The Navy’s Unpreparedness for War in 1812

Some historians will argue that the War of 1812 was inevitable since the interests of the United States and the United Kingdom were at odds in Europe and North America. The U.S. was determined to remain neutral in the conflict raging in Europe. The Brits wanted us to join them in their life-and-death struggle against Napoleon.

The British refused despite several diplomatic efforts to leave their forts in the Northwest Territories. England claimed they were only there to trade. Still, the British Army’s actions at the direction of Parliament to incite the Native Americans against U.S. settlers moving westward suggested otherwise.

The Royal Navy, desperate for seamen, stopped U.S.-flagged ships and impressed U.S. citizens. Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans responded with laws and policies that harmed the U.S. economy and did not dissuade the British. Jefferson ignored the storm warnings and severely limited funds for the U.S. Army and Navy. Jefferson even tried to turn the U.S. Navy into a coastal defense force. See 3/22/22 Blog Post – Jefferson’s Foreign Policy Mess In the post, it has links to other posts that provide insight into what Jefferson left Madison in 1808.)

By 1812, the small but tactically and operationally sound Navy that gave the French a bloody nose in the Quasi-War and conducted expeditionary warfare in its win against the Barbary Pirates was no more.

When James Madison asked for a declaration of war in June 1812, the U.S. Navy only had 14 ships capable of operating outside coastal waters. Once again, the U.S. Navy would face the well-trained and equipped battle-tested Royal Navy.

No new warships were being built, and of the famous frigates – Congress, Constitution, Constellation, President, and United States, only two were available for deployment. The other three were floating in a condition the Royal Navy called “in ordinary.” The modern U.S. Navy term is mothballed.

These ships were stripped of their sails, much of their rigging, and armament, which was stored in nearby warehouses. The ships were anchored out in a harbor and subject to the elements.

To prepare them for sea, each ship had to be pulled ashore to have their hulls cleaned, repainted, and re-varnished. Rigging needed to be replaced, the cannon brought on board, and the sails inspected and, where required, replaced. All this takes time, money, and an organization that could manage the process.

Two officers, Stephen Decatur and John Rodgers, both veterans from the Barbary Pirates War, the Navy had been executing a plan that would facilitate expansion. These men knew that the United States was a maritime nation. Back then, exports and imports that traveled by sea fueled our economy.

The core of the Navy’s plan to reconstitute itself quickly into a fighting force was built around two core elements. One, it would rotate the ships in an out of “ordinary.”

The second was its focus on men to man the ships. To maintain a core cadre of crews, the U.S. Navy would recruit officers and sailors, train them, and send them to sea for a year or two on one of the few operational ships. When they returned, they were paid off, and another group was sent to sea.

This is why when you read about men in the U.S. Navy from 1800 – 1812, you’ll find gaps in their service when they were put on “half pay.” By accepting the government’s money, it committed the men to be recalled. In other words, the Navy Department created a group of trained men it could bring back on active duty to man ships.

Now, with the balloon going up, the U.S. Navy could call on men who had experience, were trained, and were familiar with the ships. The result was that relatively quickly, the Navy regained its moxie. During the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy never was as large as the Royal Navy. However, thanks to the foresight of Rogers and Decatur, the quality of the U.S. Navy crews and ships were an ugly surprise to His Majesty’s Navy.

Ever since then, the U.S. Navy has been a standing force. Yes, it varied in size over the years, but never again did Congress allow the U.S. Navy to be made so small that it was irrelevant.

Next week, the U.S. Army’s story.

1813 Painting of the U.S.S. United States defeating H.M.S. Macedonian by Thomas Birch

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