Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Chesapeake Day, hats off. Part 1

Today marks the anniversary of the capture of USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon in 1813. James Lawrence, who had achieved national fame in Hornet for sinking HMS Peacock in a sharp 14 minute fight, also earned promotion to Captain and command of a frigate - Chesapeake. June 1st would become a day of several ironies for Lawrence, in an engagement that isn't so plain as "unlucky ship" versus "crack ship" and a valiant end to a national hero.
We should all contemplate that event a little more closely, and here's some food for thought- part 1 - Chesapeake, the ship.
First of all, I will not argue that Chesapeake wasn't an unlucky ship (she very certainly earned that epitaph), but poorly designed she was not. There are accounts (albeit from Hampton Roads area newspapers) that called her the most beautiful of the original six frigates. She was the smallest, but this was not a deficiency, but rather an intentional choice by Fox - who was a highly experienced designer and shipwright. He argued, contrary to Humphries (who is generally credited today with designing the six), that the big frigates would be unwieldy, susceptible to grounding, and targets that the British, whose Navy far outnumbered ours, could easily blockade or hunt down with superior forces. Constitution is the exception here, not the rule (though even she grounded a number of times), but looking at the others, we see he was right.
(referencing service in the War of 1812, only)

  • United States made one successful cruise and captured HMS Macedonian, but was then blockaded in New London CT for most of the war by a superior British force.

  • President captured a few ships and did some extended cruising, but never took a significant enemy warship (she captured a schooner, HMS Highflyer). She grounded off Sandy Hook in 1814 causing significant damage, and was captured a short time later by overwhelming forces of the British blockading squadron.

  • Congress captured some merchant shipping, but again, never met an enemy ship in battle - most that she chased outran her. In late 1813 she was placed in ordinary due to lack of available manpower.

  • Constellation was trapped in Norfolk for the entire war, blockaded by the British.
Calling Chesapeake a bad frigate is really trying not to admit that the original 'six frigates' program of the early navy didn't have nearly as great an effect on the actual tactical or strategic picture that we think it did.
In contrast, Fox argued for the construction of smaller ships, particularly smaller frigates and sloops of war. Hornet (designed but not built by Fox) is a gleaming example of the class, and there are few that match her longevity or success, but on the whole these smaller vessels made quite a difference in the War of 1812. The ships could be produced much faster than the large frigates, at significantly reduced expense, and because there were more of them, I would argue that they lent very seriously to the cultivation of a broad and deep base of professional knowledge and experience in the junior officer corps that saw the navy through the next 50+ years. I am getting off topic.
My point? Don't knock Fox. It's popular, as his fight with Humphries turned very public and resulted in significant slanting of the pros- and cons of the big frigates in Humphries favor in our look at things today. Chesapeake may have been unlucky, but poorly designed, she was not.
Now, for fair comparison, let's look at Chesapeake compared to Shannon.
Characteristic / Chesapeake / Shannon
Broadside wt. / 542 lbs / 550 lbs
Compliment / 379 / 330
I could continue, but the main points are there, and the ships were more or less well matched and equal - with a slight advantage in numbers going to Chesapeake. But as we will see later, naval warfare is reliant not on numerical advantage, but training. And the British, as with so many other frigates, had not only prevented our much-touted frigates from getting underway, but prevented them from developing a level of training commensurate with our strategic reliance on them in our prior planning - and even our perception of them today.
More in Part 2, later today.
By the way, to answer some of the comments I am already receiving - it is absolutely true that enemy warships were not the prime objectives in the War of 1812, but rather to disrupt merchant shipping. But the big frigates were vastly expensive, heavily armed and stoutly built - considerations that are totally unwarranted to take on a commerce raiding mission, as demonstrated by the vastly more successful privateers of the war.

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