Archive for the ‘The War of 1812 (1812-1815)’ Category

As June of 1812 started, President James Madison had asked Congress for a declaration of war against the British.  We’ve discussed the reasons before, so we won’t spend a ton of time on them.  The British were arming Native Americans, who then used that hardware to kill Americans.  The British were capturing U.S. ships and forcing their captives to fight on British ships.  The British were blockading France, preventing U.S. trade with an important ally.

Some (or all) of these things had been going on for years, and for years the U.S. government had been negotiating with the British.  But the last set of concessions, sent from London in June of 1811, were deemed by Madison (and most everyone else) as dishonorable at best and, in the worst case, totally humiliating.  War was all but inevitable.

The mid-term elections, held in November of 1811, had seen a “War Hawk” Congress elected by the people.  But the military structure to fight a war was almost completely non-existent.  Long gone from the scene was the “strong government” influence of men like Alexander Hamilton.  As we recall, he had pushed hard for a solid military, particularly a navy.  But this was not popular with President Jefferson, nor his successor, President Madison, who feared a government with too much power.  So the military languished.  Furthermore, Hamilton’s Bank of the U.S., with its 20-year charter, had been allowed to expire, so even raising money to build a navy or hire soldiers was nearly impossible.

But the British affronts could not be overlooked.  Madison’s request for war was approved by the House just three days after it was submitted.  The Senate, on the other hand, deliberated for nearly two weeks.  Sir Augustus John Foster, a friend of the President from years past and the British Foreign Minister, fully expected the Senate to knuckle under and vote against war.  In fact, he did his part for his country by having an aide keep Virginia’s Senator Brent (who apparently had a penchant for alcohol he couldn’t hold) too drunk to vote.  But each day, Brent staggered into the chamber to vote for war.

Debate raged back and forth, and it was a near thing on numerous occasions.  On June 17, 1812, the Senate finally voted 19-13 for a declaration of war.  Though confident his country would win the war, Foster knew he’d lost his battle.  Coincidentally, the 17th fell on a Wednesday, and that afternoon Foster found himself, as was often the case, at Dolley Madison’s Drawing Rooms social.  He bowed to the President and exchanged some chit-chat, while finding Madison looking extremely pale, weighed down by the course he would now have to take.

President Madison was criticized for his desire to avoid war.  The War Hawk Congress, and many citizens that voted them into office, believed the President dragged his feet way longer than was necessary.  But such was not the case.  Madison wanted as much time as possible to prepare the country for the rigors of a war it, ultimately, barely won, and build as much consensus as possible.

Ralph Ketcham offers a wonderful summation in his biography of Madison.  He writes, “Madison’s course during the year preceding the war declaration…appears straight and consistent, if not always wise and well executed.  He thought throughout that his goal, a genuine, republican independence for the United States, found its worst menace in the commercial and maritime arrogance and power of Great Britain.  To have submitted to her unilateral decrees, her discriminatory trade regulations, or her naval outrages would have restored the colonial dependence Madison had fought for half a century.  It would, moreover, have ratified unjust principles in international law and emboldened antirepublican forces in Britain and the United States, thus threatening, in Madison’s opinion, the survival of free government anywhere in the world.

I have to continue with just a couple more sentences.  “But so corrosive was war to republican principles that only the direst emergency could condone it.  Thus Madison tried every conceivable and even some inconceivable ways of peaceful resistance, until many…thought him hopelessly irresolute…

The next day, the United States, led by a deeply saddened Madison, declared war on the British.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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It’s Thanksgiving Eve, and while it may not carry the same weight as Christmas Eve, it’s reason enough to keep things brief.

For President James Madison, 1814 had not been a particularly kind year.  The same could be said for most of the fledgling Union over which Madison served as Commander-in-Chief.  The war with Britain (the second of Madison’s life when you consider the War of Independence) was not going very well.  The nation’s capital was no longer smoking, but it was a ruin thanks to British torches.  War Secretary Armstrong had been summarily sacked by an irate Madison.

Politics was rearing its ugly head, with New England governors refusing to allow their state militias to be used for national defense.  The ballot box had not been Madison’s friend, either.  Mid-term elections had seen the Federalist Party, largely marginalized since John Adams left office, make significant gains.

Then there were the British who, in addition to the war itself, were working hard to sway the New England states to break away from the southern states (especially those pesky Virginians) and reestablish ties to the mother country.  Citizens were smuggling goods to the enemy and colluding with them.

And to add injury to all the insult, Madison was ill again.  The heat and humidity of Washington, D.C.’s summer and fall never agreed with the President.  He often spent much of that time back at home.  But this year had been different, and Madison was paying a physical price.

On November 23, 1814, the news got worse.  Vice President Elbridge Gerry had died of a lung hemorrhage while riding in his carriage to the Senate.  Gerry had been a member of the Second Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention.  And while he initially voted against the Constitution, he eventually became a strong supporter.  During his time as the governor of Massachusetts, he supported a redistricting bill that not only took on his name (gerrymandering), but also cost him re-election.  And now he was gone.

