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Response to Review of How Britain won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815

Reviewer William S. Dudley is of course right; privateers of any nationality did, initially, get rather short shrift until the book’s conclusions, while attention was being focussed on the sub-title, The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States. Privateers are briefly discussed, in both the context of definitions, and that of Warren’s numerous difficulties, and therefore, as a topic of his correspondence with the Admiralty. They were one of many causes of his increasingly strained exchanges with Lord Melville, the First Lord, and especially with its egotistical First Secretary, John Wilson Croker.

The achievements of American privateers in particular are more fully considered in the conclusions, although total American captures of British merchant vessels must still be seen as a small proportion of the then still-expanding and massive British merchant marine. Not all American privateers were successful. The frequent re-capture of American prizes by the Royal Navy before they could reach an American or foreign port, also served to lessen the impact on the British economy of even the successful American privateers.

The capture of American merchant vessels by British and Canadian privateers, in addition to those taken by the Royal Navy, made a greater impact on the smaller and depleted American merchant navy, much of which by 1814 remained in harbour for financial reasons, as well as for fear of capture and resultant loss of the vessel, its cargo, or both, to the British commercial blockade. The British merchant navy’s growth, uninterrupted by the War of 1812, was, by the war’s end contributing to the revival of Britain’s worldwide trade, especially in British colonial re-exports, following the collapse of Napoleon’s Continental System, and the decreasing impact of pre-war British industrial over-production. Both remain as complementary explanations for decreasing British world trade in 1812, rather than the activities of either American or French privateers alone.

The successful British naval blockade, by incarcerating much of the United States Navy, protected Britain’s commercial blockade and facilitated the capture of Washington. The fiscal and financial consequences of the resultant run on American banks far exceeded the value of property destroyed. The Royal Navy’s damage to the American economy, although sometimes indirect, was decisive. Britain achieved its most important war aim in retaining its ‘right’ to stop and search neutral vessels in wartime and to impose maritime blockades on continental enemies, as in 1914 and 1939.