Loosed Upon the Sea


By Andrew Reinbach

On October 27, 1812, three American warships weighed anchor and sailed into history.

They bore fabled names: The 44-gun frigate USS Constitution, Commodore William Bainbridge commanding; the 32-gun frigate USS Essex, Captain David Porter in charge; and the USS Hornet, an 18-gun sloop, Master Commandant James Lawrence on the quarterdeck. The Constitution and the Hornet sailed in company from New York; the Essex sailed from Chesapeake Bay to join them.

Their orders: Attack.

American success in the Naval War of 1812 was at its flood. The British had drawn first blood by taking the 16-gun brig USS Nautilus in July, 1812. But in mid-August Porter and the Essex took the 18-gun HMS Alert; Alert had been hunting the Essex.  Later that August the Constitution, under Captain Isaac Hull, sank the HMS Guerriere, an aging 38-gun frigate. And in October the USS Wasp, the Hornet’s sister ship, took the HMS Frolic, an 18-gun sloop, off Bermuda. The Wasp was almost immediately captured by a 74-gun British ship-of-the-line, but all the Americans—or the British—could remember was that the Frolic had struck her colors.

American success threw Britain into an uproar. For fifty years, often against great odds, the Royal Navy had swept all before it. It had thrashed French fleets at the Nile, on the Glorious First of June, off Capes Trafalgar and St. Vincent, and in single-ship actions across the world’s oceans. By 1812 the French fleet was bottled up in Marseilles and Toulon in the Mediterranean, and in every French port on the English Channel. In England, it was an article of faith that the arrival of the Royal Navy meant victory.

How, believed the British, could it be otherwise? The American Navy was puny; eleven frigates—two unseaworthy–and 9 sloops and brigs, one of which, the Oneida, was on Lake Ontario. The Royal Navy, over 1,000 ships strong, had 245 frigates and 50-gun ships alone, and if most of the Navy was blockading the French fleet, the nation could certainly spare some ships to teach upstart Americans a lesson. To the typical English mind, it was—or should have been—merely a matter of issuing orders.

But what the American Navy lacked in numbers, it made up in other ways. American officers were the professional equal of their British opposites. American crews were paid volunteers serving limited enlistments; British crews were basically slaves—kidnapped from their hometown streets by press gangs and confined to their ships for eight years, by which time many were dead. And while the typical British frigate, built from traditional designs, carried 38 18-pound cannon, American frigates were superior–bigger, newer, stronger-built, and carrying 44 24-pound guns.

But to the British, these details bore little weight; to them, British naval superiority was a matter of fact. So the string of American naval victories was less a shock to the British mind than it was a challenge to the natural order. Their newspapers were filled with accusations of underhanded American behavior—about what could be expected from a race of mongrel rebels with nary a gentleman amongst them—and demands for revenge, and restoration of national honor. Thus began what amounted to a massive duel between the two officer corps, fought with ships instead of pistols.

The road to the duel was long and circumstantial. There was, for instance, the matter of professional honor. Officers of the Royal Navy certainly loved their country and had every reason for pride in their service, which had a long, storied tradition of service to the Crown, and for twenty years had been ranging the world’s oceans giving battle to Napoleon and Imperial France.

But American officers were just as proud. They had all been raised in post-Revolutionary America. To them, there was no difference between their nation and the cause of liberty, and this truth became more precious as Revolutionary France, which had shared those ideals, veered to anarchy, blood, and terror. Finally, France had accepted an Emperor. Looked at this way, the survival of America meant the survival of republican government and human liberty itself, so that glory or failure on the part of American officers could only reflect on that ideal.

That idea was magnified by the even greater awareness, in their parent’s generation, that they were creating a new thing under the sun; for the Founders, honor or disgrace, achievement or failure, meant the reification of the Revolutionary ideal, or its defeat. In this way, the achievements of Washington, of Adams, of Jefferson and Madison, were all of a piece with the country they had established, so that fame for them meant the persistence of their republic–of the freedom of mankind. Living up to that standard would have been a challenge for anyone; for young men, it must have been a constant spur to their own struggles to become themselves.

But for Bainbridge and Lawrence, it must have been much more; both were sons of Loyalists. Lawrence’s father had even been imprisoned for collaborating with the British, and later emigrated to Canada. James Lawrence had been raised in genteel poverty by his sisters, and later forsook study of the law to seek glory, and possibly redemption, at sea.