The rejuvenated Federalists smelled blood.  One of them would write, “If Mr. President Madison would resign now that Mr. Gerry is no more, a president of the Senate might be chosen, who would . . . do honor to the nation.”

Gerry’s death had transformed James Madison from the President to a Federalist target.

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Let’s pick up where we left off the other day with President Madison’s return to (what was left of) Washington, D.C.  The next day (the 28th of August if you’re following the chronology), the Commander-in-Chief got his first look at the devastation.  He described the White House as “in ashes, not an inch but its cracked and blackened walls remained.”  The Capitol was in a similar condition.  “Those beautiful pillars in that Representatives Hall were cracked and broken, the roof, that noble dome, painted and carved with such beauty and skill, lay in ashes in the cellars beneath the smouldering ruins…”

Madison spent the day encouraging the troops and the citizens, telling them to put off despair and gloom.  There was even an impromptu parade of sorts when Dolley returned to town in a borrowed carriage.

Such was not the welcome for War Secretary John Armstrong.  His handling of the city’s defense had been abyssmal.  He had insisted that the British would be targeting Baltimore, which he (correctly) felt was a far more important military target.  But the President (and others) believed that D.C. was the symbolic target the British would seek.  Even when the British came ashore just 35 miles from the capital, still Armstrong insisted that they would make for Baltimore.

For weeks, Armstrong did almost nothing to provide for the capitol’s defense.  In his biography of Madison, Ralph Ketcham writes that “The Secretary of War argued with state militia officers and attended to every detail except the defense of Washington…”

But the issues with Armstrong ran deeper.  In a year filled with bad military news, the War Secretary’s actions were worse still.  Ketcham summarizes it as the “accumulating evidence of Armstrong’s deceit, insubordination, and incompetence.”  He continues, “In May 1814, when Madison was at Montpelier, Armstrong had kept news from the President and had written inaccurate and unauthorized dispatches to insure the retirement of General Harrison, and, aat the same time, make it seem that Madison had tried to block the promotion of Andrew Jackson.”  He had usurped the President’s authority numerous times on military matters, displayed terrible communication skills, and generally poor leadership.

The citizens of Washington blamed Armstrong for its sacking and numerous officers and enlisted men refused to serve with the War Secretary any longer.  His departure was imminent, and the President made it official on August 29, 1814, when he forced John Armstrong’s retirement, essentially firing him.

Our nation’s fourth President would replace him with our nation’s eventual fifth President – James Monroe.

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Today was a beautiful day.  Bright sunshine, a few clouds, low humidity, and temps around 80.  I’m not sure I could have ordered a better day.  Meanwhile, the East Coast is battening down the hatches as Hurricane Irene has come ashore and is working its misery.  As I type, New York City is in the crosshairs.  I hope my good friend Michael (who lives in Rhode Island and founded Today’s History Lesson) and a couple other good friends in the area will be alright.

At this time in 1814, it was the nation’s capitol that was the center of attention.  It wasn’t a hurricane that was approaching, but one that had just departed.  Actually, it was a two-headed hurricane.  The first was the literal storm that blew in, chasing the attacking British back to their ships.  The second head belonged to the British themselves, who landed just in front of the storm and stuck around long enough to burn down the White House, the Capitol building (including the Library of Congress), both houses of Congress, and numerous other buildings.

The U.S. government had scattered before the British onslaught.  The night the city was sacked, President Madison and his wife planned to meet, along with others, at Wiley’s Tavern near the Great Falls.  But the President ended up at the home of Reverend John Maffitt.  Dolley, just a mile away, bedded down at the home of her friend Matilda Love.

As we know, the British stay in the capitol was short-lived, and Madison soon received word of their departure.  It was time to reclaim the capital.  Shortly after 5:00pm on August 27, 1814, the President re-entered D.C. with James Monroe and Richard Rush.  Much had changed in 3 days, and the rebuilding would take years.  There was a tremendous explosion later in the evening as Fort Washington, for some reason, was blown up by its commander.

The good news was that the President was back in Washington.  But though he would be elected to a second term, he and Dolley would not again sleep in the White House.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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James Lawrence lived only 31 years and may not have been a man of few words.  But he is best remembered for just a few words spoken at the very end of his life.

On June 1, 1813, Lawrence was Captain in the fledgling United States Navy.  In fact, he had just been promoted to Captain in March.  When the captain of the USS Chesapeake, a 38-gun frigate, took ill and requested relief, James Lawrence was selected as the replacement.  As you know, 1813 put him right in the middle of the War of 1812, so action wasn’t far away.  In fact, it was right in front of him and his crew of more than 300.  The British frigate HMS Shannon was blockading Boston Harbor (where Chesapeake was docked) and, the night before, had moved in closer.  Captain Lawrence decided to respond and immediately prepared to engage.

The two ships were fairly equal in terms of size and strength (the Shannon being slightly smaller), and Lawrence’s prior experience against British vessels led him to believe this single frigate wouldn’t be a tough opponent.  But the Shannon had a more experienced crew and was commanded by Captain Philip Broke, who drilled his soldiers to a razor’s edge, while constant gunnery practice made them, relatively speaking, high-seas sharpshooters with their cannon.

