The History of New York State
Book XI, Chapter III
Part I

Editor, Dr. James Sullivan

Online Edition by Holice, Deb & Pam



WAR OF 1812.

Many contributing causes have been cited as combining to bring about the second war between the United States and Great Britain, but the ranking sense of resentment felt by the British over the outcome of the Revolutionary War may well be regarded as preliminary to them all. The decade or more that led up to it constituted a period as disturbing as any in European or American history. Out of the welter of the French Revolution an extraordinary genius had arisen whose powerful will and restless activity, after placing him in a position of peculiar absolutism at the head of the French government, produced effects in every corner of the civilized world and excited, in a continually heightening degree, apprehension in every European chancellery. The general disquietude showed itself in a feverish military preparation in the nations menaced and a period of high-handed measures set in by which statesmen in Great Britain and other countries endeavored to anticipate and forestall the audacities of the human portent in France, then rising to the height of his unprecedented career of conquest. The sense of security that came from her insular position and the predominance of her fleet prompted England to an abuse of her powers on the sea as unrestrained as the despotism of Napoleon on land. America was at the time a thinly populated country, that might be affronted with a good deal of impunity. As the only neutral nation in the world of belligerents, the Untied States moreover found the carrying trade diverted to her young marine, which was becoming second only to the merchant marine of Great Britain. A series of outrages on the part of Great Britain was the result. There was constant impressment of sailors from on board American ships by British commanders. There were direct attacks by British frigates on American coasting and trans-oceanic vessels. There were the innumerable kinds of encounters that occur between Nations that dislike each other, where one is well-equipped and presumptuous, and the other is less confident of her powers but is high-spirited. Under these circumstances the query might well be not as to why there should have been a war of 1812 but as to why it was delayed so long.

Indeed, as has been authoritatively pointed out, there was hardly a time between the peace of 1783 and the year 1812 when war between the two countries did not to the statesmen of both appear within the range of immediate possibilities. From the American point of view hardly a year passed during that interval when sufficient provocation was not given that would have justified a declaration of war. The British had an intimate knowledge of the weaknesses of the American position. In the negotiations for peace following the Revolutionary War their representatives had opportunities of noting the sectional jealousies of the American commissioners. They saw that the concord that had been organized during the war might very well be disrupted in time of peace, and that a severance might be effected dividing a too potent nation into an eastern and a western empire, whose mutually destructive rivalries would result to the general advantage of Great Britain. They saw moreover, as things stood, that the United States had neither an army nor a navy properly so-called, that the military offensive spirit was lacking no matter what might be the disposition towards defense, and that the finances of the country were in a very bad way.

As another element in the direction of the trend towards war there was also in this country a natural and deep-seated antipathy to England. The two treaties that had been drafted resulted only in widening the chasm and intensifying the anti-English spirit. Both instruments were regarded by the great mass of the American people as in the nature of surrenders on the part of the Untied States to a more wily and experienced English diplomacy. The Jay Treaty had been received with violent demonstrations of disapproval, and in Philadelphia the American representative was burnt in effigy, the general feeling being expressed by means of a pair of scales suspended form the effigy, labelled on the one side "American Independence and Liberty," and on the other, "British Gold." In New York and Albany and other communities within the State the treaty and its sponsors were likewise vehemently denounced, though the New York Chamber of Commerce adopted resolutions approving it. the Erskine Treaty, which followed the Jay Treaty, had been drafted by England's accredited agent, and was simply a dead letter, for the British never made the slightest pretense of putting it into effect.

Counterpoising the general bitterness felt towards England there was in this country a very prevalent sympathy with France,. But when in 1803 hostilities were renewed between France and England, there was very little to choose between the two countries from the point of view of fidelity to treaties made with this country. Both countries were continuously guilty of depredations on American commerce and aggressions on American prerogatives. British cruisers and privateers played the part of highwaymen on the high seas and waylaid merchant vessels of the untied States wherever opportunity presented itself; and members of crew on American ships were removed by violence and impressed into the English service. Complaint had been made to the English government as far back as 1792 on these two heads. The United States in that early representation called attention to the irritation that had been excited in this country, and an explanation was called for. In the diplomatic correspondence which followed and which covered a period of five yeas, England was informed "that the impressment of American seamen was an injury of very serious magnitude, which deeply affected the feelings and honor of the nation; yet that they were impressed; they were dragged on board British ships of war with the evidence of citizenship in their hands and forced by violence there to serve until conclusive testimonials of their birth could be obtained."