There was also the simple matter of national honor. In the 21st Century, honor is a vague, even quaint concept, although many could say otherwise; but in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, honor was a living thing, something that defined and carried one through life, something that could be lost, and must be defended. It was reputation, standing, the idea society held of who you were. Losing honor was very different from embarrassment: In the stratified society of the day, honor meant life itself; if it was lost, so was the life you’d known. And if for individuals losing one’s honor meant losing one’s place, for nations, always playing a rough game, lost honor meant disregard, insult, and, possibly, extinction, since no competitor would scruple to see how far they could go. Sooner or later, every nation had to fight—or else.

But in the years leading up to Madison’s declaration of war on June 18, 1812, America’s honor had been besmirched; France and Great Britain had batted her about like a gazelle chased by leopards. Simply put, America wanted to trade with both sides, but the antagonists wanted to keep supplies out of the hands of their enemies; the result was the sort of prolonged game of diplomatic chess in which both England and France had long experience, but at which Madison, and Jefferson before him, was hopelessly out of his depth. Both had imagined that the antagonists needed American goods more than the considerations of war; both were very wrong.

The result for the national honor—not to mention self-esteem–was discouraging and unprofitable. The original tool Madison tried for dealing with the problem—an embargo on the belligerents—was laughed at even by Americans, who continued trading with England even after war was declared. Certainly, a fair reading of the twists and turns on the road to the War of 1812 suggests that America could have as easily declared against France as England. But Madison hated England, so war with England it would be.

That hatred in the Madison’s heart was, in any event, well-earned. And if the Father of the Constitution had ever been in a forgiving mood, the Chesapeake-Leopard affair must have driven it clear away.

In 1807 the 50-gun HMS Leopard, looking for what it claimed were deserters, fired on the 38-gun USS Chesapeake for 12 to 18 minutes, within sight of American shores, then boarded her and took away three men–only one shot was fired in return. This genuine insult to the national dignity had almost ignited war between England and America, although President Jefferson, never a warlike man, allowed the occasion to drift away.

Jefferson’s inaction left American pride aboil. It also lit a slow-burning fuse that led to Stephen Decatur’s duel with Commodore James Barron, who had been court martialled and suspended from the service for his role in the affair. Decatur had been one of the officers who tried Barron.

So by 1812—thanks to the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, and the thousand diplomatic indignities poured upon her by France and Great Britain–America was spoiling for a fight. It was one reason why, the same day the expected news of war reached him, Commodore John Rogers and his squadron sailed without orders. And it was why the nation was so delirious with joy as news of one naval victory after another reached its ears.

So when Commodore Bainbridge and his little squadron sailed into the Atlantic that October morning, British confidence was shaken and anxious for a victory. And American pride was high.

American pride was not disappointed. Bainbridge, Lawrence, and Porter were gloriously victorious. Off Brazil, the Constitution defeated the HMS Java, a new frigate, in a beautifully-fought two-hour battle. The Java was so badly damaged that it had to be burned. And in a separate action fought about the same time, Lawrence and the Hornet sank—sank–the HMS Peacock, a ship of equal force, in 14 minutes.

Porter, meanwhile, missed Bainbridge at every appointed rendezvous, and British ships, searching for the Essex, blocked him from going home. So he sailed around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, where, for two years, he lived off the enemy while destroying the British whaling fleet. Practically as an after-thought, he annexed the Marquesas Islands in the western Pacific, where he’d sailed to re-fit. Finally, two British ships cornered the Essex off Valparaiso, Chile and, together, blew her to bits.

For the American blue-water Navy, the Bainbridge mission was the war’s apogee. By the middle of 1813 Lawrence had died in battle, America’s ocean-going ships were bottled up in harbor, and the naval war was being fought on the Great Lakes. By the time the Constitution and the Hornet managed to slip, individually, back to sea, the war was almost over.

In the years after the 1812 War, in the way life takes us sideways, the paths of Bainbridge and Porter diverged.

