Ranger Greg's War of 1812 Blog

Ranger Greg
Ranger Greg in Living History

March 2, 2011

"Little Belt, Big Trouble"

Hey there loyal readers and newcomers to this blog! Today marks a major milestone in this blog – the end of the causes of the War of 1812. I know, I know, it has been a fun ride, but the causes are over after today and then the real fun starts when I start to outline and take apart the war, busting some myths and exploring some untold stories. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Today we see the final piece in the puzzle of the War of 1812's causes. Once again, we shift from the woods of the Old Northwest to the rolling waters of the Atlantic where the US Navy will push the United States and Great Britain down the path of war. This is not the end of the troubles with Tecumseh or his allies, but their story is coming back with the war itself. Now, let's set the scene.

It is May of 1811 and the United States and Great Britain are nearly in a state of war. Suspicions are brewing in the Northwest with colonists claiming that Great Britain is inciting the Native American tribes to war with the white American settlers. Impressment meant that no American merchantman was safe from the Royal Navy snatching its best sailors by the threat of force of force itself. The memory of the Chesapeake-Leopard incident was still fresh, having happened only four years before. American merchants were still incapable of trade with Europe, for fear of their ships being seized by either Britain or France. Worse, British ships patrolled off the American coast, snatching up merchantmen and impressing sailors still within sight of American territory. It was an incident such as this, a British patrol ship operating in American waters, which led to this final incident on the road to the War of 1812.

Off the coast of the Chesapeake Bay, British warships enforced an effective blockade on American shipping out of the port, harassing and interdicting commerce and threatening the fledgling American Navy. The HMSGuerriere, a British frigate, stopped an American naval vessel, the USS Spitfire off Sandy Hook, NJ. The British proceeded to search the ship for supposed deserters and impress men into the Royal Navy, including a master apprentice, John Diggio from Maine. Unlike the Chesapeake-Leopard incident, there was no violence but this continued affront to American sovereignty was not about to go unanswered. The Secretary of the Navy ordered one of America's premier warships to sea, one of the six heavy frigates of the American fleet.

The USS President was a frigate designed by Joshua Humphreys, the same man who designed the other six frigates that would be the core of the American fleet in the War of 1812. Originally slated to be built during Washington's presidency, during a conflict with the Barbary States, the President was not completed until 1800 in New York City. Now we need to take a moment to look at the President and need a bit of background. Ships in the age of fighting sail were classified by the number of guns they could carry and their size. The President straddled two of these classes. While classified as a frigate (a ship with three masts and approximately thirty guns made for independent cruises), her size and armament made her able to stand as a ship of the line (forty to sixty guns, slow and meant to exchange broadsides with other similarly sized ships) with its forty-four gun rating. And more often than not, the President was outfitted with a heavy battery of fifty guns.

Now it's time for an esoteric discussion of naval armaments. Most naval weapons were one of three types. The first is the standard naval cannon. This gun was manufactured and classified by the weight of iron roundshot it could fire, with weights generally ranging from six to thirty-two pounds. The maximum range on these guns, at full elevation, was approximately two thousand yards, though the accuracy at that range was greatly diminished. Most engagements using cannon took place at three hundred yards or less. The second type was the long gun, a variation on the standard cannon. It would fire the same weight of shot with the same powder charge propelling it but out of a longer barrel. This would give the gun greater accuracy and long guns were often mounted at the bow and stern (front and back for you landlubbers) of the ship so it could fire while chasing or being chased.

The final type of armament used on most naval vessels was the carronade, affectionately known as the "smasher". The carronade was a much shorter gun, usually half to a quarter of the size of standard cannon and used half the powder to fire. There were tradeoffs for these advantages, most notably a reduction in range from two thousand yards to one thousand at maximum elevation. However, since most ships actions took place at close quarters, the carronade was a powerful, battle-winning weapon. Because of its low muzzle velocity as compared to standard cannon, it smashed much larger holes in the wooden sides of enemy ships. The heaviest carronade fired a shot more than twice the weight of the heaviest cannon, weighing in at a whopping sixty-eight pounds. And to add insult to injury, the carronade was capable of firing new, state-of-the-art incendiary shot, called carcass shot, which was a danger to the wooden ships of the Age of Fighting Sail.

The President was outfitted with a mixture of cannon and carronades for a total of fifty-five guns, with thirty-two 24 pound cannon, twenty-two 42 pound carronades, and an 18 pound long gun. The total weight of the broadside of the President was 846 pounds of iron that could be fired in a single, devastating volley. The Little Belt was a far smaller ship, a sloop of war, with only twenty guns and a total broadside weight of 297 pounds, meaning the President was nearly three times more powerful than its opponent. As the President sailed out of the Chesapeake, its commander Commodore John Rodgers, noticed a hostile vessel and gave chase. Throughout the chase, the ships tried to make the other identify itself but neither Rodgers, nor the British commander Arthur Bingham would be the first to answer.

