February 18, 2015

The close of a hot and unnatural war

News of peace spread quickly to the Niagara, the region most devastated by the War of 1812. The war reshaped the region on both sides of the Niagara River.

After the war, a new patriotism emerged in Upper Canada. John Beverly Robinson noted that the Americans waged the war “for the purpose of subjugating the Canadas,” the war “had the effect of binding them, as well as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, much more strongly to the Crown.” The war helped to reshape Upper Canadians’ sense of themselves. A visitor remarked,

The last American war forms an important era in the history of Upper Canada, and as such, it is continually referred to by the people, who, when alluding to the time at which any circumstance occurred, say that it happened before or after the war.

On the American side of the Niagara, the economy quickly rebounded. The U.S. side was described as dynamic whereas Upper Canada appeared as a sleepy rural backwater. When looking across the Niagara River to the New York side, John Howison noted: “There, bustle, improvement, and animation fill every street; here dullness, decay, and apathy discourage enterprise and repress exertion.”
Signatories to the Treaty of Ghent

To embrace the success experienced on the American side, some residents on the Canadian side of the Niagara began to enter business deals with their American counterparts. The Niagara District magistrate even began to issue the oath of allegiance to newcomers from America in order to allow them to own land in Niagara. The differences that separated the people on the Niagara during the war quickly began to dissolve as economic benefits brought people closer together again. 

For the native population in Niagara, the end of the war meant it was time to repair the bonds between the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people on both sides of the Niagara. The Grand River and Buffalo Creek chiefs met at Fort George in August 1815 but they failed to resolve their differences as each side claimed to represent the true Haudenosaunee confederacy. After the war, the Haudenosaunee were pressured by Upper Canada and New York to surrender more land and convert to Christianity. 

In the end, the War of 1812 is estimated to have claimed 35,000 lives as a direct result of the war. Only 15 percent came from battlefield deaths whereas the majority died from disease, and for the natives in particular starvation was the biggest killer. The war devastated the Niagara but the emergence of peace laid the foundation for a lasting friendship between nations. Upon hearing of the peace treaty, John Le Couteur typified many peoples reaction by writing, “I am the bearer of the blessed News of Peace at the close of a hot and unnatural war between kindred people. Thank God!”

February 11, 2015

Acclamations of joy – Ratifying the Treaty of Ghent

When news of the Treaty of Ghent reached Great Britain, the population had mixed feelings. Parliament quickly ratified the treaty, which meant good news for manufactures and merchants who were now able to continue lucrative trade with the U.S. The British public thought that the terms of peace were too soft on the Americans but there was little desire to continue the war since taxes would need to remain high.

News of the treaty slowly made its way across the Atlantic and arrived in New York City on February 11, 1815. Two days later the treaty arrived in Washington where Madison sent it to the Senate with his endorsement. The Senate unanimously approved the treaty and the next day Madison signed the treaty officially ending the War of 1812 on February 17.

Reports of the treaty arrived in Upper Canada and northern New York in late February. In Kingston on February 25, Lieutenant John Le Couteur reported, “Several American officers came over from Sackets Harbour with the news. We received them very well, gave them a dinner, and made our Band play ‘Yankee Doodle’ on drinking the President’s heath, which gave them great pleasure.”
News of the Treaty of Ghent ratification

In Washington, President Madison portrayed the war as a success by praising the treaty as “an event which is highly honorable to the nation, and terminates, with peculiar felicity, a campaign signalized by the most brilliant successes.” Of course, the Federalists were quick to point out that the stated objectives of the war were not met and conveniently forgotten by Madison and the Republicans. News of the victory at New Orleans arrived in the north around the same time as the Treaty of Ghent. The great victory at New Orleans merged with the ratification of the treaty and henceforth shaped America’s memory of the war.

With the war officially over, the process of restoring peaceful relations began. Both sides started organizing prisoner transfers but the process proved difficult. Many British prisoners refused to continue their military service after receiving better treatment in the U.S. The commissary general for prisons, John Mason, instructed federal marshals that several guards would be necessary to ensure that prisoners did not cause an uprising aboard transport ships in order to run away with the vessel.

At Dartmoor, an American prisoner recalled the news of peace,

After a momentary stupor, acclamations of joy burst forth from every mouth. It flew like wild fire through the prison; and “Peace! Peace! Peace!” echoed throughout these dreary regions. … Some screamed. holloed, dances, sung, and capered, like so many Frenchmen.    

