The Spirit of 1812

The Spirit of 1812  (1912) 
by James Barnes

Extracted from Harper's magazine, vol 124 1911-12, pp. 839-848. Accompanying illustrations by W. J. Aylward may be added later.

An account of the spirit that animated the American navy in their fight against the "greatest navy of the world" in the War of 1812

The Spirit of 1812


ON the 1st of June, one hundred years ago, James Madison, President of the United States, sent a manifesto to the Senate and the House of Representatives, in which, after a long preamble dealing with Great Britain's theories on the rights of blockade and embargo, there occurs the following statement of the condition of affairs:

Our moderation and conciliation have had no other effect than to encourage [England's] perseverance and to enlarge her pretensions. We behold our seafaring citizens still the daily victims of lawless violence committed on the great common and highway of nations, even within sight of the country which owes them protection. We behold our vessels, freighted with the products of our soil and industry, or returning with the honest proceeds of them, wrested from their lawful destinations, confiscated by prize-courts no longer the organs of public law, but the instruments of arbitrary edicts; and their unfortunate crews dispersed and lost, or forced or inveigled, in British ports, into British fleets; whilst arguments are employed in support of these aggressions which have no foundation but in a principle equally supporting a claim to regulate our external commerce in all cases whatsoever.

We behold, in fine, on the side of Great Britain, a state of war against the United States; on the side of the United States, a state of peace towards Great Britain.

On the 17th of the month (the thirty-seventh anniversary of Bunker Hill) Congress declared war against Great Britain, an act that was approved on following day by the President. In act, which was but one hundred and fifty words in length, there were written some sentences the carrying out of which bore great results. But these sentences never appeared again, and never will appear in a declaration of international hostilities. They prove that, in the judgment of the members of Congress, the sea would be the theater of successful conflict. Thus run the words:

The President of the United States be, and is hereby authorized to use the whole land and naval force of the United States to carry the same [the war] into effect, and to issue to private armed vessels of United States commissions or letters-of-marque and general reprisal, in such form as he should think proper, and under the seal of the United States, against the vessels, goods, and effects of the government of the same United Kingdom of Great Britain, and Ireland, and of the subjects thereof.

Despite the bitter political feelings of the time, the whole country rose almost unanimously in support. Even the advanced Federalists, who were supposed by some to be almost pro-British in their sympathies, backed up the government, and the Philadelphia Freeman's Journal, a decided Federal paper, came out with the following patriotic leader:

War is declared. It must be carried on with vigor and activity, commensurate with the expectations of the people. If any foreign nation has, for a moment, indulged a belief that they could profit by political divisions in this country they will now be convinced that such a belief was preposterous and that it must be abandoned forever.

Every daily journal and the every little weekly paper rang with fervid this approval; war-poets seemed to spring up everywhere. It was a great day for patriotic poetasters—they fluted, blared, and ranted and roared, according to the intensity of their feeling's. What appeared in the Trenton True American is a fair sample:

"Shall menial slaves presume to scan
The sacred Heaven-descended plan,
Built on the Eternal Rights of Man,
The Freedom of the ocean?

"No! By the souls of millions, no!!
We'll strike their proud pretensions low,
Blow the war trumpets, loudly blow—!
And summon all the Nation!"

The inhabitants of the United States thus summoned in 1812 numbered approximately some seven million three hundred and fifty thousand souls—they had nearly doubled since the Revolution. The greater proportion lived on the sea-coast, or, in those days of slow travel, but two or three days' journey from it. Fired by patriotic fervor (and doubtless by a hope of reward), there was an actual scramble to get to sea, and it was the seamen who manned the little privateers, no less than the hardy tars of the little navy, who brought the war to a successful close and reflected what glory there was to our arms. The regular and the volunteer service between them captured on the high seas more than sixteen hundred British sail, with a total of three thousand and eighty-three guns and nearly twelve thousand prisoners of war. There were captured or destroyed by British ships forty-two American naval vessels, one hundred and thirty-three privateers, and five hundred and eleven merchant vessels, a total of six hundred and eighty-six.

While the newspaper editors of the day deplored the early blunders and disasters of our land forces on the Canadian frontier, the poets looking seaward had something to sing about.

