Thursday, October 25, 2012

Today in History: War of 1812 Victories at Sea

Post by Brian Dunnigan, Associate Director and Curator of Maps

Many Americans remember the War of 1812 as a naval conflict in which, as Canadian historian C.P. Stacey put it, "the pride of the Mistress of the Seas was humbled by what an imprudent Englishman had called 'a few fir-built frigates manned by a handful of bastards and outlaws.'" There were few enough. The United States entered the War of 1812 with a navy of only 14 frigates and sloops-of-war with which to oppose the 1,000 warships of the Royal Navy. Almost immediately, however, the U.S. vessels began to score stunning victories in ship-to-ship frigate actions, most famously USS Constitution over HMS Guerrière on August 19, 1812. Songs and poems published in newspapers or as broadsides spread the welcome news of victories at a time when the land war seemed to be producing only defeats. Prints of these naval actions depicted the good news while further glorifying victorious captains and crews.

United States defeats Macedonian. Hand-colored engraving. Graphics Division.
October 25 is the bicentennial of the fight between USS United States and HMS Macedonian, one of the most celebrated of the naval victories of 1812. Captain Stephen Decatur’s United States (44 guns) encountered Captain James Carden’s Macedonian (38 guns) some 500 mile west of the Canary Islands. Decatur triumphed and was doubly fortunate in that the captured Macedonian was successfully brought into port at New London, Connecticut, where she was commissioned into the U.S. Navy.

Broadside song celebrating Decatur and his crew. Book Division, Broadsides.
The Graphics Division of the Clements Library has particularly strong holdings of action-packed, hand-colored prints depicting naval encounters of the War of 1812—including both U.S. victories and defeats. This fine collection exists thanks to the foresight of Howard Peckham, the Library’s second director, who acquired the core of our holdings in the 1960s and '70s.  These often stunning visual items add much to the usefulness of the Clements’s books, portrait prints, and manuscripts documenting the War of 1812 at sea.

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