Meanwhile remonstrances from the Unties States had been met on the part of the English by the diplomatic policy of negotiation and delay. The seizure of American ships, the rifling of American commerce and the impressment of American seamen continued with unrestricted violation of mercantile and international law. Alexander J. Dallas, Secretary of the Treasury, in his exposition of the causes of the war, thus expressed the case:

The English claim, expanding with singular elasticity, was soon found to include the right to enter American vessels on the high seas in order to search for and seize all British seamen; it next embraced the case of every British subject; and finally in its practical enforcement, it has extended to every mariner who could not prove upon the spot that he was a citizen of the United States. While the nature of the British claim was thus ambiguous and fluctuating, the principle to which it was referred, for justification and support, appeared to be at once arbitrary and illusory. It was not recorded in any positive code of the law of nations; it was not displayed in the elementary woks of the civilian; nor had it ever been exemplified in the maritime usages of any other country in any other age. In truth it was the offspring of the municipal law of Great Britain alone; equally operative in time of peace and in time of war; and, under all circumstances, inflicting a coercive jurisdiction upon the commerce and navigation of the world.

British Orders in Council--France began her depredations on American commerce in 1799 and 1800. England continued her aggressions with occasional intermissions. Jefferson, in his massage of 1804, gave expression to hopes of more amicable relations, for he had no desire for war; but in his message of December, 1805, he sent a further message, accompanied by "the memorials of several bodies of merchants in the United States." In accordance with his desire. Congress passed a non-importation act, to apply to certain articles of British manufacture, whether imported directly from Great Britain or from other places. On April 25, 1806, less than a month from the passage of the act, a bolder and more direct outrage was committed in New York waters. The British frigate, "Leander," commanded by Captain Whitby, cruising of the mouth of the harbor near Sandy Hook, fired into the American sloop, "Richard," a costing vessel, and killed one of her crew. The body was brought up to the city of New York and buried at public expense. The citizens, excited at this gratuitous insult, demand reparation. The "Leander" was order from New York waters, and her captain threatened with arrest should he presume to land on our shores. So also was the British sloop of war "Driver." But so lightly was Jefferson's proclamation regarded that the latter vessel, which carried but eighteen guns, returned the next year to Charleston Harbor, defied the civil authorities, and denounced the President in an insolent letter, in which the captain demanded water, which was ignominiously supplied. Captain Whitby was called home to England, tried by court martial, and acquitted with even a reprimand.

On May 17, 1806, the British ministry issued the first of the obnoxious orders in council, objection to which prompted the Untied States' declaration of war. These orders in Council declared the French coast to be in a state of blockade. American vessels were admitted to carry cargoes to certain ports only, these cargoes to be only the growth of the United States or British manufacture, the vessels being also required to touch at British ports. Napoleon, in retaliation, issued, on November 28, in the same year, from the conquered capital of Prussia, the famous "Berlin Decree," which declared the British Isles in the state of blockade, and for bade all trade between then and American or continental ports. Both of these documents were to all intents "paper blockades," and by all just conceptions of international law inoperative as far as neutrals were concerned. They interfered with but did not entirely check English ports, though the ocean voyage through the British squadrons was hazardous. As time went on American trade came to be largely confined to its own coasting business. Nor, was this, as has been stated, unrestrained. The United States bill for damages increased rapidly, but the day of demand was postponed to a more convenient season. The United States hesitating to resist Napoleon's Berlin Decree, a further and more restrictive order in council was issued by Great Britain, January 7, 1807, forbidding trade between any two of the French ports, or ports of allied with France, which struck directly at the American carrying trade. On November 10, 1807, a further order in council was issued, the avowed purpose of which was to compel all nations to give up their maritime trade, a or accept it through British, or through vessels under British license.

A little prior to this last order an incident occurred which aroused a strong war spirit throughout the United States. On June 22, 1807, the English man-of-war, "Leopard," overhauling American frigate "Chesapeake," Captain James Barron commanding, while cruising of Hampton Roads. An officer of the "Leopard," was received on board the "Chesapeake," who delivered an order form Vice-Admiral Berkeley, on the Halifax station, to "search for deserters." Captain Barron declining to allow such a procedure, the "Leopard" opened upon the "Chesapeake" an entire broadside, killing three and wounding eighteen men. Captain Barron, being unprepared, was only able to fire a single gun in reply. The captain of the "Leopard" refused to accept a surrender of the "Chesapeake," but sent on board an officer, who had the crew mustered and took away four men whom he claimed as deserters. Three of these men were native-born American citizens, while the fourth had run away from a sloop of war and forthwith hanged at Halifax. The incident strengthened the hands of the party in favor of war, prominent in which was Henry Clay, and made many feel that war night be a little delayed but was inevitable. Captain Barron, in an immediate sequel, was tried by court martial, convicted of neglect of duty in not having his ship prepared fro action, and deprived of rank and pay for five years.