What a subject for exultant verse was the career of the little privateer sloop Dart, which mounted two swivels and a brass six-pounder, could be propelled by sweeps, and came into port triumphantly mounted on the deck of her captured adversary, the British brig Diana! Many songs became historic: "Hull's Victory," "Bainbridge's Tid Ri Di," "Yankee Tars," "The Privateers"—good old sea songs they were. The newspapers were filled with highfalutin doggerel, and took on a rather gloating style in their news columns and editorials.

To the State of Virginia belongs the honor of taking the first prisoner and the first prize of the war. The former was a Captain Wilkinson, of the Royal Marine, who was captured in Norfolk while endeavoring to make his way out in a rowboat to a British man-of-war then hovering off the coast. The first prize was the schooner Patriot, bound from Guadaloupe to Halifax with a valuable cargo of sugar. She was taken by the cutter Jefferson, William Ham master, and arrived at Norfolk on June 26th.

The list of British war-ships on the Halifax station at the time of the breaking out of hostilities more than equaled the weight of armament of the regular navy of the United States. These vessels consisted of the Africa, a ship of the line of sixty-four guns, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Herbert Sawyer; two receiving-ships, four frigates, nine sloops-of-war, and seven schooners. No wonder the little American navy needed the assistance of the privateers, if for no other purpose than to divert attention.

On the regular navy list in 1812 were sixteen vessels, only six of which rated over thirty-two guns; three only were frigates of the first class, rating forty-four. These were the United States, the Constitution, and the President. They were the oldest on the list; built in the year 1797, in the ports of Philadelphia, Boston, and New York, in the order named. There is hardly a school-boy who does not recall their deeds. Some private yachts afloat at the present day would almost equal their tonnage, which was but one thousand five hundred and seventy-six tons. Out of the list of sixteen ships, there were six others, rating from a hundred and sixty tons to twelve hundred and sixty-five, who lent their names to fame: the Chesapeake, 38; the Essex, 32; the Hornet, 18; the Wasp, 18; the Argus, 16; and the Enterprise, 12. But three of the sixteen were taken by the enemy, and only one surrendered after a single combat with a vessel of her own size. There were but twelve officers with the rank of captain in 1812, and the total of those of all grades holding commissions was but five hundred. Less than three thousand seamen were available for cruising war-vessels; the marine corps numbered fifteen hundred and twenty-three men and officers. During the war the personnel of the navy grew continually until it was between three and four times what it was at the beginning, the list showing nearly fifteen thousand of all grades on the nation's pay-roll in 1815.

Very early indeed were the doings of the ships made known to the public. Within a few hours after receiving news of the declaration of war in the city of New York a squadron of three frigates, one brig, and one sloop-of-war sailed from that port in quest of several of the enemy's frigates known to be cruising off the harbor. On the 3d of July the frigate Essex, under Captain Porter, went to sea from New York. The brigs Nautilus, Viper, and Vixen were cruising off the coast, and the sloop-of-war Wasp was on the high seas returning from France. On the 12th of July the Constitution, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, put out from Chesapeake Bay. Efforts had been made to detain her, as it was held by some in the Navy Department that she was not in the proper condition for service. She was, however, equal to the most strenuous demands ever put upon the sailing qualities of any vessel that spread canvas, as will be seen. Let us tell it just as it was given to the public of that day. It has a modest introduction to a stirring, heart-lifting story. On the 1st of August there appeared in The National Intelligencer this paragraph:

The following copy of a letter received at the Navy Department will serve to relieve the anxiety which has generally been felt for the fate of the United States' frigate Constitution, Captain Hull, since the report of her having been chased by a British fleet, on her passage from Lynnhaven Bay to an Eastern Port:

Constitution, at Sea, off Nantucket.
July 20, 1812.

Sir,—The Constitution is on her way to Boston for your orders, having been chased by a British squadron off New-York and very near being taken. The chase continued three days and nights, by a line of battle ship, four frigates, a brig, and a schooner.

I shall call off Boston and write from there, and continue cruising in the bay until I hear from you.

Isaac Hull.

Hon. Paul Hamilton,
Secretary of the Navy.

