Lessons of the War of 1812
Image Credit: Royal Military College of Canada archives

Lessons of the War of 1812


Breaking news from the War of 1812: The family and I spent the holidays in Maryland, where imagery on newly issued license plates reminds motorists that Francis Scott Key penned the National Anthem during a British naval bombardment of Fort McHenry, which guards the entryway to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, in 1814. Coincidentally, I stumbled across an article some time ago announcing that President Barack Obama approved legislation designating USS Constitution, a veteran of that nearly forgotten clash, as America’s “ship of state.”

Built in 1797, and berthed in Boston Harbor, the Constitution is the world’s oldest commissioned warship. It got its start as a fighting vessel. Nicknamed “Old Ironsides” for the stoutness of its wooden walls – enemy gunfire routinely bounced off its sides – the ship never lost an engagement during the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars, or the War of 1812, the conflict Americans commemorate starting this year. Constitution earned fame from vanquishing four Royal Navy warships, most famously the frigate HMS Guerriere. Today, the ship performs a symbolic office, offering a venue for receiving foreign heads of state, signing ceremonies for maritime-related treaties or legislation, and the like.

The metaphor ship of state is a historical curiosity. It apparently originated with Plato, who employed it in Book VI of The Republic. Governing a republic, maintained the father of Greek philosophy, was like performing the multitude of tasks necessary to build, maintain, and operate vessels on the high seas. Only “philosopher-kings” like well, Plato, could safely handle the helm of state. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – coincidentally, a resident of nearby Cambridge, a stone’s throw from the Constitution’s present-day berth – updated the concept for an American audience in one of his poems. But, like Plato, Longfellow used it in a purely metaphorical sense.

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At least one maritime empire, however, put a more literal spin on the concept of a ship of state. During its heyday in the fifth century B.C., Athenians constructed the sacred “trireme” Paralos. This triple-decker warship was named for the son of sea god Poseidon, and the legendary inventor of the trireme. As historian John Hale tells it in his masterful book Lords of the Sea, Paralos performed a panoply of functions similar to those entrusted to the Constitution. It transported the Athenian Olympic team to the site of the games, for instance, and carried ambassadors to conduct negotiations with foreign peoples.

But Paralos also remained a fighting vessel, notwithstanding its religious and ceremonial duties. It scouted for the Athenian fleet and occasionally partook of combat. Most grimly, only Paralos made it home following the catastrophic defeat at Arginusae, when Lysander’s Spartan fleet extinguished the greatest navy in classical Greece. Its crew informed Athenians that they had lost the navy – and the war, and their independence, along with it. Paralos bore a message of despair.

While it will never again take its place in the battle line, Constitution bears a message of resolve. It’s tempting to interpret the frigate’s new standing as a statement of U.S. determination to remain the world’s predominant seafaring power, much as Athens announced that it would rule the seas of antiquity. If so, such a sotto voce message would comport with Washington’s much-touted “return to Asia,” its efforts to renew ties with traditional allies while courting new ones, and other naval-diplomatic enterprises.

Symbolism and diplomatic gestures only go so far, though. Despite the U.S. Navy mariners’ heroics during the War of 1812, single-ship actions on the high seas made little difference in the outcome of the war. As Tyrone G. Martin explains in A Most Fortunate Ship, his history of USS Constitution, occasional setbacks represented “no more than pinpricks” to the Royal Navy. Great Britain kept a fleet of some 80 warships on station in the Americas during the war; the U.S. Navy could put only 22 ships to sea. What stirring feats of arms did, writes Martin, was “uplift American morale spectacularly and, in the process, end forever the myth that the Royal Navy was invincible.” If the United States possessed the economic and industrial means, coupled with the political resolve to construct a blue-water fleet, it could contend with Britain for mastery of the American seas.

Around the end of the century, U.S. naval proponents like Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Thayer Mahan looked to the War of 1812 for lessons. TR served as assistant secretary of the navy before ascending to the presidency. Mahan was the second president of the Naval War College. Both wrote histories of the naval war of 1812, and both drew negative lessons from it. They branded the early republic’s practice of constructing coastal fortifications and augmenting shoreward defenses with a small, police-like fleet a strategy of weakness and failure. The War of 1812 had been a draw at best. Only Gen. Andrew Jackson’s belated triumph at the Battle of New Orleans (after a peace accord had been signed) salvaged American pride wounded when the British landed redcoats along the Chesapeake Bay and put the White House to the torch. Only an oceangoing U.S. Navy, insisted naval enthusiasts, could beat back future assaults while empowering the United States to defend its interests in far-flung theaters. The valor of individual seamen and crews meant little unless backed by adequate numbers and capability.

From a strategic standpoint, Roosevelt and Mahan might have added that faraway Great Britain, embroiled in war with Napoleonic France, stood little chance of scoring more than a limited victory over a large, growing, increasingly muscular United States. Burning the White House smarted for Americans, but it was a far cry from compelling the United States to do British bidding – still less from overthrowing the United States’ republican government. To the extent that they take note of the War of 1812, Chinese strategists could draw similar lessons about the limits to a remote superpower’s capacity to project power along the Asian seaboard. How early America’s first major war figures into Chinese commentary– if at all – is worth watching.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College and co-editor of the forthcoming Strategy in the Second Nuclear Age: Power, Ambition, and the Ultimate Weapon(Georgetown University Press). The views voiced here are his alone.

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