Suddenly, a cannon went off and both sides, unsure of who had fired, began to trade broadsides where the President had its overwhelming advantage. After fifteen minutes, most of the Little Belt's guns were out of commission and she had suffered nine dead and twenty-three wounded, two of whom would later die of their wounds. The President only suffered a single injury. Refusing an offer of aid from the President, the Little Belt limped north to the friendly Canadian port of Halifax, Nova Scotia while the President sailed to New York City. Both sides sought to lay the blame for the first shot with their opponents but there is still no clear consensus as to who fired the first shot, but the recriminations on both sides of the Atlantic drove Britain and the United States even closer to the brink of war.

So, loyal readers, it is time to put aside the causes of the war and get to the business of fighting it, a task I plan to take up with my coming posts. So, as always, please check back again soon for the next chapter in the unfolding story of the War of 1812, America's Second War for Independence.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

February 03, 2011

"Tipppecanoe and British Intrigue Too!"

Hey all! Snow has been socking us hard here on Governors Island but here comes another blog post from this winter wonderland. I left us all on the edge of our seats (at least I like to think I did) about Tecumseh and Harrison. Fiery rhetoric, drawn swords, and then I disappeared. So, I would like to make that up to you here and now as I finish at least this chapter of the causes of the War of 1812, the war with Tecumseh and the Prophet.

By the end of 1810, tensions were on the rise between the settlers in the territory and the confederation of tribes led by Tecumseh and his brother Tensketawa, the Prophet. Four white settlers were murdered by a native raiding party and in a separate incident, a shipment of supplies meant for the white settlers was attacked and taken by members of Tecumseh's confederation of tribes. William Henry Harrison responded by summoning Tecumseh to meet him at Vincennes, Harrison's capital. There Tecumseh denied any responsibility for the attacks, assuring him that the Shawnee wanted only peace with the United States. Harrison, unable to do more, was forced to let Tecumseh leave, though he did not trust the words of peace the Shawnee leader spoke.

Tecumseh was not as peaceful as his words to Harrison at Vincennes would have had us believe. Instead, upon leaving Harrison's capital, he traveled south to recruit more allies for his confederacy. His target was the fives tribes known as the Five Civilized Tribes. Now for a bit of context for this one. The Five Civilized Tribes were the Cherokee, the Creek, the Seminole, the Chickasaw and the Choctaw nations. These tribes were known as the Civilized Tribes not because of anything intrinsic to their native civilization. Instead, they were known as the Civilized Tribes because they adopted the European customs and lived in relative peace with the Anglo-American settlers who came into their territory. Essentially, these tribes had Westernized to the point that their own cultural traditions had mostly been replaced with the culture of the American settlers, which meant that the settlers found them less foreign and were on better terms with them.

Now, if we look to my last post, we can see why Tecumseh would have thought he had to travel to speak to the Civilized Tribes. For those of you who don't really want to re-read it, the message of his brother, Tensketawa the Prophet had been one of rejecting western values, customs, dress and weapons. The Civilized Tribes, then, were the exact opposite of what the Prophet was seeking to instill in the Native American population. Most of these tribes, however, were hostile to Tecumseh and refused to join his confederation of tribes. A faction of the Creek nation, however, mostly the youngest warriors, felt drawn to Tecumseh's plan and pledged their loyalty. This faction became known as the Red Sticks, and we will meet them again in my next blog post.

As these tensions rose among the native population, Governor Harrison openly denounced Tensketawa as a fraud and a fool. This calculated insult enraged the Shawnee medicine man who threatened reprisals against the white settlers. Tecumseh ordered his brother to take no action, but his brother continued to call for the death of Harrison. Tensketawa, in order to prepare his Shawnee people for war, lifted the ban he himself had placed on Western firearms and was able to quickly procure them in large quantities from the British in Canada. This not only destroyed the credibility of his movement, taking up the very weapons he denounced, it brought the British into the picture again in the Old Northwest.

Upon hearing that the British had supplied the Prophet's men with European firearms, Harrison sprang into action. He called up the militia from the surrounding area, as well as bringing two hundred fifty regular Army troops and one hundred experienced frontier fighters as volunteers from the Kentucky territories. With the Indiana militia, Harrison commanded roughly one thousand troops, though about half his force was poorly trained militia, part time soldiers at best. He advanced into contested Native American territory, stopping to build a strong point and supply depot, known as Fort Harrison. Here he waited, was resupplied, and continued his march toward Prophetstown, the central encampment of Tensketawa and his allies.

On November 6, 1811, Harrison's army arrived outside Prophetstown and Tenskwatawa agreed to meet Harrison in a conference to be held the next day. Harrison had been given orders to disperse the tribes gathered at Prophetstown by negotiation if possible but should that prove impractical, he was given the authority to launch an all-out attack. Tenskwatawa decided to risk a preemptive strike, sending out about five hundred of his warriors against the American fortified encampment outside Prophetstown. In a dawn attack, the Native American warriors surprised the Americans but under Harrison's command, they stood their ground, relying on discipline to hold their position. Additionally, the volunteers from Kentucky, as well as some of the regular Army troops, were armed with rifles. While this does not seem like a big deal to anyone who has heard about modern warfare, in a battle like the one at Prophetstown, also known as Tippecanoe, it was a game changer.