Bainbridge was rewarded for his victory; his orders were to build, and command, America’s first 74-gun ship-of-the-line, the USS Independence. He was supposed to have sailed it against the Barbary Pirates in 1815—with Britain and half of Europe in a struggle with Napoleon to the death, piracy had flared again. Decatur was serving beneath him in the frigate USS Ontario. But a series of delays kept Bainbridge in port, and Decatur sailed first. Once in the Mediterranean, Decatur should have waited for Bainbridge, but he didn’t; and Decatur settled the Barbary Pirate’s hash, and harvested the glory.

Thereafter, Bainbridge served most of his days in Washington as the nation’s second most-senior naval officer, and a member of the Naval Board, overseeing the Navy’s day-to-day operations. His reputation was later enshadowed by suspicions that he had encouraged the 1821 duel between Decatur and James Barron; aside from the blot on his name from the Chesapeake/Leopard affair, Barron had been unable—too poor, in fact–to return from Europe to fight in the War of 1812, and for that he’d earned the scorn of the Navy. Barron blamed Decatur for his troubles, and Decatur died that day.

After the War Porter was sent to put down piracy in the Caribbean. He excelled, as he always did; but in his zeal he also invaded Puerto Rico–to chastise a village that had insulted some of his men–and he was court martialled for it. Since his actions threatened negotiations over Florida between Spain and the United States, a court martial was inevitable, whether Porter was justified or not. He resigned his commission, served awhile as Admiral of the Mexican Navy, and was eventually re-instated. Finally, he served for many years as Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, and died in his villa overlooking the Bosphorus.

It was Lawrence who fared best. Dying young and gloriously in battle, and uttering what became the Navy’s motto—“Don’t give up the ship”—Lawrence’s legend, unsullied by  the missteps life leads us to, grew with his country, until he became the beau ideal of the American naval officer. By 1847, his reputation had so enlarged that when his headstone in Trinity Churchyard, New York, eroded, a flood of donations paid for one of the largest tombs in that mellow and gracious plot. It lies just south of the main doors, surrounded by cannon. So does death favor those of us who remain always young and covered in glory.

The War of 1812 was no triumph for America. Many historians say it was the only war she ever lost, and certainly, the United States barely emerged intact; by the end of the war, Great Britain had annexed northern Maine, held the Northwest Territories, and held the entire American coast under blockade. New England was on the verge of secession.

The original casus belli—free trade, and an end to British impressment of American sailors—weren’t even mentioned in the Treaty of Ghent. The only reason Great Britain didn’t press the war following Napoleon’s defeat was because, offered overall command, the Duke of Wellington declined–he thought the United States was too thinly-settled to re-conquer. And there was the fact that England, after 20 years of world war, was exhausted and didn’t need the distraction. So the final settlement returned matters to the status quo ante bellum.

But for a brief, glorious moment, Bainbridge, Porter, Lawrence, their fellow officers, and the men of the United States Navy bloodied the nose of the world’s greatest naval power, and drove their former colonial masters to distraction. While they did so, they showed the world that America would—and could—fight. America’s honor was redeemed. And the nation sailed to its destiny.



LOOSED UPON THE SEA: The US Navy’s greatest mission in the Age of Fighting Sail.

  1. Preface sketches overall story.
  2. Prologue—In 1805, the US Navy fights the Barbary Pirates off Tripoli, commanded by Edward Preble; Preble sets the tone for the US Navy’s officer corps. The surrender and subsequent burning of the frigate USS Philadelphia joins William Bainbridge, James Lawrence and David Porter by fate; Eaton’s march on Tripoli.
  3. Biographical sketches of these men leading up to the War:

A. William Bainbridge.

B. James Lawrence

C. David Porter

  1. Road to War of 1812; America between the wars, Jefferson’s abandonment of the Navy, how Madison lurched into war after the maneuvering of England and France during the Napoleonic Wars. The resurrection of the US Navy in the years leading up to 1812, and after the USS Chesapeake/HMS Leopard incident.
  2. Descriptions and discussion of USS Constitution, USS Essex, USS Hornet, including construction, armaments, and what it was like aboard them. The life of sailors in the Age of Sail.
  3. War of 1812 begins.
    1. Comparison of US and Royal Navy—US ships bigger with more guns; US crews paid volunteers, British crews largely pressed men (slaves); officer corps comparable.
    2. Early US Navy successes: USS Essex v. HMS Alert; USS Constitution v HMS Guerriere; USS United States v. HMS Macedonian; USS Enterprize v. HMS Boxer; USS Wasp v. HMS Frolic.
    3. Bainbridge and Charles Stewart lobby Secretary of the Navy, Madison, and the Cabinet, and reverse Navy’s original defensive strategy—keeping the Navy in harbor as defense–in favor of cruising squadrons, attacking the British.
    4. Bainbridge receives orders from Hamilton.

