A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
From: Frank Reed
Date: 2012 Jan 7, 22:17 -0800
"During the War of 1812, what navigation methods were standard in the US Navy?"
I don't know for certain. I myself have not examined any US Navy logbooks from this period. That said, I can fill in some background.
"Were ships supplied with chronometers, like the Royal Navy?"
I would say (almost certainly) not. There weren't enough chronometers in existence at that date. They could be purchased for a small fortune, but even the richest American merchant companies considered them a luxury in this period. There's a famous story (which was told decades later, so suspect) that John Jacob Astor once lived to regret not buying a chronometer for his best captain and lost a fortune in the tea trade, far greater than the cost of a chronometer, when his captain quit and went to work for Astor's competition.
Lunars were widely used on American merchant vessels in this period. The pattern was longitude by account (dead reckoning) with lunars resetting the DR after observations for two or three days leading up to First Quarter, then two weeks of dead reckoning followed by lunars for a couple of days around Last Quarter and just after. Chronometers did not become common on American merchant vessels until the middle of the 1830s.
"Did US captains instead rely on noon sights for latitude, with occasional lunars, or some other method?"
Yes, Noon Sun for latitude, DR backed up by lunars for longitude. There were also navigators who used meridian sights of stars at night as well as the North Star for latitude. This was less accurate than Noon Sun because the horizon is indistinct in the middle of the night even if the Moon is out. Navigators also had available various specialty methods in the navigation manuals (e.g. Bowditch) such as latitude by two altitudes but they were very rare in practice. Again, I only have direct evidence on merchant practice in this period, but I have also never seen any suggestion that naval navigation was in any way superior. Indeed the US Navy travelled less widely around the globe than US merchant vessels in this period.
"Any notable incidents during this period involving faulty navigation?"
I don't know of any during the war. There are a couple of interesting stories from the memoirs of Basil Hall, who was highly influential on your favorite author, which I've written up before for NavList. Before the war, Hall tells a story of his days in the Royal Navy when his ship intercepted a fine small clipper, the Erin, just off Chesapeake Bay which was believed to have been trading with the French in violation of the British blockade. The vessel was sailed to Bermuda with Hall in command. They had no chronometer so Hall used lunars to confirm his longitude and was surprised to discover that he had already passed Bermuda when he believed he was still west of it (presumably carried more rapidly to the east by the Gulf Stream than he had estimated). It's a wonderful story. You can read my earlier post on this here:
Basil Hall also wrote in his memoirs of the Arniston tragedy which occurred in 1815. I wrote this up for NavList here:
Neither of these stories are USN related but they're from the right time period at least.
If you find out anything more about USN navigational practice during the War of 1812, I would love to hear about it.
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