The mention of the War of 1812 resounded in the halls of the Senate on the evening of January 6, 2021, a day that should have been one to rejoice that the nation’s voters’ word would be heard as each state electoral college vote would be read and a new president confirmed. So, what was the War of 1812? This is known as a conflict fought between Britain and the United States, each having allies taking sides.
In Europe, Britain, a naval power, and France, the land power were at war with each other with each one trying to cripple the economy of the other with blockades and confiscation of trade goods. In the meantime, the United States was trying to stay neutral having been at war quite recently with the Revolution. Britain declared orders to treat, as an enemy, any ships that tried to enter a French port without first stopping at a British port to pay a fee and get a license. America felt that Britain was attempting to control all of their commerce and that its independence was in jeopardy.
The United States retaliated with the Embargo Act forbidding trade with any foreign nation which obviously adversely affected all regions resulting in a depression all but paralyzing our economy. Smuggling along the Canadian border flourished. Impressment, which involved the right to search commercial ships for British deserters, was the most egregious of the issues between the two countries. Because of poor food, hard work and harsh discipline aboard the English ships, sailors were deserting, ending up in America. Although England did not search American Navy ships, she did claim the right to search private vessels which America deemed as an insult to their sovereignty.
Since the division of land, after the American Revolution, was not resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, Canadian and British merchants were displeased with the loss of trade routes in the Ohio River valley. The area became the home to a large indigenous population many of whom had helped the British during that war. Britain maintained that a state be created south and west of Lake Erie, to which the United States refused fearing that they would lose their future farming lands. Eyeing Canadian farm land, land-hungry farmers called for the conquest of Canada.
All of this resulted in the eruption of a small yet persuasive political faction known as the War Hawks, led by Henry Clay of Kentucky, elected to Congress in 1810. The War Hawks demanded war with Britain. In common with general New England sentiment, the entire Connecticut Congressional delegation voted against declaration of war denouncing “Mr. Madison’s War.” A quote as follows is a bit chilling, one of the scathing denunciations from the press and pulpit:
Come on then, fellow citizens, cheerfully submit to the total destruction of your commerce, cheerfully submit to war taxes, gird on your swords, fight manfully, the immortal honor of Madison & Co. is the stake you contend for.” So, in June, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain.
When James Madison issued a call for the use of militia troops against Canada, CT Governor Matthew Griswold refused to permit its militia to leave the state, stating that the declaration was unconstitutional. The governor and assembly did all they could to hamper Madison’s administration. However, 1800 officers and men were in the Regular Army which the assembly considered to be local defense with a large militia alerted for duty. The war did not affect Connecticut directly until April 1813 when a strong British fleet established a tight blockade of Long Island sound. In June of that year an American schooner, Eagle, was outfitted as a torpedo vessel with her decks looking innocently like a trader allowing itself to be captured while the crew escaped. Three hours later, it blew up killing and injuring the British sailors.
Connecticut’s trade was severely reduced as the British ships carefully watched every river although one packet,* the Juno, successfully ran from New York to New London without detection throughout the war. The risks were high as accounts of vessels being captured made the risks extremely high. Only two attacks were made in Connecticut, one up the Connecticut River where twenty small ships were destroyed in April of 1814 and the other against Stonington in August of that same year. The ship’s Captain Hardy sent a message to the townspeople saying he did not want to hurt them, giving “an hour to get out of town.”
The town possessed two 18-pound cannons and one 4 pounder but lacking more than that, the citizens still chose to resist. They burned tar barrels as a signal to the Connecticut militia who summarily repulsed the British landing attempt resulting in three days of furious bombardment from their five ships, a total it is said to have been at least 60 tons of metal! Connecticut continued to be involved in this war so much so that in 1815 a three-week convention was convened, vigorously condemning many Madison administration policies, restating New England’s grievances and recommending certain remedies, including individual state control of defense. One of the 7 proposed amendments to the Constitution was to limit the president to one term, forbidding any state to provide two successive presidents.
The war years of 1812-1815 saw New Haven sharing the experience of the decline of international shipping and the slow-down of coast shipping under the pressure of British blockades. New Haven built harbor fortifications against the fear of enemy raids but none came about. Ships were rotting in every cove while British warships maintained a relentless patrol of Long Island Sound, seizing packets as the dared to try a run from New Haven or New London to New York. On June 29, 1813, The Register reported that a man had been apprehended and committed to goal (jail) in New Haven on the charge of having supplied the enemy with provisions.
So, what about the United State’s Capitol building? How did or does it fit into the War of 1812? On August 24, 2014, as the War raged on, invading British troops, led by Major General Robert Ross, marched into Washington and set fire to the U.S. Capitol building, the President’s mansion (White House), the Treasury Building and the Department of War, leaving most buildings in ruins. The fire damaged the Senate wing, the oldest part of the building which had wooden floors and housed combustible collections of books and manuscripts of the Library of Congress located there. The heat was so intense that the chamber’s marble columns were reduced to the lime in their contents. James Madison arranged for Congress to meet temporarily in Blodgett’s Hotel when the session returned. Luckily, the members were not in attendance at the time of the burning. The business of Congress continued uninterrupted, holding future meetings in a brick building built to house them temporarily. After major reconstruction, the Capitol Building once again stood on the hill in 1819, just 202 years ago.
*a ship traveling between ports at regular intervals.