1. Bainbridge’s intentions—letters to and from William Jones (friend)

  1. Bainbridge and Lawrence sail from New York, cruise off Brazil.
  2. Porter sails from Chesapeake Bay, misses Bainbridge in the Atlantic.
  3. Bainbridge, Lawrence, and HMS Bon Citoyenne, which carried $2.5 million in silver. Bon Citoyenne’s captain refuses to fight, gives various excuses.        
  4. Bainbridge sails away to remove the excuses of Bon Citoyenne’s captain, and give Lawrence a chance at an even fight (not to mention the silver and the prize money) with that ship. Bainbridge encounters and sinks HMS Java in a 2-hour fight, sails for New York.
  5. Forced to abandon Bon Citoyenne, Lawrence cruises the Brazilian coast, encounters HMS Peacock, and sinks her in 14 minutes. Sails for New York.

A. Lawrence praised by his prisoners, lionized in NYC, assigned to Constitution, then re-assigned to the bad-luck ship of the Navy, the USS Chesapeake.

B. Bainbridge lionized in NYC, given Navy’s first 74-gun ship-of-the-line to build and then command. This takes the rest of the War..

  1. Porter, pursued by British Navy in South Atlantic, sails into Pacific; in two years, living off the enemy, destroys British whaling fleet; annexes Marquesas; finally cornered by two Royal Navy ships, and Essex destroyed, in Valpariso. Returns to NYC in late 1814. Lionized.
  2. Back in the US, the US Navy is bottled up in harbor by the Royal Navy’s blockade of the US coast. After mid-1813, there are no significant US actions on the ocean until the war is near its end, although there are great and decisive US victories on Lake Erie (Perry) and Lake Champlain (MacDonough).
  3. War settled in Ghent; Wellington declines command because, he says, the War is not winnable; but basically, after 20 years fighting Napoleon, the British had better things to do than keep fighting us.
  4. Sequels;
    1. Lawrence killed off Boston in fight with HMS Shannon; buried with full military honors (wraped in his flag, and with his sword) by British in Halifax; Lawrence’s body returns to US, buried in Salem, Mass.; body then returned to NYC, buried in Trinity Churchyard; massive new tomb raised in 1847.
    2. Bainbridge sent to Mediterranean to finally defeat the Barbary Pirates, but delayed by friends of Decatur, who gets there first and gets the credit for defeating the Barbary States. Falling out of former friends. Possible complicity of Bainbridge in Decatur’s death in a duel with Capt. James Barron. Serves most of his life in Washington as a senior officer.
    3. Porter sent to Key West to fight Caribbean pirates. Court martialled over a punishment mission in Puerto Rico (Spanish territory). Resigns US commission, takes command of Mexican Navy. Eventually restored to rank, named US Ambassador to Ottoman Empire, and serves there rest of his life.

     XVI. Epilogue.



This is a book about naval warfare in the Age of Sail–more specifically, in its most romantic phase, the Napoleonic Wars. 

Age of Sail books are a strong niche market, best represented in fiction by Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series and C.S. Forester’s Hornblower books. There’s also plenty of non-fiction books that have sold well, including Ian Toll’s SIX FRIGATES (recently issued in paperback), not to mention a long list of biographies issued by The Naval Institute.

 In my opinion, the strongest marketing strategy would be to sell this book to the US Navy and Naval buffs.


 Total US Navy:  5.5 million


Active Duty:  331,974
Ready Reserve:  119,735
Selected Reserves:  67,334
Individual Ready Reserves:  52,401

 RETIRED NAVAL PERSONNEL (Source: Veteran’s Administration)



279 ships in US Navy


Members of other English-speaking Navies.

Readers of Hornblower and Aubrey/Maturin (Patrick O’Brian) series, also Bolitho and Captain Hazard series. (Totals a trade secret)

The best proxy for total realistic sales is probably the sales of SEVEN FRIGATES by Ian Toll (Trade secret), and/or the membership of the US Naval Institute.

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