Military history

CHAPTER 7

“You Shall Now Feel the Effects of War”

Knives and saw for amputations (National Library of Medicine)

WITH HIS usual paternalism, William Bainbridge summoned the men of the Constitution in Boston harbor on the morning of April 9, 1813, and gave them a lecture. “Sailors, in the action with Java you have shown yourself men. You are this evening invited to partake of the amusements of the theater; conduct yourself well. Suffer me not to experience any mortification from any disorderly conduct on your part. Let the correctness of your conduct equal your bravery, and I shall have additional cause to speak of you in terms of approbation.” And then the men marched off to Boston’s Federal Street Theater for a Friday night performance, impressing the rest of the audience with their “decent mirth and jollity” and the thundering cheer they gave Bainbridge, Rodgers, and other officers when they arrived in the stage box that had been specially “fitted up” for them with patriotic decorations, and impressing at least one newspaperman on the scene for simply making it back to their ship in one piece. “Among the ‘thousand ships’ of England, there probably is not a single crew, three-fourths of whom would not have deserted, had they been allowed an opportunity like this,” declared the New York Statesman.1

Bainbridge had been asked by Secretary Jones what he wanted to do next, command a frigate for another cruise or superintend the construction of one of the seventy-fours with the command going to him upon its completion, and Bainbridge replied immediately with a letter to the secretary “asking your advise” on which to choose but making perfectly clear which he preferred:

You ask me my dear Sir what are my intentions—wether to pursue the fickle Jade fortune, or ride under the lee of a 74 until she is in Commission.… I will merely state that in 16 years, I have spent very little time with my family—And when honored with the command of the navy yard here & the Station, the Government was so indulgent as to leave me the choice of remaining where my services I trust were useful, or to embark on the Ocean in pursuit of honor & danger—having been the Child of adversity I did not hesitate a moment in preferring the latter—I left my comfortable home in hopes that the fickle Goddess was tired of her freaks. At all events I was determined to pursue her until she should smile. Good luck attended me in having an opportunity to gratify my ambition & fondest wish—By going again in a Frigate, I might reap similar honors, but, probably, not greater. But in a 74, I should expect and confidently trust to add much—A British Admiral Flag, would be a glorious inducement for great exertions.2

And so as Bainbridge had intended all along, Hull was bumped from the command of the Boston Navy Yard on March 15, 1813, and Bainbridge reclaimed the post he had come to view as his personal prerogative, taking up residence once again in the commandant’s house that his family had never left in the interim. While Bainbridge oversaw the construction of the seventy-four-gun Independence in Boston, Hull was shuffled off to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to take charge of the building of another of the new seventy-fours, the Washington. But Hull amiably went along with the arrangement, as did his new wife, who said she would be “satisfied with almost anything, provided he does not go to sea.”3

The continued comings and going of American naval ships from Boston had earned Warren another withering from Secretary Croker; their lordships were quite aware that owing to contrary winds and fogs, “this Port cannot be effectually blockaded from November to March,” but the United States, Congress, President, and Constitution had all managed to get out to sea in October. Even with bad weather, a sizable force could have been dispatched a reasonable and safe distance from the land to try to intercept some of the American warships that had then continued to traipse in and out of the port as if they had not a care in the world: President and Congress had gotten safely back into Boston on the last day of December 1812, the Constitution had returned from its victory over the Java on February 15, and the Chesapeake joined them April 9.

Then on April 25 Rodgers took advantage of a heavy fog, and squally weather that yielded a brief favorable wind, to slip out to sea right under the nose of the British frigates Shannon and Tenedos, which had been closely watching the port since arriving from Halifax in March. “It is with great mortification,” Captain Thomas Bladen Capel wrote Warren on May 11, “I am to acquaint you that … two of the Enemy’s Frigates (the President and Congress) have escaped from Boston.” Capel, in the seventy-four La Hogue and accompanied by the sloop Curlew, scoured the Atlantic from Cape Sable to Georges Bank trying to intercept either of the American ships, but they escaped this dragnet as well.4

But the tightening British stranglehold on the American coast was telling everywhere. Two ships of the line and two frigates loitered off Sandy Hook and Montauk Point, sealing off Decatur in New York with the United States and his refitted prize the Macedonian. At Norfolk, the Constellation was for the moment safely holed up behind a floating gun-ship battery of thirty-four guns, a hastily erected artillery emplacement on Craney Island at the mouth of the harbor, and a line of blockships that had been sunk in the channel off Lambert’s Point barring the entrance to the Elizabeth River; but the natural and artificial facts that made Norfolk hard for the British to get into made it equally hard for the Constellation to get out of, and ever escape to sea. The Constellation’s captain, Charles Stewart, reported to Jones that many residents of Norfolk had fled in anticipation of a British attack on the town, and that some of the local militia had deserted from an apprehension that they would be ordered to serve on the undermanned gunboats. Jones replied promising all assistance and authorizing a reasonable recruitment bounty to make up the deficiency of crews for the gunboats, but cautioning that defense everywhere against a superior force was impossible: “The presence of a powerful hostile squadron is naturally calculated to excite alarm, thus we have urgent calls from Maine to Georgia, each conceiving itself the particular object of attack.”5

The blockade had almost completely shut down the coasting trade, forcing shipments to go by land and creating commercial gluts and shortages. Philadelphia was cut off from the lower Delaware, and Baltimore was completely isolated from the sea; flour from the mid-Atlantic states that sold for $10.50 a barrel before the war was now going for $18 in Boston and $6.50 in Baltimore, where fifty thousand barrels piled up in warehouses. Baltimore newspapers began facetiously listing the movement of wagons in the style of shipping news items, telling how many days they had been on their journeys and reporting “no enemy cruisers” sighted on the way, but the thin humor could not mask the grim reality that shipping by land was slow, laborious, and prohibitively costly. One item that was reported without any attempt at jocularity read “Four wagons loaded with dry goods passed to-day through Georgetown, South Carolina, for Charleston, forty-six days from Philadelphia.”6

Jones wrote to Eleanor that the disruption of water transport was already playing havoc with supplying the navy too: “In my Department I shall feel serious difficulty as we cannot as hitherto transport our stores from the places of deposit to where they are wanted.” In Boston the want of supplies had been responsible for the almost five-month delay in getting the President and the Congress back to sea after their safe return to Boston in December 1812. From Portsmouth, Hull wrote with the disturbing news that he could find only about two-thirds of the stockpiled pieces of live oak that had been cut for the frame of the seventy-four he was supposed to build; the rest had been cannibalized for repairs to other ships in the intervening years, which prompted Jones to reply in late April, “I can not but express my regret … particularly as the transportation by water is almost entirely cut off by the enemy.” Hull wanted to substitute white oak, but Jones thought some extra live oak timbers ought to be available in Boston, where frames for two complete ships had been stockpiled. Hull accordingly sent Bainbridge a series of increasingly urgent requests for timbers from the Charlestown Navy Yard; Bainbridge sent grudging replies and finally and only with great reluctance turned over a few pieces.7

But throughout the difficult spring, Jones kept reminding his beleaguered commanders that retaliation, not defense, was the key to taking on a superior foe. “No reasonable man can suppose that our means are competent to the defence of the all against a superior force, which can be concentrated against any one point,” he wrote to Stewart at Norfolk. The object was rather to tie up as many of the enemy’s ships as possible by taking the offensive at every opportunity; as he wrote Stewart on March 27:

It is some consolation, that while a strong squadron of the enemies Ships are employed in watching your little squadron & carrying out a Petty larceny kind of warfare, against the river craft & plantations, our gallant commanders are scouring the ocean, in search of a superior foe, & gathering laurels in such abundance, & in such rapid succession, as to afford the enemy scarcely time to soothe the chagrin of one defeat before he is subjected to the mortification of another.8

The same day’s mail from New York brought news of the return of James Lawrence in the sloop of war Hornet from his cruise along the coast of South America. On January 24, 1813, the Hornet had been chased off the blockade of the Bonne Citoyenne at São Salvador by the arrival of a British seventy-four, but Lawrence had nimbly slipped away from the much more powerful enemy and stood out to sea. On February 4 he captured an English brig carrying $23,000 in specie. And then on February 24, nearing the mouth of the Demerara River, the Hornet fell in with the sixteen-gun British brig sloop Peacock and in fourteen minutes left her a sinking wreck, her captain dead along with thirty-seven other casualties to the Hornet’s three. The Peacock had been long known as “the yacht” for her resplendent appearance and immaculately polished fittings, and the accuracy of her crew’s gunnery in the brief fight had been abysmal. Although a subsequent British court-martial ran true to form in underscoring that there had been no want of courage displayed by the Peacock’s officers and men, and “honorably acquitted” the survivors, the court frankly attributed her defeat to a “want of skill in directing the Fire, owing to an omission of the Practice of exercising the crew in the use of the Guns for the last three Years.” It was the fifth American victory in a single-ship engagement.9 Joshua Keene, the Peacock’s steward, kept a small notebook of clippings he saved while a prisoner in New York, and one included the words of a chantey that Keene noted was making the rounds “about the Streets of New York”:

Yankee sailors have a knack

Haul away! yeo ho, boys

Of pulling down a British Jack

’Gainst any odds you know boys.10

THE CLOSE proximity of the British blockading squadrons to the American coast presented irresistible temptations to both sides in an era of less than total war. Warren’s orders to Cockburn instructed him to have as little communication as possible with the inhabitants of the coast “in order to avoid corruption, seduction, or the seeds of sedition being sown,” but from Norfolk, Captain Stewart wrote Jones that a steady stream of British deserters was showing up daily. Others were dying in the attempt: “Their naked bodies are frequently fished up on the bay shore, where they must have drowned in attempting to swim.”11

The British ships’ need for provisions made it impossible to avoid contact with local citizens, who in many cases were all too happy to reap the benefits of trade with a cash-paying enemy. Cockburn encouraged local cooperation with the British force by offering to pay farmers along the Chesapeake well and in ready money for cattle and vegetables and other supplies they willingly provided, while seizing them by force if any resistance was offered to his foraging parties. And even as the war was becoming palpably more brutal and absolute, traditions of gentlemanly combat wove a crazy quilt of inconsistencies through the British blockade. The commander of an American militia regiment on Virginia’s Eastern Shore sent Cockburn a formal request that the packet sailing between Norfolk and Northampton be allowed to continue its regular service unmolested by the British squadron, and Cockburn returned an equally formal reply magnanimously granting the favor.12