Now let's put the power of the rifle in perspective. Most troops, Native and American alike, were armed with a flintlock musket. This weapon relied on a charge of black powder and a heavy musket ball to do damage. Firing a ball of soft lead weighing nearly an ounce, the musket was a formidable weapon, causing horrific wounds. At the risk of being graphic, instead of modern bullets which are moving so fast that they can clip and break a bone, a musket ball, if it hits a bone, shatters it into shards that act like shrapnel inside the limb. Luckily for those facing the musket, it was a smoothbore weapon.

A smoothbore means exactly what its name suggests – that the bore (inside of the weapon's barrel) is smooth (no grooves, cuts, etc). This makes firing one accurately very difficult at ranges beyond fifty yards. You see, the musket ball coming out of a smoothbore weapon is much like passing a basketball. The ball is pushed forward over a short distance with relatively low accuracy over large distances. The main weapon of the infantry of this time was the bayonet, a steel blade attached to the muzzle of their musket, which turned the musket into a spear of sorts. Good tactical sense of the day said to fire a few volleys (all the troops fire at once at another group of soldiers) and then advance with the bayonet.

Rifling is a very different animal. Inside a rifle's barrel, there is what is known as (no surprise) rifling. This means there are spiral grooves cut inside the barrel which impart a spin to the ball fired from a rifle. This changes the weapon from being like passing a basketball to passing a football. There is the good, tight spiral that NFL quarterbacks strive for, which gives their passes great accuracy even over long distances. This is the exact same principle behind rifling, spinning the projectile in a spiral so it is accurate up to two hundred yards at the time of Tippecanoe. This increased the rifleman's effective range to four times that of his musket-armed enemy, and he was able to pick off targets easily. Like I said, the rifle was a game changer.

Harrison won a tactical and strategic victory at Tippecanoe. The power of the confederation of tribes under Tecumseh and the Prophet was effectively broken and dispersed, no longer posing the same threat. However, we have not heard the last of Tecumseh who would go on with his war against the United States into the War of 1812 itself. Also, we heard today about the Red Stick Creeks and they too will have a major role to play in the coming war. Finally, the British have tipped their hand, supporting the Native Americans against the United States government, further aggravating relations between the US and Britain, edging the nations one step closer to war.

Check back again soon for the next chapter in the unfolding story of America's path to the War of 1812, America's Second War for Independence.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

December 29, 2010

"The Forgotten War – A Prelude"

Hey all! I survived the blizzard of 2010 last Sunday and am now back to writing for you guys. Today we are going to continue in my series of posts about the causes of the War of 1812. So far all of our topics have really taken place directly between the British and the fledgling United States. In this post, I am going to examine something that was a little closer to home for Americans – the threat of Indian war. During the early 1800s, America's western frontier was engulfed in nearly constant warfare between the expanding American settlers and the Native American tribes whose lands these settlers sought to take. This conflict had been a constant factor on the American frontier since the 1600s but coupled with a religious revival among the Native Americans, this conflict, known as Tecumseh's War, not only cemented American Indian policy but drove the United States closer to war with Great Britain.

In 1805, a chief of the Lenape nation (the same tribe that had used Governors Island before the Dutch settlers arrived) died under somewhat suspicious circumstances, though most likely from smallpox. His death was seen as witchcraft worked against him for his accommodation of American interests. In a backlash against this acceptance of American ways, a Shawnee leader emerged, known as Tenskwatawa or the Prophet. The Prophet called for a rejection of all Western ways, their whiskey, clothing and firearms especially. Those who did not follow the Prophet's directives were summarily executed by his followers for witchcraft. His rhetoric became so divisive that other Native American leaders forced he and his followers to relocate to a new village, known as Prophetstown in what is now Indiana.

From this base, Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh began to gather followers from the various surrounding tribes, all intent on defending Native American land against further encroachment by white settlers. Tenskwatawa's religious teachings became more widely known as they became more militant, and he attracted Native American followers from many different nations, including the Shawnee, Canadian Iroquois, Chickamauga, Fox, Miami, Mingo, Ojibway, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Lenape, Mascouten, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Wyandot. Tecumseh began to take over control of the political aspects of the coalition of tribes while his brother the Prophet was the religious leader. At this same time, a powerful leader for the United States took power as the governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory.

William Henry Harrison, in 1800, took over the Indiana Territory with an eye to expanding the territory available for white settlers to move onto, hoping to pave the way for Indiana's statehood. To this end, he began to negotiate with many of the tribes involved in Tecumseh's confederation of tribes, offering huge subsidies for the Native Americans if they would cede valuable lands around the Wabash River. Against the wishes of President Madison, he made a separate treaty with those tribes that were willing to sell out easily rather than wait for a treaty with all of the tribes in the area. This caused resentment between the tribes and led to even greater tensions between the adherents of Tecumseh and the Prophet and their American enemies. These treaties made by Harrison, known collectively as the Treaty of Fort Wayne, secured 3,000,000 acres of land for settlement and were the breaking point for Tecumseh's confederacy, who began to threaten the leaders who signed the treaty.

