Tagged: Warof1812

Pigeon Roost and the Battle of Fort William Harrison

After the fall of Ft Detroit to the British on 16 August 1812, Indians all along America’s western frontier began raiding in earnest. On 3 September 1812, a Shawnee war party descended upon the small settlement of Pigeon’s Roost (in modern day Indiana just across the Ohio River from Louisville, Kentucky). The attack was a complete surprise and many inhabitants were killed before they could make it to the Collings family blockhouse. The scalps of 15 children (including 2 infants), 6 women and 3 men from Pigeon’s Roost were eventually presented to the British commander at Ft Detroit.

Most of the men from Pigeon Roost were away in the militia, including some at Fort Harrison, in present day Terra Haute, Indiana.. On the same day Pigeon Roost was attacked, 600 Miami and Potawatomi Indians approached the fort demanding its surrender. Captain (and future President) Zachary Taylor asked for a parley in the morning which the Indians agreed to. CPT Taylor had 50 soldiers and militiamen, but unfortunately 30 were ill and bedridden. During the night, one Indian scout set fire to the blockhouse, and while the healthy members of the garrison tried to put out the fire, the Indians attacked. The situation looked grim and two of the garrison immediately deserted.

Taylor quickly assessed the situation and left three able-bodied defenders to fight the fire, including one woman who lowered herself into a well to fill buckets faster. Once he dispelled the confusion through sheer force of will, Zachary l shouted “Taylor never surrenders!” and then led the other 15 healthy defenders and every invalid who could walk in a charge to clear the palisade. After brutal hand to hand fighting along the wall, the Indians broke off the attack and settled into a siege. The defenders lost all of their food in the fire but fortunately COL William Russell was at nearby Vincennes with the 7th US Infantry, a ranger company, and a company of militia including a few Pigeon Roost men. They lifted the siege on 12 September and gave America its first victory on land in the War of 1812.

The First Battle of Sackets Harbor

Coming one month and one day after the United States declared war on Britain, the first battle of the War of 1812 was not initiated by the Americans, but by the British. Their naval commander at Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario where it feeds the St Lawrence River, had a small flotilla of five ships. On 19 July 1812 he set out to capture American shipping on the lake. That morning the British seized a small ship filled with flour, from whose crew they learned of an American brig, the USS Oneida, at Sackets Harbor, New York, not too far away. The British sent the crew to the town to inform the garrison that they were to surrender a recently captured (before the war) merchant schooner along with the Onieda to the British, and if the Americans fired on them, they’d “burn the village to the ground”.
29 year old Lt Melancthon Woolsey, the captain of the Onieda, was having none of it. The British commander must have been misinformed because there was a substantial American force in Sackets Harbor, though only one fighting ship, Woolsey’s Oneida. He sent runners to assemble COL Bellinger’s 27th New York Militia Regiment, and took command of the infantry company and a volunteer artillery battery under CPT Camp already in town. Once his lookout spotted the approaching British off in the distance, Woolsey sailed the Oneida out to meet them. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), the morning winds off the lake prevented him from leaving the harbor, so he anchored his ship broadsides to the British, and quickly transferred the guns of the landward broadsides to augment Camp’s shore battery.
Along with the other guns, Woolsey had a lone 32 pounder which was originally meant for the Oneida, but was too big, and was mounted in a swivel on shore, in Camp’s hastily built “Fort Volunteer”. The 32 pounder was commanded by Mr. William Vaughan, the Oneida’s sailing master (roughly equivalent to an old warrant officer specialized in navigation) and it was he who fired the first hostile round of the War of 1812.
Vaughan didn’t have any 32 lb ammunition, so he initially used 24 lb cannonballs (of which he had many, the Oneida’s guns were mostly 24 pounders), and wrapped them in carpet that he ordered torn up from the floors of the village houses. The first shot was woefully short, and laughter was heard from the crews of the British ships. They weren’t laughing for long.
Woolsey turned over his ship to his first mate, and directed the battle from the shore battery. For two hours, the Americans and British traded fire, of which only the Americans’ was effective, especially that of Vaughan’s gun. Many of the British cannonballs failed to even reach the shore battery, and those that did just plowed shallow furrows in the mud until they stopped. Many were 32 pounders from the bigger British ships, so Woolsey had the men dig them up. Vaughan fired them back at the British to much greater effect.
In response to the accurate American fire, the British ships raised anchor and began to maneuver, in order to throw off the American’s aim and get their other broadsides into the fight. As the British flagship, the HMS Royal George, was doing so, a 24 lb cannon ball entered her stern and raked the ship: killing eight sailors, wounding a dozen more, and doing a great amount of damage all along its entire length. Shortly thereafter, the exasperated and ineffectual British withdrew back to Kingston, without causing the American’s any casualties, and no damage beyond the furrows. One sailor remarked, “The enemy broke nothing but – the Sabbath”.
In celebration, Woolsey’s sailors and gunners, and the militia in the village with their band, broke out in a spontaneous rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy”.
Though they didn’t take part in the battle, 3000 militia arrived in Sackets Harbor by nightfall, and many watched from shore. Woolsey, Camp, Vaughan, and “Black Julius” Torry, an African American on Vaughan’s gun crew, were given credit in the dispatch to the governor of New York for America’s first victory in the War of 1812. Sackets Harbor would become the American military and ship building epicenter in the Lake Ontario arms race against the British and Canadians across the St Lawrence River in Kingston.