Secretary Jones complained bitterly about the “palpable and criminal intercourse held with the enemy’s forces blockading and invading the waters of the United States,” noting that both neutral foreign-flagged vessels leaving American ports and American coasting vessels “with great subtlety and treachery” were conveying “provisions, water, and succours of all kinds … direct to the fleets and stations of the enemy, with constant intelligence of our naval and military force.” Block Island, at the end of Long Island Sound, and Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, became virtual British ports, where ships of the blockading squadron regularly put in for water or other supplies. At Provincetown the squadron received fish, vegetables, and water, and the British captains furnished passes to several local owners of schooners allowing them to sail across Massachusetts Bay, through the British squadron to Cape Ann, to procure loads of firewood for them.13

Even many stalwart Republicans winked at the illicit commerce when they were the beneficiaries. One prominent Maryland Republican from the Eastern Shore, Jacob Gibson, engaged in a pugnacious public correspondence defending himself after selling cattle, sheep, and hogs to the British. It did not help his case when it also became known that he had personally entertained Admiral Warren to dinner at his plantation on Sharps Island in the Chesapeake, and had received in return a protection from the admiral safeguarding his property and slaves and allowing safe conduct of his wheat crop to the mainland. But Maryland congressman Robert Wright, the same who had demanded “hemp and confiscation” for traitors, loudly offered his support for Gibson’s patriotism and assured him that “the enemies of your country” had signaled him out for attack only because of the conspicuous figure he cut in the Republican ranks. Other local Republicans acknowledged, however, that if Gibson had been a Federalist, “he would have been tarred and feathered and his house pulled down.”14

Even harder to control was the illegal but absolutely booming commercial trade in British textiles, pottery, salt, sugar, and other goods smuggled in from Canada and the West Indies in exchange for cash, American produce, and naval stores. Congress banned all British imports in June 1812 with the advent of the war, but the huge profits to be made from smuggling led to widespread and often open defiance of customs officials who tried to enforce the law. A huge trade through Spanish-owned Amelia Island, in the mouth of the St. Marys River in Florida, kept Georgia and much of the South supplied with British manufactures and other goods throughout the war. An army officer in Eastport, Maine, estimated that two hundred merchants in that town were involved in smuggling; when he tried to halt the illegal trade, he was threatened with tarring and feathering, and when he persisted, he was thrown in jail for a fictitious debt. In Plattsburgh, New York, another federal officer was thwarted when he discovered that even the local judges had a share in the smuggling trade. In New Orleans smugglers killed a customs official and wounded two others in one altercation and staged a raid on the customs house to recover their seized property.

Merchants devised all manner of ingenious ruses to get around the law, including outfitting privateers that, sailing off the coast of Maine or on Lake Ontario or Lake Champlain or the St. Lawrence River, “captured” Canadian vessels filled with goods that had in fact been purchased by their own agents in Montreal or Halifax.

The lack of a coherent policy in Washington and a welter of contradictions in the Republican party’s position on commerce made it difficult to marshal much public respect for the halfhearted government efforts to crack down on trading with the enemy. After initially seizing a flood of $18 million worth of British-made goods that were carried by returning American ships in the first months of the war, the Treasury first released them in exchange for penalty bonds put up by their owners, then offered to cancel half the forfeiture, then finally acceded to a congressional move to forgive the penalties altogether, in part to help bolster support for the war among the merchant classes.15

Congress had similarly balked at cutting off the British-licensed trade that even after the start of the war allowed American ships to continue carrying flour to the nominally neutral ports of Cádiz and Lisbon to keep Wellington’s troops on the Peninsula supplied. Thousands of British licenses had been issued to American shippers since the start of the war between Britain and America; Augustus Foster had signed hundreds before he left the country, and British consuls and admirals in the region issued them too. The Baltimore mob attacked some vessels as they were being loaded with flour for Lisbon and threatened a rope around the neck for anyone sending “a Barrel of flour to the Enemy,” but there were plenty of Baltimore merchants—not to mention the many good Republican wheat farmers across the mid-Atlantic and western states—who were eager to keep the business going, war or no war. For the first eight months of the war, until the blockade shut down Baltimore’s access to the ocean, two-thirds of the sailings from the port were under British licenses. In both 1812 and 1813 licensed shipments of flour from American ports to the Peninsula totaled a million barrels a year, about 100,000 tons, ten times what it had been just three years before. In American port cities, signed British licenses—with spaces left blank for the name of the vessel and its master—fetched as much as $5,000 apiece.16

Jefferson repeatedly urged Madison not to interfere with such an important outlet for American farmers. He blithely explained the slightly cynical calculation behind keeping Britain well supplied with American wheat:

If she is to be fed at all events, why may we not have the benefit of it as well as others? … Besides, if we could, by starving the English armies, oblige them to withdraw from the peninsula, it would be to send them here; and I think we had better feed them for pay, than feed and fight them here for nothing. To keep the war popular, we must keep open the markets. As long as good prices can be had, the people will support the war cheerfully.17

Madison decided to take action against the licensed trade only after it became clear that Warren and British officials in the West Indies had been specifically instructed to favor the New England states with licenses as part of the British strategy to encourage a separate peace with, or even secession of, the Federalist strongholds; that was the same reason the British blockade had so far spared the Northeast. The president sent a message to Congress on February 24, 1813, denouncing the British licensing policy as an “insulting attempt on the virtue, the honor, the patriotism, and the fidelity of our brethren of the Eastern States,” and asked Congress to outlaw the acceptance of British licenses by any American vessel. The bill died in the Senate.18

American naval officers were generally furious over the continuing trade with the enemy, and relentlessly went after American merchant ships trading under British licenses on their own initiative, but it was a tricky business given that both the attorney general and the Treasury Department had issued rulings that the licensed trade was perfectly legal. Although common law forbade trading with the enemy in wartime, it was uncertain how American admiralty courts would rule in cases of American ships seized by their own navy as prizes for violating this traditional law.

Moreover, admiralty law laid down strict limitations on the right of ships of war to stop and search neutral or friendly merchant vessels, which often made it difficult to know if a ship was sailing under an enemy license. The basic rule was that a naval commander could halt any merchantman and examine her papers, but in the absence of clear indications of fraud or concealment in the representation of her cargo or destination, he had no right to search the ship for further evidence. Violating these rules was grounds for the court refusing to recognize the validity of the capture, potentially rendering the captor liable for considerable damages. All these rules were designed to regularize the capture of enemy shipping in wartime, to draw clear lines between the legitimate seizure of enemy property under the laws of war and the plunder of piracy, and to ensure fair treatment of innocent neutral parties. All of which meant that American shippers carrying British licenses took pains to present an innocent face and conceal their licenses from any American warships that stopped them, keeping the license to show only to British warships that stopped them.19

Approaching American merchantmen, American warships routinely followed the ruse Bainbridge had employed when stopping the brig South Carolina: hoist British colors, send over a boarding party that identified themselves as British, and otherwise keep up the charade to try to get the merchant captain to produce a British license. If the ruse worked, and a license appeared, the American ship would be seized and sent in as a prize to the United States. Given the similarity in warships, uniforms, and language between the American and British navies, it often worked. But in several early cases, federal district judges (who, under the Constitution, administer admiralty law) refused to go along with the condemnation of American ships thus seized. In February 1813 a federal judge in Philadelphia ordered the South Carolina restored to its owners and found Bainbridge liable for the damages they had suffered from their vessel’s capture and detention; “this vessel is, indisputably, an American ship,” the judge ruled, there was no intention to deceive, and her outward cargo of corn and flour carried to Lisbon was consigned to a Portuguese merchant.20

An even more draconian judgment was entered against John Rodgers in a ruling that threatened to make every American captain think twice about repeating the ruse de guerre of passing themselves off as British. Late on the night of October 16, 1812, the United States frigates President and Congress chased and halted an American schooner, the Eleanor, in squally weather off the Grand Bank. Congress sent over a lieutenant to fetch back the schooner’s master and first mate. The lieutenant identified his frigate as “His Majesty’s Ship Shannon,” and an ironic dialogue ensued in which one of the schooner’s men defiantly told the “British” lieutenant, “I wish the United States frigate President were along side” of his ship.

“Do you think she could do anything with her?” the lieutenant replied.

“Yes, I am sure of it.”

But after the Eleanor’s two top officers were rowed off, the crew, deciding they were about to become British prisoners, broke into the spirit locker and began to down as much liquor as they could hold. By the time the American officers on the Congress were convinced that the Eleanor was not sailing under a British license and dropped the charade, the damage had been done. The schooner’s crew refused to believe that the American ship was not British, told the master he was being duped by the officers who now said they were in fact American, and refused to work the ship. At two in the morning a storm struck, the mainmast fell straight aft, and a few seconds later the foremast went too. The drunken crew managed to rig a jury mast and small sail and approach the two frigates, but the deck had been holed by the falling mast and she was rapidly taking on water; the next morning she was taken under tow, but even with men working the pumps around the clock she began to settle in the water, and three days later she sank.

The Eleanor’s owner brought suit for the loss of the ship, and the district court agreed that Rodgers as squadron commander was responsible, at one point finding him personally liable for a $43,250 judgment. It was not until 1817 that the Supreme Court reversed the decision, unanimously holding that because the Eleanor had never been seized as a prize, her own crew had never been released from obligation to do their duty and that showing false colors was well within “the rights of war.”21

Several of the district court rulings that found in favor of American owners whose ships were seized carrying British licenses were reprinted in a Federalist pamphlet published in Philadelphia, perhaps at British instigation. But both the political and the legal tides were turning by spring 1813. In June, Justice Joseph Story, writing a circuit court decision that would become the definitive ruling on the issue when the Supreme Court affirmed it the following March, rejected an appeal by the owners of the brig Julia, which had been seized by the Chesapeake on December 31, 1812, on her return from Lisbon under a British license. Story, a recognized authority on prize law, acknowledged that there was no direct precedent of a ship ever having been lawfully condemned on the basis of using an enemy license: “It is,” he wrote, “one of the many novel questions which may be presumed to arise out of the extraordinary state of the world.” But Story found ample related precedents in British and French prize law for concluding that “it is unlawful in any manner to lend assistance to the enemy, by attaching ourselves to his policy, sailing under his protection, facilitating his supplies, and separating ourselves from the common character of our country.” Trading with the enemy was prohibited under the law of nations not just for the direct injury it caused but because it “contaminates the commercial enterprizes” with purposes at odds with the policy of the nation, exposes individuals “to extraordinary temptations to succour the enemy by intelligence,” and corrupts their loyalties by effectively turning them into neutrals.22 With Story’s ruling having paved the way, Congress finally summoned the courage in the summer of 1813 to pass Madison’s requested legislation banning the use of all British licenses.

