A great sea war between Britain and the United States of America
The focus of most of the Western world was upon the great wars between Revolutionary France and latterly the First Empire of the Emperor Napoleon and the hereditary imperial powers of the Continent. Years of warfare had ravaged Europe from the scorching lands of southern Spain to the frozen wastes of the Russian winter. On the high seas great captains had made their reputations, won famous battles from the Nile to Trafalgar and its most renowned celebrity—Nelson—had fallen, becoming its most enduring symbol and hero, lending his name to this memorable period of the age of sail. Across the Atlantic Ocean all was not still. In 1812 not half a century had passed since the American nation had forged its independence in blood. Old enemies and old alliances remained strong in the minds of all concerned. Canada—still flying the Union flag—remained omnipresent as the nearest neighbour of the emergent nation. The War of 1812 is most often remembered for the burning of Washington and Andrew Jackson's crushing defeat of British forces at New Orleans. The war was, however, pursued just as actively at sea, upon and across the great oceans and within the seaways and lakes of the New World itself. Here Britannia did not always rule the waves. This magnificent in-depth two volume history of the Naval War of 1812 is a classic in both its depth and detail; it is essential reading for all those interested in war at sea.
On October 13, two days after Rodgers and Decatur parted at sea, the United States sloop of war Wasp, Captain Jacob Jones, left the Capes of the Delaware on a cruise, steering to the eastward. On the 16th, in a heavy gale of wind, she lost her jib-boom. At half-past eleven in the night of the 17th, being then in latitude 37° north, longitude 65° west, between four and five hundred miles east of the Chesapeake, in the track of vessels bound to Europe from the Gulf of Mexico, half a dozen large sail were seen passing. These were part of a convoy which had left the Bay of Honduras September 12, on their way to England, under guard of the British brig of war Frolic, Captain Whinyates. Jones, unable in the dark to distinguish their force, took a position some miles to windward, whence he could still see and follow their motions. In the morning each saw the other, and Whinyates, properly concerned for his charges chiefly, directed them to proceed under all sail on their easterly course, while he allowed the Frolic to drop astern, at the same time hoisting Spanish colours to deceive the stranger; a ruse prompted by his having a few days before passed a Spanish fleet convoyed by a brig resembling his own.<br>
It still blowing strong from the westward, with a heavy sea, Captain Jones, being to windward, and so having the choice of attacking, first put his ship under close-reefed topsails, and then stood down for the Frolic, which hauled to the wind on the port tack—that is, with the wind on the left side—to await the enemy. The British brig was under the disadvantage of having lost her main-yard in the same gale that cost the American her jib-boom; she was therefore unable to set any square sail on the rearmost of her two masts. The sail called the boom mainsail in part remedied this, so far as enabling the brig to keep side to wind; but, being a low sail, it did not steady her as well as a square topsail would have done in the heavy sea running, a condition which makes accurate aim more difficult.<br>
The action did not begin until the Wasp was within sixty yards of the Frolic. Then the latter opened fire, which the American quickly returned; the two running side by side and gradually closing. The British crew fired much the more rapidly, a circumstance which their captain described as "superior fire;" in this reproducing the illusion under which Captain Dacres laboured during the first part of his fight with the Constitution. Whinyates wrote in his official report: <br> <br>
The superior fire of our guns gave every reason to expect a speedy termination in our favour.<br><br>
Dacres before his Court Martial asked of two witnesses, "Did you understand it was not my intention to board whilst the masts stood, in consequence of our superior fire and their great number of men?" That superior here meant quicker is established by the reply of one of these witnesses: "Our fire was a great deal quicker than the enemy's." Superiority of fire, however, consists not only in rapidity, but in hitting; and while with very big ships it may be possible to realize Nelson's maxim, that by getting close missing becomes impossible, it is not the same with smaller vessels in turbulent motion. It was thought on board the Wasp that the enemy fired thrice to her twice, but the direction of their shot was seen in its effects; the American losing within ten minutes her main topmast with its yard, the mizzen-topgallant-mast, and spanker gaff. Within twenty minutes most of the running rigging was also shot away, so as to leave the ship largely unmanageable; but she had only five killed and five wounded. In other words, the enemy's shot flew high; and, while it did the damage mentioned, it inflicted no vital injury. The Wasp, on the contrary, as evidently fired low; for the loss of the boom mainsail was the only serious harm received by the Frolic's motive power during the engagement, and when her masts fell, immediately after it, they went close to the deck. Her loss in men, fifteen killed and forty-three wounded, tells the same story of aiming low.