America Passes Into Its Next Era

By 1826, the American “Era of Good Feelings” that came about after its perceived victory in the War of 1812 was over a decade old. The underdog victory over the British, the collapse of the Federalist Party after the treasonous Hartford Convention, and the defeat of Native Americans at Tippecanoe, Fallen Timbers, and Horseshoe Bend, which opened up the West, led to an era when the people referred to themselves not as “Virginians” or “Pennsylvanians”, but as “Americans”. The American System survived the Panic of 1819, the worst of America’s early recessions, stronger than before. Francis Scott Key’s “The Defense of Fort McHenry” was being sung in taverns across the country to the tune of an old British drinking song, “To Anacreon in Heaven”. But the Era of Good Feelings among Americans was not destined to last.

Some people in America still believed they were entitled to the fruits of other men and women’s labor and expertise without just compensation. Moreover, they believed that those same people were considered property and that their Natural and Unalienable Rights were the product of a man made government, not the Providence of God or whatever deity they worshiped. Ergo, these slaves did not benefit from the Rule of Law as promised in the US Declaration of Independence and codified in the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The issue of Slavery (and to a lesser extent initially, the treatment of Native Americans in this vein) would dominate politics for the next thirty years.

By the mid-1820s, many of the American Founding Fathers had passed on. And most could not reconcile “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” with the institution of Slavery. The divisiveness was personified by two men, the best of friends and sometimes the worst of enemies, who were both on their deathbeds in July of 1826.

John Adams was America’s 2nd President and the product of strong independent rural Massachusetts’ farmers who saw human bondage as repugnant. John Adams never owned slaves, and he felt that slavery was economically inefficient (free men are always more productive than slaves) and would eventually cease. Nonetheless, he was not an abolitionist because he felt that abolitionism was antithetical to American unity.

His friend, Thomas Jefferson, the ironic author of the above passage in the Declaration of Independence and America’s 3rd President, was the product of an “enlightened” Virginia aristocratic class and a slave owner. A self-described racist, Jefferson felt that freed slaves had no place in American society, simply because of the cognitive dissonance of the passage of “all men are created equal” and the issue of Slavery. Jefferson believed that that inherent problem would cause freed slaves to become embittered with their masters and lead to the dissolution of the Union. He favored colonization of the inevitably freed slaves or their reparation back to Africa or the West Indies, as done by James Monroe and the creation of Liberia.

Both men wrestled with the issue of Slavery their entire lives. They led America through her most trying times, and defeated the greatest empire the world had ever seen despite overwhelming odds, not once but twice. But they could never agree on the issue of Slavery. For nearly six decades, they shepherded the nascent American state to the point where it could defend itself against any external threat. Unfortunately, they could not solve its most serious internal threat.

On 4 July 1826, two of America’s greatest proponents were near death, one 83 years old in Monticello Virginia, and the other 90 years old in Quincy, Massachusetts.

Exactly 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence was read aloud on the steps of Pennsylvania State House, and printed for distribution at John Dunlap’s printing shop, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams died within hours of each other.

Despite all of their accomplishments, there was much work left to do. Care for the American experiment passed to a new generation. The children of the Revolution, epitomized by the Tennessean adventurer, politician and soldier Andrew Jackson, would have to tackle the issue of Slavery. The children of the War of 1812, personified by Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S Grant, would have to settle it.