In August of 1810, Tecumseh and 400 armed warriors traveled down the Wabash River to meet with Harrison in Vincennes, his capital in the Indiana Territory. Tecumseh insisted that the Fort Wayne treaty was illegitimate; he asked Harrison to nullify it and warned that Americans should not attempt to settle the lands sold in the treaty. Tecumseh acknowledged to Harrison that he had threatened to kill the chiefs who signed the treaty if they carried out its terms, and that his confederation was rapidly growing. Harrison responded to Tecumseh that the Miami were the owners of the land and could sell it if they so choose. He also rejected Tecumseh's claim that all the Indians formed one nation, and each nation could have separate relations with the United States. As proof Harrison told Tecumseh that the Great Spirit would have made all the tribes to speak one language if they were to be one nation.

Tecumseh launched a fiery rebuttal, but Harrison was unable to understand his language. A Shawnee who was friendly to Harrison alerted Harrison that Tecumseh's speech was leading to trouble. Finally an army lieutenant who could speak Tecumseh's language warned Harrison that he was encouraging the warriors with him to kill Harrison. Many of the Shawnee warriors drew their weapons and Harrison pulled his sword from its scabbard to defend himself. Chief Winnemac, who was friendly to Harrison, countered Tecumseh's arguments to the warriors and instructed them that because they had come in peace, they should return in peace and fight another day. Before leaving, Tecumseh informed Harrison that unless the treaty was nullified, he would seek an alliance with the British.

Two years before the War of 1812 began between Britain and the United States, the Western frontier was about to erupt in its own bloody conflict. The British involvement, which we will talk more about next time, helped fuel anti-British sentiment in the United States and drove the nation ever closer to war.

Check back again soon for the next chapter in the unfolding story of America's path to the War of 1812, America's Second War for Independence.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

December 15, 2010

"What we've got here…"

Hey all! Sorry the gap between posts. Things have been crazy here on Governors Island as the winter season continues and I've enjoyed every minute of it. I am taking a few minutes out here to write up another post in my continuing series about the causes of the War of 1812. Every war, political motivations and patriotic fervor aside, comes down in some way to a matter of economics. As the Roman statesman and political philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero said in his collection of orations, the Phillipics, "nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam." Now for those of you who didn't find studying Latin to be a great way to spend your time (so, pretty much everyone but me), his statement is translated as "infinite money is the sinews of war." Money, economics, and trade were major issues for the fledgling United States in the years leading up to the War of 1812 and many of the steps that brought about the war were a result of economic sanctions and unofficial economic warfare. (And I promise, no more Latin quotes in this post!)

There were three major economic measures that took place on both sides of the Atlantic that drove the United States toward war with Great Britain and also helped to solidify some of the regional differences that would shape US domestic policy throughout the 19th century. The first of these were the British Orders in Council of 1807. As always, this requires a little background. A lot was happening in the world in 1807, as we saw in my last post. Britain and France are locked in a life or death struggle in Europe for mastery of the continent with Napoleon's Revolutionary French armies holding dominion over Europe's battlefields and Britain's Royal Navy ruling the seas. Napoleon, aware that the strength of the British lay in their commerce rather than their own native production, promulgated the Berlin Decree of 1806. This economic policy, known also as the "continental system," said that no nation allied to France or neutral in the conflict was allowed to trade with Great Britain. The French general hoped that this economic warfare would cripple the British ability to wage war against his ambitions on the Continent.

Great Britain would not abide by this declaration from their sworn enemy and issued a counter-proclamation – the 1807 Orders in Council. This directive from the British government said that not British, allied, or neutral ships could trade with France. Unlike the French, however, the Royal Navy had the strength to actually back up their policy with a massive show of force. The Royal Navy effectively blockaded France and its continental allies and turned back or captured all shipping from neutral parties bound for France. Some of this neutral shipping was from the United States which had chosen to remain outside this conflict under the guidance of President Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson believed that true neutrality meant that the United States should have the ability to trade with both parties in the conflict and should not have this right infringed. Unfortunately, his idealism did not mesh well with the bitter struggle in Europe wherein the participants held that if you were not with them, you were against them. Both France and Britain struck at neutral American shipping, often capturing it as a prize, leaving the merchants in the United States at a loss. Jefferson, again allowing his idealism to overwhelm any sense of realpolitik, issued an American response to the Orders in Council and Berlin Decree.

The Embargo Act of 1807 was an attempt to coerce the warring powers of Europe economically into suspending their restrictions on American trade. This pressure came in the form of a total halt to American foreign shipping, both imports and exports. No ships could enter or leave American harbors for foreign ports, hoping that this trade restriction would cause such economic hardship for Britain and France that they would repeal their trade laws. Unfortunately for the United States, the Act only served to hurt American interests. The British found other markets in the Caribbean and South America and, because of the effective British blockade already in place, there was barely any change in the status of France. The only people truly hurt economically by these regulations were American businessmen, especially in New England, the center of American commerce in the early 19th century.