The Boston Gazette, in the issue that appeared on the morning of the 27th of July, printed the following news item in large type:


We have the pleasure of announcing the arrival in our harbor, last evening, of the frigate Constitution, Captain Hull. She left the Chesapeake Bay on the 12th inst., and on the 16th, in the afternoon, saw a frigate, and gave chase; the wind being light they could not come near enough before night to ascertain who she was. It continued calm the principal part of the night. On the morning of the 17th saw a British squadron, consisting of a ship of the line, four frigates, a brig, and a schooner; the nearest frigate within gunshot. Throughout the whole of this day it was calm; and every exertion made, by towing and warping, to make headway: but the enemy, by attaching all their boats to two frigates, were evidently gaining upon the Constitution, and occasionally enabled them to bring their bow guns to bear upon her. This kind of manœuvring, and the frequent discharge of the Constitution's stern chasers, continued the whole of this day. On the 18th, at daylight, a small breeze sprang up, when the Constitution spread all her canvas, and by outsailing the enemy, escaped a conflict, which she could not have maintained with any hope of success against a force so greatly superior. The chase was continued sixty hours, during which time the whole crew remained at their stations. The Constitution was bound to New York, but from the unfavorableness of the wind, has put in here.

We feel an additional pleasure in stating the safety of this vessel, as it puts to rest the thousand rumors which have been in circulation respecting her; and more especially as it enabled us to contradict the article in the last New-York Evening Post, that "she was compelled to go to sea without either powder or ball," which we do on the authority of an officer of the ship, who assures us that she is completely provided with every necessary munition of war, and has a full crew of brave and gallant seamen.

Contemporaneous with General William Hull's surrender at Detroit in the middle of August, where he practically handed over his army to the British, followed a succession of brilliant achievements on the ocean which entirely dispelled the temporary gloom which pervaded the minds and filled with grief the hearts of the American people. The country was soon electrified by the news that an English frigate had surrendered to an American for the first time in history. Let us quote from one of the least exultant editorials published in The War:


To compensate our readers, in some degree, for the disappointment and mortification they cannot but feel at the misfortune of our little army under gen. Hull, it is with feelings of pride and pleasure that we refer them to the gallant exploit of capt. Hull, his nephew, in the frigate Constitution, in capturing and destroying the British frigate Guerriere. What adds to our satisfaction on this heart-cheering occasion is, that the Guerriere was esteemed by the British as one of the finest frigates in their service, was manned by a picked crew, and suffered to cruise alone, with the full confidence that any American frigate would be an easy prey to her. Last winter, while off this harbor, the capt. of the Guerriere vauntingly had his vessel's name, printed in large characters on her foretopsail, and inquired of every vessel he met of commander Rodgers, intimating that he meant to chastise him for the dressing he gave the Little Belt. We trust that the valiant captain Dacres will boast no more.

We find in the columns of the Boston Patriot the following interesting detail:

Capt. Dacres, of the Guerriere, landed on Monday on parole, and resides in town: The other officers of the ship are to be paroled in Concord. The British wounded men were immediately landed and sent to the hospital on Rainsford Island, to which place Marshal Prince has sent surgeons, and every necessary for their comfort and recovery, under the direction of Capt. S. Prince, Dep. Marshal, whose attention and humanity to the unfortunates under his care are highly spoken of. They were brought up yesterday from the island, and are now in the Naval Hospital, Charlestown. The well prisoners have all been put on board the prison-ship in Charles-river.

Capt. Dacres is son of the late Ad. Dacres, and was made Post Captain in 1806. The Guerriere was a French vessel taken in 1806, off the Faro Islands, by the Blanche, 38 guns, Capt. Lavie, after a spirited action of 45 minutes.

The prisoners taken from the Guerriere have been treated with every kindness and attention becoming the American character. Much better, we apprehend, than would have been experienced by our brave fellows if the chance of war had placed them in command of the enemy. . . .

We are told the officers of the Guerriere have about 20,000 dollars of gold and silver their baggage. If they brought this with them from England, it is private property; and for honor's sake let them keep it. But if it is part of the plunder of defenceless Americans, seized and distributed before condemnation, it is not their property, it belongs justly to the brave crew by whom the Guerriere has been destroyed.

