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.