After two years filled with limited success and a strained economy, Jefferson moved to repeal the Embargo Act and replace it with the Non-Intercourse Act of 1808, signed into law as Jefferson was leaving the White House (which in fact was not yet the White House, as you'll learn more about in subsequent posts). James Madison, a political ally of Jefferson's, was elected President in 1808 and continued his mentor's economic policies. The Non-Intercourse Act allowed for trade with all nations of the world aside from Britain, France and their allies, hoping that this would allow American shipping to continue and still exert economic and moral pressure on the warring nations of Europe to recognize American rights. Much like the Embargo Act, the Non-Intercourse Act was unenforceable and illicit smuggling operations were widespread among American ship owners.

The final step in this economic chain was Madison's final attempt to sway Europe with economic pressure following the failure of the Embargo and Non-Intercourse Acts. Macon's Bill Number 2, passed through Congress with Presidential backing in 1810. Trade was restored with Britain and France with a provision Madison hoped would end the economic warfare that had been damaging American shipping. If either Britain or France repealed their trade laws, the United States would reapply non-intercourse to the other nation. Napoleon, caught in the stranglehold of the British blockade, quickly promised a repeal of the Berlin Decree and Madison responded in kind, reapplying non-intercourse to Great Britain. However, Napoleon failed to keep his promise and continued to capture American shipping rather than allowing for actual commerce.

Eventually, unbeknownst to the United States, Great Britain repealed its Orders in Council in June of 1812. Unfortunately, two days previous, the United States had voted to declare war on Great Britain. As news of the American declaration of war crossed the Atlantic, news of Britain's repeal was crossing as well, reaching the United States two months later in August of 1812. At the same time, the American declaration of war was reaching Great Britain. Even upon hearing of the repeal of the Orders in Council, Madison refused to halt the preparations for war, unsure of the British reaction to the American declaration of war.

Essentially, the economics of the War of 1812 were solved before the first shots were fired but the great distances involved meant that the war continued despite British concessions to the most crucial of America's demands. To borrow another quote, this time from the classic 1967 Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, "what we've got here is a failure to communicate." (See, I promised no more Latin quotes!)

Check back again soon for the next chapter in the unfolding story of America's path to the War of 1812, America's Second War for Independence.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

November 24, 2010

"Prepare To Be Boarded"

Hey everyone, back again with more history as we march our way down the path to the War of 1812. Last week, we touched on the issue of impressments itself. Now, today, I want to talk about one of the first bloody steps down that path, stemming from the issue of impressments. A little over two hundred years ago, a massive violation of American rights and the deaths of American sailors nearly catapulted our country into war with Great Britain five years early for the War of 1812. This altercation between the navies of the United States and Great Britain was called the Chesapeake-Leopard affair between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Leopard off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia.

While blockading two French warships in the Chesapeake Bay, three sailors deserted the HMS Leopard and made for the USS Chesapeake. These men, all three American citizens and wrongfully impressed by the British Navy. According to English law, such impressments was illegal and should not have taken place from the start, but in times of war, the British often ignored that particular part of their maritime law. Moreover, in overt acts of intimidation, the British Navy would force American merchantmen and warship to submit to searches for British deserters or face an attack. Essentially, it was unwritten policy in the British Navy that any American ship could and would be stopped, with or without evidence of deserters among the American crew.

It was this policy that led to the unfortunate events of June 22, 1807. Captain Salisbury Pryce Humphreys of the Royal Navy noted that three men under his command had deserted while offshore and had gone aboard the American frigate Chesapeake. The British commander hailed the American frigate and requested that he submit to a search by the Royal Navy for the deserters. Commodore James Barron, the American officer in command of the Chesapeake refused the request, as the men were not classed as deserters but repatriated citizens.

Without warning, the HMS Leopard opened fire on the unsuspecting Chesapeake, devastating the American frigate with repeated broadsides. Now, for those of you who didn't conservatively read something in the neighborhood of forty books about the age of fighting sail before your eighteenth birthdays, a broadside is a truly terrifying thing.

Let me put this in perspective. The Duke of Wellington, commander of the combined forces against Napoleon at the Battles of Quatre Bras and Waterloo had at his disposal 50,000 infantry and 150 pieces of artillery. This is roughly 1 cannon for every three hundred and thirty three soldiers. Many of these cannons were light pieces, meant to move quickly around a battlefield. In contrast, Captain Humphreys' ship had fifty guns, all of them larger than the largest field piece under Wellington's command, and a crew of approximately three-hundred and fifty, with a ratio of one cannon to every seven sailors. So just imagine that three such ships would have had as much combined firepower as the entirety of the British army facing Napoleon in Europe. That is a pretty powerful arsenal.

Now imagine twenty-five of those guns firing at once no farther away than fifty yards, all aimed at the wooden hull of your ship, sending eighteen, twenty-four, and thirty-two pound balls of solid iron screaming through the air at you 1600 feet per second. That was the sight that awaited the sailors and marines on the Chesapeake as the Leopard opened fire. Within minutes, three American sailors were dead and eighteen were wounded. Commodore Barron had no choice but to "strike his colors" or haul down his ship's flag as a sign of surrender.