By that time Admiral Warren had also grown heartily sick of the licensed trade and the crazy contradictory complications it created; not least was the fact that under the cover offered by the dozens of licensed vessels that sailed from New York every day through Long Island Sound throughout the spring and summer of 1813, a steady stream of privateers and letters of marque slipped out past the British squadrons, and out to sea, as well.23

FOR THE better part of a year Captain Philip Broke of His Majesty’s frigate Shannon had “sauntered about off Boston,” as he at one point described the endless and frustrating duty of watching an enemy port, spoiling for a fight. He had been on the North American station since August 1811, and success had eluded him. Broke was heir to an estate in Surrey but far from rich; he was a navy man through and through, a veteran of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent at twenty-one, a post captain at twenty-five, commander of the Shannon ever since its commissioning in 1806, but at thirty-six he was now thoroughly tired of the life of the sea and longed for an honorable exit. He filled his hours writing letter after letter, day after day, to his wife back in England, knowing he would not receive answers for months, if at all. His letters were full of sentimental dreams of flowers and life in the country and reading poetry to his wife, who was less a real person than just another prop in this domestic fantasy; she was “my dear little wife,” “my sweet Looloo,” “my gentle Loo,” “my delightful angel,” who would comfort him “with all her mild resignation” in his rural retirement.

Broke had all the English aristocratic disdain for the “savages,” the “animals,” the “reptiles” he had the misfortune to be fighting. He bemoaned his ill luck with prizes, but he would give them all up for one stunning, brilliant victory that would provide him the release he ached for:

Shannon, off Boston,

September 14th 1812.

 … I would give all our prizes for an American frigate, they are fighting in a bad cause my Loo, and I shall feel a satisfaction in beating them.… I see by the papers, our people at home have little idea of the bitterness and rancour with which the Americans have made war upon us; every overture of kindness we make to them, they consider as a submission, and become the more insolent to us: a year’s war will tame them much, they have not yet felt our Naval power.

Shannon, off Chesapeake,

February 14th.

 … as to prizes I would never leave my lovely Loo for all our flag has ever taken: I have never been fortunate at all that way.… My being poor is no disappointment to me; to return without any successes to prove how we have been exerting ourselves so long and tiresome a pursuit (and which we feel conscious of deserving), is mortifying … Indeed you can’t imagine the pains I have bestowed on this graceless wooden wife of mine … I am sure the other wife will make me happy if I quit this game of honor.

Shannon, off Boston,

April 14th, 1813.

 … Whilst we went (by order) to report our reconnaissance of Boston, one of their frigates (Chesapeake) got safe in, this is mortifying.… 8 years of my youth, and all my plans of rural quiet and domestic happiness, have faded away, or been cruelly interrupted by this imperious call of honor, but surely no man deserves to enjoy an estate in England, who will not sacrifice some of his prospects to his countrys welfare.

Shannon, off Boston,

May 5th, 1813.

 … The enemy have sent me no frigate yet … but they seem by their papers, to have been much annoyed at our being so familiar with their harbour lately. They may prove our best friends yet, and favor me with an opportunity of retiring with honor to my gentle wife (if the Admiralty do not remove me before they are decided upon meeting us).… I must get home indeed to my tender Loo, I am heartily sick of this sea life.

Shannon, off Boston,

May 9th, 1813.

 … I feel much mortified at President escaping us after watching so long and anxiously for him; God send us better fortune to finish my campaign creditably. The day those rogues sailed it was thick weather, we must have been very close to them but they did not seek us.… I hope Boston will soon be added to the ports under arrest, and we will pinch them into repentance for this wanton war of theirs.

Shannon, off Boston,

May 28th, 1813.

 … We sill haunt this tiresome place without any success to reward us, indeed I have been so particularly anxious to watch the great ships, that it has thrown us much out of the way of the smaller, tho’ richer prizes. Since Rodgers escaped we have rarely hunted our game far from his den, which still contains another large wild beast; if all the nobler prey elude us, we must chace the vermin, but have great hopes yet of an honourable recontre.24

The “large beast” was the Chesapeake, which was undergoing a quick refit in Boston with orders that “not a moment should be lost” in getting to sea again for an independent cruise. Secretary Jones’s orders were for her to proceed to the mouth of the St. Lawrence and intercept British troop and store ships heading to reinforce the army in Canada, and then to continue on to Greenland and destroy the British whale fishery.

Her new commander was James Lawrence, promoted to captain by the Senate in February as a resolution of the bitter controversy that Charles Morris’s double promotion had engendered and then rewarded for his victory over the Peacock with the command of a frigate. On May 18, 1813, Lawrence arrived in Boston and found the ship in good order. But there was more than a little bad feeling in the air. Lawrence, in fact, had tried to decline the appointment, calculating there was more glory to be had in a smaller ship. Four of the lieutenants from the Chesapeake’s last cruise were sick or on indefinite leave. Many of the crew had reached the end of their two-year enlistments and had stayed on only because they had not yet been paid, their dissatisfaction made worse by the fact that they had not received the prize money they were due from their last cruise, either: all the prize money was frozen in a bank account because the ship’s agent had just learned that Stephen Decatur was threatening a lawsuit to claim the one-twentieth share he said he was due as squadron commander, even though he and the United States had been thousands of miles away, already returned to New York harbor, when the Chesapeake had taken the most valuable prize of her cruise in January.

Lawrence himself had had an unpleasant interview with Bainbridge upon his arrival in Boston over a similar dispute. Bainbridge told Lawrence that as his squadron commander he was due one-third of the prize money Lawrence was to receive out of the expected $25,000 to be awarded for the capture of the Peacock. The very morning that the Chesapeake was preparing to stand to sea with her new captain of ten days’ standing, the crew confronted Lawrence over their unpaid prize money; and Lawrence, no doubt displacing his own rancor over his contretemps with Bainbridge, furiously “damned them for a set of Rascals” and ordered them to their stations to weigh anchor.25

The day was June 1, a bright and clear morning sweeping across Boston harbor, and the entire town was aware that Lawrence was planning to make straight for the Shannon in a showdown that had far more in common with an affair of honor than a stratagem of war. Broke had sent away his consort, the frigate Tenedos, and had tauntingly run in alone into the harbor near Boston Light, showing his colors and heaving to. And as the Chesapeake got under way, the Shannon fired a single signal gun to punctuate the challenge.

Although Lawrence never received the letter Broke had written him the day before and dispatched to Boston with a released prisoner—a letter that would subsequently become famous in Britain and be reprinted over and over as a model of latter-day English chivalry—he had no doubt about Broke’s intention to engage him in a single-ship duel. Broke had earlier sent similar messages by word of mouth to Rodgers; his written challenge to Lawrence was a final gamble to stake everything for the chance that had so far escaped him. “As the Chesapeake appears now ready for Sea,” he began, “I request you will do me the favor to meet the Shannon with her, Ship to Ship, to try the fortune of our respective Flags.” Broke offered to meet Lawrence anywhere within three hundred miles of Boston; he pledged to send every ship of his squadron far enough away that they would be unable to interfere; if Lawrence chose, he could keep Broke’s challenge a secret and name the place of their meeting; the two ships could even sail together under a flag of truce to any place Lawrence felt safest from encountering another British warship. Broke appealed to his American counterpart:

I entreat you, Sir, not to imagine that I am urged by mere personal vanity to the wish of meeting the Chesapeake, or that I depend only upon your personal ambition for acceding to the Invitation, we have both nobler motives,—you will feel it as a compliment if I say that the result of our meeting may be the most grateful Service I can render to my Country,—and I doubt not that you, equally confident of success, will feel convinced that it is only by continued triumphs in even combats, that your little Navy can now hope to console your Country for the loss of that Trade it can no longer protect.—favor me with a speedy reply,—we are short of Provisions and Water, and cannot stay long here.

“Choose your terms,” Broke wrote in a postscript, “but let us meet.”

A small flotilla of boats followed the Chesapeake out of the harbor as she got under way from President’s Roads at noon. Just before sailing, Lawrence went below to his cabin to write a short note to Secretary Jones. “An English frigate is now in sight from my deck; I have sent a pilot boat out to reconnoiter, and should she be alone, I am in hopes to give a good account of her before night.” Huge crowds gathered every place in the town that commanded a view of the sea, but the two ships soon had dropped out of sight to the east, all their sails filled as they ran before a fair wind from the southwest.26

At 4:30 p.m., on a line between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, the Shannon hove to and waited for the Chesapeake to come up.

Broke was an exception to the Royal Navy’s neglectful attitude toward gunnery; he may have grown weary of the sea, but he drilled the men of his ship incessantly. He trained his gunners to carry out concentrated fire, the crews of adjacent guns all angling their weapons to converge on a single aimpoint. At his own expense he had fitted the Shannon’s guns with quadrants, to mark the aiming angles at various distances to targets, and dispart sights, which corrected for the elevation error that occurred when aiming along the top of the gun owing to the fact that the barrel is thicker at the breech than the muzzle. The sights were simple metal wedges affixed to the top of the barrel, but they made all the difference; they were fashioned so that their upper edge ran parallel to the bore, so aiming along that surface provided a true line to the target.

Broke had also fitted his ship with two nine-pounders mounted on pivots on the quarterdeck and forecastle, raised so that they could shoot over the hammock nettings. As the Chesapeake closed the last distance between the ships, he ordered the men on the pivot guns to aim for the enemy’s wheel. Anticipating a brutal close action, Broke had already ordered small arms and grenades issued to the men in the tops and the members of each gun crew designated as boarders; chests of canister shot were hauled into the tops for the small swivel guns, and tubs filled with boarding axes, bundles of long pikes, and cutlasses and pistols stood at the ready on the gun decks.27 In the last few minutes of dead silence before the battle began Broke addressed the crew:

They have said, and they have published in their papers, that the English have forgotten the way to fight. You will let them know today that there are Englishmen in the Shannon who still know how to fight. Don’t try to dismast her. Fire into her quarters; maindeck to maindeck; quarterdeck to quarterdeck. Kill the men and the ship is yours.… Don’t hit them about the head, for they have steel caps on, but give it them through the body. Don’t cheer. Go quietly to your quarters. I feel sure you will all do your duty, and remember that you now have the blood of your countrymen to avenge.28

Whether out of an excess of reciprocal chivalry or an excess of concern to keep the weather gauge, which hardly would have mattered in the close action clearly in the offing, Lawrence declined to exploit the wide opening Broke had left him: Shannon lay with her head to the southeast, her main topsail braced so that it shivered to check the ship’s motion, and Lawrence could easily have crossed her stern and delivered a devastating raking broadside. But instead he came up “in a very handsome manner,” as Broke would later say, taking a parallel course fifty yards to windward, and at 5:45 p.m. the duel began.29

As the Shannon’s guns bore, they began to fire in turn and simply tore the men on the Chesapeake’s spar deck to pieces. The first broadside sent grape and canister sweeping across the decks, decapitating the Chesapeake’s sailing master and killing the helmsman and the fourth lieutenant at once, striking probably 100 out of the 150 men on the top deck. A second helmsman immediately sprang to take the wheel and instantly joined the growing ranks of dead. Lawrence, conspicuous in his full-dress uniform—tall cocked hat and high-collared coat with epaulets and gold lace shining in the afternoon sun—was struck in the right leg by a musket ball and was leaning against the binnacle for support when a round shot from Shannon’s nine-pounder pivot gun found its mark and blew the wheel to splinters, killing the third helmsman and barely missing Lawrence.

