Naval Power Before the War of 1812
In 1812, the United States Navy had 7200 sailors and marines; its officers were professional and the volunteer seamen were experienced. Many had seen action during the Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) and in the Barbary War of North Africa (1801-1805). The ocean-going fleet included 13 vessels. There were 165 coastal vessels, 62 of which were in commission.
The Royal Navy was the most powerful naval force of the time. In 1812, it had 145 000 men and 978 ships, of which about 70% were in commission. Despite the decisive victory at Trafalgar in 1805, France continued to challenge Britain’s domination of the seas, which kept the Royal Navy in European waters and prevented it from reinforcing the western Atlantic. The number of French ships-of-the-line increased from 34 in 1807 to 80 by 1813, with another 35 under construction. In contrast, the equivalent vessels in the Royal Navy dropped from 113 in 1807 to 98 in 1813. Given these challenges, the sheer weight of the navy could not be employed against the United States until the war in Europe ended.
The Royal Navy maintained two squadrons in North American waters. The North American Squadron was based at Halifax and the other squadron was based in Newfoundland. Both were considered backwaters. In 1812, the North American Squadron had 27 ships, including one of the line, eight frigates and seven sloops.
Before the declaration of war, the United States deployed its warships in the Atlantic. They were to protect their merchantmen, while attempting to seize British commercial vessels and engage naval ships. Between 1812 and 1815, there were 26 encounters between individual ships or combinations of vessels from both fleets. While much is made of the success of the American super frigates against smaller, less well armed British vessels, the total victories were equally divided between the two navies. British losses represented less than one percent of their fleet, while the American navy lost 20% of their men-of-war.
Source: Atlantic Campaign of the War of 1812
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