Review by Bill Doughty
“On Friday, October 13, 1775, meeting in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress voted to fit out two sailing vessels, armed with ten carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and manned by crews of eighty, and to send them out on a cruise of three months to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America.” Thus begins a description of the birth of the United States Navy 237 years ago on the Naval History and Heritage Command website.
Over the next 37 years the fate of the Navy hung in the balance as Republicans, Federalists and independents either fought against or for a standing Navy. Donald R. Hickey describes the politics, tactics and strategies in his 1989 detailed work, “The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.”
It took a second war with Great Britain for the Navy to prove its worth.
Having to compete with privateers and fight for resources, the Navy languished in the decade prior to 1812 -- not yet a ready force, barely able to forward and not fully tested as a warfighting force with a clear vision.
In the early 1800s anti-Navy forces “had taken a heavy toll on the navy, but seventeen ships still survived in 1812,” writes Hickey. “Seven were frigates.” The were Constitution, President, United States, Constellation, Chesapeake, Congress and Essex. “The frigates were the heart of the navy.”
“The nation also had the advantage of a rich maritime tradition. Officers and men alike were excellent seamen and skilled marksmen with cannon and small arms. Most of the officers had seen action in the Quasi-War (1798-1801) or the War with Tripoli (1801-1805). Many of the men had fought in those wars, too, or had served on British warships. The morale of the service was high, and the men were trained incessantly to perfect their skills. In addition, the navy did not face the same logistical problems as the army. The fleet was small, and once supplied a ship could remain at sea for months.”
The book provides a deeper look into the causes and effects of the war and takes in Canadian, American Indian and European perspectives. It is dense and more heavy-handed than Daughan’s “1812: The Navy’s War,” a title on the CNO’s Professional Reading List.
Hickey, however, does provide interesting details of life for Sailors in 1812, when they were as likely to serve on lakes and rivers as on ocean-going vessels.
“The usual term of service for navy personnel was a year, and normally there was no bounty. The pay ranged from $6 a month for boys and landsmen to $20 for sailmakers. Ordinary seamen earned $10, able-bodied seamen $12, and gunners $18. Most could earn more on a merchantman and a lot more on a lucky privateer. To compete, the navy began offering incentives on some stations as early as 1812, a practice that became almost universal by the end of the war.”
Hickey shows how the War of 1812 validated the Navy, stimulated peacetime defense spending and promoted nationalism as well as sectionalism, setting the stage for stronger states’ rights arguments in the south and the abolitionist movement in the north.
“The war had a dramatic impact on the American economy, too,” Hickey contends. “For most Americans, the economic opportunities were greater before and after the war than during it.”
|President James Madison|
The War of 1812 marked a turning point for the nation and Navy. New, more progressive army officers moved up the ranks. “A number of navy officers also burned their names into the history books during the conflict,” Hickey writes. “Among these were Perry, Macdonough, Hull, Bainbridge, Decatur and Stewart.”
National leaders now saw the need for warfighting readiness, including through a strong Navy.
“President Madison echoed an old Federalist plea by calling for preparedness,” Hickey writes:
“Experience has taught us that a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters in the onset, but affords also the best security for the continuance of peace.” -- President Madison.