Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 4: September 2006

Guest Editorial

By Robert Malcomson

Unturned Stones in War of 1812 Studies

And a Few Pebbles, Too.

So far as I know, the bicentennial of one of the events that helped pave the way for the American declaration of war in June 1812 has come and gone without fanfare.  I refer to the Leander Affair which took place on 25 April 1806 and which epitomized British disregard for American free trade and sailors’ rights.

HMS Leander was part of a squadron deployed to intercept merchantmen sailing toward the harbour of New York City.  Its mission was to examine the vessels and confiscate any goods of French origin and to this end the Leander hailed the American carrier Richard on 25 April.  When the vessel’s master refused to lay by, the Brits fired a shot at it which struck the Richard’s taffrail, throwing up a splinter that instantly killed a seaman named John Pierce.  Without delay, the inspection took place, revealed nothing of importance and the Americans continued on their way. 

The crew carried Pierce’s body ashore and paraded it through the quay-side streets, loudly protesting the injustice of the Leander’s actions.  The resulting public outcry led to an order to refuse the Leander squadron from anchoring in any American ports.  The event was a harbinger of bigger things to come in June 1807 when HMS Leopard humiliated the U. S. Frigate Chesapeake.

The Leander Affair is a relatively little known event and I am using it here to draw attention to aspects of the War of 1812 that have yet to be examined in depth, or are very long overdue for a look, the unturned stones of the conflict.  With the bicentennial approaching and plans being discussed for conferences, publications and television documentaries, there will likely be a need for fresh topics or new pieces to the puzzle.  I mean, how many more times does anyone want to read or hear about the battle of Put-in-Bay, the burning of the White House or Jackson at New Orleans?

During my recent projects, especially the work that produced the Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812, I have noticed some of the holes and weak treatments in the literature. What follows is a list of ten matters that want some attention.  Perhaps even a brave heart looking for a thesis topic will find something here.

1.  Norton vs. Tecumseh: Without disparaging his efforts to form a confederacy of aboriginal peoples, Tecumseh’s contribution to the War of 1812 begs for closer examination.  Just exactly what did the native forces accomplish under his leadership?  Was he all that effective or is the prominence of his name owing more to the fact that the retelling of his defeat helped get former military men elected at the same time as it propagated the belief that even the greatest of native leaders could be subdued in the war to conquer the west.  John Norton of the Grand River Six Nations worked consistently with British commanders and brought men into action through each campaign of the war.  Arguably, his contribution was greater than Tecumseh’s.

2.  Battlefield Realities: Oh, yes, we have all heard or read that British artillery batteries were forbidden to target opposing artillery, so how did Captain William Holcroft get away with silencing Winfield Scott’s Second U. S. Artillery guns across the Niagara River not once but three times during the middle stage of the battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812?  What were the rules and what were the practices; this is a question waiting for answers.  There were plenty of regulations about how things were supposed to be done, but anecdotal records reveal that necessity and personal initiative spawned adaptations and innovations.  A comprehensive examination of personal narratives and memoirs might lead to some interesting new insights about armies in the field.

3 Operations and Tactics: How did a commanding officer launch an attack?  Were there commonalities in the plans and methods of Major George Macdonell’s assault on Ogdensburg in February 1813 and Lieutenant Cecil Bisshopp’s at Black Rock the following July?  How about Major General Sir Roger Sheaffe’s defense of York versus Brigadier General John Vincent’s at Niagara in the spring of 1813?  This topic could be as wide as a scholar would want it to be, covering the approaches of an assortment of commanders, the British army versus the American army, and even comparing them to the operations and tactics practiced in Europe and elsewhere. 

4.  William Henry Harrison’s Army: Talk about trying to nail Jello to a wall!  From the time he walked on stage to pick up the ruins of William Hull’s campaign, Harrison was faced with the challenge of raising and employing an army that was constantly changing, growing, shrinking, key players coming and going.  There have been some worthwhile but minor attempts to explain the course of events from August 1812 to victory at Moraviantown in October 1813, but details are lacking, individuals are left as stick figures and the power and influence, the competence or incompetence of Harrison has never been fully fleshed out.  This could become a massive work as there is so much to tell and a rich bounty of resource material waiting to be properly plumbed.

5.  Militias: Nearly every land campaign of the war involved “citizen soldiers” one way or another, yet there is still a dearth of information about the organization and composition of the Canadian and American militias.  The topic is broad and complex with no end to organizational variations from state to state and province to province, so a scholar has his or her pick as to where to start in working up a case study.  Take the land battle of Plattsburgh in September 1814, for instance: what New York militia units were present; who came over from Vermont; who were their officers; how were the individual companies assembled and what did they look like; what impact did they have and how were their stories told afterward.  This is another one of the bottomless quarries of potential research.

6.  American Privateers: Faye Kert’s book is the best available study of British/Canadian privateers, but there is nothing written to current standards about the American side of the coin to compare with it.  And since there were so many more American privateers, and letters of marque, and they had such a bigger impact on seaboard affairs, this topic is ripe for the picking.  It could be approached piece meal and cover New England, then New York, Baltimore, Norfolk, New Orleans, the latter topic leading into the realm of outright piracy.  What about English privateers, and did French and Spanish privateers play a role in things?  There is a lot here and a vast amount of primary resources to support it.

