The American Naval Records Society’s digitization and online republication of naval documents in the public domain gives new life to naval historical research in the United States. In reproducing The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, the editors continue in the tradition of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Commodore Dudley W. Knox, who collaborated in the editing and publication of the series on the Quasi War with France and the Barbary Wars in the 1930s and 1940s. The Naval Historical Center followed these volumes with Naval Documents of the American Revolution, under the editorship of William Bell Clark, William James Morgan, William S. Dudley and Michael J. Crawford. President Roosevelt himself expressed the hope that War of 1812 documentation would eventually be published. Heeding that suggestion, in 1978, Rear Admiral John D. H. Kane, Jr., then Director of the Naval Historical Center, ordered work to start on this new series. Now, thirty-three years later, with the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 fast approaching, this publication will be ready to support the public’s interest in the events of that distant, half-forgotten conflict.
When the War of 1812 naval documents project was originally conceived, the editors determined that it would be more highly selective than the previous series. Secondly, the selection process would be guided by the precept that operational documents would be only a part of the mix of documents. Further, the documents are accompanied not only with annotations, but also with general introductory passages between appropriate divisions of text. Head-notes are also provided to explain the context of individual documents where necessary. For completeness, some of those documents selected represent the administrative and logistical underpinnings of naval operations, thus giving the readers a fuller sense of what was required to prepare the Navy to carry out its various missions. For example, readers will find documents that discuss the causes of the war, the building and repair of ships, recruitment of sailors and marines, the supply of armaments, equipment and clothing, and the medical treatment of wounded, sick and disabled seamen. To a great extent, the government augmented the diminutive U.S. Navy by commissioning privateers and letter of marque trading vessels, which were authorized to wage war against British shipping. In battles at sea, when one ship captures another, the enemy sailors who survived became prisoners of war. These unfortunates were taken and imprisoned, though some were eventually freed on parole, but they could not return to battle until properly exchanged. This process, too, is attested in documents and is properly part of the overall story of the War of 1812.
Throughout the course of publishing these documents, the editorial staff of the Naval Historical Center determined to organize the U.S naval documents chronologically by theaters of war, and to present selected British naval documentation, as well. Thus, Volume I presents documents on the maritime causes of the war, followed by naval operations on the Atlantic after June 18, 1812, the building of the navy’s squadrons on the Northern Lakes (Ontario and Erie), the early preparations for war on the Gulf Coast, and a return to the Atlantic theater for late 1812.
Volume II’s documents cover actions on the Atlantic, then shift to the Chesapeake Bay theater where it was becoming apparent, in 1813, that the British had not only established a blockade off the coast but also intended to raid in the bay for a protracted period. Returning to the Northern Lakes, the documents reflect an expansion of logistics and operations on Lakes Ontario and Erie, including Commodore Perry’s victory off Put-In Bay, as well as the preparations for war on Lake Champlain. The volume ends with a brief return to events in the Gulf Coast theater and the opening of Captain David Porter’s operations on the Pacific Ocean.
Volume III features the year 1814 with a major section on the Chesapeake Bay theater through the end of the war, which includes the British raids into Maryland and Virginia, the burning of Washington, the ransoming of Alexandria and the American defeat of the British in the battle before Baltimore. The scene of action then shifts to the Northern Lakes, documenting the British campaign at Niagara where the opposing navies supported their respective armies, the U.S. Navy sent a small squadron into Lake Huron and an American victory on Lake Champlain halted the British incursion from Canada at Plattsburg. A final section on the Pacific theater presents Commodore Porter’s defeat in the frigate Essex by the British in HMS Phoebe and Cherub off the coast of Chile.
The final volume of documents in the War of 1812 series is presently in the last stage of editing. It is projected to complete coverage of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast theaters through the early months of 1815, including the final naval actions that occurred after Treaty of Ghent was signed but before news of its ratification reached around the world. Highlights of the volume will include the blue-water engagements of USS Constitution, Wasp, Hornet and Peacock, as well as the coastal defense efforts against British incursions off New England, South Carolina and Georgia that culminated in the Battle of New Orleans.
Rear Admiral Kane’s decision to create this series occurred over thirty years ago. No one involved at the beginning thought it would take this long, but its completion is just in time for a reconsideration of the War of 1812 on the occasion of its bicentennial. Indeed, it is an opportunity to re-examine this ancient Anglo-American conflict in the light cast by a new generation of historical researchers and to remind ourselves that the historical process never ends.
William S. Dudley