Monday, June 18, 2012
The Strange War of 1812
became the site of the New York City Aquarium in 1896. For 45 years it was the city's most popular
attraction, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors annually. Castle Garden Castle Garden
now serves as the gateway to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis
Today, June 18, marks the 200th anniversary of the start of
least-remembered war, the War of 1812. Its roots go back much earlier.
One evening toward the end of April in 1806, the 60-gun British frigate HMS Leander spotted the American schooner Richard off Sandy Hook bound for
The Leander was searching for deserters from the Royal Navy and fired a shot across the schooner's bow as a signal for it to prepare for boarding. Although the Richard complied promptly, a second and third shot tore into the American schooner's stern, decapitating the helmsman, John Pierce.
When Pierce’s headless corpse was displayed at the Tontine Coffeehouse at the corner of the Wall and Water streets, the mood in the city turned ugly. The British consul feared his house would be burned by a mob and he would be taken hostage.
New York City Mayor De Witt Clinton convinced the Common Council to have Pierce buried at public expense and ordered all ships in the harbor to fly their flags at half-mast.
American hostility to
Britain increased in June of 1807 when HMS Leopard fired on the 38-gun heavy
off , killing three sailors. Norfolk, Virginia
The British response to American protests was that it intended to pursue deserters where are they were found. In
New York the
following September, an angry crowd of dockworkers and American sailors
prevented six escaping British seamen from being returned to their ship,
stiffening British resolve.
American President Thomas Jefferson was convinced that another war with
Great Britain was not only necessary
but inevitable. In December of 1807, he asked Congress for a total embargo on
vessels leaving American ports. Jefferson explained that this was not to bring economic
pressure on France and England, locked in a bitter struggle in Europe, but to
get American seamen and ships "out of harm’s way" and to give the
country time to prepare for war.
‘O Grab Me’
The Embargo Act of 1807 was a colossal disaster. It caused no harm to
economy, but it gave the Emperor Napoleon the chance to grab $10 million
dollars' worth of American shipping. He claimed that by their very presence in
European waters the American ships had obviously violated the Embargo Act.
John Lambert, an English traveler in
New York in 1807, was
moved by its “gloomy and forlorn" appearance. By the spring of 1808, 120
firms had gone under. The sheriff held 1,200 debtors in custody, 300 of whom
owed less than $10. Unemployment
gripped the city's workers who spoke without humor about "O Grab Me,” the
word "embargo" spelled backwards.
Despite the unpopular Embargo Act, which did not make the belligerent nations change their ways but did cause a depression in the
, James Madison was
elected President in 1808. Before he took office the Embargo Act was repealed. United States
A second war of independence fought with the former mother country was a popular concept in many parts of the country but not in
still damaged commercially by the embargo.
A Chain of Forts
Remembering the ease with which the British had landed troops and captured
in 1776, the city constructed a group of imposing forts designed to repel any
Designed by the Army's chief engineer, Col. Jonathan Williams, first superintendent of West Point, the circular West Battery was erected on an artificial island 200 feet off the lower tip of
to which it was later connected. Its eight-foot-thick walls were pierced with
embrasures for 28 cannons that enabled it to sweep the mouth of the Hudson
River and the . The Upper
Bay West Battery was named Castle Clinton in 1815 to honor
Mayor De Witt Clinton.
At the northwest point of Governors Island was Castle Williams, also designed by Colonel Williams. Towering three stories high, the fort and its 100 heavy guns were part of a defensive system for the inner harbor that included Fort Columbus (later renamed Fort Jay) and the South Battery on Governors Island, Castle Clinton at the tip of Manhattan, Fort Wood on Liberty Island, and Fort Gibson on Ellis Island.
Other batteries included the North Battery, on the
shore at the foot of Hubert Street.
Its walls of reddish brown sandstone earned it the alternate name of the Red
Fort. Fort Gansevoort,
located farther up the Hudson
at the foot of Gansevoort Street,
was also called the White Fort because its sandstone walls had been covered
with a coating of whitewash.
These imposing fortifications could train some 300 guns on any enemy foolish enough to penetrate the Narrows and enter the
and lower Hudson.