7.  Rumours of Glory: Just before the battle of York in April 1813, Sergeant James Commins and his mates in the 8th Foot heard that French artillerymen and artificers had joined the American army and would soon face them on the field.  Rumours such as this one, and others that turned out to be true, pervaded the conflict and, in some cases, led to campaign goals being based upon incorrect information.  The effects of rumours on the waging of the war, their origins and accuracy is an area that could be singled out for further investigation.  It could even be expanded to deal with faulty intelligence gathering and outright misconceptions or false hope.  One might even pursue the thesis that President Madison’s cabinet undertook a war without a clear goal, based it on faulty assumptions about their own strength and the enemy’s weakness and continued to champion the cause with myopic rhetoric; imagine such a thing happening!!

8.  The Officer CorpsPricks and Princes.  That title would certainly grab some attention as well as aptly describing the men who led the various forces into battle.  McKee’s study of the U. S. Navy and Skelton’s book on the U. S. Army deal with the nature of the officer corps in our period, but their studies extended well beyond the 1812 war.  There are enough private letters, personal memoirs and official correspondence available to properly illuminate the characteristics of the men, their motivations, connections, concerns and complaints to breathe some life into them.  No campaign was waged without the interplay among the leaders affecting the outcome.  Knowing what that interplay was will certainly help explain why campaigns turned out as they did.  Besides, there are enough “juicy” stories waiting to be told to make even some of the least significant actions sexy.

9.  The Equipment: This is a personal request.  Will someone please produce a complete description of the weapons actually used by the Americans, British, Canadians and native warriors during the war?  It would be such a time-saver to open a single reference book and find, for instance, a standardized system for identifying every model of musket, the dimensions and description of their component parts, the size and weight and nature of each ball and cartridge, their production and distribution.  The same should be done for artillery and the various edged weapons, with the emphasis being on presentation of the data in a manner that allows for easy comparison.  There are numerous sources, old and new, that cover such matters, but they all have different approaches and too often the elusive detail needed to compare one weapon to another is missing.  Plus, I suspect that one or two of our understandings of who used what and how big it was might be altered.  Again, this is a massive undertaking, so how about just dealing with muskets for starters?  I wonder how many Canadian militiamen were outfitted with the “French” muskets Brock complained about and who among the New York Militia drilled with Short Land Pattern arms and where did Governor Daniel Tompkins get them in the first place?

10.  The Naval War: As it stands, the most comprehensive treatments of the naval war on ocean and lake remain those by James (1817 and the 1820s), Roosevelt (1882) and Mahan (1905).  Mention is often made about the work of Frederick Drake, but he did not complete his separate (and somewhat overlapping) manuscripts on the topic before his death.  The two mammoth manuscripts were returned to his widow by the publishers and, in this writer’s view, require a considerable amount of work to make them suitable for publication.  A full scale description and analysis of the topic, written to the modern standards that blend authoritative referencing and story telling, is wanting.  The topic is too large to fit between a pair of covers, however, and will probably need to be broken down into subtopics if any acceptable degree of detail and (above all) balance is to be achieved.  A portion of the privateering matter is mentioned above, and other studies could examine the contests between the opposing frigates from the Constitution and Guerriére (August 1812) to the Cyane and Levant versus the Constitution (February 1815), and the “smaller” actions and pursuits, involving the likes of the Essex and Alert (August 1812) and the Peacock and Nautilus (June 1815).  A broader look might examine the changes in naval policy on both sides of the water and how they affected not just the deployment of warships but also the classes of warships constructed.  And, of course, there is a need for a thorough examination of the war on the northern lakes and its place in the larger conflict.  There are probably enough unturned stones in this one large topic alone to keep historians busily employed until the tricentennial of the war.

Sundry Pebbles

Here are some lesser topics:

1.  Horses: Prevost had a horse named “Pigeon” and Sheaffe had “old Jack,” so, putting the Brock-“Alfred” myth aside where it belongs, what were the names of the other commanders’ horses and what sort of steeds were they?

2.  Uniform Variations: Nothing like a contradiction in terms to get a writer’s attention.  The American veterans of the battle of York began carrying their swords without scabbards as a symbol of having been bloodied in battle.  What other fashion trends did the war provoke?

3.  The Trail to DC: Was there a trail of burnings that led directly from York to DC?  Someone needs to document all the burnings, what was said about them and where the links are.

4. Social Assistance: The Loyal and Patriotic Society was formed in Upper Canada to support those who suffered because of the war and performed some good and immediate service.  What other similar organizations were formed and what did they actually do?

5.  Weather or Not: The same gale that almost sank the U. S. Brig Niagara on Lake Erie in September 1814 nearly did the same to the U. S. Brigs Jefferson and Jones on Lake Ontario.  Where else did severe weather impact on the campaigns and what can modern meteorologists tell us about the weather systems from the available information?


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