The Chesapeake had come on too fast initially, and now with the loss of her helm she forged ahead. The Shannon’s gunners had each fired three rounds in six minutes before their guns ceased to bear, and their fire had brought down the Chesapeake’s fore topsail yard and jib; now with her headsails gone she began turning helplessly into the wind, leaving her larboard quarter exposed to the Shannon’s mercy. Lawrence was struck by another musket ball, this time a mortal wound to the groin. Every man on the quarterdeck was mown down by grapeshot from the Shannon’s carronades and swivel guns in the tops. Lawrence was still conscious and called for his boarders, but the increasingly officerless ship was in a shambles. British grenades began pelting down and exploding on the deck. Lawrence was carried below, the first lieutenant was killed, the lieutenant of marines was killed, and then the Chesapeake, gathering sternway, crashed stern first amidships of the Shannon and Broke shouted for the boarders to follow him. George Budd, the Chesapeake’s second lieutenant, was at his station on the gun deck below, and several minutes passed before he received word that boarders had been called. The third lieutenant, William S. Cox, had left the deck to help carry Lawrence below, an act for which he would later be convicted by a court-martial eager to find scapegoats.

Still, the Chesapeake’s men put up a desperate if disorderly resistance. The Shannon’s boatswain was attempting to lash the ships together by passing a rope over the American frigate’s taffrail when a crewman in the Chesapeake’s great cabin ran to the captain’s quarter gallery and, reaching up with his cutlass, hacked the man’s arm clean off.

Broke, waving the heavy Scottish broadsword he favored in battle, clambered over the hammocks onto the roof of the Chesapeake’s quarter gallery, stepped onto the muzzle of a carronade and gained the quarterdeck, dodged a pistol shot from the Chesapeake’s chaplain and hacked off his arm in return, then shouted to his men to follow him forward. In the tops a steady fire was still coming from the Chesapeake’s marines and topmen, and Broke shouted across to his topmen to turn their guns against them; from the main- and foretops of the Shannon several men crawled out to the end of the yardarms to pick off the Americans, and from the foreyard five of the Shannons then leapt, incredibly, across to the end of the Chesapeake’s yard and took the foretop by storm.

Broke arrived at the Chesapeake’s forecastle just as Lieutenant Budd appeared from below and tried to rally his remaining men; a furious musket blow from an American sailor left Broke momentarily stunned, and a second American then brought a cutlass down with full force, shearing off Broke’s scalp and cutting through the skull to bare his brains; a British sailor then ran Broke’s assailant through, and by that point the battle was essentially over, even if the blood-maddened fury continued for several minutes. The remaining Americans on the spar deck were herded down below, but some of the boarders fired down the hatches and others shot wounded Americans on the deck or threw them into the sea.

The action had taken fifteen minutes and left horrific casualties on both sides. Nearly half the American crew were casualties, sixty-nine dead and seventy-five wounded, but so were a quarter of the British sailors. Several of the boarders had been mauled by grapeshot mistakenly directed at them from their own ship; others were hacked or pistoled. The Shannon’s surgeon itemized the grisly particulars:

G. T. L. Watt, 1st Lieut grape carried away the top of his head

Wm. Birbles, A.B. grape lodged in back part of chest. Lived several hours

John Young, A.B. cut in two on board the Chesapeake

J. Hampson, A.B. musket ball through the hip, cutting though the urethra

James Wright, Ship Corpl. bayonet wound in the abdomen

Thos. Barr, Ordinary head shot off30

Five days later the Shannon led her prize into Halifax harbor, and the word quickly spread through the sleepy Sunday morning. At St. Paul’s Church, a whisper went from pew to pew during the service, and “one by one the congregation left” to run to the waterfront to witness the scene.31

For a week Broke lay motionless, unable to speak in more than single syllables, shakily affixing his signature to a letter to Admiral Warren seeking to seize the moment to bestow some patronage upon his crew: promotions for his gunner and a carpenter who had served with him for seven years; an appointment as a cook for “my old coxswain Stark,” who lost an arm; a “comfortable retirement” for Marine Corporal Driscoll, who “I fear … will prove a cripple” and who has “a decent respectable wife & family.” Broke himself never fully recovered but was soon well enough to write his wife exulting over the release he had so honorably purchased, about the flower garden and greenhouse and new horse “we must have” with the £3,000 in prize money he would receive, assuring her that the celebrity and accolades would not turn his head: “I will be modest when I get to Suffolk and turn Farmer, renounce vanity with my laced coat.”32

News of Broke’s victory arrived at the Admiralty in London on July 8, and Secretary Croker was able to announce it theatrically in the House of Commons during a debate on naval policy that same night, relishing a chance to skewer the government’s critics by pulling an account of British naval triumph out of his hat. Throughout England the exultation was hyperbolic bordering on manic. “Go, vain Columbia! boast no more,” declared one of the many celebratory poems that were rushed into print. The normally sober Naval Chronicle declared Broke’s triumph the “most brilliant act of heroism ever performed” in all of British history, hailed the rebuke to “American vanity” and the “unequivocal proof of their inferiority to us in fair and equal combat,” and gloated more than once over the report that a grand victory dinner was actually being prepared in Boston for the Chesapeake’s officers at the moment of her surrender, running a slightly puerile poem that ended with the lines: “But for meat they got balls / From our staunch wooden walls, / So the dinner Engagement was BROKE.” An action that in other circumstances would not merit more than recognition or promotion, much less so much as a knighthood, earned Broke a baronetcy. Both of his surviving lieutenants were promoted to commander, another highly unusual distinction.33

Beneath the hoopla Croker was able to issue an order that would have been humiliating under other circumstances, but which confronted the new reality of this new war. Two days after announcing Broke’s victory in Parliament, Croker sent to all station commanders in chief a “secret & confidential” directive strictly forbidding any further single-ship combat with “the larger Class of American Ships; which though they may be called Frigates, are of a size, Complemant and weight of Metal much beyond that Class, and more resembling Line of Battles Ships.” In the event of one of His Majesty’s frigates falling in with such a ship, her captain was above all to “secure the retreat of His Majestys Ship.”34

A subsequent American court-martial cashiered Lieutenant Cox for neglect of duty and un-officerlike conduct and sentenced the ship’s black bugler, William Brown, who had been found cowering under the longboat when he was supposed to summon the boarders, to three hundred lashes, subsequently remitted by President Madison to one hundred lashes.35 But William Jones used the opportunity to issue a directive to his captains to keep their eyes on the only strategy that mattered. His subsequent sailing orders to all of the American navy’s vessels would contain the injunction “You are also strictly prohibited from giving or receiving a Challenge to, or from, an Enemy’s Vessel.”

As he would tell one of his captains: “The Character of the American Navy does not require those feats of Chivalry, and your own reputation is too well established, to need factitious support.”

And he added: “His Commerce is our true Game, for there he is indeed vulnerable.”36

ON THE same day the Chesapeake struck her flag, June 1, 1813, Stephen Decatur attempted to escape past the British blockaders that had been besetting the entrances to New York for most of the spring. For a week in early May he had waited in Sandy Hook Bay for a favorable wind that would carry the United States, the Macedonian, and the brig Argus past the British frigate and seventy-four that intermittently came into view to the south; a heavy sea would keep the seventy-four’s lower gun ports closed and cut her thousand-pound broadside in half, giving the impromptu American squadron a decisive advantage. But the winds remained light and baffling, and a welter of fragmentary and contradictory intelligence reports of additional British warships made Decatur increasingly wary. On May 15 he gave up the attempt to reach the open sea by that route and returned to New York.

His new plan was to make the perilous passage through Hell Gate, the narrow channel from the East River that led to Long Island Sound. Decatur wrote Secretary Jones that he thought his chances that way were better on several counts; for one thing, the British ship of the line that was reportedly watching the end of the sound at Montauk, the Ramillies, was twenty-eight years old and “a much duller ship” than the Valiant off Sandy Hook. Moreover, there were reports that the frigate Orpheus that was in company with her had been making solo forays into the sound, so “it is not altogether improbable that I may fall in with her, out of the protection of the Ramillies.” On May 18, Decatur sailed up the East River, now with the sloop of war Hornet joining the two frigates. Argusstayed behind: she had just received new orders from Secretary Jones that “the President of the United States having in view a special service” for the ship, she was to remain in port, ready for “departure at a moment’s notice,” and await further instructions.37

Hell Gate was a narrow, rock-strewn tidal channel notorious for its swirling currents and the hundreds of ships that had been wrecked trying to make the passage; some two thousand ships would be lost there before the Army Corps of Engineers in the late nineteenth century demolished the rocks with hundreds of thousands of pounds of dynamite. On the approach to the channel the United States ran aground and stuck, but was undamaged and floated on the next tide. All the ships made it safely through Hell Gate a few days later. But on the twenty-sixth a freakish lightning strike disconcerted everyone, splintering the United States’ royal mainmast and striking Decatur’s broad pennant fluttering down to the deck; then, surging down the mainmast, the charge leapt down the side of the ship and through one of the main deck gunports onto a cannon, down the wardroom hatch, miraculously skirted the scuttle to the magazine below, and tore through the surgeon’s stateroom, where it blew out a candle and destroyed the surgeon’s unoccupied cot, then finally exited the ship below the waterline, blowing out several sheets of coppering as it went. The Macedonian was following in close order, and her officer on deck instantly shouted for all her sails put aback, convinced the United States was about to be blown to bits by her magazine detonating.38

