The War of 1812 began on June 18, 1812, when President James Madison signed a declaration of war which began: “Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That war be and is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories.”
The causes of the war are quite clear.
England had been brazenly “impressing” seamen from American ships and weren’t too careful to be sure that those whom they took back to England were British rather than American citizens. The pragmatic reason was that the seamen were desperately needed to man the steadily increasing number of ships needed to maintain British control of the seas during the Napoleonic Wars which raged from 1803 through early 1815.
There had been a steady defection of English sailors to American ships because the pay was better, while Napoleon had assembled a Grande Armée of 600,000 troops, poised in western France and threatening a cross-channel invasion of England. From the English point of view, something had to be done. By 1812, they had abducted over 6,000 men from U.S. merchant ships.
Just nine years before, in 1803, President Madison’s friend, mentor, and predecessor Thomas Jefferson had doubled the size of the country through the Louisiana Purchase at the rock bottom price of 15 million dollars, funds that helped Napoleon and thus angered the British. The land purchased, 828,000 square miles at a cost of 3 cents per acre lay in a swath that ran down the center of the country from the Canadian border to New Orleans. And the British weren’t happy about that because they wanted the port of New Orleans for themselves. The issue was still festering in 1812.
The United States had war aims too. Many Americans, and to some extent even President Madison believed that our “Manifest Destiny” was to encompass all of North America. Thus the early fighting began along the US – Canadian border, the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain, and the St. Lawrence River. American ships won their share of engagements, but seven forays into Canada intended to gain control of forts and land areas were all repulsed. One of these briefly held York, Ontario — now Toronto — and did some damage, but couldn’t hold it. Brigadier General Zebulon Pike was killed in that raid and is buried in Sackets Harbor.
America had been ill-prepared for such warfare, whether on land or sea. At the onset, military strength was just 7,000 men, all paid volunteers. Great Britain was not much better off because the bulk of British forces were then heavily engaged in Spain and in the Mediterranean. The total of British Regulars stationed in Canada was 6,034 men and in the Maritimes (including Bermuda), there were 3,743 British Regulars. As to naval forces, the United States started the war with 17 fighting ships arrayed against over 500 British vessels. But by early 1815 when fighting ceased, U.S. forces had risen to almost 36,000 deployed against only slightly greater number of British soldiers and sailors.
The classic work about the war’s naval battles is The Naval War of 1812 Or The History of the United States Navy during the Last War with Great Britain to Which Is Appended an Account of the Battle of New Orleans (1903), one of the 40 or so publications of Theodore Roosevelt. The prose in this book, written when the author was only 23 but already an Assemblyman, is nothing short of astonishing.
The USS Constitution’s victory over the HMS Guerriere of August 19, 1812, was a great morale booster for America. Called “Old Ironsides” because cannonballs were said to bounce off of its oak hull, the ship, noted for an unbroken string of victories, was almost scrapped in 1930. But protests from students versed in the famous poem by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. resulted in its becoming a floating museum in Boston Harbor and remains the oldest fully commissioned ship in the world.
U.S. volunteers recruited for action anywhere in New York State began their training in a “cantonment” behind what is now the East Greenbush Town Hall in Rensselaer County. It housed some 5,000 soldiers and in addition to its parade grounds, it also included a hospital, barracks, and armory. Its purchase was authorized by Major General Henry Dearborn and it served as the headquarters of the American Army of the North. It was here that Troy‘s Samuel Wilson, to whom folklore attributes the name Uncle Sam, delivered his provisions. Troy historian Arthur James Weise related this story as follows:
“During the military operations along the northern border in the war of 1812, Samuel and Ebenezer Wilson were engaged in an extensive slaughtering business, employing about one hundred men, and were slaughtering weekly more than one thousand head of cattle. During this year, he and his brother received a contract from Elbert Anderson, Jr., an army contractor, to supply the troops stationed at Greenbush with beef, ‘packed in full bound barrels of white oak.’ Samuel Wilson was also appointed at this time an Inspector of beef for the army, and was accustomed in this line of duty to mark all the barrels of meat passing his inspection with the abbreviated title U.S. of the United States.
“In the army at the cantonment at Greenbush, there were a number of soldiers who had enlisted in Troy, and to whom ‘Uncle Sam’ and his business were well known. The beef received from Troy, they always alluded to as Uncle Sam’s beef, and the other soldiers without any inquiry began to recognize the letters U.S. as the initial designation of Uncle Sam. A contractor from the northern lines strengthened this impression thereafter, when, purchasing a large quantity of beef in Troy, he advertised that he had received a supply of Uncle Sam’s beef of a superior quality. The name ‘Uncle Sam,’ a few only knowing its derivation, became in a little while the recognized familiar designation of the United States.”
The story is probably apocryphal, however. Recent research suggests that Uncle Sam was being used by a sailor in 1810, long before Wilson’s contract was awarded.
Schenectady native and freight forwarder between Utica, Schenectady and Albany Abraham Van Santvoord served as sub-contractor and keeper of stores for the government. At the time of the War he was President of the village of Utica, was later one of the first boatmen on the Erie Canal, became a pioneering Hudson River steamboat owner and then mayor of Jersey City.
Troy’s Richard P. Hart had a similar experience, supplying the Army of the North and the naval forces on Lake Champlain with provisions by a train of horses and wagons between Whitehall and Troy. He would serve as the first president of the Troy City Bank and first director of the Troy and Schenectady Railroad. He was mayor of Troy during the anti-Irish riots there in 1837.
