the northwest wind had driven them fifty miles to the south, they were sitting off Long Island to the east when Decatur hove into view two miles away with dawn of the next day.

It had been an ill-starred business from the start: the pilot taking them out of the harbor had miscalculated in the dark and run the President hard onto the bar past Sandy Hook, where the wind and sea violently beat the frigate against the bottom for an hour and a half before the rising tide finally freed her. And then Decatur stumbled right into a huge enemy force just before daylight; a blue signal rocket arced into the sky from one of the British ships; and within minutes he was running for his life from no fewer than three frigates, a brig, and the fifty-eight-gun razee Majestic. Decatur ordered the boats, cables, anchors, spare spars, and provisions thrown overboard, but it was clearly hopeless. The American frigate, her keel injured by the beating she had taken getting out of New York, was taking on water and was slowed by several knots. At one point in the chase Decatur proposed to his officers a desperate plan of boarding and seizing the Endymion, the British frigate that had succeeded in gaining the most on them, firing a howitzer down the hold of the President to scuttle her, then escaping in the captured British frigate, taking advantage of superior sailing qualities to run free of the rest of the enemy squadron. But the British captain of the Endymion never gave him a chance, staying well off his starboard quarter.

And then the two ships were running in gunshot range and for two hours exchanged fire. All four of the President’s lieutenants were killed, including Archibald Hamilton, the son of the former secretary of the navy, the young officer who had dramatically arrived at the naval ball in Washington bearing the Macedonian’s colors two years before. The President’s marines fired five thousand musket cartridges; Decatur himself was twice hit by splinters that left him sprawled on the deck, in severe pain from a broken rib and pouring blood from a superficial but ghastly wound to his forehead. The chase and fight went on all day, from dawn to near midnight, before Decatur bowed to the inevitable and surrendered, loudly hailing that he surrendered “to the squadron”—meaning not to the Endymion alone. The President was taken to Bermuda, and Decatur was swiftly released on parole to arrive back in New London on February 21.71

By then there was news that made any hairsplitting over the circumstances of one frigate’s surrender barely worth notice. GLORIOUS NEWS read the headline of an extra edition of the Commercial Advertiser that hit the streets of New York early on the Sunday morning of February 12, 1815: “A Treaty of Peace was signed by the American and British commissioners at Ghent, on the 24th of December.” The previous evening at eight o’clock a copy of the treaty had arrived in New York aboard the British sloop of war Favorite. When the news reached Hartford two days later, cannons were fired and bells rung throughout the night in rejoicing. In Albany 130,000 lights lit up the public buildings and fireworks filled the night sky. An express rider galloped to Boston in a record thirty-two hours, and schools closed, businesses shut, the legislature adjourned, and a parade of citizens with the word PEACE on their hats wound though the city. The Senate unanimously approved the treaty on February 16, and the next night at 11:00 p.m. Madison formally exchanged ratifications with the British envoy who had arrived to accept them. The following day in Washington the British and American flags flew side by side, and that night the impromptu celebration included the firing of a number of rockets, “some of them made, by one of our citizens, in imitation of the British Congreve.”

In New Castle, Delaware, the Reverend John E. Latta preached a sermon on the nation’s improbable deliverance from the evils of war, declaring that, in simply surviving to see the return of peace, America had defied all expectation.

Our national character was depreciated, as to what the nations of the world call honor and dignity. It was supposed, that we had lost the spirit of national independence, and that our martial genius and prowess, had sunk into a fatal degeneracy.… Under all these circumstances, we, novices in war, and unhappily divided amongst ourselves,—our enemies veterans,—flushed with recent victories—retaining a grudge and denouncing a vengeance, who would have ventured even to surmise an early peace?

 … The spirit of our beloved country, instead of being broken, is invigorated. The spirit, which contrived and executed the plan of our glorious independence, has been revived to defend it. Our citizens are inspired with a confidence, which will induce them to protect and defend, against all its enemies, the only government now existing in the world, which is worthy of a free, independent people.… We have more astonished the world in war, than we did in peace.72

Only Federalist newspapers had the temerity to observe, in reading the actual terms of the treaty, that it offered nothing about free trade, sailors’ rights, or any other compensations for an expensive and bloody war.73

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