Unbeknownst to Decatur, at that very moment both exits from New York were unguarded. Had he either turned back for Sandy Hook or pressed on toward Block Island, he would have made his escape free and clear at once. The senior British captain on the station was the Valiant’s commander, Robert Dudley Oliver, and seeing Decatur heading for Hell Gate, he had ordered the two small squadrons to switch posts. The Valiant was down to ten tons of water and her consort the Acasta had none, and they desperately needed to put into Block Island to replenish their stocks. But Oliver also clearly wanted a crack at Decatur himself, and when Sir Thomas Hardy, the Ramillies’ captain, arrived off Sandy Hook in obedience to Oliver’s orders and learned the real reason behind them he was livid. “It gives me a great deal of uneasiness to have quitted my Station just at this moment,” Hardy wrote Warren, “but I still hope that Commodore Decatur will change his mind and come out my way.”39

Oliver raced along the southern length of Long Island to reach its tip before Decatur arrived there on his parallel course along its north side, through Long Island Sound. But Decatur, for reasons never subsequently explained, bided his time now as he made his way east along the sound. It was a week later, on the morning of the first of June, that the United States, Macedonian, and Hornet passed between Block Island and Montauk Point at the end of Long Island, with the wind on their quarter and the two British ships in sight far to leeward. But unnerved by reports of other enemy vessels in the area, Decatur at that moment misidentified several other ships in the area as British men-of-war, and just as he was on the verge of making good his escape to the open Atlantic, he hauled his wind and beat back for the safety of New London. In the ensuing chase Acasta worked to windward and fired a ranging shot from her bow chasers, but still the American ships raced on, the Macedonian and the Hornet grounding in the mouth of the Thames River and the British ships abandoning their pursuit because they had no one aboard familiar with the tricky local channels.

Decatur at once got the ships lightened and moved up the river and unshipped two carronades and several of the large guns from his ship to fortify the point at Groton commanding the approaches across from New London. The next day Oliver “pressed a fishing smack” to carry an express order to Hardy to return with his two ships, and on the seventh they arrived to tighten the blockade of New London. British raiding parties landed at the point and carried off cattle and boasted that they planned to attack the American ships as soon as reinforcements arrived. Fearing that the British would go to any lengths to recapture the Macedonian—“even if they followed her into a cornfield,” Decatur said—he ordered the ships lightened again and moved them eight miles up the river through shallow water and erected an earthwork fort that commanded the approaches by water and land. He had iron bolts driven into the rocks on either side of the river and a chain stretched across, and asked Secretary Jones to send some twenty-four-pounders from the navy yard in New York to reinforce the position. “At this point we shall be perfectly secure, as the channel is very narrow and intricate and not a sufficient depth of water to enable large ships to follow,” Decatur reported.40

The American warships were secure: they were also impotent. New London’s merchants had never been much in sympathy with the war, and now that their harbor was blockaded they were even less so. More than a few scornful comments about the erstwhile hero Decatur’s newfound timidity began circulating. Decatur complained that the town was “utterly out of joint” with the war, the navy, and even his own predicament. At the end of the year he claimed he had been unable to escape to sea because traitorous citizens in New London had been making secret signals with “blue lights” to inform the British squadron of his planned movements, a charge that brought more derisive comments his way. Decatur admitted that other than having seen the lights—which he said had been burned from “both the points at the river’s mouth”—he had been unable to substantiate the story that he was being betrayed, and there was much that was absurd about it on its face: it was the sort of hysterical wartime rumor that always circulates, and the fact was that the lights probably came from ordinary fishing boats. The two frigates would be trapped there for the rest of the war.41

THE BRITISH fixation was not just with the Macedonian but with all the American frigates that had come to seem a reproach to British honor, and honor along with other distractions kept playing havoc with Warren’s efforts to implement the steady escalation of overwhelming force that the blockade strategy demanded through the spring and summer of 1813. Even Broke’s morale-energizing triumph over the Chesapeake had come at a significant cost to the blockade: directly contravening the Admiralty’s stern admonitions to Warren regarding Boston harbor, Broke had deliberately weakened his force to entice Lawrence into a duel, and then for two weeks afterward the station was abandoned altogether as the Shannon sailed to Halifax with her prize. American privateers and letter-of-marque traders used their absence to escape to sea while merchantmen and privateers’ prizes rushed in—as did the American navy brig Siren from New Orleans. The day after news of Broke’s victory arrived in London, Croker sent a scathing rebuke to Sawyer’s successor in Halifax, Rear Admiral Edward Griffith, demanding to know in the name of their lordships why “the Shannon and Tenedos, and sometimes the former alone, have been employed in blockading the Port of Boston, when they had hoped that a Line of Battle Ship had been ordered to assist in performing that Service.” Every blockading squadron was to have a ship of the line constantly attached to it, “it being of the utmost importance that the Enemy’s Ships should be intercepted on their return.” The admiral was to dispatch a ship of the line plus two or more frigates at once to Boston to be “constantly employed in blockading that port” and was to call on the captain of the seventy-four La Hogue “to account for not having done so, transmitting his report to me.”42 On June 8 the Argus had used the similar absence of the entire British blockading squadron from Sandy Hook to put out unmolested to sea, not sighting an enemy vessel at all until she was seventy miles off the coast, and then dodged those British warships—part of the reinforcements heading for the Chesapeake—by ducking into a fog bank and making good her escape.43

On the Chesapeake the Constellation remained a magnet for Warren’s and Cockburn’s attentions, even as the Admiralty ordered Warren to extend and intensify the blockade up and down the coast. An instruction had arrived from Lord Melville in May telling Warren to proclaim an extension of the blockade to include all ports to the south of Rhode Island, including the Mississippi River:

We do not intend this as a mere paper blockade, but as a complete stop to all trade & intercourse by Sea with those Ports … If you find that this cannot be done without abandoning for a time the interruption which you appear to be giving to the internal navigation of the Chesapeake, the latter object must be given up, & you must be content with blockading its entrance & sending in occasionally your cruisers for the purpose of harassing & annoyance. I do not avert to enterprizes which you may propose to undertake with the aid of the Troops.

Croker added one of his usual hectoring follow-ups. He stressed to Warren that while His Majesty’s government had found it useful to publicly declare blockades “of certain Ports only, because it is considered that for these purposes your Force will be always adequate,” that was in no way to be misunderstood by the admiral as relieving him of the obligation to do more; “their Lordships expect and direct you to maintain a blockade de facto of every Port to which your force may be adequate and which shall afford any facilities either to the Privateers or Merchant Ships of the Enemy.” He was to crush any attempts by the enemy to evade the blockade by shifting activity to other ports. He was not to neglect the “still more important” point of “affording to the British Trade frequent and adequate Convoys.” The secretary helpfully concluded by explaining to Warren, “By an attention to this point … the resources of the Enemy will be crippled and impaired and the Commerce of His Majesty’s Subjects facilitated & protected.”44

In March 1813 Cockburn had made three attempts to take the Constellation in boat attacks, all of them repulsed; the next month, while still awaiting the arrival of the two thousand troops that had been promised him, he launched a series of marauding attacks up and down the inlets of the Chesapeake. Leaving a small detachment behind at Norfolk to keep an eye on the Constellation, Warren in his flagship San Domingo led the entire fleet northward; off Annapolis, Warren dropped anchor with the main body of the force to threaten Baltimore as Cockburn proceeded farther up the bay in the seventy-four Marlborough accompanied by the frigate Maidstone, the brigs Fantome and Mohawk, and three tenders. Cockburn had earlier snapped up four privateer and letter-of-marque schooners, each armed with a half-dozen to a dozen guns, and then quickly manned them and sailed them into narrow inlets and in a few days took thirty-six more prizes from their unsuspecting crews, who recognized the schooners and did not realize until much too late their new character. As the bay grew shallower, the Marlborough could no longer proceed and Cockburn transferred to the Maidstone. At dawn on April 29 at the very top of the bay, Cockburn’s men appeared off the town of Frenchtown, rowing for the shallow shore in launches, each mounted with a small swivel gun. Along with his ships’ companies Cockburn had under his command the “naval brigade,” a selected detachment of 180 sailors and 200 Royal Marines to carry out raids ashore, and as the launches began firing, a landing party got ashore and flanked a small Maryland militia unit manning a battery of six guns and quickly swept them aside. The British troops burned flour stocks and a few small arms caches and reembarked with total casualties of one man slightly wounded.

A few days later Cockburn’s force was passing the mouth of the Susquehanna River when, as he reported to Admiral Warren, “I observed guns fired and American Colours hoisted at a Battery lately erected at Havre-de-Grace at the entrance to the Susquehanna River, this of course immediately gave to the Place an Importance which I had not before attached to it.” Cockburn’s whole attitude toward the Americans was as if they were already an occupied or subject people who had no legitimate right to resist British arms. Havre de Grace was a small town of no discernible strategic significance, but Cockburn at once “determined on attacking it” after this defiant show of American sovereignty. Having previously sounded the waters, he knew that only boats would be able to approach safely. At midnight on May 2, he sent 150 men into the boats to take up positions under cover of dark and be ready to attack at dawn.45

Again the fire from the British launches and a British assault party quickly silenced the American battery. Along with the small guns on the British boats was a “rocket boat” that carried Congreve rockets. They were remarkably inaccurate weapons, but Cockburn placed great faith in them. Propelled by black powder charges and carrying solid, shrapnel, or exploding warheads of twelve to forty-two pounds, they had a range of up to two miles and an undeniable terror-inducing effect as they hissed and whizzed along their arcing trajectories. But they were almost completely unpredictable and sometimes gyrated wildly or even reversed course, sending their firing crews fleeing for cover. At Havre de Grace a Maryland militiaman became the only known fatality from a Congreve rocket during the entire war.46

After being routed from the battery, the American militiamen kept up the fight, to Cockburn’s outrage: “No longer feeling themselves equal to a manly and open Resistance, they commenced a teazing and irritating fire from behind their Houses, Walls, Trees &c.” The British party chased the Americans into the woods but, having then “decided it would not be prudent to pursue them further,” turned their attention to destroying the town: in order, Cockburn explained, that the townspeople might “understand and feel what they were liable to bring upon themselves by building Batteries and acting toward us with so much Rancor.” The guns of the captured battery were turned on the town, and two-thirds of the sixty houses were then put to the torch. “You shall now feel the effects of war,” one British officer told residents just before the orders were given to set fire to the houses.47

One of those was the home of Commodore Rodgers, who had been the British navy’s bête noire ever since the Little Belt affair. According to a story that (true or not) circulated widely among British naval officers, Admiral Warren himself received some of the spoils of the plundering of Rodgers’s home. Sir David Milne, a British admiral who would command a ship of the line on the American station in 1814, wrote a relation that he had heard that Rodgers’s “pianoforte is in Sir John’s house in Bermuda, and he was riding in his, the Commodore’s, carriage at Halifax.” Milne added: “What do you think of a British Admiral and Commander-in-Chief? This is not the way to conquer America.”48

Cockburn reembarked his men and took a small detachment a few miles up the river to the cannon foundry at Principio, where “without difficulty” he destroyed forty-five guns, including twenty-eight fully finished thirty-two-pounders. Again total British casualties were one wounded: Cockburn’s first lieutenant was shot through the hand.

