The story of HMS Archer is set in an important but almost forgotten period in the history of Britain and the United States. It begins in 1811 when Britain was still involved in a bitter war with Napoleonic France, a war which had been going on for many years. Although Napoleon was still a major threat, his armies were being slowly driven out of Portugal and Spain by Wellington. At sea, the Royal Navy was dominant, following the crushing defeats of Trafalgar, The Nile, St Vincent and others imposed on the French revolutionary navy.
It was necessary to keep the remainder of the French Navy bottled up in port and this required a great many ships employed in the blockade. But there were other duties in guarding the sea lanes of a burgeoning empire and the Fleet, particularly the frigates, were hard pressed. The British Navy was also employed in stopping neutral ships crossing the Atlantic and searching them for ‘contraband’ such as cotton and grain, being sent from the United States to sustain the armies of Bonaparte. They also searched for British deserters who had been lured by the better pay and conditions in trans-Atlantic mercantile trade.
John Lawson is serving as the Second Lieutenant in HMS Caroline, a frigate on the blockade line off the port of Brest, when she is attacked out of the night by a small French squadron. The subsequent quick reaction in the British frigate overwhelms the attackers and the French ship Amelie is taken as a prize. The cowardly, drink sodden martinet in command of the British frigate tries to break off the action and then demands that the captive ‘prize’ is released. The subsequent row leads to a Board of Enquiry held at Devonport, but with the intervention of Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, the Court upholds the actions of the ship’s officer’s. John Lawson is promoted and is sent to join the North American Squadron under Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren.
It was these mid-ocean searches which were authorised by Admiralty ‘Orders of Council’ which were used by President James Madison to justify his declaration of war against Great Britain, but his real intention was to use this as an opportunity to invade and capture Canada. It did not go well for the Americans, who failed in their main war aim, saw their entire navy destroyed, the Capital occupied and their country bankrupted. There are, however, American historians who would say they won the war.
This book relates John Lawson’s part in the American war.