Captain Humphreys then sailed his ship closer to the heavily damaged American vessel and sent an armed party onto the Chesapeake to ferret out the deserters. Of the crew, four deserters from the Royal Navy were found and taken captive. Of these, only one was a native-born Briton; the remainder were impressed Americans. Jenkin Ratford, the British-born captive was subjected to a quick trial for desertion. Ratford was convicted and sentenced to death, a sentence which was carried out directly. He was hanged from the yardarm of the HMS Halifax, the usual punishment for desertion especially in a time of war. The three Americans who had left what was an illegal situation were summarily tried under the Articles of War and sentenced to 500 lashes apiece.

Again, it's time for a little perspective. First off, the hanging experienced by Ratford was a gruesome way to die. Unlike most executions by hanging where the goal is to snap the neck of the accused and avoid unnecessary pain and suffering, in the Royal Navy, pain and suffering were part of the bargain. The prisoner's hands and feet would be bound and the rope placed around his neck. Twelve men would haul on the other end of the rope, hoisting the prisoner up to the yardarm, slowly strangling him. And the lashes, those were terrible as well.

The night before a sailor was to be flogged, he was given rope whilst he was confined in irons. From this rope, he was to braid his own "cat-o'-nine-tails," a whip of braided rope with nine thin strands knotted at the end. When it came time for the flogging, the entire ship's crew would be summoned to witness the punishment. The prisoner would be tied upright to a grating and stripped of his shirt. Boatswains (pronounced bosuns) and their mates would administer the punishment, striking across the prisoner's bare back with the "cat." After every ten or so lashes, there would be a new flogger so the punishment would remain constant in its force. Each strike from the "cat" would lacerate the flesh of the man's back and after a while, tear the skin from the man's back. Eventually the strikes would land on the flesh underneath and cause terrible pain and damage. It was said that, after one hundred lashes, the flesh of a man's back would look "blackened and scorched" and lashes in excess of two hundred could easily cause death.

Eventually, diplomatic wrangling saved the American sailors from such a grisly fate at the hands of the Royal Navy, but the United States was, as a nation, outraged. A British ship had fired on an American ship inside American territorial waters in a time of peace with no warning over the desertion of men who were illegally forced to serve. President Thomas Jefferson said of the event: "Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation." While the British government apologized for the incident and made reparations, they did not stop the policy of impressing American sailors from American vessels, one of the major complaints leading to the United States declaring war on Great Britain in 1812.

Check back again soon for the next chapter in the unfolding story of America's path to the War of 1812, America's Second War for Independence.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

November 16, 2010

"Taking the King's Shilling"

Hey everyone, posting again from here on Governors Island. It's been an interesting week, with old staff leaving and new staff coming to join us for the winter season. You'll be hearing from one of these new rangers soon, Ranger Adam, who will have his own blog sometime next week. For now, I have been researching material for our scheduled re-opening of Castle Williams next summer season, focusing mostly on the issues happening in the period around its construction and the lead-up to the War of 1812.

Castle Williams' construction began in 1807, as is noted above its gateway, carved into the stone. In that year, what is commonly seen as an act building toward the outbreak of the War of 1812, a ship of the British Royal Navy, the HMS Leopard opened fire on the USS Chesapeake inside American territorial waters. But first, I think we need to review the issue that sparked the Chesapeake-Leopard Incident, the issue of impressment into the British Royal Navy.

In 1807, the Napoleonic Wars are raging in Europe. Napoleon had soundly defeated the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstadt and forced the Russians out of Poland within a single summer campaign. Great Britain, part of the coalition of forces arrayed against Bonaparte and his Revolutionary French empire, struggled to find a way to counter the seemingly unstoppable French onslaught. An island nation, the British relied on their fleet, the most powerful naval force on earth, a reliance that brought about the decisive victory over the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805.

Maintaining such a powerful navy was not an easy task for the British government. Sea service was often horrific, with rigorous discipline and punishment, squalid conditions, little pay, and indefinite tours of duty. To help make up the numbers necessary to crew her warships, Britain had long resorted to the practice of impressments of sailors. Impressment, dating back to the reign of Edward I of England in the thirteenth century, was the process of forcibly conscripting men into service in the Royal Navy. This practice was carried out both by individual ships and their captains and also by the Impressment Service.

Individual warship captains would often stop and search merchant man ships, looking for qualified able seamen to fill the gaps in their own crews. According to statutes, the warship had to replace any crewmembers impressed from the merchantman, which led to the Royal Navy often taking the best and most competent sailors from merchantmen bound for England and replacing them with landsmen, or sailors with no experience. This was a very unpopular practice among the merchant sailors for many reasons – the pay was worse, they were now in harm's way, and most of them had been at sea for years and wanted to return to their families rather than serve in the Navy. This process was supposed to only apply to British citizens but in times of war, such restrictions were often overlooked by captains looking to fill their crews.