Three days later, Cockburn returned to the top of the bay, planning to attack two more small towns, Georgetown and Fredericktown, located a short way up the Sassafras River—“being the only River or Place of Shelter for Vessels at this upper Extremity of the Chesapeake which I had not examined and cleared,” Cockburn reported to Warren. Nearing the towns, the British flotilla caught a small boat carrying two local residents, and Cockburn used them to deliver an ultimatum:

I sent forward the two Americans in their Boat to warn their Countrymen against acting in the same rash manner as the People of Havre-de-Grace had done, assuring them if they did that their Towns would inevitably meet with similar Fate, but on the contrary, if they did not attempt Resistance no Injury should be done to them or their Towns, that Vessels and Public Property only, would be seized, that the strictest Discipline would be maintained, and that whatever Provisions or other Property I might require for the use of the Squadron should be instantly paid for at its fullest Value. After having allowed sufficient Time for this Message to be digested and their Resolution taken thereon I directed the boats to advance and I am sorry to say I soon found the more unwise alternative was adopted.49

The houses of the towns were burned, along with four vessels lying in the river and some stores of sugar, lumber, leather, and other merchandise.

The raids certainly had the effect of spreading panic and fury throughout the region. Cockburn became the most hated man in America. The Weekly Register in Baltimore reprinted a notice from one James O. Boyle offering a reward of one thousand dollars for the head of “the notorious incendiary and infamous scoundrel, and violator of all laws, human divine, the British admiral COCKBURN—or, five hundred dollars for each of his ears, on delivery.”50 Whether Cockburn’s expedition up the Chesapeake had done anything to advance British strategic objectives was another matter, and despite Lord Melville’s injunction to Warren not to let the summer campaign inside the bay interfere with the higher priority of enforcing the blockade, it had already done just that. The whole Chesapeake enterprise, in fact, was becoming a huge distraction and diversion of force and attention for the British commander in chief. Cockburn rejoined the fleet on May 7, and a week later the whole British armada was back at Hampton Roads, whereupon Warren decided that his first order of business was to sail with a powerful convoy to Halifax to deliver the forty prizes Cockburn had taken. He returned on June 19 with an even larger naval force, the long-awaited soldiers and marines from Bermuda, and a new plan to get the Constellation. It was a measure of how large the Chesapeake and the frigate it contained were looming in Warren’s thinking that he had now amassed eight ships of the line, twelve frigates, eight smaller men-of-war, plus various other tenders and transports, some 70 percent of the entire British strength on the North American station, at Hampton Roads for the purpose. Commanding the ground troops was Colonel Sir Thomas Sidney Beckwith, an experienced army officer who had been sent earlier in the year to Canada to take on the post of assistant quartermaster general of British troops in North America.51

On June 21 a force of twenty British ships moved to the mouth of the Nansemond River, just west of Norfolk. Craney Island, guarding the mouth of the harbor, had been reinforced with three naval cannons (two twenty-four-pounders and one eighteen-pounder) along with 150 sailors from the Constellation and about 400 militiamen, including the Portsmouth Artillery Company, armed with four six-pounders. Mid-morning on the twenty-second the Americans saw about 2,500 British marines and infantry landing on the beach of the mainland to the west of the island, which was separated by a narrow strip of water that could be forded at low tide. Then at eleven o’clock a flotilla of fifty barges began rowing toward the island from the seaward side in a second prong of the attack. At the lead was Admiral Warren’s beautifully turned out personal barge, known as the Centipede, painted a rich green, rowed with twenty-four oars; in her bow was a brass three-pounder gun and Captain John M. Hanchett, captain of the ship of the line Diadem, who had volunteered to lead the boat attack.

On Craney a few Congreve rockets fell, fired from the British contingent on the mainland. The American artillery commander, an ex–merchant mariner named Arthur Emmerson, ordered his men to hold their fire until the boats were in range. “Now, boys, are you ready?” he called out. “Fire!” A hail of round shot, canister, and grape ripped diagonally into the Centipede, hulling the barge, carrying away both legs of a French mercenary soldier, and seriously wounding Hanchett in the thigh. Then the Centipede and four other barges grounded in the shoal water that stretched for half a mile in front of the island, never more than four feet deep even at high tide, but on the falling tide now considerably shallower. They stuck fast one hundred yards from the battery as the murderous fire continued to pour in. The officers of Constellation “fired their 18 pounder more like riflemen than Artillerists, I never saw such shooting and seriously believe they saved the Island yesterday,” reported Captain John Cassin, the commanding naval officer at Norfolk. A British seaman sounding with a boathook found three feet of slimy mud, and the order was given to retreat. The American defenders waded out to the stranded boats and took about sixty prisoners as the other boats rowed back on the ebbing tide to the British ships. Sitting miraculously unhurt on the bow gun of the Centipede was a small terrier, a mascot of the British troops.

The British shore division had meanwhile abandoned their attempt as well; at least forty deserters seized their chance to come across to the American lines, but the rest were reembarking on the boats that had ferried them ashore.

The only casualty on the American side was a Quaker pacifist who had been given the task of watching over a tent on the island crammed full of reserve powder, which accidentally blew up that night, momentarily spreading a false alarm in Norfolk that the British had renewed their attack.52

Warren sent a completely dishonest report that wildly understated his casualties and the size of the fiasco, but in fact the whole operation had been a shambles. The boat assault needed high water to succeed and the land assault low water; the compromise of launching the attack on the ebbing tide simply made both impossible. “A large creek stopped our progress by land, and shoal water stopped the boats by sea. A sharp cannonade from the works on the island cost us seventy-one men, without returning a shot! We lost some boats also, and re-embarked in the evening with about as much confusion as at landing,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Charles Napier, the commander of the 102nd Regiment, in his journal the next day. “Our attack on Craney Island was silly,” he went on to observe:

Had Norfolk been decently attacked it would not have resisted ten minutes; had we landed a gun Craney was gone; had we attacked at high tide it was gone: still it was the wrong place to attack we should not have lost more men in striking at the town. But the faults of this expedition sprung from one simple cause—there were three commanders! It was a council of War, and what council of war ever achieved a great exploit?

Had either Sir John Warren, Sir Sydney Beckwith, or Admiral Cockburn acted singly and without consultation, we should not have done such foolish things.

Napier thought British overconfidence was to blame as well: “We despise the Yankee too much.”53

Four days after the failed attempt against Craney Island, the British force struck at Hampton, a town of about a thousand residents on the opposite side of the roads whose only appeal as a target for an amphibious assault was its great vulnerability to naval invasion: it contained nothing of military value. With Cockburn and Beckwith directing the attack ashore, the British troops brushed aside a few hundred militia and as usual started looting the town. But this time the plunder took on a wilder tone. The church was pillaged and its silver plate carried off; the sails of windmills were torn to the ground; closets, trunks, and drawers were pulled open and plundered in private houses; and then the French chasseurs began brutalizing some of the townspeople, shooting and killing an elderly bedridden man, tormenting another old man by stripping him naked and stabbing him in the arms with their bayonets, and then carrying off and raping several women. One woman tried to run into a creek to escape and was dragged back to the house by her five or six assailants, among whom she said were soldiers “dressed in red and speaking correctly the English language,” suggesting there were British troops joining in with the green-clad chasseurs. Napier wrote afterward that his men of the 102nd “almost mutinied at my preventing them joining in the sack of that unfortunate town.” Only the marine artillery “behaved like soldiers,” he said. “They called out, Colonel … we blush for what we see, depend upon us not a man of the marine artillery will plunder.”54

At first Beckwith made no mention of the atrocities in his official reports. But when the Virginia militia commander, Brigadier General Robert Barraud Taylor, sent a formal protest, the British commander claimed that the “excesses of which you complain at Hampton” were a direct reprisal for atrocities committed on Craney Island by American troops who shot British troops in the barges after they had surrendered. But Beckwith privately admitted to Taylor’s aide-de-camp Captain John Myers, who had been rowed out to the San Domingo under a flag of truce to present the American note, that the French troops were to blame and he had ordered them reembarked on their ships. “Appealing to my knowledge of the nature of the war in Spain, in which these men had been trained,” Myers reported, “he told me they could not be restrained.”

A few days later, Beckwith admitted in a memorandum to Warren that the “Two Independent Companies of Foreigners” had been “so perfectly insubordinate” even before arriving from Bermuda that it had been necessary to hold repeated courts-martial, one man actually being shot for mutiny, and that “their brutal Treatment of several Peaceful Inhabitants” of Hampton was the final straw. The men were shipped off to Halifax, where they continued to run wild, now with British civilians as their target. “The Inhabitants of Halifax are in the greatest alarm about these fellows,” a British official reported a few weeks later.55

A subsequent American investigation rejected Beckwith’s accusation of cruelty during the battle at Craney Island, which would hardly have been much of a justification for rape and pillage against noncombatants even if true; it concluded that one British soldier was shot when he attempted to escape after starting to wade to shore and surrender.

The atrocities at Hampton and the British officers’ refusal to take responsibility for the actions of soldiers under their command seemed an ominous signal of a new and far less honorable phase of warfare. “Remember Hampton!” became an inevitable slogan for American supporters of the war. Lieutenant Colonel Napier was privately appalled at the British attempts to brush the matter under the rug. “Every horror was committed with impunity, rape, murder, pillage, and not a man was punished!” he wrote in his journal. General Taylor, in his protest note to Admiral Warren, had directly raised the question of whether respect for the laws of honor and chivalry was still to be expected: “We are, in this part of the country, merely in the noviciate of our warfare,” Taylor wrote. “It will depend on you whether the evils inseparable from a state of war shall, in our operations, be tempered by the mildness of civilized life, or, under your authority, be aggravated by all the fiend-like passions which can be instilled in them.”56

There were other signs by the summer of 1813 that the war had entered a new and much less genteel chapter. Beyond the inevitable brutalization that occurs in all wars in which easy victory proves elusive, the American–British conflict was shot through with the kinds of personal and emotional enmities that threatened to make the fighting especially ugly as each side retaliated in a chain of escalating violence. The British alliance with the Indians particularly inflamed American feelings, especially after several incidents in which Indian warriors massacred American militiamen after they surrendered to British-led forces. But the northwestern frontiersmen who flocked to the ranks of the United States land forces were no less barbarous in their accustomed treatment of Indians, often murdering, scalping, and mutilating any who fell into their hands. And while a few British officers respected and even liked Americans, others had personal scores left over from the Revolutionary War they still hoped to settle, and probably most regarded their foe as their distinct inferior in both martial prowess and personal honor—which in itself came to be a justification in the British mind for refusing to accord Americans the chivalric treatment due an equal.