The British followed up the January order in council by the bombardment and destruction of Copenhagen and the seizure of the Danish fleet on July 26, without even the formality of a declaration of war. This lawless act aroused the indignation of Russia and perhaps more than nay other event engaged the sympathy of the lesser powers for the Untied States as the only nation which promised relief in subsequent years from the maritime despotism of Great Britain.

The Embargo Act--A demand for reparation in the matter of the "Chesapeake" outrage only resulted in dilatory negotiation, and towards the end of 1807 the Senate and the House, on the advise of President Jefferson, passed an embargo act, forbidding the export of American products in either American or foreign bottoms. The act proved a two-edged sword, had the sharper edge bore heavily upon American interests It is nor clear if it had any real effect in England. On the other hand it almost annihilated American commerce and it set adrift the large number of able seamen needed for American protection. It raised the cost of living by cutting off the supply of fish which entered largely into the food consumption of our seaboard population. American ships already abroad remained there to escape the embargo. Some entered into a contraband trade with France, carrying over British goods under false papers, with the result that Napoleon, in 1808, issued the Bayonne decree authorizing the seizure and confiscation of all American vessels. This was a step in advance of the Milan decree of December 17, 1807, which had forbidden trading with Great Britain by any nation, and declared all vessels thus engaged and all submitting to search by a British man-of-war to be lawful prizes.

There was a considerable division of opinion regarding the advisability of the embargo act, with the New England States violently opposed to it, and with the middle States, such as New York, taking a middle stand. But as the injury the act wrought became apparent it began universally to be recognized as a blinder almost as bar as war itself. From one hundred and eighty millions dollar value in 1807, the exports of the United States fell to twenty-two millions in 1808. The exports of New York fell to less than six millions. Three months of the embargo brought numbers of merchants and domestic traders to bankruptcy and more than 500 vessels lay idle at the docks of New York alone. Of the three men who ruled the Republican party and controlled the Legislature of the United States at that period, President Jefferson, James Madison, and Albert Gallatin, the last then secretary of the treasury, alone from the beginning opposed a permanent embargo. Jefferson, strongly averse to war, justified the act as tending to save our ships and seamen from capture by keeping them at home. Gallatin considered a permanent embargo to be a useless interference with the rights of individuals, and at best a poor response to that "war in disguise," as he termed it, which Great Britain was unremittingly waging. Gallatin was the first to decide fro war as the only remedy fro American grievances.

The policy favored by Madison to exclude British and French ships from American ports and to prohibit all importation except in American bottoms, was not acceptable to Congress, and in the spring of 1810 an act was passed excluding only the men-of-war of both nations but power was given to the President to reestablish it against either nation which maintained while the other withdrew its obnoxious decrees. Almost simultaneously Napoleon ordered the confiscation of all American ships either detained in France or in the southern ports of the Atlantic and Mediterranean under his control, which entailed a loss to American merchants in ships and cargoes estimated at forty million dollars. In December, 1810, the American ship "General Eaton," of Portsmouth, Hew Hampshire, from London and the Downs for South Carolina, was taken by two French privateers and carried into Calais. Diplomacy grew much confused in the passage and repeal of the decrees and counter-decrees abroad, and non-importation and non-intercourse acts at home, until the conviction grew that war alone would suffice to cut the Gordian knot. The non-intercourse act with England, passed by congress in the spring of 1811, was the last act of the diplomatic skirmish, and pointed directly to war.

The vents that immediately followed appeared to make war inevitable, and all the precaution of keeping American vessels at home and pursuing a purely passive and non-aggressive policy, did not avail in checking the trend towards an open break. The country had in active service twelve vessels. Following the reduction of the naval force in 1801 no new ship had been added to the navy, the ships of the line authorized in 1799 having been abandoned. The English increased their forces of cruisers on the American coast, but kept it at a respectful distance from the land, no longer impressing men or detaining ships. The British purpose was to intercept American commerce by a constant patrol of the seas from Halifax to the Bermudas, the lines of travel of every trader crossing the Atlantic.