The capture of the Guerriere took place on August 19th, two days after General Hull's surrender at Detroit. A month later the American sloop-of-war Wasp, Captain Jacob Jones, took the British sloop-of-war Frolic (she and her prize were almost immediately retaken by H.M.S. Poictiers, 74, and on top of this bit of news the country was set in commotion again by the appearance of the frigate United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur, at the entrance to Long Island Sound, with the captured British frigate Macedonian following in her wake. The New London Gazette, of the issue of Saturday, December the 5th, printed the following:

New London, Dec. 5.

Yesterday afternoon arrived off the lighthouse, the U. S. frigate United States, commodore Decatur. A gale of wind blowing, no communication was had with the shore until evening, when a boat came up to town with several officers, from whom the editor of the Gazette gathered the following information.

On the 25th of October, early in the morning, lat. 30, lon. 36, the United States discovered the Macedonian to windward, and gave chase. The enemy bore down upon her, and about 10 o'clock a distant and partial exchange of shot commenced, when the Macedonian having her mizen topmast shot away, bore down for closer action. In seventeen minutes after she struck her colors to the United States.

The Macedonian was commanded by captain John S. Carden, esq., mounting 49 guns—had a full complement of men (about 300), 104 of whom were killed and wounded, among them no officer of rank. The United States had 12 men only killed and wounded, of the latter lieutenant Funk, who died of his wounds, a valuable officer, much esteemed in this city, and whose death will be universally regretted. The nation will render his name hallowed.

When the Macedonian struck, she had nothing standing but her fore and mainmasts, and fore-yard. The fore and mainmasts were badly wounded, and every spar, even to the smallest, cut. She received nearly 100 shots in her hull, several of which were between wind and water. All her boats were rendered useless, excepting a small one, which was veered out astern before the action commenced. During the action, the fire of the United States was so vivid, that the crew of the Macedonian cheered three times, conceiving her to be on fire—but so little was the United States impaired, that in 5 minutes after she had possession of the Macedonian, she was completely ready for another action.

When captain Carden came on board the United States to present his sword to commodore Decatur, the commodore said—"Sir, I cannot receive the sword of a man who has so bravely defended his ship, but I will receive your hand." The reader can easily imagine what must have been the impression produced by this noble reception of a vanquished enemy.

The Macedonian was built in 1810. She is now off Montauk Point.

A local poet was immediately stirred into the following outburst, which was sung to the tune of "Ye Tars of Columbia." It ran on for some twenty stanzas, of which the following is one:

"Let Britain no longer lay claim to the seas,
For the trident of Neptune is ours, if we please,
While Hull and Decatur and Jones are our boast,
We dare their whole navy to come to our coast."

The story of the arrival of the flag of the Macedonian at Washington, brought by Lieutenant Hamilton, the son of the Secretary of the Navy, and his entry with the colors to the naval ball given to the officers of the navy and particularly to Captain Stewart, has been described many times. The Washington correspondent to a New York paper, under the date of December 10th, ends his pen-picture thus: "Such a scene as this occasion exhibited we have never before witnessed; and never, never, 'so long as memory holds her seat,' shall we forget it!"

Niles's Weekly Register ended its comment on the latest victory in the following words: "Let the navy be augmented—and impressments will cease. Let it be done quickly that the war may end with glorious safety."

On Monday, the 15th of February, 1813, the frigate Constitution, that had been cruising in southern waters, principally off the coast of Brazil, arrived in Boston harbor with the news that she had taken, on the 29th of December, his Britannic Majesty's frigate Java, of forty-nine guns and upward of four hundred men, commanded by Captain Lambert, and conveying Lieutenant-General Hislop, governor of Bombay, and his staff. A New York paper, under the date of February 23d, made the following announcement:


It is with peculiar pride and pleasure that we are enabled at this time, to lay before our readers the following account of another most splendid Naval Victory, which was obtained by our good frigate the Constitution, commanded by commodore Bainbridge, over the British frigate Java, commanded by captain Lambert, a very distinguished officer. It is no less remarkable than true, that every disaster we have suffered upon the land, has been accompanied by a brilliant triumph upon the ocean. Another incident worthy of remark is, that this action took place on the very day on which captain Hull, the former commander of the Constitution, was a guest at the dinner given by the corporation and citizens of New-York in honor of the exploits of our naval heroes. It is to be regretted that the shattered state of this immensely valuable prize after the action, and her great distance from our coast, rendered it necessary to destroy her. Yet we sincerely hope that Congress may reconsider the case of the brave tars of the Constitution, and make them ample remuneration for an act, which no doubt the public service rendered indispensable.

