AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR OF 1812, AMERICA’S NAVY HAD JUST 16 SHIPS.

On paper, the U.S. Navy was no match for the gigantic Royal Navy, which hadĀ hundredsĀ of active warships. The…

AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR OF 1812, AMERICA'S NAVY HAD JUST 16 SHIPS.
AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR OF 1812, AMERICA’S NAVY HAD JUST 16 SHIPS.

On paper, the U.S. Navy was no match for the gigantic Royal Navy, which hadĀ hundredsĀ of active warships. The U.S. Navy had just 16 ships,Ā includingĀ the 12-gun USSĀ ViperĀ and the 44-gun USSĀ 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 justĀ nine frigatesĀ 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 USSĀ ConstitutionĀ met andĀ defeatedĀ the HMSĀ 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 theĀ HMSĀ Javafrigate. But Old Ironsides didn’t steal all the glory in battle: The USSĀ United StatesĀ beat the HMSĀ MacedonianĀ on October 25, 1812.

America’s naval victories became scarcer after the BritishĀ blockadedĀ 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 theĀ Battle of Lake ErieĀ on September 10, 1813.

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