Monday, June 18, 2012

The Strange War of 1812


Today, June 18, marks the 200th anniversary of the start of America's 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 New York.
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 frigate Chesapeake off Norfolk, Virginia, killing three sailors.
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 Britain's 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 United States, James Madison was elected President in 1808. Before he took office the Embargo Act was repealed.
A second war of independence fought with the former mother country was a popular concept in many parts of the country but not in New York, still damaged commercially by the embargo.

A Chain of Forts
Remembering the ease with which the British had landed troops and captured New York in 1776, the city constructed a group of imposing forts designed to repel any naval attack.
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 Manhattan 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 Upper Bay. The 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 Hudson 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 Upper Bay and lower Hudson.
British naval forces massed off Sandy Hook, and New York 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 fortifications.
An aged Marinus Willett, savior of Peekskill, gave 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 United States. By then, President Madison had already asked Congress for a formal declaration of war and Congress had obliged him. Madison 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 Greenwich Village to honor him.
In 1814 the same shipbuilders built the world's first steam-driven warship named the Fulton, designed by Robert 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 Detroit 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 the Atlantic.
By-passing New 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.

Castle Clinton Today
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 Castle Garden in 1824, a name by which it has been popularly known to the present time.
It has served in turn as a promenadebeer garden/restaurantexhibition hallopera 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.
Castle Garden 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.
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. 
Castle Garden now serves as the gateway to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

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 Canada, 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, D.C.
The resistance of Fort McHenry in Baltimore to British bombardment inspired our national anthem, a song virtually impossible to sing.
Americans won the last battle of the war in New Orleans 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 America has ever fought.
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