The British were faced with a logistical nightmare in having to find 24 ships to transport the nearly 6,000 American prisoners. Many ships were unavailable for charter because of the increased demand for ships to carry goods to the American market. After a riot by American prisoners and a harsh crackdown that left seven prisoners dead, the American consul decided to find vessels to transport the men home with the British agreeing to pay half the cost.

On February 17, join the Friend of Fort George and the Niagara 1812 Legacy Council for the 200th anniversary of the Treaty of Ghent Ratification. The event takes place at St. Mark’s Anglican Church at 2 p.m. followed by a procession to the Niagara-on-the-Lake Court House. Click here for more information. 

February 04, 2015

The strongest man in the prison – King Dick

American prisoners of war were incarcerated in various prisons during the War of 1812. The British established prisons in Canada but a number of American prisoners were sent to Great Britain to await the end of the war.

American prisoners started arriving at the overcrowded Dartmoor Prison in April 1813. By many accounts, American prisoners were difficult to control and often taunted their British jailers. Taken from diverse regions in the U.S., the prisoners created a national identity by treating British guards as their common enemy. By defining the British as “a hard-hearted, cruel and barbarous race” of captors, the prisoners united as Americans.

The American prisoners insisted that the ultimate British cruelty was to treat them the same as black prisoners from the U.S. At Dartmoor Prison, British guards patrolled the outside of the prison while inmates were allowed to organize and operated the interior. This meant that the white majority imposed segregation by limiting the black 15 percent to one barrack known as Block Four.
Dartmoor Prison

Blacks were excluded from the committee government elected by whites, but Block Four relied on Richard Crafus, known as King Dick, to provide order. King Dick was born in Maryland and served on a privateer until captured in March 1814. Described as a stout man of 23 years, King Dick was six feet three inches tall and towered over everyone. One prisoner described, “He is by far the largest, and I suspect the strongest man in the prison.”

King Dick earned the allegiance of black prisoners and the respect of the whites. He wore a bearskin cap and wielded a large club patrolling the barracks to suppress disorder. King Dick imposed absolute authority in Block Four by monopolizing illicit beer sales, levied taxes on petty trade, and took a cut from all games of chance. He even sold tickets to plays complete with props and costumes for performances including Romeo and Juliet and Othello. On Sundays, he sponsored the preaching of a black Methodist. By many accounts, King Dick’s despotism ensured that Block Four ran smoothly.

February is Black History Month and there are a number of different events taking place in Niagara. At Old Fort Erie, you can watch the movies 12 Years a Slave (Feb. 20) and Amistad (Feb. 27) during the fort’s Friday Night Flicks event. Movies start at 7 p.m. and are $5 each. For more information, contact Old Fort Erie by clicking here.  

January 28, 2015

A national symbol – Uncle Sam

Since its foundation, the U.S. has been depicted by symbols but perhaps the most dominant symbol for the U.S. and its government has been Uncle Sam. It is believed that the symbol of Uncle Sam originated from the War of 1812 in Troy, New York.

During the War of 1812, Troy was an important market town and transit point for food and munitions for the U.S. Army. Troy supplied the large army camp located 15 miles south of Greenbush, New York, and the town’s location meant that it was a critical supply route for U.S. operations on Lake Ontario, Lake Erie and northern New York.

The term Uncle Sam appears to have first been mentioned in the spring of 1813 in the printing of a broadside. Six months later, on September 7, 1813, the Troy Post carried an antiwar Federalist article that spoke of the “ill-luck” of the war that “lights upon UNCLE SAM’S shoulders.” The article goes on to explain, “This cant name for our government has got almost as current as ‘John Bull’ (for the British). The letters U.S. on the government wagons, etc. are supposed to have given rise to it.”
Uncle Sam Wilson

Who was Uncle Sam? In 1830, the New York Gazette published an article that linked Uncle Sam to a Troy beef packer name Samuel Wilson who was described as a warm-hearted person. Wilson was known locally as Uncle Sam, apparently because he employed many of his relatives.

