Monday, July 25, 2011

Why We Fought the British in 1812: Sailors' Rights

On June 22, 1807, the United States almost went to war with Britain, five years before the actual declaration of the War of 1812.

The affair of the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Leopard, which drove then-president Thomas Jefferson to the brink of declaring war, is explored in detail in the Naval Institute Press's Injured Honor, by naval historian Spencer C. Tucker and diplomatic historian Frank Reuter. It's a ripping story.

The Chesapeake was a frigate of the American navy, bound for the Atlantic and Gibraltar on what was expected to be a peaceful voyage, with civilian passengers aboard whose luggage cluttered the gun deck. The Leopard was a two-deck British ship of war, part of a squadron patrolling the area off Hampton Roads, cleared for action, gun ports open, the tompions removed from the muzzles of the guns, carefully maneuvering around the Chesapeake for the advantageous weather gauge. It did not occur to the Americans to worry. Commodore Barron did not beat the men to quarters. Why would he? the U. S. wasn't at war with Britain. He hove to when requested.

A boat put out from the Leopard and rowed to the American ship. Commodore Barron permitted Lt. George Meade to come aboard, thinking that the officer had mail for him to carry, a common courtesy amongst seagoing vessels of different nations. Instead the officer presented a demand from the Leopard's Captain Humphreys to be allowed to search the ship for deserters from the British Navy, by order of Sir George Cranfield Berkeley, commander-in-chief of the British North American Station. Quite properly Barron refused. Still he did not send the men to battle stations.

Meade returned to the Leopard, which promptly delivered three broadsides into the unprepared Chesapeake at close range. Confusion reigned among the officers and untrained crew of the American frigate. Three of the Chesapeake's men were killed and sixteen wounded, including Barron himself. The commodore was forced to strike his colors and permit the insolent British to remove four seamen from his ship. It was an intolerable humiliation.

The American people were furious. Jefferson called out the militia. He nearly took the U.S. to war over it, but in the end he deemed the country ill-prepared for war and chose instead to declare a trade embargo to weaken the British economy. The ploy backfired, beggaring New England merchants. But that's a story for another day.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Duncan McColl: Soldier, Minister, Pacifist

There is a quality to the St. Croix River Valley, the border between New Brunswick, Canada, and the state of Maine, that makes people love it with an almost irrational attachment. To my mother it was "up home." To the Indians it is sacred ground, and I've heard they want all of it back. To Harold A. Davis, a historian who grew up in Calais, Maine, it was an object of affection and intense study, out of which came his charming book,   An International Community on the St. Croix (1604-1930).

The book contains many wonderful tales. One of the best is the story of Duncan McColl, founder of the first Methodist congregation in St. Stephen and St. Davids, in New Brunswick, Canada. His role in the War of 1812 was remarkable.

When this revered churchman was a young fellow in Argyll, Scotland, he was recruited to serve in the 74th Regiment of Foot, formed to help put down the American Revolution. At the Battle of Castine in Maine he was sent to take a message to one of the British officers. In doing so he was exposed to enemy fire. The bullets ripped his clothes and his headgear, but never touched his flesh, by which sign he understood that he was meant for a life in the service of God.

33 years later, after many struggles, Duncan McColl was the pastor of a thriving Methodist congregation, whose members lived on both sides of the international border. The day war was declared was a black day for them, and for everyone in the St. Croix River Valley. But Duncan McColl called all the men together with a proposition. "I've baptized you and married you," he said, "And I don't believe you want to fight each other." They said they didn't.

"Good," he said, and gave them a paper to sign in which they swore not to attack each other. And so by his efforts Duncan McColl, who had in his day been a brave soldier, made sure that peace would prevail, on that part of the border at any rate, between the warring countries.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sailor Girls in the War of 1812

Bucker Dudley is the story of a young girl who ran away to sea dressed as a boy and was caught up in one of the great naval battles of the War of 1812, the clash of HMS Macedonian and USS United States. When I tell people this, they narrow their eyes at me, as though such a thing could never happen. And yet such things did happen, if not every day, then certainly from time to time.

An excellent book about the phenomenon is Suzanne Stark's
Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail, an entertaining yet scholarly work that explores the lives of all sorts of women who found themselves on shipboard in those days, from the wives of officers and sailors to the prostitutes who came aboard when Royal Navy ships were in port to the occasional young girls who dressed as boys and " 'listed in the Navy" for a lark or by way of running away from bad situations at home.

Legends exist about such girls, and songs have been written about them. Here's one of the most famous.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fourth of July Story

Here's one for you from the mists of folklore. I heard it from my father.

On the border between Maine and New Brunswick, in the Saint Croix River valley, relations have always been cordial between the Americans and the Canadians, even during the War of 1812 when their governments told the people they should be fighting each other. By 1812 the tradition of the Fourth of July picnic was deeply ingrained, even among the people of St. Stephen and environs, though the town had been settled by fleeing United Empire Loyalists.

So the whole community was looking forward to the annual fireworks display. But due to the shortage of powder, the Americans nearly had to call it off that year. Disappointment was felt all over the valley.

"See here," one of the men of St. Stephen said. "No need to cancel our picnic just because we happen to be at war. The St. Stephen armory has a plentiful supply of rockets and gunpowder the English sent us. We were supposed to use them to repel an invasion. Do you plan to invade us?"

"No," said the people of Calais.

"Then take the powder. It should make a nice display. We'll see you at the picnic."

The powder made a memorable display. Indeed the fourth of July picnic was elegant, as they say in those parts, and everyone lived happily ever after until the British navy appeared in the Bay of Fundy and menaced Eastport. But that's a story for another day.