The guns were unfurled in the late afternoon and each ship managed a pair of broadsides, but the Shannon’s superior gunnery got the better of it, causing serious casualties aboard the Chesapeake.  Among them was Captain Lawrence, who was severely wounded by sniper fire from the Shannon.  As Captain Broke’s men prepared to board, Lawrence was carried below decks, and he uttered the words that would make him famous…“Don’t give up the ship.  Fight her till she sinks.”

Of course, the Chesapeake didn’t sink.  In this battle, lasting a total of 15 minutes, she was captured by her opponents and was eventually renamed the HMS Chesapeake.  Captain Lawrence would die of his wounds three days later, but his last commands of defiance would pass into legend and make Lawrence a hero.

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Fort McHenry was still standing when the sun peeked over Baltimore’s horizon on September 14, 1814.  And that was something of a surprise in light of the relatively large array of firepower that was stacked against it the night before.  As you recall, British ships of the line had set up camp just beyond a line of merchant ships that had been sunk by the Americans as a water defense in Baltimore’s harbor.  And throughout the night, they had lofted cannon balls and rockets at the fort.

But whether it was the distance, or the not-so-nice evening weather, or that British gunners were terrible at hitting static targets (or some combination of all three), Fort McHenry survived the night not only intact, but largely undamaged.  Arthur Brooke, the newly-appointed leader of the British assault team situated to the east of Baltimore (following the death of General Ross), saw McHenry in a “non-rubblized” state and realized that its capture would be impossible.  He and his men withdrew from the city and made their way back to Cochrane’s ships.

The Battle of Baltimore is most famous for Francis Scott Key and The Star-Spangled Banner, which he penned on the morning of September 14th.  But a couple of things should be noted.  First, Key’s composition was called The Defence of Fort McHenry, and the lyrics of our national anthem comprise just the first part (I don’t know the exact literary term) of the larger piece.

Second, Key was sitting in a boat to write our national anthem (in fact, The Star-Spangled Banner didn’t become our official anthem until President Hoover made it so in 1931).  Though a budding poet, he was first and foremost a lawyer, and his job was to secure the release of Dr. William Beanes (which he succeeded in doing).  Forced by the British to wait out the attacks before returning to the city, his boatside view of the night’s spectacle gave inspiration to the prose he produced.

Finally, and most important of all, the British lost the Battle of Baltimore, and a major port was saved.  Admiral Cochrane and his men would turn up again later in the year…in New Orleans.  And their struggles there with General Jackson would see the end of fighting with the British.  The Battle of Baltimore was, for the Americans, a resounding victory in the face of recent defeats, and a victory that accomplished much in the way of ending the War of 1812.

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As summer turned to autumn in 1814, things weren’t looking too good for the United States in its war with Britain.  Having begun more than two years earlier, the early flush of exchanging musket and cannon fire war with the former homeland had given way to the realization that the British were a very tough foe.

By mid-September of 1814, the nation’s capital lay in smoldering ruins, its brand-new buildings the victim of British torches.  President James Madison was wandering around Maryland and Virginia homeless, the victim of British pursuit.  And the important ports of Georgetown and Alexandria were either threatened with surrender or had already done so, the victim of British naval power.

And now it was Baltimore’s turn.  The British came up with a two-pronged attack on Fort McHenry, which protected Baltimore’s harbor.  General Robert Ross and 5,000 of his men were landed and would head towards the target from the southeast.  Admiral Alexander Cochranes’s 20 ships would pour cannon, rocket, and mortar fire into the Fort from the harbor itself.  It was assumed that, based on previous outcomes, the Fort’s occupants would panic under the constant shelling and simply abandon it.

But Ross will killed in the Battle of North Point, fought just to the east of the city on September 12th against General Sam Smith’s 12,000 American soldiers.  Ross’ attacking men halted, waiting for the British Navy to simply beat the enemy into submission.  The fight against Fort McHenry began in earnest on September 13, 1814, and for the next 24 hours the British pounded it.  On the American side, Major George Armistead and 1,000 troops were holed up in the Fort enduring the onslaught and manning the 20 cannon there.

As night fell, Admiral Cochrane off-loaded another group of soldiers from his ships.  Their orders were land west of Fort McHenry.  Cochrane’s hope was that this group would draw Smith’s men off from the east and allow that force, now under Arthur Brooke’s command, to move in.  The idea failed badly as the boats were spotted by the men behind the American cannon, and they subjected the diversionary assault to a withering fire.

But still the British cannon raged.  During the night, more than 1,500 cannon balls left the ships in anger.  The explosions gave quite a spectacle to those watching the action from their homes (if they were brave), the harbor (if they were very brave), or from the ships themselves.  One such man was a lawyer (and budding poet) named Francis Scott Key.  Key, along with two other men, had been negotiating the release of a prisoner when the battle began.  They returned to their boat, but were not allowed to return to Baltimore, and so they watched the action from the harbor.

The next morning would reveal the result of the night’s bombardment…

Recommended Reading:  James Madison

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