The Constitution arrived at Boston on Monday last; and lieutenant Ludlow passed through this city on Thursday, with the Commodore's dispatch for the Secretary of the Navy, which we shall probably receive in time for our next paper.

All the officers and seamen, taken in the Java were paroled by Commodore Bainbridge, and landed on the 3d of January at San Salvador, Brazil—thirty-two officers and three hundred and twenty-nine petty officers, seamen, and marines. In a private letter commenting upon the action Commodore Bainbridge makes this generous observation: "The Java was exceedingly well fought and bravely defended. Poor Lambert, whose death I sincerely regret, was a distinguished, gallant officer and worthy man. He has left a widow and two helpless children. But his country makes provision for such sad events."

After the action of two hours the Java had been completely dismasted, and so riddled that it was impossible to save her, and she was set on fire. Her losses had been sixty killed, including her gallant commander, and a hundred and seventy wounded; the Constitution losing nine killed and twenty-six wounded. The Boston Patriot printed a picturesque account of the arrival of Commodore Bainbridge and his reception by the populace:


On Thursday at 12 o'clock, commodore Bainbridge landed at the long-wharf from the frigate Constitution, amidst acclamations, and roaring of cannon from the shore. All the way from the end of the pier, clear up to the Exchange Coffee-House, was decorated with colors and streamers. In State-street, they were strung across from the opposite buildings, while the windows and balconies of the houses were filled with ladies, the tops of the houses were covered with spectators, and an immense crowd filled the streets, so as to render it difficult for the military escort to march. The Commodore was distinguished by his noble figure, and his walking uncovered. On his right hand was the pride of our navy, the veteran commodore Rodgers, and on his left, brigadier-general Welles—then followed the brave captain Hull, col. Blake, and a number of officers and citizens—but the crowd was so immense that it was difficult to keep the order of procession. The band of music in the balcony of the State Bank, and the music of the New England Guards, had a fine effect, especially when they struck up Yankee Doodle.

England not only was surprised at the unexpected turn of events at sea, but her own newspapers took on a note of consternation, as is evident from this editorial in the London Times, March 20, 1813:

The public will learn, with sentiments which we shall not presume to anticipate, that a third British frigate has struck to an American. This is an occurrence that calls for serious reflection—this, and the fact stated in our paper of yesterday, that Lloyd's List contains notices of upwards of live hundred British vessels captured in 7 months by the Americans. Five hundred merchantmen and three frigates! (Ay and three sloops of war!)

Can the statements be true: and can the English people hear them unmoved? Any one who had predicted such a result of an American war, this time last year, would have been treated as a madman or a traitor. He would have been told, if his opponents had condescended to argue with him, that long ere seven months had elapsed, the American flag would be swept from the seas, the contemptible navy of the United States annihilated, and their maritime arsenals rendered a heap of ruins. Yet down to this moment not a single American frigate has struck her flag. They insult and laugh at our want of enterprise and vigor. They leave their ports when they please, and return to them when it suits their convenience; they traverse the Atlantic; they beset the West-India islands: they advance to the very chops of the channel; they parade along the coasts of South America; nothing chases, nothing intercepts, nothing engages them, but to yield them triumph.

A year to a day after President Madison's manifesto to Congress, quoted in the opening of this article, the frigate Chesapeake—"the luckless Chesapeake," as the sailors called her—put out from Boston harbor to answer the challenge of the Shannon, made evident by her flaunting her flag off the entrance to the harbor. The latter ship, a 38, under command of Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was at the top-notch of efficiency and preparation. Her commander had written a personal letter to Captain James Lawrence, challenging him to this meeting, and stating his complement and broadside strength; but this letter was never received, although it was a remarkable manifestation of a naval officer's outspoken manliness and candor. The story of the fight is well known; how the green crew of the Chesapeake was almost at the point of mutiny before the action, the rigging being newly rove and the men unacquainted with their officers; everything was in disorder.

