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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 12: November 2009


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Lardas, Mark. Constitution vs Guerriere: Frigates During the War of 1812. (Osprey Duel Series No 19) London: Osprey Publishing, 2009. 80 pages, illustrations, index, bibliography. ISBN 9781846034343 $17.95 US $19.995 CAD £19.99 UK

Reviewed by George Barraclough

The frigate duels between the United States Navy and the Royal Navy during the War of 1812 have grown to represent much more than just simple ship actions; to some, the spectacular victories achieve by the US Navy demonstrated the virtues of the young Republic over Perfidious Albion, effectively challenging and humiliating the old world monarch of the seas, the Royal Navy. Of the 18 actions between both navies on the high seas, the US Navy was victor in 10; it is often forgotten the Royal Navy achieved success in the remainder.

As spectacular as the results might be to the popular imagination, they had limited strategic importance. The most significant success of the US Navy’s high seas fleet was not due to these actions, but by concentrating its ships early in the war, forcing the British squadron at Halifax to do the same, thus momentarily limiting the ability of the British to implement a blockade of the United States.

Constitution vs Guerriere is an examination of four of these frigate actions, namely Constitution vs Guerriere, on 19 August 1812;  United States vs Macedonian, 25 October 1812; Constitution vs Java, 29 December 1812; and the USS Chesapeake vs HMS Shannon, 1 June 1813.

Mark Lardas holds a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering. He is an amateur historian and lifelong ship-model builder, who has written extensively about modelling and naval, maritime and military history. He lives in the United States.

Before describing the specific actions, the book provides background on ship design and development, the strategic situation, technical specifications and the combatants. Thereafter follows brief accounts of each action, followed by some statistics, analysis and conclusion. Generally, the author has presented a balanced overview of each aspect of this study. He has used many of the better works of the secondary literature, including some period manuals.

These engagements came down to gunnery and the ability of a ship’s structure to withstand the effects of gun fire. Both Guerriere and Java were prizes taken from the French and were built of inferior wood and having “lighter scantlings than their British counterparts” (p. 32). The 44 gun American frigates they faced were larger by almost half. Shannon and Macedonian were British built and also smaller than the frigates designed by American shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys, but were soundly built. Chesapeake was smaller than the Humphreys frigates and built using timber scaled for a larger warship.

It does not come as a surprise that in the first three actions, the larger 24 pounder American frigates defeated that smaller 18 pounder armed British ships. While Macedonian lost most of its rigging and masts, its hull remained in good shape. Guerriere took 30 hits below the waterline and was burned; Java too was scuttled. The final action, between Shannon and Chesapeake, was between frigates with “virtually identical broadside weights,” which truly represents a test of seamanship, gunnery and fighting skill. Captain Phillip Broke, commanding Shannon had trained his crew well and their gunnery was superb.

This book is well illustrated and contains many useful tables and one chart showing the ship movements from one of the actions. The artwork is generally excellent.

Overall, Constitution vs Guerrirre is a good introduction to the topic of frigate actions during the War of 1812. It also highlights the importance of leadership and training, perhaps best summed up in the term professionalism are indeed key factors for ensuring success. Readers of this magazine are encouraged to consult the books in the bibliography of this book and to seek out other studies on this fascinating aspect of the war at sea.

George Barraclough is a retired senior British public servant, who spent most of his career with the Admiralty. He is particularly fond that his duties  afforded many opportunities to visit HMS Victory and to dine aboard her on several occasions. He now leads an itinerant life aboard his sailing vessel in the West Indies.