Then came another collision between an American and an English man-of-war which greatly roused the fighting temper of the country. IN the spring of 1811, Commodore John Rodgers, senior officer of the navy afloat, whose pennant was then flying from the "President," which carried forty-four guns, Captain Charles Ludlow, and lay at anchor in Annapolis Bay, was informed that a man had been impressed from an American brig close to New York and Sandy Hook by an English frigate supposed to be the "Guerriere," carrying thirty-eight guns, Captain James R. Dacres. The commodore went at once on board his own vessel and passed the capes soon after May 1, to inquire into this now unusual procedure. On the 10th a man-of-war was sighted about six leagues from land, to the southward of New York., As the ships neared each other shots were exchanged. A broadside followed from the stranger, which did little damage, and this was answered by a broadside from the "President," with fatal results. Satisfied with disabling his enemy, Commodore Rodgers did not push his conquest. The next morning the vessel was found to be the British ship "Little Belt," of eight guns. There was, as usual when the British were the sufferers, a dispute as to the aggressor in firing the first shot. A formal court of inquiry justified Commodore Rodgers in his course.

General Demand for War--Towards the end of 1811 the demand for war with England became general. In congress it was voiced with vehemence by Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, and in New York by Daniel D. Tompkins, Governor of the State, and De Witt Clinton, mayor of the city. to the more ardent spirits nothing less then the conquest of Canada would suffice and this they supposed they could achieve with their own militia. The delay of the British in the surrender of the western ports, and their constant intrigues with the Indian tribes on the frontier, wee a natural source of irritation. Their military confidence had been heightened by the signal defeat of the Wabash tribe at Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811, by General William Henry Harrison, with a party of regular and Kentucky militia. Thought the seaboard communities, particularly those in New England, dreaded an open war with a power so potent on the seas as England, the whole interior population was eager for a struggle which they believed would result in extending the rule of the United States over the whole of North America. The conflict of opinion and interest between the western and southern and the New England States, which came to the surface in Congress as preparations were made for war, gradually widened until in time it threatened a secession which would have linked New England with Canada.

On November 5, 1811, President Madison announced his reasons for calling Congress together in a message preliminary to a declaration of war. In the debate on the military bill which ensued on the message William B. Giles, Senator from Virginia, declared that New York and New Orleans would be the points attacked by Great Britain, and called on the Senate to defend New York with all the judgment and skill at their command, fill the fortifications with the full complement of troops amply provided, call on the local militia, and yet declared his belief that the British would get possession of the city. On December 3 the committee on foreign relations reporting to the House of Representative that here were but three alternatives left to the Untied States by the belligerents--namely, "embargo, submission or war"--it was resolved, by a vote of 128 to 62, "that the United States cannot, without the sacrifice of their right, honor and independence, submit to the late Edicts of Great Britain and France." On the 2d, the Senate resolved "to interdict France and their dependencies," which carried letters of marque and reprisal. The affirmative vote, in which the Senators from New York joined, was 21 to 12. The same bill was passed in the House by a vote of 74 to 33. On April 1 President Madison sent to Congress a brief message recommending the immediate passage of an act to impose "a general embargo on all vessels now in port or hereafter for the period of sixty days," and this was understood as a preparation for war. North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland passed resolutions approving of the measures of the government. There was a different feeling in New York, presented a petition of the most important merchants of the city, praying fro a "continuation of the embargo and non-importation acts as a substitute for war with Great Britain."

The New York Attitude to War--The memorial, the signatories of which began with the names of John Jacob Astor and Samuel Adams, ran in part as follows:

The memorial of the subscribing Merchants and other inhabitants of the City of New York respectfully showeth.

That your memorialists feel in common with the rest of their fellow-citizens an anxious solicitude for the honor and interest of their country and an equal determination to assert and maintain them.

That your memorialists believe that a continuance of restrictive measures now in operation will produce all the benefits while it prevents the calamities of war.

That when the British ministry become convinced that a trade with the United States cannot be renewed, but by the repeal of the Orders of the Council, the distress of their merchants ands manufacturers, &., their inability to support their armies in Spain and Portugal, will probably compel them to that measure. Your memorialists beg leave to remark that such effects are even now visible, and it may be reasonably hoped that a continuance of the embargo and non-importation laws as few months beyond the fourth day of July next will effect a compete and bloodless triumph of our rights.

Your memorialists, therefore, respectfully solicit of your honorable body the passage of a law continuing the embargo and giving to the President of the United State power to discontinue the whole of the restrictive system on the rescinding of the British Orders of Council.

The conduct of France in burning our ships, in sequestering our property, entering her ports, expecting protection in consequence of the promised repeal of the Berlin and Milan decrees, and the delay in completing a treaty with the American minister, has excited great sensation and we hope and trust that call forth from your honorable body such retaliatory measures as may be best calculated to procure justice.

