The USS United States Captures HMS Macedonian, 25 October 1812

On 8 October 1812 Commodore John Rodgers’s squadron of the frigates USS President, United States and Congress and the brig USS Argus set sail from Boston. Four days later the United States and the Argus separated from the other ships.

The USS President and Congress returned to Boston on 31 December, having captured nine British merchantmen. They encountered the frigates HMS Nymphe on 10 October and HMS Galatea on 31 October, but were unable to bring either to action. The USS Argus stayed at sea until 3 January 1813, capturing six British merchantmen.

On 25 October 1812 the USS United States, captained by Commodore Stephen Decatur, encountered HMS Macedonian, under the command of Captain John Carden. Their broadsides were:

USS United States: 16 long 24 pounders and 12 42 pound carronades for a total broadside of 888 pounds, reduced to 826 pounds if Theodore Roosevelt’s argument that US shot was 7 per cent lighter than its nominal weight is accepted. Roosevelt claims that the United States had a broadside of 11, not 12, 42 pound carronades, reducing her weight of fire to a nominal 846 pounds and an actual 787 pounds).[1]

HMS Macedonian: 14 long 18 pounders, one long 12 pounder, one long 9 pounder and eight 32 pound carronades. She also had a single moveable 18 pound carronade, giving a total broadside of 547 pounds, assuming that this gun could bear on the target.

Carden decided not to close the range quickly, although larger guns of the American ship meant that her advantage was greater at longer ranges. Macedonian suffered heavy damage as she cautiously approached her opponent.

Realising that his plan was not working, Carden then tried to close the range more quickly. By the time that the ships were within close range Macedonian had lost much of her rigging and most of her carronades. At 11:15, 90 minutes after the action had begun, she was forced to strike her colours.

British casualties were 41 killed and 63 wounded; six men were killed and five wounded on the American ship. Macedonian’s crew included eight Americans, three of whom were killed. The five survivors joined the USN.

The relative strengths of the two ships meant that the United States ought to have won, but she might have suffered heavier casualties in doing so under a less skilful captain than Decatur.

Alfred Mahan describes Decatur’s performances during the battle as being ‘thoroughly skilful.’[2] Decatur’s duty was to defeat his opponent whilst suffering as little damage as possible to his own ship. Roosevelt is critical of Carden, saying that he ‘was first too timid, and then too rash, and showed bad judgement at all times.’[3]

Carden was court-martialled after his return to Britain, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ship. He was acquitted, but was criticised for his handling of his ship. He was never given another command, although the RN’s system of promotion by seniority above the rank of Captain meant that he eventually became an Admiral on the retired list.

The two ships returned to the USA after Macedonian had been repaired at sea. On 4 December the United States out into New London and Macedonian into Newport. Both subsequently moved to New York. The USS Macedonian was commissioned into the USN after being repaired and remained in US service until 1828.

Mahan notes that it is rather surprising that the two ships were not spotted by the British, who had sent a large number of reinforcements to North America. However, he points out that Admiral Sir John Warren, the British C-in-C, preferred to use his ships to patrol the trade routes rather than stopping US ships from putting to sea.[4]

The RN had three stations in North America and the Caribbean; Halifax, the Leeward Islands and Jamaica. Each had its own commander, meaning that the British naval effort against the USA was unco-ordinated until Warren was appointed to overall command on 3 August 1812. He arrived at Halifax on 26 September.

Mahan notes that the USA had reported 190 prizes and probably taken over 200 before Warren arrived. The British took only 70 prizes in first three months of war. Mahan suggests that this was due to the effect of Rodgers’s first cruise, a lack of British warships on station and the fact that the USA declared war.[5]

One of Warren’s first actions was to propose peace on 30 September. Britain had by then repealed the Orders-in-Council that were one of the causes of the war. On 27 October US Secretary of State James Monroe replied, saying that the USA wanted peace, but that the British must first stop pressing [conscripting] US sailors into the RN. Warren had no powers to negotiate this issue.

The capture of HMS Macedonian by the USS United States followed the taking of HMS Guerrière by the USS Constitution on 19 August 1812 and would be followed by the capture of HMS Java by the Constitution on 29 December 1812.

In each case the US ship was superior to the British one. Roosevelt accepts this but disagrees with British historians who said ‘that this superiority was so great as to preclude any hopes of a successful resistance.’[6]

N. A. M. Rodger notes that the best tactic for the weaker ship was to fire high and from long range, hoping to slow the enemy ship by damaging her enemy’s rigging.[7] This was not the tactic normally adopted by the British, who preferred to close the range and then fire at the enemy’s hull. This normally worked against opponents other than the USN.

Roosevelt argues that British frigates had won actions against European opponents that were as superior to them as were the American frigates to their opponents. He gives a number of examples taken from the French historian Onésime-Joachim Troude’s four-volume Batailles navales de la France .

On 1 March 1799, the 38 gun HMS Sybille captured the larger French  frigate Forte. The French ship’s main guns were 24 pounders; the British ones were 18 pounders. On 10 August 1805 HMS Phoenix took the French frigate Didon. On 8 March 1808 HMS San Florenzo captured the Piedmontaise.

Phoenix and San Florenzo were rated at 36 guns, but Roosevelt says that they had actual broadsides of 13 18 pounders, two nine pounders and six 32 pound carronades, a total of 21 guns with a broadside of 444 Ib.

The Didon and Piedmontaise were rated at 40 guns, but had actual broadsides of 14 18 pounders, two 8 pounders and seven 36 pound carronades, a total of 23 guns with a broadside of 522 pounds. Roosevelt believes that French shot was heavier than its nominal value, giving the two French frigates an actual broadside of around 600 pound. The armaments given for these ships are from Roosevelt; some of the linked websites differ.[8]

Roosevelt argues that the Didon and Piedmontaise’s superiority to HMS Phoenix and San Florenzo was greater than that of the USS Constitution to HMS Guerrière or HMS Java. He also claims that against European opponents during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars the British lost only five out of around 200 actions between two ‘ships of approximately equal force (that is, where the difference was less than one half).’[9]

This seems to be a rather wide definition of ‘approximately equal force’, but the point is that British were used to defeating more powerful European opponents at sea. Anglo-American sea actions were normally won by the more powerful ship. The RN had a long tradition of victory, but the USN was a young force.

Thus, victories by the USN over the RN had a much greater impact on morale in both countries than was apparently justified by a dispassionate analysis of the relative strengths of the ships involved.


[1] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i. pp. 82-88

[2] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i, p. 421.

[3] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 139.

[4] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. i, pp. 422-23.

[5] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 391-92.

[6] Roosevelt, Naval War. vol. i, p. 120.

[7] N. A. M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2004), p. 568.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, pp. 120-21.

[9] Ibid., pp. 122-23.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The USS United States Captures HMS Macedonian, 25 October 1812

  1. Pingback: The USS Constitution Captures HMS Java, 29 December 1812 | War and Security

  2. Typo re HMS Macedonian’s armament corrected. She had a broadside of eight 32 pound carronades, but the number eight was omitted.

  3. Pingback: The Capture of the USS President 15 January 1815 | War and Security

  4. Pingback: The End of the War of 1812 | War and Security

  5. percynjpn

    Concise and even-handed summary of the actions and related viewpoints.

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