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Recalling Portsmouth in the War of 1812

1812_impressingHISTORY MATTERS

Don’t look now, but the bicentennial of the “Forgotten War” is about to kick in. On June 18, 1812, the United States Congress declared war on “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof.” President James Madison, who was lukewarm on the whole idea, was authorized to use “the whole land and naval force of the United States” against the enemy. It was a paltry threat. (Continue below)


The 30-year old republic had no standing army at the time. When Madison declared war on the greatest naval power in the world, America had 17 official ships versus 700 active in the Royal Navy.

1812_JDR-bookIf you don’t recall the War of 1812, welcome to the club. Wedged between the American Revolution and the Civil War it often gets only a few paragraphs in school history books, yet it is rich with lessons, many still unlearned. Half the nation, including most New Englanders at the time, opposed the conflict as unnecessary or unwinnable. The resulting war at sea and enemy blockades played havoc with port towns that depended on international trade. Some resourceful businessmen profited during the war while others were ruined. Portsmouth would never be the same.

The vertically-challenged Mr. Madison, according to many historians, was overly influenced by a group of young politicians from southern slave states led by Henry Clay. The British, according to one estimate, had “impressed” 10,000 sailors off American ships to serve in the Royal Navy. The British desperately needed seamen in their extended war with France and both embattled European nations routinely harassed merchant ships from the United States. “Free Trade & Sailor’s Rights” became the American call to arms. According to Clay and his War Hawks, the British were also conspiring with Native Americans to prevent the United States from expanding westward.

The War Hawks planned to teach England a lesson by annexing parts of Canada. Canadians would happily throw off the British yoke, many Americans believed. Taking Quebec, Thomas Jefferson suggested, “will be a mere matter of marching.” But Canadians fought back and the United States was repulsed a dozen times. This year Canadians are celebrating the bicentennial of “The American Invasion of 1812.”

Smarter than a 5th grader?

1812_Old_Ironsides2If you’ve ever visited the USS Constitution Museum in nearby Charlestown, Massachusetts, you know the War of 1812. In a three-year conflict marked mostly by low points for America, the defeat of the British warship HMS Guerriere by “Old Ironsides” was a rare high point. Now the oldest ship in the US Navy, the often-reconstructed Ironsides keeps that August 19, 1812 victory alive. Ironsides commander Isaac Hull then took over the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard that had only 18 employees in 1813. Then considered the worst shipyard in the Navy, Portsmouth blossomed under Hull’s command and later became the region’s driving economic engine.

If you can sing the “Star Spangled Banner” or the pop song “The Battle of New Orleans” then you remember two other high points in the Forgotten War. There is no anthem about August 24, 1814, the day British forces burned the new capital city of Washington to the ground. James Madison and his wife Dolley barely escaped destruction of the “President’s House” as the enemy marched into the undefended city. What we sing about, instead, are the bombs bursting in mid-air over Fort McHenry at nearby Baltimore. Maryland. After 26 hours of bombing, the British were unable to destroy the star-shaped fort and gave up the attack. The sight of the 42-foot flag flying on the morning of September 14, 1814 inspired Francis Scott Key’s poem that has become our national anthem.

The upbeat lyrics to the pop song “The Battle of New Orleans” makes the war look like a slam dunk victory for the Americans. It was written by Arkansas high school teacher James Morris, better known as folksinger Jimmy Driftwood. The song depicts the January 8, 1815 battle in which the militia under Col. Andrew Jackson decimated the attacking British. (“We fired our guns and the British kept a comin'/There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago/We fired once more and they began a running/ Down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.”)

The lopsided American victory at New Orleans was the stuff of military legend. British forces suffered over 2,000 casualties including at least 278 men dead, 1,186 wounded, and 484 captured or missing. The Americans listed just 13 dead, 29 wounded and 19 missing. The battle, technically, had no impact on the war because it took place after the signing of the peace treaty at Ghent. Theodore Roosevelt called it “a perfectly useless shedding of blood.” As a direct result, the populist Andrew Jackson, who favored slavery and the deadly policy of Indian removal, became president of the United States in 1829.


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