Meanwhile, Rhode Island, more outspoken than the other States in the northeast, instructed her Senators "to oppose all measures which may be brought foreword to involve the country in war."

New York, as had been indicated, was divided in sentiment, and the divisions were o longer growth then the discussions concerning the imminence of this second war. It was only the combined influence of Jay, Hamilton, and Washington, which led New York to adopt the constitution. The landed proprietors were almost to a man Federalists. In Governor George Clinton they had encountered a doughty antagonist, signally devoted to the interests of New York as a State. The autonomy of the State he has failed to secure in the popular desire for an undivided nation; its independence he held fast to. He had little love for New England for, among other things, her encroachment on what was claimed as New York territory in the New Hampshire grants. To him has to be attributed the defeat of the English plant to separate New England from the rest of the Union by the establishment of a line of military posts along the Hudson and the waters of Lakes George and Champlain. Following the sudden death of Governor Clinton on the eve of the wart of 1812 the legacy of his influence passed to this nephew, De Witt Clinton, who was at the time mayor of the city. Both he and James Monroe, secretary of State at the time, were eager for war, both were eager for the Presidential succession, and it has been said that their rivalry forced Madison's hand in the declaration of war. In the interim between April 1, when he transmitted his message recommending an embargo, and June 1, when he sent in the message for war, Madison received his second nomination from the Congressional caucus of the Republican Party. Madison's message of June 1 was directed not merely against Great Britain but against the New England Federalists, who had been dickering with the enemy. Among the causes for an appeal to arms he included the charge of "a cooperation between the Eastern Tenth and the British Cabinet." He intimated that an agent had been sent by the British government to Massachusetts to intrigue "with the dissatisfied for the purpose of bringing about resistance to the laws and eventually, in concert with a British force, of destroying the Union and adding the Eastern States to her Canada provinces." The Federal party had complete control in the five States of New England. New York showed a tendency to drift in the same direction. Under the stimulus of Clay's oratory, the war measures were hurried through Congress, and on June 19 Madison issued a formal proclamation of war against Great Britain.

Preparation for War in New York--the news of the declaration of war reached New York on the morning of June 20. A private letter of the 17th brought news that the question had been decided in the Senate of the United States by a vote of 19 to 12. The next day an express arrived with official notice to General Joseph Bloomfield, commander of the troops and defenses in and hear the harbor of New York, whose headquarters were at the Battery. At nine-thirty this officer issued his general orders, with the announcements to the troops. Messengers passed through the city for the northern frontier and the east; General Bloomfield, General Ebenezer Stevens, Colonel Jonathan Williams, Colonel Peter P. Schuyler, and other military officers went on board the "President," Commodore Rodgers' flag-ship.

On the same day the "Columbian," edited by Charles Holt, answered charges made against New York for lack of energy in preparing for war; "The State of New York, we venture to declare, has expended more money on fortifications, cannon, arms, ammunition, and military stores than all other States in the Union in their individual capacities since the adoption of the federal constitution; and can furnish more of the implements of war of her own property at an hour's notice than all the other States together." The frigate "Congress," and the "United States," from Hampton Roads, and the United States brig "Argus," from the Delaware, under orders from the government, arrived on the preceding day. The British frigate, "Belvidera" and sloop of war "Tartarus," which were cruising on the fishing Banks, stood off on their appearance. It was learned at the same time that the Legislature of New York had adjourned on the very day of the President's proclamation. Mayor De Witt Clinton requested Governor Tompkins to appoint him a major-general, but for some reason the governor did not see his way clear to do so.

AS Mayor Clinton realized the exposed position of New York, he drew up and presented to the Corporation a report on the means necessary to fortify the city, and he pointed out that while England was ready to ship the army of Spain and Portugal to our coasts, only 1,600 men had been left for the defense of New York. No other mode of attack was anticipated by the government than for ships attempting to pass through the Narrows. The State provided for fortifying the pass at Hell Gate, but no preparation of any description had been made in case an army invasion were to be landed on Long Island or from Long Island Sound in Westchester County. He suggested that fortified camps be established at Brooklyn and Harlem, and that a sufficient body of militia should be called out to garrison them. To accomplish this object he appended to the report eight resolutions. by the first a committee of the Common council was directed to solicit the attention of the President of the Untied States; by the second the governor of the State was requested, under the authority of the militia law, to occupy the proposed camps, and authorized to raise a loan of $300,000 necessary to carry on the provisions of the acts. The other resolutions had reference to the munitions of war, and to the manner in which the money should be raised.


The History of New York State, Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1927

This book is owned by Pam Rietsch and is a part of the Mardos Memorial Library

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

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