The naval actions of the War of 1812 are instructive for several reasons. These derive from the particular circumstances of the war, and from the nature of armed conflict in general. In the War of 1812, the United States was at a significant disadvantage to her British adversary; the British navy was the best in the world, able to project power across the world in a way that the US Navy could not. British officers were in general better trained and equipped, and often could rely on numerical superiority in engagements at sea.
Confronted with these realities, the American commanders knew that they needed to compensate for these qualitative disadvantages. They sought to emphasize daring, aggressiveness, and an enterprising initiative. They did not shrink from contact; in fact, they actively sought it out. I believe that this state of affairs mirrors, in some ways, present naval conditions. For many decades—since the Second World War, in fact—the United States has been nearly unchallenged on the high seas.
This situation will not last indefinitely. It seems likely that it is already coming to a close. In no future conflict against a worthy adversary can the United States Navy expect to enjoy technological or qualitative superiority over an opponent. Advances in tactics and weaponry suggest that belligerent forces will be more evenly matched than at any time since the Second World War. In such a situation, a commander’s initiative and bravery will be deciding factors.
Lewis Warrington was born in Williamsburg, Virginia in 1782, the illegitimate son of a French military commander named Donatien-Marie-Joseph de Vimeur (Vicomte de Rochambeau) and Rachel Warrington. He was briefly educated at the College of William and Mary, but abandoned his efforts there for the allure of the sea; joining the US Navy as a midshipman in 1800, he saw action in the West Indies and later in the Mediterranean against the Barbary corsairs. The War of 1812 arrived just in time to sate his martial stirrings. He must have made a good impression on the Secretary of the Navy, for in March of 1814 Captain Warrington was given command of the Peacock, a sloop of 22 guns. He immediately left New York Harbor and headed south towards Florida, seeking British vessels to attack.
When the Peacock had sailed as far as Cape Canaveral, Warrington found his wishes answered. One of his lookouts spied an enemy brig in the distance; it soon identified him, and sailed directly towards him. Naval actions in those days were normally preceded by a twisting and turning dance, as the “dog-fighting” ships both sought to maneuver into a favorable position before opening fire. This encounter was different, however; there were almost no preliminaries. Both belligerents opened fire on each other when in range.
The Peacock suffered serious damage from the 32-pound shot she absorbed; soon her sails were rendered useless. Yet Warrington’s gunners were well-trained and patient; he backed away from the British brig and brought himself into position to deliver a massive broadside at his enemy. There then followed a series of tit-for-tat gunnery exchanges, the end result of which was the destruction of the British vessel’s rigging. The British ship’s captain called a halt to the fighting; and his vessel, the Epervier, struck its colors.
The Epervier’s hull had been perforated forty-five times by cannon, and she had lost twenty-two men, unfortunately including three impressed American sailors. She had five feet of water in her hold and was slowly filling with water. The Peacock had, miraculously, suffered no casualties at all, and her hull remained intact. Warrington ordered a boarding party to take possession of the prize, and his men found that the Epervier carried $118,000 in gold and silver coin, a tremendous sum in those days. Warrington’s immediate concern was to bring his prize back to an American port, for the Epervier was an impressive ship, described by one contemporary as a “bragging vessel.”
Captain Warrington ordered Lt. J. B. Nicholson to transport the captured ship to Savannah, where it might be repaired. As he and Nicholson approached the coast, they could see that prowling British warships were waiting for them. Warrington left sixteen men with Nicholson on board the Epervier; he then moved away, seeking to draw away the enemy ships sailing towards him. One British frigate followed him in pursuit. Nicholson was able to pilot the Epervier into shallow waters; but the pursuing British were not easily deterred. They lowered armed rowboats and made after the Epervier, obviously intending to recapture the lost prize.
Nicholson then made use of a brilliant ruse to save himself and the captured prize. Picking up a speaking-trumpet, he began to bark loud instructions to his sixteen men, pretending he was really commanding many more than this. He ordered his men to make a great deal of commotion on deck in full view of the enemy, to make them believe that substantial battle preparations were in progress. The enemy rowboats, thinking they were about to be drawn into a fusillade of small-arms fire, quickly backed away. They soon withdrew completely. The deception had worked, and Nicholson arrived in Savannah on May 1, 1814 with his hard-won trophy. Warrington and the Peacock docked three days later. He said this with regard to the Epervier:
She is one of their finest sloops of war, and is well calculated for our service. She sails extremely fast, and will require but little to send her to sea, as her armament and stores are complete.
As for the conduct of his men, Captain Warrington in a letter to the Secretary of the Navy said that “Every officer, seaman, and marine did his duty, which is the highest compliment I can pay them.” The Peacock did see additional action later off the coast of Portugal; we are told she captured a total of fourteen merchant vessels. Warrington had a lengthy naval career, and eventually served as Secretary of the Navy for a short time in 1844. He died in 1851.
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