One story goes that an individual employed by Wilson asked what the initials U.S. on beef boxes stood for, while another replied jokingly that it meant Uncle Sam, meaning Samuel Wilson. Many of Wilson’s workers enlisted in the U.S. Army, allowing this story to spread. This story has been widely credited as the origin of Uncle Sam and even the U.S. Congress endorsed it on September 15, 1961, when a joint resolution was adopted stating: “Uncle Sam’ Wilson, of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s national symbol of ‘Uncle Sam.’”   

After its first appearance, Uncle Sam showed up in numerous newspapers during the War of 1812. The Federalists often used the term derisively when referring to the government as one newspaper referred to a group of half-starved and neglected war wounded as “Uncle Sam’s hard bargains.” Later on the Boston Gazette referred to army musicians as “a band of Uncle Sam’s Music.”

After the war, the term lost its negative connotation and eventually replaced Yankee Doodle and Brother Jonathan in public prints. Uncle Sam was first depicted in a cartoon in 1832, but it was not until the 1870s that Harper’s Weekly cartoonist Thomas Nast formalized Uncle Sam’s iconic image. By 1917, the image became even more popular when James Flagg added “I Want You” to the image in a recruiting poster. Today Uncle Sam is synonymous with the U.S. government and is recognized around the world. 

January 21, 2015

USS President

When the War of 1812 was declared, the U.S. had a very small naval force compared to the British. The USS President played a crucial role during the war and was even involved in raising tensions between the U.S. and the British before the War of 1812.

The Naval Act of 1794 authorized the construction of six U.S. frigates in which the USS President was the last one built in 1800. In May 1811, President was at the centre of the Little Belt Affair where the HMS Little Belt was fired on after being mistaken for the HMS Guerriere, which had impressed American sailors. This incident contributed to increased tensions between the U.S. and Great Britain that eventually led to the War of 1812. 

USS President 
During the war, President made a number of extended cruises, patrolling as far away as the English Channel and Norway. During her service, she captured an armed schooner and several merchant ships. However, by February 1814, the British forced President into New York Harbor where she remained until January 1815 under a close blockade. In December 1814, Stephen Decatur assumed command of President and began planning the ship’s escape.

On January 14, 1815, the British were forced to loosen their blockade during a snowstorm, allowing President to slip out of the harbour. Unfortunately, the ship ran aground causing damage but due to strong winds, President was unable to head back to the harbour and was forced out to sea. President attempted to escape the British fleet but was damaged by the HMS Endymion as two more British ships joined the fight. Seeing that his ship was outgunned, Decatur surrendered on January 15, 1815.

After the War of 1812, the British decided to keep President and rename it HMS President. The ship was broken up in 1818 but the British launched a replica in 1829 and kept the name HMS President as a political statement. The new President continued to serve in the Royal Navy until 1903 before being decommissioned.

If you want to know more detail about this ship and others from the War of 1812, you can read The Naval War of 1812 by Theodore Roosevelt. This book has many detailed accounts of naval battles from the war.

December 31, 2014

My thoughts are forever on thee – Rachel Jackson

In late December 1814 to early January 1815, the British unleashed a major offensive on New Orleans and the surrounding area. Ultimately the Americans under Major-General Andrew Jackson managed to defeat the larger British force and inflicted major casualties on the British. Throughout the New Orleans campaign, Jackson looked to his wife Rachel for comfort and guidance.

The daughter of the co-founder of Nashville, Tennessee, Rachel Robards married Andrew Jackson in 1794 after supposedly obtaining a divorce from her first husband. Rachel and Andrew later discovered that the divorce was not finalized, causing them to remarry. Since Andrew was often away from home perusing professional and military duties, Rachel was left in charge to raise their adopted son and run their Tennessee plantation.

Andrew Jackson regarded his wife as his mainstay and Rachel felt similar by writing:

My thoughts are forever on thee. Wherever I go, wherever I turn my thoughts, my fears and my doubts distress me. Then a little hope revives again and that keeps me alive. Were it not for that, I should sink.

During the New Orleans campaign, Andrew Jackson was near physical collapse and asked Rachel to come to him. Andrew wrote, “I was taken verry ill, the Doctor gave me a does of Jallap & calemel, which salavated me, and there was Eight days on the march that I never broke bread.” Knowing that Rachel was on her way helped to lift Andrew’s spirits but by the time Rachel arrived, the Americans had already won a resounding victory. Despite the new fame thrust upon the Jacksons, Rachel continued to be a capable and devoted wife who maintained her strong relationship with her husband and her devotion to her faith.

