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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.


The war at home

Historian Sandra Rux has been boning up for the Portsmouth version of the bicentennial. As curator of an upcoming exhibit at the Portsmouth Historical Society, Rux has been reading books about the War of 1812 and studying 200-year old Portsmouth newspapers. Her exhibit, “The War of 1812: What it Meant to Portsmouth,” opens at the John Paul Jones House Museum on May 25. The Portsmouth Athenaeum also offers a lecture series on the war.

1812_Langley_Boardman_House“Most exciting is the tension of the period,” Rux says. “The whole decade before the war you have trade in shambles. Jefferson’s Embargo [of 1807] caused a lot of disruption. So you have people making a lot of money, and people being ruined.”

Before the war around 1800, she says, Portsmouth was in its heyday as a merchant trading center. Many of the city’s grand three-story mansions were built from 1800 to 1820. The town was expanding away from its downtown center. Langley Boardman and James Rundlett, for example, were astute businessmen and real estate mavens, whose houses still stand on Middle Street.

While Rundlett and Boardman were “winners” in the war economy, Rux says, there are many sad stories. Henry Sherburne Langdon was doing well as a merchant, but made bad investments in the war and his son, a midshipman aboard the Wasp, was killed. By 1822 Langdon was broke and all of his property was, auctioned off.

Bookbinder Benjamin Floyd’s business went “dull” during the war, so he closed his shop and joined the crew of the privateer Portsmouth, hoping to recover his losses. The brig Portsmouth was lost at sea in 1814 and never heard from again.

Captain Samuel Ham, Jr. was a prosperous merchant with his fleet of 15 vessels but his business was destroyed by the outbreak of war. In 1813 he invited friends to a lavish party at his newly built Portsmouth mansion. After the guests left, he climbed to the top floor of the home he could no longer afford and hanged himself.

Regional perspectives

“I went to a southern school,” Rux says of her childhood in Virginia. “We were big on Dolley Madison rescuing things from the White House and Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans. Oddly enough, I learned about the Hartford Convention, which no one up here seems to know anything about.”

1812_Young_Daniel-WebsterThe Hartford Convention was a meeting of New England Federalists opposed to the War of 1812 and to the domination of American presidents from Virginia. The 26 delegates met secretly to discuss ways of reducing the political power of the slave states and to hamper their ability to finance the war. There was even talk of banning new slave states in the west or having New England negotiate a separate peace treaty with England.

“They taught us that the North had the first idea to secede,” Rux says of her Virginia schooling. “That’s why they don’t teach the Hartford it Convention in New Hampshire or Connecticut.’

“In Portsmouth you really have a mix, rare in New England, of people who are Jeffersonian and people who are Federalists,” Rux says, each side with its competing newspaper. While the New Hampshire Gazette offered a reasonably pro-war coverage, she points out; the headline in the Federalist-leaning Oracle in 1812 announced the outbreak of hostilities as “War Horrid War!”

Among the Yankee protesters in 1812 was a young Federalist named Daniel Webster, then practicing law in Portsmouth. Webster read an anti-war paper in a field in Brentwood, NH. The enthusiastic crowd of nearly 2,000 heard Webster speak “under the great canopy of Heaven,” according to an historic marker that stands on the spot today. Webster’s rebellious address also included a hint of sedition. If President Madison continued to favor the economic survival of one region of the United States over another, Webster implied, then the offended states might discuss secession. The speech, considered treasonous by some, launched attorney Webster’s political career in Congress where he took on Henry Clay and his War Hawks. Webster’s anti-war position eventually softened as his fame and his waistline grew. Both Webster and Clay failed in their many later attempts to win the presidency.



Privateers of Portsmouth

Among the six original frigates in the US Navy, Sandra Rux points out, was the USS Congress, launched at Portsmouth Harbor in 1799. And with so few American warships, the federal government relied heavily on privately armed ships or “privateers” to harass British merchant ships. Writing to a military general, Jefferson described privateers as “our true and only weapon in a war against great Britain.”


As in the Revolution, Portsmouth entrepreneurs took to the sea to make up for lost income ashore. Young men, stirred by the drums of war joined unemployed sailors in the risky business of raiding enemy commerce. A few profited from the taking of British prizes, but many more languished or died under horrific conditions in British prisons.  Local privateers like the Nancy were successful prize winners and supported the war effort, but others failed.

Historian Richard E. Winslow III, who wrote an entire book on Portsmouth privateers (Wealth and Honour, 1989), notes that many local merchants considered privateering to be an “unsavory” business and disguised their financial involvement. As in other Atlantic seaports, during two wars with England, privateering here was primarily a kneejerk reaction to the collapsing economy. “Opportunistic, self-serving and skilled at improvising,” Winslow writes, “the Portsmouth privateers operated for themselves first, Portsmouth second, New Hampshire third, and their new nation last. Their actions, however, always served a dual purpose. Not only did they enrich themselves, but they also added to their country’s war effort.”

Privation and protection

1812_Privateer_Elias_Hutchins2With trade interrupted, Portsmouth citizens often went without important goods during the war years. Newspapers reported the captured enemy ships and their goods for sale in the city. Commander Isaac Hull was afraid that the local privateers would draw attention to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard where the US Congress was under repair and a new 74-gun warship was being built.

Fearing a Portsmouth invasion by the British, the detatched militia of New Hampshire periodically encamped around the city. Remember, Rux says, that the downtown was also devastated by a fire in 1813. With some citizens growing rich while others collapsed into poverty, these were tense times for Portsmouth. .

“So you have half the downtown destroyed by fire,” she says. “Then you have the fear the British are going to attack -- and then the militia comes, and there are soldiers all around.”

The true picture of the War of 1812 in Portsmouth is more complex and less upbeat than the iconic battles we remember in song. Historian Donald R. Hickey, a scholar of the War of 1812, says Americans technically lost this conflict. Based on President Madison’s declaration of war, the United States gained no territory, won no concessions, and failed to achieve any of its goals. The Canadians won, he says, because they successfully repelled the American invasion of their territory. Others argue that, by fighting the British to a draw, America demonstrated its emerging power – a victory in itself. For the British, the pesky American conflict was largely a footnote to their epic victory in the Napoleonic War.

Americans after the war felt more united, more successful, even righteous, and destined to grow their nation westward. Whatever the military outcome of the War of 1812, historians tend to agree, that the heat of the conflict “forged a nation” both domestically, and in world opinion.

Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site Robinson is the author of America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812.

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