The Cruise of the U.S. Fleet under Commodore John Rogers
As the United States entered the War of 1812, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton was charged with forming a strategy for the best use of the American fleet against the Royal Navy. The difference in size between the American and British fleets was tremendous: the Royal Navy had more than eight hundred warships in commission, while the U.S. Navy maintained a fleet of only seventeen vessels. Considering the successes of the British Navy at the Nile in 1789 and Trafalgar in 1805, a mistake on Hamilton's part could have conceivably resulted in the loss of the entire navy.
Hamilton turned to his senior commanders for advice on how best to use the navy, but his captains did not agree on the deployment of the fleet. His senior officer, Captain John Rogers, recommended that the fleet be used in sizable squadrons and put to sea immediately to take advantage of British unpreparedness. Rogers suggested the creation of two squadrons of American ships. One squadron would be sent to operate in and around the British Isles. The other squadron would be kept in American waters to act as a defense against British invasion.
William Bainbridge and Stephen Decatur offered Hamilton a different naval strategy. Rather than committing the entire navy to large fleet actions, they suggested that the ships act independently. Each vessel, or perhaps a pair of vessels, would take to sea, covering wide areas of operation. They would then strike British warships as opportunities arose and harass British merchant fleets. Decatur in particular recommended a war of commerce raiding focused on taking and destroying British military forces and domestic trade.
|Captain William Bainbridge. From the collections of The Mariners' Museum.
Hamilton accepted Rogers's proposal of concentrated fleet action and put Rogers in command of the squadron destined to operate around Britain. Rogers set out from New York in June 1812. Under his command were the U.S. frigates United States, Congress, and President. Accompanying the frigates were the sloop Hornet and the brig Argus. Rogers's primary goal was to intercept a large British convoy of about one hundred ships scheduled to cross the Atlantic from Jamaica to England. Only hours after departure, Rogers sighted the British frigate Belvidera. Though the commander of the Belvidera had not yet received word of the declaration of war, he wisely avoided the approaching American squadron. Enticed by the prospect of a prize so early in his operation, Rogers gave chase to the fleeing British ship.
Following the ship northeast toward Halifax, Rogers altered his course away from the Jamaican convoy. By the afternoon of June 23, 1812, the President had gained way in the chase and had come within cannon shot of the Belvidera. Sensing a historic moment, Rogers himself set off the first cannon--the first shot of the War of 1812. Several more shots were fired, damaging the Belvidera and killing nine men. The capture of the British ship seemed within sight when a gun aboard the President burst, killing sixteen American crewmen and breaking Rogers's leg. The pursuit of the Belvidera continued for several days, with the British commander constantly lightening his ship by dumping his fresh water supply, anchors, boats, and provisions. By July 1, the Belvidera had successfully outrun the more heavily laden American ships and was safely put in to Halifax. Disappointed in missing his first prize of the war, Rogers returned to his southerly course to try to intercept the Jamaican convoy.
Rogers found only an empty sea. Though he encountered ships that reported seeing the convoy and a trail of floating garbage in the convoy's wake, he never found his target. When the squadron arrived within 200 miles of the English coast, Rogers reluctantly turned his ships away. Still hoping to find prizes worth taking, Rogers steered his squadron south along the coast of France to the Canary Islands. This stretch of ocean was one of the world's busiest sea lanes, and undoubtedly would offer the Americans an opportunity for action. However, the seas proved nearly empty. Rogers returned to New York in August with little to show for his Atlantic cruise into the home waters of the enemy.
Rogers consoled himself by reporting that though he had failed to intercept and capture the Jamaican convoy, his operations had diverted elements of the Royal Navy from the coast of the United States. Nevertheless, in view of the less than victorious record of Rogers's cruise, the Navy Department moved away from Rogers's concentrated fleet action strategy and adopted Decatur's suggestion of ships independently deployed to select targets of opportunity.