Captain Lawrence was very early mortally wounded and carried below. Captain Broke, who led the boarding party that gained the Chesapeake's deck, was also severely shot in the neck and taken aboard his own vessel. Every one of the Chesapeake's officers was either killed or wounded. After her capture she was taken into the harbor of Halifax, where the bodies of Captain Lawrence and his gallant officers slain with him in battle were committed to the grave, attended by all the civil, naval, and military officers of the two nations who happened to be in the port.

Again a local poet was moved to do something better than the ordinary sea-faring rhyme, and two of his stanzas have some merit of feeling:

"To thee, thy foes could not refuse
The meed to valor, justly due,
Nor shall an humble lowly muse,
Forget to praise a patriot true.

"What though no friends nor kindred dear,
To grace his obsequies attend;
The foemen are his brothers here,
And every hero is his friend."

Despite this generous treatment and the display of grief on the enemy's part, England was sent into a mad rejoicing by the news that at last an American frigate had been taken in equal combat. Nearly two months later Woodworth's Journal referred to the singular demonstrations that took place in the following editorial:


According to the London newspapers, our enemies have paid higher compliments to the valor of our tars then we have done ourselves. Their lamentations over the Guerriere, Java, Macedonian, Frolic, &c., &c., have thundered our applause over the universe; the tone of deep regret has been so universal with the boasted masters of the ocean, that its singularity must have been noted even at Algiers. Nor is our glory emblazoned only by British lamentations—our fame is spread abroad by the tower guns and by British illuminations. Formerly, when a Duncan, a St. Vincent, or a Nelson gained a signal victory, and destroyed a Dutch, a Spanish, or a French fleet, the tower guns were then fired, but never were there rejoicings at a victory over a squadron or a ship until the capture of the "Chesapeake." Then, indeed, were the tower guns fired, and the Bow bells rung, and well they might, for it was an unusual thing to triumph over Americans—what an encomium did those guns pay to our tars! What a peal of joy did the bells ring in the ears of Americans! Yes, the bravery of our tars is such, that we have compelled the enemy to proclaim it themselves; so difficult was it to gain a single victory or a single ship from us, that, when gained, as much was done to celebrate it, as used to be done after a battle in which 20 ships of the line were taken.

Notwithstanding' this reverse, the successes continued, varied by a few small losses, until the war was over. Perry's victory on Lake Erie and McDonough's on Lake Champlain were the only "fleet actions," if so they could be called, of the war, and between them they saved New York State from invasion. A strange commentary on the slowness with which news traveled was that the treaty of peace had already been signed at The Hague in December, 1814, before the loss of the U.S.S. President, which was forced to surrender to a British squadron, January 15, 1815, and the capture of the Cyane and Levant by the Constitution in February. Of only one great land victory can the United States boast—New Orleans, fought, like the two last ship actions, after peace had been signed.

The spirit of 1812 lived on the sea; it reflected itself in catch-words and phrases that became traditional inheritances to the generation succeeding. The little frigate Essex, commanded by David Porter, after maintaining for hours in the harbor of Valparaiso an unequal combat against two vessels, the Phœbe and the Cherub, which, combined, were almost double her own armament, left "Remember the Essex!" as a heritage. The gallant Lawrence's last words, "Don't give up the ship!" would animate the gun-deck crew of any vessel, and, though the old-time sailor has disappeared and his successor is a machine-made product who must be instructed to know and to handle the complicated mechanism of the modern war-ship, the need, if need arises, is for the same class of men.

But the days of the privateersman, with his lightly built, oversparred craft, with the "Long Tom" amidships and a broadside battery that could be carried in the crown of one's hat, have gone. There will be no more privateers, nor is it possible to build a war-ship in three months. Ships must be ready and the crews must be prepared. But if this country has the misfortune to find herself at war again it will have to look to the sea, as heretofore, and may the spirit of 1812 be found still living!

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1936, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 86 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.