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The Great Sea War

May 2024
4min read

Fine printmakers celebrated the heroes and heroics of 1812

The illustrations in this portfolio are reproduced through the courtesy of. Irving S. Olds, lornier chairman of the board of the U.S. Steel Corporation and outstanding collector of naval prints, and with the assistance of Marry Shaw Newman.

For all its diplomatic blunders and ol’ten disastrous hind campaigns, the War of 1812 is best remembered in this country as a great drama of the sea. The popular imagination never forgets the wooden ships clashing dose aboard in single combat, and it calls up quite easily the ringing names of William Bainbridge, Stephen Decatur, David Porter, Jacob Jones, Isaac Hull, Thomas AIacdonough, and Oliver Haxard Perry—the captains who fought the ships and coined the famous slogans. This strange war had a David and Goliath quality, even it the former was unprepared and the latter deeply preoccupied in a much vaster struggle against Napoleon. A U.S. Xavy ol fifteen-odd ships had nothing with which to meet the Hritish ships ol the line, and but nine frigates m match over one hundred flying the white ensign. Thus there could be no classic actions like Trafalgar, but only privateering, blockade running, and duels between single ships, demanding every ounce ol skill and seamanship.

It was a war of broadsides fired at pistol range, of maneuvering to cross the enemy’s bows and rake his decks until the tall spars toppled. There was boarding, hand-to-hand fighting with the cutlass, sharpshooting in the maintop—a far cry from modern naval warfare, fought with mechanical devices above the clouds, beneath the surface, and beyond the horizon. Naturally such a war stirred the burgeoning patriotism of the young republic. Artists seixed on the theme and printmakers on both sides of the Atlantic copied their oils and water colors to exploit an eager market. Tn the eyes of many collectors, nothing quite equals in skill and charm the copper engravings, aquatints, and lithographs which record this romantic age.

The great frigate

The most memorable American man-of-war, the frigate Constitution , was launched in 1797 at Boston, where she lies moored today. Rated at 44 guns (actually she carried more), built of live oak and red cedar with bolts from Paul Revere’s shop, she shipped about 450 men and some of the most famous commanders in U.S. history. Under Hull, she made the famous escape ( below ) and then took the Guenrrière . Just as the same year, 1812, was drawing to a close, she scored another brilliant victory, by sinking the frigate Java , 46 guns, off Brazil. This action, commencing in the afternoon of December 29, was described in the journal of the Constitution ’s new commander, Commodore Bainbridge: “Considerable maneuvers were made by both vessels to rake and avoid being raked.” The first three aquatints at right show the progressive destruction of the Mritish ship. Totally dismasted and helpless, the Englishman “most prudently struck his flag.” After survivors were removed the ship was blown up ( bottom right ). These pictures were drawn and etched by Nicholas Pocock, an English shipmaster turned marine painter, from sketches on the spot by a Lieutenant Muchanan, and published in London in 1814. One cannot imagine enemy successes being so impartially celebrated in the bitter atmosphere of war in modern times.

Defeats that won glory

After the battle shown on the preceding two pages, the captured Chesapeake was led into the harbor of Halifax by her captors ( right ), the white ensign symbolically flying over the flag of the Unoted States. This was one of several notable American defeats, which nevertheless had certain aspects in which the new nation would take pride.

The Chesapeake had been in port less than two months since her last cruise and most of her personnel, officers and men, were new to the ship. Her orders were to cruise on the British line of communications to Canada, a most important assignment because of impending land operations. What was needed most was a period of intensive training to develop the competence necessary to sail the ship and man the guns and to carry out all orders with precision in the stress of battle. All chance of such a period of preparation was lost when the Shannon was discovered to be cruising within sight. In an age when single-ship actions between vessels of relatively equal power were regarded as the classic oppotunity for the display of technical knowledge and gallantry in fighting, there couls be little choice.

Another remarkable defeat was that of the Essex by the frigate Phoebe and the sloop of war Cherub (below) off Valparaiso on March 28, 1814. When word was received of Porter’s successes-he captured twelve British whalers, drove the balance to seek shelter in neutral ports, and cleared tha area for American whalers, previously having taken a prize carrying £11,000—a squadron was sent to catch him. For six weeks he was blockaded and eventually, when his vessel had been severely damaged in a squall, was forced to fight both ships. The battle lasted nearly two and one-half hours, resulting in the captire of the Essex . The great disparity of forces and the length of the engagement caused tremendous American losses which would undoubtedly have been less had POrter surrounded earlier. Out of 255 men, only 75 were effective when the colors were struck. Even in her defeat, the Essex was the most successful of all the frigates.

Decisive battles on the lakes

The most colorlul and decisive sea battles of the war were fought far from salt water; in each of the two an American fleet was called suddenly into being, and in each a youthful American commander defeated a whole British squadron.

A series of American disasters had greeted all attempts to invade Canada, and 1813 found the British in control of Lake Erie. But in Erie, Pennsylvania, an American fleet was created, literally from green timbers, and in its flagship. the brig Lawrence , flying a flag reading “Don’t Give Up The Ship,” 28-year-old Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry set out, with eight other ships, to meet the British. When concentrated British fire put the Lawrence out of action, Perry seized his flag and transferred it to the Niagara . In her he sailed through the enemy line, raking at close range until, after a fifteen-minute cannonade, the British surrendered and Perry could send his famous message to General William Henry Harrison: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

The victory of Thomas Macdonough. thirty, over a superior British Meet on Lake Champlain a year later, accompanied by an American victory on the land, was probably the most important naval action of the war. It thwarted an invasion from the north.

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