On December 29, 1812, the frigate USS Constitution fought and captured the British frigate HMS Java.
USS Constitution vs HMS Java, 29 December 1812. Artwork by Anton Otto Fischer. Courtesy of Ms. Katrina S. Fischer. NHHC Photograph Collection
This battle would see the USS Constitution earn her moniker “Old Ironsides” and cement her place in history. To this day, she serves as a commissioned warship of the United States Navy.
To say the British were stunned would be an understatement. In 1812, the Royal Navy was the virtually uncontested master of every sea. By far the largest navy in the world, the Royal Navy had also attained a level of experience and proficiency few other fleets could hope to even approach.
The fledgling US Navy could never hope to directly contest the vast Royal Navy. But the original “Six Frigates” were excellent ships, and in general were well crewed, well drilled, and importantly, very well built and armed.
The US adopted a strategy of commerce raiding. Swarms of privateers were issued letters of marque to prey upon British commerce. And the frigates of the US Navy set out both to raid commerce, and when possible, to interdict British warships that were similarly attempting to interdict American shipping.
The strategy wasn’t to defeat the British, nor even to fully interdict British shipping, but rather impose an inconvenience and cost upon that British, already fully engaged fighting the French, that would encourage domestic political support for the war against American to wane. The commerce raiding portion of the strategy was arguably fairly successful. But an argument could be made that the stunning series of victories of US frigates against their British peers caused the British to steel their resolve to punish the neophyte American fleet.
The series of frigate engagement of in the War of 1812 had little direct impact on the course of the war. It did give the US Navy a wealth of tradition to build upon, touchstones that still resonate to this day.