New Bern, NC – This Monday two hundred years ago The War of 1812 began. Next Friday at the North Carolina Maritime Museum a symposium is being held in honor of the war, focused heavily on its strategy at sea. Stephen O'Connell has more.
Almost thirty years after the Revolutionary War many British citizens still did not accept America's identity as an independent nation. There were many reasons for the war beyond Great Britain's disregard for the U.S., including its involvement in French and British trade Embargoes. In the years before the war over nine hundred American ships were seized by British or French Forces. British war ships were drafting American sailors into armed service under the guise that they were searching for British deserters, a practice called impressment. At the time Canada was owned by Great Britain, and the United States was interested in obtaining the colony. They also wanted to push back Indian tribes, and a lingering British population that occupied the American owned North West territory. These lands are now known as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. There were many frustrations for Americans so on June 18 President James Madison declared war on Great Britain.
The United States was not prepared for fighting a war, our military was small, the embargoes that'd stifled trade with Europe had crippled America financially, and being such a young country innovations were relatively limited. According to the curator of the North Carolina maritime museum, Paul Fontonoy, America's technological ambitions in the early 1800's were only beginning to gain notice.
"The Industrial Revolution existed in one place in the world at that time, which was England. It was evolving. In some respects the United States had a reputation at least for technological innovation. Steamboats had been introduced in the United States in 1807, which was close to being the first successful."
As a result of the shortage of resources during the war of 1812 America commissioned commercial vessels to attack British trading routes, often near the islands of Bermuda, or north toward Canada. Many Americans disagreed with the use of privateers calling them pirates, and many were in fact pirates. Two French pirates who occupied land in the Bahama's became heroes of the war. Blackbeard was caught up in the war of 1812, even losing some treasure in Pennsylvania that is still lost to this day. Many privateers were legitimate merchants that signed up out of necessity. They raided British vessels, stole their material, and captured the ship. Fontonoy says many of the privateer's ships were based on designs that came from the British.
"Bermuda is generally considered to be the originating point for the very fast ships that were used initially for raiding. The hull form for the Baltimore clippers which were the American Privateers during the war of 1812 derived from a hull form that was developed in Jamaica and Bermuda in the early 18th century."
Among the noted privateers of North Carolina was Otway Burns, a man born in Swansboro who fought mainly in the British Bermuda territory. His ship was eventually captured, but he was not aboard the vessel. Burns went on to become a State Senator, and a ship builder. He built the first steamboat in North Carolina, which operated on the Cape Fear River.
By the end of the war there were five hundred registered privateers fighting for America. Fontonoy says that for the British the loss was more an annoyance, but for Americans the loss was much more devastating.
" The best estimates are that American Privateers captured between fifteen hundred and eighteen hundred British merchant ships during the course of the war of 1812, worth maybe thirty to forty million dollars. We know pretty exactly how many the British, Canadian, and Bermudian privateers captured. These privateers captured about fifteen hundred and thirty eight American Merchant Ships."
A more official military force was the Revenue Marine Cutters. They are now called the U.S. coast guard, the oldest military marine force in the United States. The cutters job was to support the Navy in the Atlantic. In North Carolina there was a large cutter base in Wilmington, and a smaller one in New Bern. Fontonoy says the cutters, like the privateers, had to abandon their normal job.
"It was run by the Treasury Department, the coast guard was part of the treasury department until the formation of the department of homeland security because initially their primary duty initially was to collect customs duties."
One way in which the British attacked U.S. trading routes, much like America's privateers, was raiding American territory. Ocracoke Inlet was as an important trading route and towns such as New Bern, Edenton, Elizabeth City, and Washington, to name a few, were port towns. In the summer of 1813 the British raided Ocracoke Island.
"The British raided Ocracoke to try to close it off to prevent American merchant ships from getting to sea. It had become very important because the British were blockading the mouth to the Chesapeake Bay, and so shippers were moving their cargos into the North Carolina sounds and trying to get out that way."
The British also invaded Washington D.C. and burned many public buildings, including the White House.
Less than four thousand British and American troops were killed in action during the War of 1812. This fact along with ambiguities surrounding the reason for the war and what the U.S. gained, contributes to an overall disregard, or ignorance of the war of 1812. Director of the History Department at East Carolina University, Gary Prokopowicz, says that memory of the war is in every American's mind in at least one way.
"Americans do remember the war of 1812 they don't always know they remember it, the star spangled banner is the best example, everyone knows that song, and if people think about it they remember that it comes from the Battle at Fort McHenry during the war referring to the flag flying above the fort there."
Although America's victory may not be very visible Prokopowicz says its outcome was important in establishing the idea of America as an independent nation.
"Certainly its outcome in terms of preserving America's Independence is probably the biggest thing. It also establishes that although America will not conquer and absorb Canada, It does establish a firm border between the two countries that will become the world's longest undefended border."
After the peace treaty was signed in 1814 the British had a hard time halting American Westward expansion. Many historians have named the Natives as being dealt the most crushing blow of the war. After the treaty Great Britain largely gave up support of the Native confederacy, and along with the death of the confederate leader, the Indians quickly broke apart and emigrated. Prokopowizc says the war of 1812 played a large part in the divide that took place in the United States in the years leading to the civil war.
"In terms of unity the war of 1812 exposes regional differences, New England actually tried to secede from the United States at one point during the war, so those differences that show up during the war of 1812 will become more and more pronounced and eventually lead to the civil war itself almost fifty years later."
A symposium will be held Friday June 29th at the North Carolina Maritime museum in Beaufort at ten am and run until five p.m. As well as the lecture is the opening of the museum's new War of 1812 Naval Exhibit. For more information go to public radio east dot o-r-g and click on the enc events tab.