The Jacksons were now occupied with fancy balls and celebrations for Andrew’s successful defence of New Orleans. At a grand dinner and ball held in February 1815, one guest described Andrew Jackson as “a long, haggard man, with limbs like a skeleton, and Madame La Generale, a short, fat dumpling, bobbing opposite each other like half-drunken Indians.” Not the most flattering of descriptions, but another contemporary described Rachel as having “lustrous black eyes, dark glossy hair, full red lips, brunette complexion, though of brilliant coloring, [and] a sweet oval face rippling with smiles and dimples.”

In 1828, Rachel was by Andrew’s side during his presidential campaign. During the campaign, newspaper articles persistently referred to the circumstances of Rachel’s divorce from her first husband, causing much distress. As a result, Rachel’s health suffered and she died from a heart attack on December 23, 1828, two weeks after Andrew Jackson won the election. Rachel was buried in the garden of The Hermitage, the Tennessee plantation where she lived for many years. Andrew Jackson was heart broken and suffered from depression in the years that followed.    

December 24, 2014

Peace, Friendship, and good Understanding – The Treaty of Ghent

By late 1813, President Madison accepted a British offer to begin peace negotiations. The Americans decided on a delegation of five men, mostly prominent politicians representing key regions in the U.S. The American peace delegation consisted of some of the best while the British delegation was less talented. For the British, three commissioners were sent, with the best diplomats being sent to Vienna to negotiate an end to the Napoleonic War.

Both countries began the peace conference in early August 1814 in Ghent, Belgium with hard-line proposals. For the U.S., the Madison administration instructed their delegates to end British impressment, a proposal that was denied outright by the British. Monroe said that the act of impressment was a “degrading practice [that] must cease; our flag must protect the crew; or the United States, cannot consider themselves an independent Nation.” The American delegation was also instructed to get the British to surrender Canada, a difficult proposal since the British possessed more American territory that the U.S. possessed of Canada.

With the defeat of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, the British sent thousands of troops to Canada and the U.S., satisfying public opinion in Britain as many wanted to punish and humble the Americans as aggressors who indirectly supported Napoleon. With news of British reinforcements, Madison instructed the peace delegation to abandon the acquisition of Canada and a stop to impressment; the delegation was instructed to end the war and restore the prewar boundaries.

As the Americans reduced their demands, the British increased theirs. The British sought border adjustments to improve Canada’s defence and they sought the creation of a native buffer zone to include most of the American land between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes. British commanders pushed hard for a native buffer zone since they pledged its creation to gain native allies. 

Negotiations got off to a rough start with both sides refusing to agree to each other’s hard-line proposals. The creation of a native buffer zone proved to be very difficult as the Americans refused outright to its creation. The Americans insisted that there could be no peace until the British abandoned this proposal. One American delegate said that no treaty could restrain the swelling tide of American settlement: “It was opposing a feather to a torrent.”

During the negotiations both sides were overjoyed or saddened when receiving the latest news from North America. Upon reading that Washington was captured by the British, American delegate Henry Clay reported “I tremble, indeed, whenever I take up a late News paper. Hope alone sustains me.” Thankfully for Clay news soon reached him that Baltimore repulsed a British attack and Prevost retreated from Plattsburgh.

Eventually the British dropped their harsh demands in the treaty as negotiations broke down in Vienna. With a potential dangerous situation about to erupt in Europe, the British sought to end the war in North American as quickly as possible. The British abandoned the proposed native buffer zone for vague language that was to protect native rights. The British also abandoned their proposal for American territory and instead settled on status quo ante bellum, which restored prewar boundaries.

On December 24, 1814, the British and American delegations signed the Treaty of Ghent. Both delegations quickly sent the treaty to their respective governments for ratification. Fighting continued into the early months of 1815 and although the treaty did not solve all of the issues that started the War of 1812, it did bring about the beginning of 200 years of peace between nations.

The treaty’s first article states that both countries desire a termination to the war and wish to restore the “principles of perfect reciprocity, Peace, Friendship, and good Understanding;” a principle that continues to this day.

If you want to find out more about the Treaty of Ghent, you can read the full text of the treaty by clicking here