At any rate, on September 16, 1812, about 4,000 officers and men under Dearborn moved out of the Greenbush Cantonment, ferried across the Hudson River to Albany, and marched toward Schenectady. With them was Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott, who had brought two artillery companies north to join the militia force of Stephen Van Rensselaer, in their preparations to invade Canada some 300 miles away at the Niagara River. From Schenectady they marched west over the Mohawk Turnpike (essentially, the current State Route 5) after stopping to camp in nearby Scotia.
General Dearborn had been a Revolutionary War hero for whom, much later of course, both Dearborn, Michigan and Dearborn, Missouri were named. Hundreds lined the streets in Albany and Schenectady to watch the army march past. Among the soldiers that day were Lt. John Keyes Paige, who would later serve as Schenectady County’s first District Attorney, and Capt. Mordecai Myers, who would later serve as that city’s mayor.
On September 19th, five militia companies marched through Troy toward Plattsburgh. They included the city’s own light infantry Fusileers and Invincibles, commanded by Captains Oliver Lyon and Benjamin Higbie; a company of riflemen from Watervliet; a company of cavalry from Saratoga County; at Lansingburgh they were joined by Captain King’s company of artillery. (The Trojan Greens, another militia company about which little is known, also join the war effort, as did several from Albany).
In October 1812, Van Rensselaer’s force crossed the Niagara River and attacked the British at Queenstown Heights. Winfield Scott lead the artillery bombardment and then took command at Queenstown after Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer (later Albany’s postmaster) was seriously wounded.
Troy’s Capt. John E. Wool was shot through his thighs at this battle in an attack led by Major General Isaac Brock, the leader of the British forces. Brock was killed but Wool recovered to also lead a regiment at the Battle of Plattsburgh and become one of Troy’s most famous military heroes during the Mexican War (his monument is the largest in Oakwood Cemetery).
Winfield Scott was taken prisoner by a numerically superior British column shortly thereafter, leading to the resignation of Stephen Van Rensselaer. After Scott was returned in a prisoner exchange, he became Chief of Staff to Henry Dearborn and led the attack on Fort George in May 1813. “Old Fuss and Feathers,” as he was known, became the Commanding General of the United States Army in 1841, which he led in the Mexican War. He ran a losing campaign for President as a Whig in 1852, and was still leading the Army at the outbreak of the Civil War.
During the war the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers were largely used for transporting military ordnance and supplies. On July 14, 1813 the United States Arsenal was established at a key transportation location across the Hudson River from Troy (another was established at Pittsburgh). Now known as the Watervliet Arsenal, fourteen buildings were built on a dozen acres to produce ammunition for artillery and related equipment, including gun carriages, drag ropes, ladles, wormers, sponges and shot. The now closed Watervliet Arsenal museum includes a cannon inscribed “Taken at Fort George, Upper Canada, May 27, 1813.”
After 28-year old U.S. Navy Captain Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British navy at the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, he sat down to compose a message to his commanding officer, U.S. Army General William Henry Harrison. Eschewing “Mission Accomplished,” he became famous for choosing “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Then, early in 1814, he journeyed eastward, his progress marked by a series of triumphant ovations. At Utica, Perry embarked on a Mohawk packet and sailed down the River to Schenectady where he was greeted by a patriotic committee of city burghers, one of whom welcomed him in Dutch.
Many of the war’s most important engagements took place in New York State, including the battles at Ogdensburg (1812, 1813), Sackets Harbor (1812, 1813), Black Rock (1813), Buffalo (1813), Fort Niagara (1813), Chateauguay (1813) Big Sandy Creek (1814) and Plattsburgh (1814), considered one of the most important of the war.
In addition to Western New York’s role as a staging ground for battles on both sides of the Niagara River, naval clashes took place on Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Champlain. The war even touched southern New York, where the British established a naval blockade of New York Harbor, seized cargoes from ships leaving Sag Harbor, and raided Gardiners Island and Riverhead on Long Island.
Other signature events of the War were the British burning of the White House and Capitol on August 24, 1814; the composition of our national anthem by Francis Scott Key during the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor on September 13-14, 1814, and General and future President Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans on January 8, 1815, two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium on December 24, 1814, the formal end of the War. Sailing ships needed at least two weeks to cross the Atlantic, and ponies can run only so fast.
The Treaty, not ratified until February 15, largely restored relations between the warring nations to the status quo ante bellum, with not a single acre of land changing hands. It did not specify the mandatory end of impressment, but it stopped abruptly because no longer needed. In response to a threat from the east in 1812, Napoleon had pulled his 600,000-man Grande Armée from his western front and marched them toward Moscow in the winter. Fewer than 30,000 returned, a disaster that ultimately led to Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
The official U.S. military history of the War of 1812 states: “The United States entered the war with confused objectives and divided loyalties and made peace without settling any of the issues that had induced the nation to go to war.”
Ed Reilly wrote this essay for the Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 55. Become a member of the Society online at schenectadyhistorical.org. John Warren contributed to this essay. More information about the War of 1812 can be found in Hugh Howard’s Mr. and Mrs. Madison’s War — America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence (Bloomsbury Press, NY, January, 2012). Howard is a historian and author in East Chatham, Columbia County, NY.
Illustrations, from above: USS Constitution battles HMS Guerriere by Michel Felice Corne (1752-1845); Winfield Scott during the war; a map of War of 1812’s Northern Theater; the officer’s barracks, the last remaining building at the former Greenbush Cantonment; “Death of General Brock at the Battle of Queenston Heights” by John David Kelly; and the 15-star, 15-stripe Fort McHenry flag.