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Recalling Portsmouth in the War of 1812


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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