On shore, the Impressment Service would employ press gangs to seek out men to crew the fleet. These men were often seamen on shore leave after a long voyage, as the "Press" as it was called, was supposed to only seek out able, experienced sailors so as to save the Navy the trouble of training them to the standards of seamanship necessary in the fleet. These men would first be offered a chance to volunteer for a bounty and, if this enticement was unsuccessful, they would often be plied with alcohol until their answer changed or the press gang lost its patience, knocked the seaman unconscious, and brought him aboard ship.

Landsmen were also prey to the Press, with many of them unwittingly "taking the King's shilling." This process, according to popular if not entirely verified legend, involved a press gang member dropping a shilling, a coin representing a day's wages, into the bottom of a tankard of ale before giving it to the unsuspecting sailor-to-be. When the tankard of ale was drunk, the coin would be visible at the bottom and the man would be another victim of the unscrupulous press gangs. This practice is one of the reasons cited for putting glass bottoms on pewter tankards used in many taverns, so that a man might see the shilling and refuse the drink. Regardless, many landsmen were pressed into the Royal Navy and served throughout the world as Britain sought to ensure its mastery of the seas.

By 1807, the British strove to keep the French navy from challenging British naval supremacy by blockading ports all over the world where the French were docked. With the United States attempting to remain neutral in this world-wide conflict, both French and British ships were permitted to dock in American harbors. While blockading two French warships in the Chesapeake Bay, three sailors deserted the HMS Leopard and made for the USS Chesapeake. These men, all three American citizens and wrongfully impressed, would set off one of the most explosive diplomatic incidents in the build-up to the War of 1812.

Check back again soon for the next chapter in the unfolding story of America's path to the War of 1812, America's Second War for Independence.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

November 4, 2010

"Changing Times Call for Old Solutions"

Hey again, all! I've been busy this week working with other rangers here at Governors Island on new material for the website about Castle Williams. Ranger Dan should have a lot of those web pages up and running soon, so you all can get a good idea of what the Castle was like in its past as the old fort approaches her 200th birthday.

In my research for this project, I've noticed that no matter how much we think we innovate, we are generally trying the same thing we tried before. Take the US Army for example. In recent years, there has been a move to remodel the US Army into a modular force, which means that each discrete operational unit, in this case the brigade, will contain nearly all the support and logistics functions needed to operate independently of a larger unit structure. Compared to the older Army model of the recent past, this is a huge innovation. However, this is definitely not the first time that the idea of discrete combined arms tactics was applied to the US Army.

In fact, less than ten years after the American Revolution, in 1791, the US Army was defeated in the field by a confederation of Native Americans led by Little Turtle, leader of the Miamis. With him were Shawnee and Lenape warriors, nearly one thousand altogether, gathered to oppose the advance of American settlers in the West. Little Turtle was opposed by a veteran combat commander from the American Revolution, General Arthur St. Clair, and one thousand troops. Ill-equipped for warfare in the wilderness, St. Clair's command was wiped out, with only forty-eight officers and men surviving unscathed. One quarter of the US Army had been wiped out in a single engagement.

This disaster caused a major shift in political thinking in the early United States. Originally fearful of a standing army, the leaders of the new government saw how poorly the militia had performed during St. Clair's campaign and reluctantly ordered the expansion of a new, professional military. Hand-picked by President George Washington, General Anthony Wayne took it upon himself to reorganize this new army into the Legion of the United States.

Now, a little clarification – there were no soldiers with swords, shields and armor running around like it was the age of Julius Caesar. Instead, the term "legion" was used to describe a different type of unit. Generally, the US Army had been organized in separate units for artillery, cavalry, and infantry. In a Legion, each sub-unit was composed of all the branches together, making it a versatile force. In the Legion of the United States, each of the Sub-Legions had regular infantry, skirmishers, artillery, and cavalry under a single unified command.

Wayne's model was highly effective and three years later reversed the defeat of St. Clair at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. As with today, we see the Army evolving and reorganizing to meet new threats in a new time. This also played out right here on Governors Island.

Fort Jay, the first fort on the Island, was built in the 1790's, during this period where there was such a heavy emphasis on the role of the militia in national defense. The first permanent defenses here were actually built by New York State, emphasizing the role of state militias, as opposed to the federal government. This continued for a few years, with the state improving the fortifications at its own expense until 1797, when it accepted Congressional funding for the program of fortification. By 1800, the State of New York had conveyed Fort Jay and Governors Island itself to the federal government as it created a national system of coastal defense.

By 1807, the government sent Lt. Colonel Jonathan Williams to the Island to expand the defenses there. Williams was the product of this new, professionalized Army, serving as the first head of Corps of Engineers, a professional force situated at West Point, NY. At West Point, Williams was also placed in command of the US Military Academy, where, with the increasing professionalization of the military, new engineers for the Corps of Engineers would be trained. So it was with great training and expertise that Williams came to New York to design and supervise the construction of new coastal defenses.