British naval officers were especially outraged by a series of unconventional attacks launched against their ships by American civilians employing booby traps, floating mines, even submarines in June and July 1813. In March 1813 Congress had passed the “Torpedo Act,” which authorized a bounty of one half the value of any British warship destroyed; inspired by that incentive, a number of inventors and daredevils began hatching schemes. On June 5, 1813, the boats of the seventy-four Victorious picked up a “powder machine,” consisting of a keg packed with gunpowder and a trigger designed to set it off on impact, floating toward their ship in the Chesapeake. Cockburn informed Warren of the development in a message sprinkled with sarcastic comments about official American publications “constantly harping” on the government’s dedication to “Humanity” even as it was devising such “humane Experiments … to dispose of us by wholesale Six Hundred at a time, without further trouble or risk.”57

Several attempts against the British ship of the line Plantagenet, guarding the mouth of the Chesapeake near Cape Henry, followed over the next weeks. On July 18 a Chesapeake mariner named Elijah Mix rowed an open boat he dubbed Chesapeake’s Revengeto within eighty yards of his target under cover of night but rapidly withdrew when hailed by the ship before he could launch the homemade torpedo he was carrying. He tried again two nights later with the same result, this time getting within twelve yards and drawing musket and rocket fire and then an illuminating flare, followed by the ship opening up with its guns, slipping its cables, and filling its sails in flight. Mix again got away and returned once more on the night of the twenty-fourth. This time he succeeded in setting his torpedo drifting toward its target and was within a whisker of succeeding when it detonated just yards too soon, throwing a column of water forty feet in the air and cascading over the ship’s deck but causing little damage.58

In New York some local civilians hatched even more audacious schemes to eliminate the line-of-battle ship Ramillies in Long Island Sound, and with her the blockade of the American frigates at New London. Outfitting a coasting schooner filled with naval stores as a tempting bait, they proceeded off of New London on June 25. British barges pursued, and the schooner’s crew put up a show of firing some small arms in resistance, then fled to shore in a small boat. Below deck was a huge quantity of gunpowder and combustibles, set to go up when a hogshead of dried peas was shifted, which would pull a lanyard tied to a gunlock and fire a powder train. The captured vessel was anchored and a tender from the Ramillies sent alongside; the seventy-four herself was, however, a safe distance away when the booby trap exploded. A lieutenant and ten men from the Ramillies were killed and three seamen were wounded, “much scorched in the Face, Arms, & Legs,” Captain Sir Thomas Hardy reported. Warren expressed fury and indignation, issuing a general order that as “it appears the Enemy are disposed to make use of every unfair and Cowardly mode of Warfare,” no prize or boat was to be permitted alongside any of His Majesty’s ships before a thorough examination had taken place. Hardy now kept his ship in almost constant motion, swept the underside every two hours to check for attached mines, and shifted his position away from the mouth of New London’s harbor and closer to Long Island.59

The growing unconventional warfare in American waters led directly to a hardening of attitudes toward prisoners when Hardy learned in August of another plot to blow up his ship and sent a landing party to East Hampton to foil it. Joshua Penny, the civilian who was leading the attempt, was pulled out of his bed and carried aboard the Ramillies, where he was clapped in irons. When town officials protested, Hardy replied that Penny would be treated as a prisoner of war, if not a spy. President Madison personally ordered that a British prisoner of equal stature be put “in the same state, of degradation & suffering” in retaliation.60

A series of retaliatory actions over the treatment of prisoners, triggered chiefly by Britain’s moves to bring to trial as traitors a number of American prisoners it claimed were British subjects, had already undermined the lenient rules the two nations had agreed to follow for exchanges. The men from the Guerriere whom Rodgers had pulled off the cartel in Boston harbor and held as hostages were released in June 1813 after word arrived that the British had dropped their plans to try the detained members of the Nautilus’s crew for treason, but tit-for-tat retaliations involving other prisoners immediately reinflamed the situation. In retaliation for the Americans’ designation of several British seamen as hostages “to answer for the safety and proper treatment” of other Americans sent to England for trial, the British authorities in Halifax threw sixteen American seamen, including ten crewmen of the Chesapeake, into three dungeons each measuring nine by seven feet. In response, Madison ordered sixteen British seamen confined in similar conditions and also had another one hundred British prisoners held in close confinement as hostages for a like number of still more Americans just sent to Britain for trial. Twenty-three mostly Irish-born American citizens serving in the U.S. army were also in England facing charges of treason, and the American government designated twenty-three British officers as hostages to be “immediately put to death” if the Americans were; the British responded by designating forty-six American officers as hostages for them; the Americans ordered forty-six more British officers held as hostages; and by the end of 1813 all officers on both sides were being held in close confinement and under threat of death. Sir George Prevost, the governor general of Canada, vowed “to prosecute the war with unmitigated severity” if any of the British hostages were harmed.61

Meanwhile, local British commanders were starting to refuse to release any more prisoners on parole for future exchange. Cockburn issued orders that American prisoners taken in numbers beyond those that could be immediately exchanged for British prisoners would be sent straight to prisons in Bermuda. By the summer of 1813 the British were holding six times as many prisoners as the Americans were, and in August the British government stopped all releases of Americans from prison depots in England until the accounts were brought into balance. In England were 2,200 American seamen who had been impressed in the Royal Navy and who refused to fight when the war broke out and then were summarily held as prisoners of war; there were also a number of merchant sailors who had been trapped in Britain when the war began whom the British refused to exchange; the British also refused to release any crews captured from privateers that mounted fewer than fourteen guns.

After a year of escalating tensions, all the Americans brought to England as supposed British subjects charged with raising arms against their king were returned to the general prison population and none were brought to trial, and by April 1814 Secretary of State Monroe reported that most of the hostages on both sides had been removed from close confinement and the threats of retaliatory execution dropped. But the threats and counterthreats had left each side convinced that the other was prepared to abandon the laws of civilized war and humanity. And the collapse of the parole system made the consequences of being taken prisoner far greater than they had been for the combatants on both sides.62

On September 6, 1813, the British armada pulled out of Chesapeake Bay, Warren heading for Halifax with more prizes and several warships desperately in need of refit, Cockburn for Bermuda with other ships needing long-term repairs, and leaving behind the line-of-battle ship Dragon, two frigates, two brigs, and three schooners at Lynnhaven Bay for the winter. The coming of the autumn “fever season” was one consideration in Warren’s decision to end the campaign, but so was the toll taken by constant desertions and the relatively poor return he had gained for all his troubles. Lieutenant Colonel Napier was dismayed by the ineptness of the campaign. “We have done nothing but commit blunders,” he wrote in his journal. “Nothing was done with method, all was hurry, confusion, and long orders.” Cockburn, he thought, “is no doubt an active good seaman, but has no idea of military arrangements; and he is so impetuous that he won’t give time for others to do for him what he cannot or will not do himself.… Cockburn trusts all to luck, and makes no provision for failure: this may do with sailors, but not on shore, where hard fighting avails nothing if not directed by mind, and most accurate calculation.

“I have learned much on this expedition,” Napier mused; “how to embark and disembark large bodies in face of an enemy; how useless it is to have more than one commander; how necessary it is that the commanders by sea and land should agree and have one view: finally never to trust Admiral Cockburn.”63

“GREAT GOD when will the tide turn on Land,” lamented the Philadelphia merchant Chandler Price to his old acquaintance William Jones. In the campaign against Canada, America’s own blunders had continued at a steady pace through the spring and summer of 1813. On the Detroit frontier William Henry Harrison’s army was thrown on the defensive, holed up in two forts on the southwest corner of Lake Erie. The Americans bravely held out against a series of British attacks—a 1,200-man relief force from Kentucky that arrived on May 5 suffered 50 percent casualties when it sallied out against some of the British and Indian troops besieging Fort Meigs—but Harrison’s plans to take the offensive and recapture Detroit were completely stymied. On the Niagara front an American force of 1,700 raided York—present-day Toronto, the capital of Upper Canada—in late April but accomplished little. The Americans suffered 320 casualties, most when the retreating British set off the garrison’s powder magazine, and among the fatally injured was General Zebulon Pike, one of the comparatively few capable officers the American army had in the field. Angered by the explosion, the American troops looted the town, burned public buildings, smashed a government printing press, and stole the books out of a subscription library before withdrawing, which did more to arouse British and Canadian anger than accomplish anything of military significance.