British naval forces massed off Sandy Hook, and
braced itself for another British invasion. It became known that the British
intended to strike down from Canada
through Lake Champlain. Citizens rallied to
construct additional defensive works in upper Manhattan. The blockhouse at the northern end
of Central Park is a remnant of these landlocked
An aged Marinus Willett, savior of
an impassioned speech in which he recalled popular resistance to British
tyranny 40 years earlier. A Committee of Defense was formed with
representatives from each of the City’s wards.
On May 11, 1812, British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. It took his successor, Robert Jenkinson, Second Earl of Liverpool, until June 16 to repeal the restrictions on neutral trade offensive to the
States. By then, President Madison had
already asked Congress for a formal declaration of war and Congress had obliged
signed it on June 18, 1812. Neither side was aware of these overlapping events.
The War Begins
As part of the City’s contribution to the war effort,
New York shipwrights Henry Beckford, Christian Bergh, and
Noah Brown brought gangs of experienced workers to the shores of Lakes Erie
and Ontario to build the brigs and gunboats
with which Captains Isaac Chauncey and Oliver Hazard Perry defended the Niagara frontier.
After Perry defeated a British squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie in September of 1813, the grateful city gave him a hero's welcome and named a street in
Village to honor him.
In 1814 the same shipbuilders built the world's first steam-driven warship named the
, designed by Robert Fulton. Fulton
British warships blocked maritime traffic through the
Narrows, but Long Island
Sound remained open for American privateers to prey on British ships. In the
first year of the war, 125 privateers operated out of New York to harass British commerce.
Commanders of American land forces committed many blunders. They allowed the British to capture
and to burn Buffalo.
Two American attacks on Montréal were repulsed. Napoleon’s abdication in April
of 1814 enabled the British to shift 14,000 veterans of European battles across
York, the British attacked the Chesapeake Bay region, capturing
and burning Washington but failing to take Baltimore.
The British eventually put out peace feelers. Peace was achieved in time for Christmas of 1814. It was a war of 31 months’ duration, a war nobody really wanted.
Never used in active defense of the city, some of the military’s 1812 war installations were to have more interesting civil uses.
The Army stopped using Castle Clinton in 1821 and leased it to
New York City
as a place of public entertainment. It opened as in 1824, a name by which it has been popularly
known to the present time. Castle Garden
It has served in turn as a promenade, beer garden/restaurant, exhibition hall, opera house, and theater. Designed as an open-air structure it was eventually roofed over to better accommodate these uses.
As a theater, in 1850 the castle was the site of two extraordinarily successful concerts by the “Swedish Nightingale,” soprano Jenny Lind, under the auspices of P. T. Barnum. The following year, European dancer Lola Montez performed her notorious "tarantula dance" there.
From 1855 to 1892, the castle served as the Emigrant Landing Depot and processed immigrants arriving in
New York City
until the larger and more isolated Ellis Island facility was
opened for that purpose in 1892.
In 1941, Robert Moses, head of the Triborough Bridge Authority, proposed to dismantle the castle and replace it with another bridge to
Brooklyn. The public
outcry at the destruction of a historic landmark defeated the Moses plan.
Nevertheless, the aquarium was closed and not replaced until a new facility was
opened on Coney Island in 1957.
Fruits of the War
The War of 1812 was the strangest war in American history. It was a war within a war, the byproduct of a larger struggle in which Napoleonic France was pitted for almost a decade against most of
Europe. President James Madison remarked
after the fact that had he known Napoleon would be defeated, this country would
have stayed out of it.
The War of 1812 was like
Alice's famous Caucus Race
in which everybody seems to have won something although there were no prizes.
The land war was fought almost entirely in
where the British successfully repelled American attacks.
The Americans burned the public buildings of
York ( Toronto) in Canada, an act for which the British retaliated
by burning the public buildings of Washington,
The resistance of
McHenry in to British bombardment inspired our
national anthem, a song virtually impossible to sing. Baltimore
Americans won the last battle of the war in
the first week of 1815--a victory diminished by the fact that peace had already
been negotiated 15 days before with the Treaty of Ghent.
The British could boast that they had "won" the war because the treaty said nothing about the points at issue and merely maintained the status quo. The War of 1812 was indeed the strangest war
has ever fought.