The war on the water was an essential, if not the most important, aspect of the War of 1812. While the British Navy had ruled the high seas since Lord Horatio Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar in 1805, the Americans were beginning to challenge that supremacy and had some stunning victories in the Atlantic. Nevertheless, Britain’s maritime supply line to Québec was never threatened.
More problematic for the British were the supply lines to Upper Canada. Most provisions (and regular troops) for the war effort were shipped from Great Britain to Upper Canada via Québec and Montréal. There being no reliable roads, transportation to Upper Canada had to proceed via the vulnerable St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario. Farther west, command of Lake Erie was critical for the movement of troops and supplies to the western forts. Control of the two Great Lakes was hotly contested, and the results on Lakes Ontario and Erie were quite different.
All the naval battles were fought with sailing ships armed with cannons. The ships varied according to their purpose, speed, rigging and armament. The brig is a two-masted sailing ship with square rigging on both masts. Armed with 10 to 20 guns, brigs served in the War of 1812 as couriers and training vessels.
A “ship of the line” was a large, heavily armed warship (60 to 110 guns). The name is derived from the fighting formation used by navies at the time: the line of battle. The heaviest and most accurate broadside—all guns firing from one side of the ship—usually won the battle.
One of the most elegant and manageable sailing vessels of the age of sail was the schooner. Typically, it had two masts—a main mast and a foremast—with the forward mast being smaller than the rear mast. Schooners were the most common ships seen on Lake Ontario at the beginning of the 19th century, and during the War of 1812, they were popular as transports and privateers (the schooner Nancy has been recovered from Georgian Bay and is now a historic site).
At the time of the War of 1812, the term “frigate” referred to a sailing warship that was often as long as a ship of the line and was square-rigged on all three masts. Faster than ships of the line and with lighter armament, frigates were used in the war for patrolling and escort.
One of the most famous frigates of the War of 1812 was HMS Shannon, which captured the USS Chesapeake in 1813 and towed it back to a triumphant welcome in Halifax.
“Sloop” is a naval term that was loosely applied to a ship which was smaller than a frigate. Even so, some sloops carried up to 20 guns and were formidable fighting ships. The Royal Navy began buying or building sloops to counter the menace of privateers, which ships of the line simply could not catch. Examples of sloops from the War of 1812 were HMS Detroit, which served on Lake Erie, and HMS Wolfe, which was the flagship of Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo on Lake Ontario.
This piece tells the story of the HMS Nancy, the ship that served the British on the Great Lakes until 1814, through an interactive scrollbar with thumbnails. When clicked, each thumbnail reveals a larger illustration supporting the HMS Nancy story.