October 23, 2003

The Thirteen-Year-Old Is Reading About the War of 1812

"The ocean-going American navy at the start of the War of 1812 consisted of six fourth-rate ships."

"That's harsh. Why say such nasty things about the navy of your country?"

"They're true."

"But I thought the American super-frigates--the Constitution, the Constellation, and so forth--were very good ships."

"Ah. The original meaning of "rate" doesn't mean whether it's good or bad--its a British navy classification of its size. We would call a brand-new fully-equipped 74-gun British Napoleonic War navy vessel with a crack crew and full stores a first-rate ship, wouldn't we?"

"Yes, Socrates, we would."

"But no matter how good the crew and how well-caulked the ship, it would be a third-rate ship."

"Are you saying that Horatio Nelson won the Battle of the Nile with a fleet consisting of entirely third-rate ships?"

"Well, he did have one second-rate ship along."

"So how big did a ship have to be to be first-rate?"

"At least 100 cannon on three different decks."

Royal Navy: The largest vessels were First Rates with three decks and 100 guns of which HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, is the best known example. Second Rates also had three decks and between 90-98 guns. The 74 gun Third Rate with two decks was the most numerous and best balanced ship of line in the second half of the Eighteenth century; all but one of fourteen British ships at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 were 74s. Fourth Rates with 50-60 guns had largely died about by the end of the Eighteenth Century, only those with 60 guns being regarded as ships of the line after 1757. A new type of warship, the frigate, emerged in the mid Eighteenth century to protect merchant shipping and for fleet scouting. There were two types both mounting their guns on the upper deck; Fifth Rates carried 32-36 guns and Sixth Rates had 28 weapons.

In the 1790s the Americans built some very large 44 gun frigates with an extra gun deck on top of the normal one. After the success of these ships in the war of 1812, Britain also commissioned some similar ships of 40-50 guns...

Posted by DeLong at October 23, 2003 02:02 PM | TrackBack


Guns are stupid. When USAF got their B2:s they flew them to Tokyo and burned the whole town down. They helped the RAF to destroy European people's homes too. Why didn't they target the nodes and main routes of the oil production and distribution? Soft targets immediately vital for the enemy's forces? Think of that for a while!
OK, so you think they were not that soft after all? Then why can't the US-Army protect a few pipelines and installations in the regional area of northern Iraq? When there is not even a war? Think of it some more!

Posted by: Mats on October 23, 2003 02:45 PM

For a more detailed (14-volume?) explanation, try the Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O'Brien, starting with Master and Commander.

btw, the ship of which Russell Crowe is the captain in the trailers now appearing on TV is far too large for a Master and Commander. Aubrey was a post captain by the time he sailed to the Far Side of the World.


Posted by: FDL on October 23, 2003 06:25 PM

On the off-chance that Mats is not a troll - the RAF and USAF did target petroleum facilities and such, unfortunately it's very hard to hit such targets with WWII technology. So they burned down cities instead, since at least they could do THAT. And in Iraq, you will note that the pipelines are being blown up by disaffected locals on the ground, not bombers from other countries, disaffected locals who in WWII would get the rest of their village summarily executed and thus be dissuaded from continuing such attacks. While such tactics might be effective in Iraq, the US is understandably unwilling to use them.

Posted by: Jake McGuire on October 23, 2003 07:19 PM

Time to give the 13-yr-old some Horatio Hornblower books. Save the Patrick O'Brian books for when he's a bit older.

Posted by: A Michael Froomkin on October 23, 2003 09:01 PM

I got the "Captain Hornblower" trilogy--Beat to Quarters, Ship of the Line, and Flying Colours--but they haven't grabbed his attention the way the Berkeley freshman world history textbook has.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on October 23, 2003 09:57 PM

"Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past" -- is this the title of the freshman history book that fascinates your 13-year old?

Posted by: Tom on October 24, 2003 12:02 AM

>>So they burned down cities instead, since at least they could do THAT.>> And what did they achieve - a hardening of the enemy's determination to fight.
>>the US is understandably unwilling to [crack down on enemy's civilian support.]>> Ever heard of the bombing campaing against the irrigation system in Vietnam? Agent Orange? Songy My?
>>"unfortunately it's very hard to hit [oil facilities]">> Most targets are, that never stopped any shooting and it didn't stop the RAF from raiding the German nuke facility in Ryukan in Norway. Even though the RAF didn't succeed the way the saboteur/infiltrateur group that later became known as the "Telemark heroes" did, they actually made the activity at the facility stop for a while.

So why didn't RAF, USAF make a large scale attempt on oil distribution as early as possible?

Posted by: Mats on October 24, 2003 12:06 AM

It was part of the learning curve. Initially, attacks on the oil distribution system were seen as essentially a waste of bombs and lives. Which does seem to have been more or less the case. Attacks on oil *production* facilities, as opposed to *distribution* facilities, were quite effective, once the true vulnerability of said targets was realized.

