Henry Adams' Conclusions on the War of 1812
‘The English admitted themselves to be slow to change their habits, but the French were both quick and scientific; yet Americans did on the ocean what the French, under stronger inducements, failed to do. The French privateer preyed upon British commerce for twenty years without seriously injuring it; but no sooner did the American privateer sail from Frnech ports, that the rates of insurance doubled in London, and an outcry for more protection arose among English shippers which the Admiralty could not calm. The British newspapers were filled with assertions that the American cruiser was the superior of any vessel in its class, and threatened to overthrow England’s supremacy on the ocean.’-Henry Adams, History of the United States of America during the Administrations of James Madison, 1337.
The US Navy versus the Royal Navy
‘Another test of relative intelligence was furnished by the battles at sea. Instantly after the loss of the Guerriere the English discovered and complained that American gunnery was superior to their own. They explained their inferiority by the length of time that had elapsed since their navy had found on the ocean an enemy to fight. Every vestige of hostile fleets had been swept away, until after the battle of Trafalgar, British frigates ceased practice with their guns. Doubtless the British navy had become somewhat careless in the absence of a dangerous enemy, but Englishmen were themselves aware that some other cause must have affected their losses. Nothing showed that Nelsons’ line-of-battle ships, frigates, or sloops were as a rule better fought than the Macedonian and Java, the Avon and Reindeer. Sir Howard Douglas, the chief authority on the subject, attempted in vain to explain British reverses by the deterioration of British gunnery. His analysis showed only that American gunnery was extraordinarily good.’
‘None of the reports of former British victories showed that the British fire had been more destructive at any previous time than in 1812, and no report of any commander since the British navy existed showed so much damage inflicted on an opponent in so short a time as was proved to have been inflicted on themselves by the reports of British commanders in the American war. The strongest proof of American superiority was given by the best British officers, like Broke, who strained every nerve to maintain an equality with American gunnery. So instantaneous and energetic was the effort that, according to the British historian of the war, ‘a British 46-gun frigate of 1813 was half as effective again as a British 46-gun frigate of 1812;’ and, as he justly said, ‘the slaughtered crews and the shattered hulks’ of the captured British ships proved that no want of their old fighting qualities accounted for their repeated and almost habitual mortifications.’-Adams, 1337-1338.
‘Unwilling as the English were to admit the superior skill of Americans on the ocean, they did not hesitate to admit it, in certain respects, on land. The American rifle in American hands was affirmed to have no equal in the world. This admission could scarcely be withheld after the lists of killed and wounded which followed every battle; but the admission served to check a wider inquiry. In truth, the rifle played but a small part in the war. Winchester’s men at the river Raisin may have owed their over-confidence, as the British 41st owed its losses, to that weapon, and at New Orleans five or six hundred of Coffee’smen, who were out of range, were armed with the rifle; but the surprising losses of the British were commonly due to artillery and musketry fire. At New Orleans the artillery was chiefly engaged. The artillery battle of January 1, according to British accounts, amply proved the superiority of American gunnery on that occasion, which was probably the fairest test during the war. The battle of January 8 was also chiefly an artillery battle; the main British column never arrived within fair musket range; Pakenham was killed by grapeshot, and the main column of his troops halted more than one hundred yards from the parapet.’ -Adams, 1339.
The Battle of Chippawa 1814:
‘The best test of British and American military qualities both for men and weapons, was Scott’s battle of Chippawa. Nothing intervened to throw a doubt over the fairness of the trial. Two parallel lines of regular soldiers, practically equal in numbers, armed with similar weapons, moved in close order toward each other, across a side open plain, without cover or advantage of position, stopping at intervals to lad and fire, until one line broke and retired. At the same time two three-gun batteries, the British being the heavier, maintained a steady fire from positions opposite each other. According to the reports, the two infantrylines in the center never came nearer than eighty yards. Major General Riall reported that then, owing to severe losses, his troops broke and could not be rallied. Comparison of the official reports showed that the British lost in killed and wounded four hundred and sixty-nine men; the Americans, two hundred and ninety-six. Some doubts always affect the returns of the wounded, because the severity of the wound cannot be known; but dead men tell their own tale. Riall reported one hundred forty-eight killed; Scott reported sixty-one. The severity of the losses showed that the battle was sharply contested, and proved the personal bravery of both armies. Marksmanship decided the result, and the returns proved that the American fire was superior to that of the British in the proportion of more than fifty percent if estimated by the entire loss, and of two hundred and forty-two to one hundred if estimated by the deaths alone.’-Adams 1339-1340.
‘The conclusion seemed incredible, but it was supported by the results of the naval battles. The Americans showed superiority amounting in some cases to twice the efficiency of their enemies in the use of weapons. The best French critic of the naval war, Jurien de la Graviere said: ‘An enormous superiority in the rapidity and precision of their fire can alone explain the difference in the losses sustained by the combatants.’ So far from denying this conclusion the British press constantly alleged it, and the British officers complained of it. The discovery caused great surprise, and in both British services much attention was at once directed to improvement in artillery and musketry. Nothing could exceed the frankness with which Englishmen avowed their inferiority. According to Sir Francis Head, ‘gunnery was in naval warfare in the extraordinary state of ignorance we have just described, when our lean children, the American people, taught us, rod in hand, our first lesson in the art.’ The English text book on Naval Gunnery, written by Major General Sir Howard Douglas immediately after the peace, devoted more attention to the short American war that to all the battles of Napoleon, and began by admitting that Great Britain had ‘entered with too much confidence on war with a marine much more expert than that of any of our European enemies.’ The admission appeared ‘objectionable’ even to the author; buthe did notadd, what was equally true, that it applied as well to the land as to the sea service.’
‘No one questioned the bravery of the British forces, or the ease with which they often routed larger bodies of militia; but the losses they inflicted were rarely as great as those they suffered. Even at Bladensburg, where they met little resistance, their loss was several times greater than that of the Americans. At Plattsburg, where the intelligence and quickness of Macdonough and his men alone won the victory, his ships were in effect stationary batteries, and enjoyed the same superiority in gunnery. ‘The Saratoga,’ said his official report, ‘had fifty-five round shot in her hull; the Confiance one hundred and five. The enemy’s shot passed principally just over our heads, as there were not twenty whole hammocks in the nettings at the close of the action’…-Adams 1340-1341.
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts
Made weak by time and fate but strong in will
To strive to seek to find and not to yield.