The cornerstone of the defense of New York Harbor during this period was Castle Williams, named after its designer. The Castle was the first fort of its kind in the United States and represented a huge step forward in coastal defense. Since coming to Governors Island last season, I have always loved the Castle myself; it is my favorite part of the Island. As such, I will refrain from waxing poetic about the Castle for now and content myself with enjoying the beginnings of its story and that story's place in our national story.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Our nation's military fluctuates over time, sometimes growing in a time of war and shrinking in a time of peace. Its organization varies with varying conflicts and its role in the nation is constantly evolving. Governors Island lets me see that in a dynamic way every day in the history of this post. The first step, however, came out of the disastrous defeat on this day over two hundred years ago, when the US government saw the weakness of the militia system and began to remedy that with the new, professional Army, the very same Army that created the forts here on Governors Island and began a new chapter in the Island's story.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr

October 29, 2010

"A Little Background"

Hey there everyone, my name is Greg and I am a National Park Ranger here at Governors Island National Monument. I have been with the park for the past two summer seasons and this is my first winter season, so I am looking forward to all the programming I can help create in the coming months and sharing all that with you.

Looking ahead, much of my posting will be about topics of interest that I am working on for the park and its programs. Today, I think it would be good for me to start with what I already know and at the same time explain why I am dressed up like that in my picture.

The uniform I am wearing is the uniform that would have been issued to soldiers of the 69th New York State Volunteers, later the 69th New York Regiment, during the Civil War. The 69th New York was one of many ethnic regiments raised in New York which then, as it is today, was a major center for various immigrant cultures. The 69th New York was raised from the remnants of the 69th New York Militia which served in the First Battle of Manassas in 1861.

When the 69th NYSV were organized, the regiment was predominantly Irish in extraction, drawn from the new Irish immigrant community in New York City. From 1846 through the mid-1850's, the potato crop in Ireland suffered a blight known as Phyophthora infestans. This water fungus was transported to Ireland from the Eastern United States, where a potato crop had been infected in the previous year. By the harvest of 1846, three quarters of the Irish potato crop had failed, leading to widespread starvation among the rural Irish.

Ireland at this time was an overwhelmingly agricultural nation, growing wheat and raising great quantities of beef cattle and other livestock. Despite the wide-spread famine striking over three million rural Irish, the British government did not cease calling on Ireland to export food to England. Throughout the whole famine period, Ireland was a net food exporter despite the starvation of its people.

Upon hearing the plight of the rural Irish, many nations from around the world offered assistance. Irish soldiers serving in the British army in India raised money, as well as Pope Pius IX and Queen Victoria herself. In a touching gesture, Native Americans of the Choctaw Nation, who themselves had just suffered starvation during their removal along the Trail of Tears, raised $710 for famine relief. Check out more about the Choctaw and the Trail of Tears at the Trail of Tears National Trail.

When faced with this hopeless starvation and evictions when, without crops to sell, the rural Irish farmers were unable to pay their rents, many emigrated to countries around the world. Of the approximately three million Irish suffering starvation, it is estimated that one million or more left their country, many of them bound for the United States. Of those that remained in Ireland, one million starved to death or died of disease from brought on by their malnutrition.

Many of these Irish immigrants came to the major port of New York City, where they were received at Castle Clinton which at that time was called Castle Garden. Before Ellis Island opened in 1892, Castle Clinton was the immigration station for New York's immigrant population. Here, many of these new Irish immigrants entered the country and found that the New World had as many challenges at the Old.

Coming from rural backgrounds, many Irish found themselves without the necessary skills for the new industrialized, urbanized economy that was springing up in the United States. A popular quote from an Italian immigrant later that century describes very vividly the immigrant experience in the nineteenth century in New York. The saying goes that when immigrants came over to this country, they thought the streets were paved with gold. Instead, they found out the streets were not paved with gold, they were not paved at all, and it would be the job of the new immigrants to pave them. Many Irish had to seek jobs as laborers to make ends meet, paving the streets and digging the sewers of an expanding New York City while the women were forced into jobs as maids and laundresses.

Another option that was open to the young men who came over looking for work was joining the U.S. Army. Recruiters waited outside Castle Clinton and offered bounties to these immigrants for their service. Since many of these men hoped to send money back to Ireland to help their families, they signed the recruitment papers and entered military service. Many of them would learn the skills of a soldier here on Governors Island, which during that period from 1840-1865 was used as a major recruit training and equipping depot.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, President Lincoln received a request from a captain of the New York militia, Capt. Thomas Francis Meagher, to form an ethnically Irish Brigade. Meagher, an Irish rebel who escaped penal servitude in Tasmania, hoped to counter the resentment many Americans felt against the Irish through military service and their support the Union which had given the Irish a refuge during the Famine. Many of the soldiers who served in Meagher's brigade were trained and equipped on Governors Island, as most of his troops were raised from Irish neighborhoods in New York City.

Meagher's Irish Brigade was composed of the 63rd, 69th, and 88th New York Regiments, as well as the 116th Pennsylvania and 28th Massachusetts Regiments. These Irishmen fought in the Army of the Potomac throughout the entire Civil War, suffering 60% casualties during their assault of the Sunken Road at Antietam and then suffered heavily again at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg. After the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, the 69th returned to New York, mustering men out of service and reforming as a regiment of the National Guard. These unit continues to this day, with elements currently involved in the conflict in Iraq.

Be sure and follow me on Twitter for more historical tidbits and check back on this page again soon! Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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