The Allies were not particularly tardy in this regard. Night bombing was too inaccurate to have a realistic chance of damaging oil production and the Allies did not have large concentrations of American daylight heavy bombers available for such a strike until 1943, which is when the first major raid on the Ploesti refinery complex occured. Casualties were very high for that mission, about a third of the bombers that went out did not come back.

Posted by: Steven Rogers on October 24, 2003 02:00 AM

Thanks Steven for an interesting post! Brad, please forgive me for being this off-topic. Even though the Allies according to Steven were "not particularly tardy" to target the oil facilities of the Axis, it doesn't appear to me that these targets were discovered early: "It was part of the learning curve", "Attacks ...were quite effective ...once the true vulnerability ...was realized."

Doesn't this point to that the Allies were relatively soon to bomb civilian's homes and relatively late to bomb stragic oil? Doesn't this point to that the goal of winning the war quickly is subordinated the goal of killing and destroying?

In the old days, weren't a successful siege most oftend ended in the townspeople being robbed raped and killed? Weren't the things that happended to i.e. Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki perfectly logic in this perspective?

Posted by: Mats on October 24, 2003 02:59 AM

Is it just me, or does this 13 yr old sound like a friggin' genius!

Posted by: jimd on October 24, 2003 05:25 AM

If I recall correctly, the main purpose of this classification of ships into "rates" was to determine the captain's rate of pay.

Posted by: rea on October 24, 2003 07:53 AM

>>"Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past"<<

Yes it is...

Posted by: Brad DeLong on October 24, 2003 10:19 AM

Brad, is the 13-y.-o. in the failing Berkeley Public Schools?

Posted by: Zizka on October 24, 2003 02:31 PM


The RAF Bomber Command launched a number of daylight pinpoint(by WWII standards) raids early in the war. They got slaughtered. So, they switched to night raids, and aimed at what they thought they could hit i.e., entire cities. The RAF, initially, was not terribly successful at even this reduced standard of effectiveness. There are a couple of sources which claim that RAF bomber crew lossess in 1941 were higher than the numbers of German civilians killed in the raids, but that may well be apocryphal. There was a strong domestic political element at work here. Since the Germans were blowing the hell out of British cities, it was politically impossible for the RAF not to return the treatment.

Then along came the Americans, with their heavily armed and armored B-17's, sporting the Norden bombsight. This gadget was a real jewel, albeit not capable of the pickle-barrel-from-20,000-feet accuracy that the popular press claimed. We Americans are a hard-headed lot, and daylight raids resumed despite the advice of the RAF. Losses were high, but so were losses among Luftwaffe interceptors and accuracy of the bombs dropped was noticeably improved.

There was another factor at work as well: For some bizarre reason, when the Allies drew up their initial targeting lists, petroleum industry specialists were not consulted, resulting in an unrealistic robustness being assumed for the petro facilities. Later in the war, the appropriate experts straightend out the air strategists on the true vulnerability of the oil facilities and off the bombers went.

Posted by: Steven Rogers on October 24, 2003 04:11 PM

Worth noting is the fact that the American navy spent most of the war blockaded in port. The few well publicized single ship actions were at most morale boosters for the public. In the end it was the good old american opportunists that forced England to end the war. The chance for quick riches unleased a flood of privaiteers. They were so numerous that although few struck it rich, they brought British trade to a standstill.

Here's somthing to not mention in the hearing of the Neocon, the US never signed the treaty of Paris which ended the practice of privateering.

Posted by: Dave on October 25, 2003 01:41 PM

Steven, thanks again for your highly interesting and informative comments! Do you have any references or links on this?

"For some bizarre reason, when the Allies drew up their initial targeting lists, petroleum industry specialists were not consulted, resulting in an unrealistic robustness being assumed for the petro facilities. Later in the war, the appropriate experts straightend out the air strategists on the true vulnerability of the oil facilities and off the bombers went."

I think that bizarre reason lies deep inside the idea of war itself, war is about destruction, it is not about ending it, or "winning" it fast. It is a large scale government planned enterprise, so it is bound to be unprofitable and costly.

Posted by: Mats on October 25, 2003 01:51 PM


I highly recommend John Keegan's "The Second World War". It is a one volume, very readable and easily digestible overview of the war. Gerhard Weinberg's "A World at Arms" is also a one-volume work, but considerably heftier in both page count and academic tone. John Costello's "The Pacific War" is a very well done one-volume overview of the WWII Pacific Theater.

Daniel Yergin's "The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil Money and Power" is definately a must-read both for current events and historical perspective. The chapters concerning WWII are quite eye-opening. I also recommend the Time-Life WWII series, the books are quite well regarded by the historians who frequent the H-War mailing list.

On line, try www.sturmvogel.com for some interesting information of the European Axis economic problems during the war.

www.combinedfleet.com has two very nice articles about the economic petard the Japanese had hoisted themselves on by going to war.

Posted by: Steven Rogers on October 25, 2003 03:02 PM

Thank you.

Posted by: Mats on October 26, 2003 01:21 PM
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