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    Re: Navigation in 1812
    From: Don Seltzer
    Date: 2012 Jan 12, 19:22 -0800

    "During the War of 1812, what navigation methods were standard in the US Navy?"

    Frank Reed wrote:
    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.

    You asked:
    "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.

    You asked:
    "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.
    ***

    I do have a brief mention of a chronometer aboard USS Constitution, Capt Bainbridge, during its 1812 cruise to South America. Perhaps the personal property of Bainbridge; it seems unlikely that the Navy Dept could have afforded such an expense.

    There were several instances of US warships cruising well beyond the usual waters during the war. Commodore Rodgers took the frigate President past the Shetlands into the North Sea to disrupt trade, and went as far north as the Arctic Ocean. The last engagement of the war was USS Peacock vs HMS Nautilus off Sumatra.

    The most notable cruise was that of the Essex, which rounded Cape Horn and roamed the Pacific destroying the British whaling fleet. Capt David Porter wrote a fine journal of this cruise which is readily available on-line and in print. I should check it for references to navigational methods.

    Don Seltzer
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