On paper, the U.S. Navy was no match for the gigantic Royal Navy, which had hundreds of active warships. The U.S. Navy had just 16 ships, including the 12-gun USS Viper and the 44-gun USS Constitution.
But Great Britain’s maritime forces were stretched thin by the Napoleonic Wars, and since defeating Napoleon was a bigger priority than embarrassing James Madison, the British initially sent just nine frigates to fight the Americans. According to Canadian naval historian Victor Suthren, the chosen vessels were “not [Great Britain’s] best ones and not manned by their most experienced crews, many of whom had been forced or impressed into service.” Conversely, the American frigates were newer, larger, and well-manned.
The U.S. Navy had some morale-boosting victories early in the war. On August 19, 1812, the USS Constitution met and defeated the HMS Guerriere400 miles east of Nova Scotia. Very little damage was done to the American vessel, which earned the nickname “Old Ironsides.” That December, the ship scored another win, this time over the HMS Javafrigate. But Old Ironsides didn’t steal all the glory in battle: The USS United States beat the HMS Macedonian on October 25, 1812.
America’s naval victories became scarcer after the British blockaded the eastern seaboard in mid-1813, but water battles continued to break out. For example, nine U.S. ships memorably defeated six British vessels at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813.