Revenge in the Name of Honour: The Royal Navy’s Quest for Vengeance in the Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812
Nicholas James Kaizer
Helion & Company (From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 No. 46), 2020
Paperback, 217 pages, maps, colour, and black & white illustrations
By the end of 1812 three British frigates and two sloops had been defeated in single ship actions against American opponents, to the surprise and consternation of the Royal Navy and the British public. While historians have argued these actions had no strategic impact on the wider course of the war, to naval and civilian contemporaries these single ship actions were of great concern.
Nicholas Kaizer explores how these actions were fought and examines their impact on both sides of the Atlantic. Admiral Lord St Vincent remarked that ‘the honour of an officer may be compared to the chastity of a woman, and once wounded may never be recovered’ and it was this attitude to honour that induced many Royal Navy officers to seek revenge when British ships were defeated by what was perceived to be an upstart American navy. The author begins his study by examining this concept within the Royal Navy officer class, along with the type of ships in use in the American theatre. There was an innate arrogance in the minds of British officers in that their superiority against navies in European waters would carry the day against the American navy, and British losses against the Americans in 1812 placed vengeance firmly in their minds with maintaining their honour more important than Britain’s strategic interests. Indeed, there were challenges made by some naval captains to engage their opposite number in a ship-to-ship duel.
The book provides a detailed examination of the opening phases of the naval war in 1812 and the causes of the conflict, including the impressment of American seamen by Royal Navy ships in the lead up to the conflict. Each action is described in detail, beginning each account with the background to that engagement and then using historical accounts, the court martial reports of those officers who lost their ships to the United States Navy, correspondence between officers and government officials, and newspaper reports;. Maps are included to locate the various actions along the Eastern coastline and in the West Indies. The accounts of the actions compare the opposing ships and provide a clear insight into the differences between the two navies, examining the differences in the opposing ships in terms of their size, crews, armament, leadership, and tactics, making this a useful reference book on the navies of the War of 1812. One interesting feature is the inclusion of original colour artwork comparing the ships in each action, from the Constitution vs Guerrière in August 1812 to the Constitution’s last adversaries in February 1815.
Revenge in the Name of Honour is a well-researched and detailed account of the naval actions of the War of 1812. It is also a balanced look at the subject, examining the story from both sides of the Atlantic and placing these events within the strategic framework of the Napoleonic conflict. My only criticism is that there is no index, which is unusual for any book, especially one as well written as this, but there are interesting appendices examining the careers and fates of British naval officers and dispositions of frigates in North American waters in July 1813. It is certainly a volume that should be in any library on the War of 1812.