A month later an offensive by 4,500 American troops under Major General Winfield Scott pressed west into Canada from the Niagara River. Things began encouragingly enough with the capture of Fort George on the Canadian side of the river where it joined Lake Ontario, but within two weeks the campaign had turned into another American rout. Twice, outnumbered British units ambushed large American detachments that had pushed west trying to follow up the initial victories; the British captured two American generals and the collapse of the offensive forced General Dearborn to order the evacuation of all positions inside Canadian territory except for Fort George. When the news reached Washington in July, Republican war supporters forced Madison at last to relieve Dearborn of his command. “We have deposed Gen. Dearborn,” said Pennsylvania Republican congressman Charles J. Ingersoll, “who is to be removed to Albany, where he may eat sturgeon and recruit.”64

In the east, a disorganized plan to march on Montreal began late in the summer and almost immediately fell apart under the disastrous command of Major General James Wilkinson, whom one historian has called the worst general on either side in the war, and probably the worst general in all of American history. Winfield Scott thought Wilkinson an “unprincipled imbecile,” and Major General Wade Hampton, who was supposed to cooperate in the invasion with a force of 4,500 men under his command, simply refused to obey Wilkinson’s orders. During the campaign Wilkinson’s officers observed with increasing alarm the general’s attempts to treat his dysentery with massive doses of laudanum, which left him “very merry,” singing and garrulously repeating stories but hardly inspiring confidence.65

The failure of the opening land campaigns had brought into sharp relief the crucial importance of controlling the lakes—Erie on the Detroit front, Ontario on the Niagara front, and Champlain on the eastern front—to secure the movement of men and supplies. Roads were extremely poor and exposed to attack, and initial British naval superiority on the lakes had given their forces a freedom of movement that had allowed them to take the offensive in what was increasingly becoming a slow positional war of maneuver, not the quick dash that Americans had confidently predicted. Securing American territory against further British advances, much less carrying out the still-hoped-for invasion of Canada, now hung on achieving control of the lakes. Right after assuming office, William Jones had assured Commodore Isaac Chauncey, who had assumed command of naval forces on Lakes Erie and Ontario in September 1812, that he recognized what was at stake: “It is impossible to attach too much importance to our naval operations on the Lakes—the success of the ensuing campaign will depend absolutely on our superiority on all the lakes—& every effort, & resource, must be directed to that object.” Crash shipbuilding programs were begun on Lake Ontario at Sackets Harbor, New York, and on Lake Erie at Presque Isle (now Erie), Pennsylvania; 150 men from the Constitution’s crew and other men from blockaded or refitting warships were sent west; iron, cordage, and shot were hauled overland from Pittsburgh. Noah Brown, a master shipwright, took charge in March 1813 at Presque Isle, where two 20-gun brigs were under construction. That same month Captain Sir James-Lucas Yeo of the Royal Navy arrived in Canada to take charge of the British squadrons.66

Lake Ontario, which was the gateway to the settled areas of Upper Canada, would become a frustrating exercise in strategic stalemate to both navies, “a warfare of Dockyards,” Jones would come to call it, as each side tried to outbuild the other; by the fall of 1814 the American navy would have 2,300 men on Lake Ontario, five times as many as were at sea at that point, and the British had by then launched from their harbor at Kingston a 104-gun vessel, among the largest warships in the world.67 Neither side would ever gain decisive control, and Yeo and Chauncey, both cautious in the extreme, avoided a decisive confrontation that might have settled the matter.

Lake Erie was another matter, though. In September 1813 Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a twenty-seven-year-old officer who had begged to be transferred from the tedium of commanding gunboats at Newport, Rhode Island, sailed from Presque Isle with his two new twenty-gun brigs and seven schooners and other small vessels, most of them converted merchant vessels mounted with one or two 24- or 32-pound carronades. At daylight on September 10, near Put-in-Bay at the western end of the lake, he spotted the British squadron and signaled his other vessels to close with the enemy. Perry’s flagship the Lawrence locked in a close-quarter carronade slugfest with the two largest British ships for two hours, fighting both sides of the ship simultaneously and taking 80 percent casualties until Perry was reduced to calling the surgeon’s assistants one by one away from their post helping the wounded in the wardroom below and then calling down, “Can any of the wounded pull a rope?” Then Perry rowed through a hail of fire to the as-yet-undamaged Niagara as the Lawrence, reduced to fourteen sound men, struck her colors, and the commodore brought the second ship into close action and carried on the battle for another forty-five minutes until the British commodore surrendered.68

A month later Harrison’s army, swelled to 5,500 by 3,000 more volunteers newly arrived from Kentucky, assembled at the west end of Lake Erie, retook Detroit, and pursued the retreating British into Canada. At Moraviantown, fifty miles west of Detroit, the British army of 800 regulars and 500 Indians, including the famous chief Tecumseh, turned to make a stand along the Thames River. The Kentuckians persuaded Harrison to adopt the almost bizarrely unorthodox tactic of staging a mounted infantry assault, and the shock of 1,200 backwoodsmen armed with muskets galloping out of the woods broke the British line. Tecumseh was killed and most of the Indians fled. The Americans tore clothing, and hair, from the Indian chief’s body and then in a grislier spree of souvenir hunting skinned the corpse and carried off patches as trophies. Among the army’s other prizes was a cannon that had been captured by the Americans at Saratoga in 1777 and lost by General Hull at the fall of Detroit in 1812.69

The naval contest on the lakes indirectly affected the broader naval war by cutting into the men, money, and materiel available to America’s oceangoing navy, but Secretary Jones saw it was fundamentally isolated from the real fight he had to wage against the Royal Navy. Secretary of State Monroe would derisively refer to the “fish-pond war” of the lakes, which touched the heart of the matter: it was a war in a teacup, unable to directly tilt the larger strategic balance. Even the victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, though it secured the American frontier territories in the west, was primarily a defensive victory that could not translate into the kind of leverage that would change the thinking of the councils in London. By the end of 1813, unable to sustain an offensive campaign on the Niagara frontier, the War Department withdrew most of its regulars and sent them east; they arrived just in time for Wilkinson to call off his inept campaign against Montreal and retreat into winter quarters south of the St. Lawrence River, where many of the ill-provisioned and ill-clad men suffered frostbite or even froze to death.

“The difference between the Lake and the sea service,” Jones would observe, “is that in the former we are compelled to fight them at least man to man and gun to gun whilst on the Ocean five British frigates cannot counteract the depredations of one Sloop of War.”70 It was still to the oceans that Jones was looking to force Britain to come to terms.

ONE OF THE most vivid and detailed accounts of the shocking devastation wreaked on human flesh by shot, splinters, and bullets in the course of naval combat came from the Battle of Lake Erie and the pen of Commodore Perry’s surgeon, Usher Parsons. Like most American naval surgeons of the era, Parsons was young—he was twenty-four at the start of the war—but well trained and fully qualified as a physician if still inexperienced. Although not an M.D., he had done an apprenticeship under the renowned Dr. John Warren of Boston and was licensed to practice in 1812 by the Massachusetts Medical Society. Unable to pay off his debts and unsuccessfully trying to start a practice in New Hampshire, he had applied to the navy as a surgeon’s mate as soon as war was declared and was practically overwhelmed with relief when he received his commission. “No one could imagine my joy, it was ecstatic, frantic,” he said. The two other naval surgeons of the young American navy who left written accounts of their experiences in the war had similar backgrounds: Amos Evans of the Constitution was twenty-seven at the war’s start and had studied in Philadelphia under Dr. Benjamin Rush, another celebrated physician of the period; James Inderwick of the brig Argus was twenty-three, had graduated from Columbia University, and was serving as the house surgeon at New York Hospital when he joined the navy in 1813.71

The carnage Parsons faced during the Battle of Lake Erie was compounded by the hellish conditions he had to endure. In a larger ship the surgeon worked below the waterline, in the cockpit of the orlop deck; it was a tiny space, about sixteen by nineteen feet in the frigate Constitution, and the overhead space was so low, about four feet five inches, that the surgeon and his assistants had to work on their knees; but it was the stablest part of the ship and well protected from enemy fire. Not so in the small brig Lawrence. “The vessel being shallow built, afforded no cockpit or place of shelter for the wounded,” wrote Parsons; “they were therefore received on the wardroom floor, which was about on a level with the surface of the water.” Several cannonballs barely missed Parsons as he worked in the cramped space:

Being only nine or ten feet square, this floor was soon covered, which made it necessary to pass the wounded out into another apartment, as fast as the bleeding could be stanched either by ligatures or tourniquet. Indeed this was all that was attempted for their benefit during the engagement, except that in some instances division was made of a small portion of flesh, by which a dangling limb, that annoyed the patient, was hanging to the body. Several, after receiving this treatment were again wounded, among whom was midshipman Lamb, who was moving from me with a tourniquet on the arm, when he received a cannon ball in the chest; and a seaman brought down with both arms fractured, was afterwards struck by a cannon ball in both lower extremities.72

Parsons had already amputated six legs during the battle; he now faced ninety-six wounded, including thirty-six men brought aboard the Lawrence from the other ships of the squadron, and in the falling light Parsons decided not to attempt any more amputations until morning. He spent the evening tying off wounded arteries, administering opiates, and securing shattered limbs with tourniquets in preparation for the next day’s surgeries. “At daylight a subject was on the table for amputation of the thigh,” Parsons recounted, and he continued working nonstop, swiftly severing flesh and muscle with a sweeping motion of the large amputation knife, cutting through bone with saws, tying off severed arteries, moving on to the next patient. By midday all that grisly work was done, but it was not until midnight that he had finished tending to the fractures that could be set and the other lesser injuries.

Although injuries such as chest wounds that today could be treated were deemed inoperable and hopeless, and although amputation was the simple and drastic remedy for many injuries that in later years could have been treated in ways that saved the limb, the surgical techniques applied were generally remarkably successful in saving the lives of even grievously wounded men, at least if their injuries were confined to an extremity. The basic surgical tools of the day—probes, scalpels, knives, scissors, forceps—were not much different from those of two hundred years later; even so horrific-looking a device as the trepan, designed to cut a hole in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain from the life-threatening subcranial bleeding that often resulted from head injuries, was perfectly sound in principle and saved many a life. Only three of Parson’s ninety-six patients subsequently died, an outcome he attributed to fresh air, boiled drinking water, wholesome food, and “the happy state of mind which victory occasioned.” Parsons applied the $1,249 in prize money he received for the American victory to paying off his educational debts.73

Where naval surgeons of the first years of the nineteenth century were far more helpless was in the treatment of garden-variety disease; the standard-issue medicine chest contained upwards of two hundred drugs, nearly all of them worthless and most of them poisonous. The standard treatment for all manner of ailments included bleeding, emetics, purgatives, and compounds containing mercury, lead, antimony, and other toxic substances. A common prescription for headache and fever was Dover’s Powders, a patent medicine combining the vomiting agent ipecac plus opium. For syphilis, which typically accounted for half the men out of action at any given time, the prescription was huge doses of mercury—the saying of the time was “seven minutes with Venus, six months with Mercury”—and the treatment was literally worse than the disease, causing first copious salivation, then ulcerations of the mouth, then loss of teeth and hair, and finally brain and kidney damage; only it was no treatment at all, having no effect whatsoever on the underlying disease itself.

The only drugs of the naval surgeon’s armamentarium that actually had any beneficial value were opiates, which killed pain and stopped up the bowels of sufferers from life-threatening dysenterial illnesses, and Peruvian bark, which contained traces of antimalarial quinine. Forty percent of the Constitution’s recorded fatalities in the war were from disease. On the lakes the toll was far higher; “lake fever,” probably malaria, struck in late summer and dysentery in winter; illness that swept through Sackets Harbor late in 1813 killed an average of one man a day and left hundreds debilitated.74

As in all wars, the greatest killer was one that took no human form at all, and was equally free of malice or chivalry.

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