“We Have Met the Enemy”

Naval Engagements of the War of 1812

Authored by: Joshua Wolf

The Routledge Handbook of American Military and Diplomatic History

Print publication date:  August  2014
Online publication date:  September  2014

Print ISBN: 9780415533805
eBook ISBN: 9781315817347
Adobe ISBN: 9781317813354


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The United States declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. The battle cry of “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights” was reflective of the causality of the war—Britain’s violation of American neutrality and the Royal Navy’s wanton impressment of American seamen. The war was waged largely over maritime issues, but the United States hoped to win concessions from Great Britain through quick, decisive land victories in Canada. Approaching the war with such a strategy played to the United States strengths, since the country’s population dwarfed that of Canada by nearly 7 million. Additionally, the Royal Navy was the undisputed master of the ocean. “Rule Britannia rule, Britannia rules the waves” were not simply song lyrics, but an accurate assessment of maritime realities. At the beginning of 1812, Great Britain deployed 516 warships, including 101 ships of the line and 134 frigates. By comparison, in 1812 the US Navy had 15 vessels, no ships of the line, and 6 frigates. The US Navy had clear disadvantages, but acquitted itself well. The Navy won a series of stirring, high-seas, frigate-on-frigate engagements and the two most important American victories of the War of 1812 were naval conflicts. 1

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