The Bicentennial of the War of 1812
Have you heard about all the commemorations and celebrations coming up this year to celebrate the Bicentennial of the War of 1812? No? Me neither. I feel that New York State and the United States have really missed the boat. I guess the bad economy is the excuse for virtually no commemoration of the first war fought by the fledgling United States- or perhaps, and scarily, the lack of interest in U.S. history by all of us. On the other hand, provinces in Eastern Canada are planning a number of commemorative events.
I know, you are saying, why should we care about the War of 1812? Now the U.S. Civil War, that’s something else. We are in the midst of celebrating the 150th Anniversary of that great and horrible war. There are many reasons why that war was of immense importance to our nation and locality. In this paper, Sandy McBride has a wonderful series, explaining events month by month through the war. That would be possible but difficult to do for the War of 1812, as comparatively very little has been written about the war. But it was of great importance to our nation, state, and locality.
The War of 1812 began after diplomacy failed to solve the problem of Great Britain interfering with American shipping, as the U.S. struggled to stay neutral while France (under Napoleon) and Great Britain were at war. America felt Great Britain had failed to respect her independence, and was also interfering with her westward expansion into the Ohio Valley. The borders of New York State with Canada were the major battlegrounds of the war. The initial American goal was to invade and conquer Canada. This obviously failed, or U.S. borders would be quite different! There were land and naval campaigns on both Lakes Ontario and Champlain.
Nationally, our success in the war cemented the United States as a real nation, and real world power, which would survive a rocky start. The war also produced one of our national symbols, Uncle Sam, who is also important locally. Samuel Wilson was a Troy meatpacker who provided supplies to the large military base or cantonment in East Greenbush. The story goes that the initials U.S., stamped on his barrels of meat, came to stand for his nickname, Uncle Sam. You can view a wonderful exhibit about Uncle Sam at the Rensselaer County Historical Society, 57 2nd Street, Troy, open Thursday-Saturday from noon to 5. You can also follow an Uncle Sam Trail, which will take you to sites connected with his life. Check out the website www.unclesamtroy.org for lots more information.
The East Greenbush Cantonment was the headquarters of the Army of the North. As many as 5000 soldiers were quartered in about 20 buildings in the area of what is now known as Hampton Manor through the war. One large barracks building survives to this day. I find it amazing that the “Troy Post” newspaper of the time records events of the War of 1812 in great detail, but never discusses the presence of 5000 soldiers nearby throughout the war. The town historian of East Greenbush is constructing an amazing scale model of the Cantonment to celebrate the bicentennial- watch for information on where it will be on exhibit.
As a town historian myself, my concern is not the war itself, but Schaghticoke’s part in it. Unfortunately, I have not found much information on Schaghticoke men in the war. The pension papers of Revolutionary War veterans are all online, but those of the War of 1812 vets are not, though I know that accomplishment is a goal of the National Archives. But I will discuss what I do know, hoping to add to it over the coming years.
In previous columns, I have already discussed one of the biggest effects of the War on Schaghticoke: the founding of the Powder Mill by the Masters brothers on the Tomhannock Creek. That industry was founded in 1812 to produce black powder for use by the U.S. military in the war. The Schaghticoke Powder Company was in business in Schaghticoke and Pittstown until 1928, making a strong contribution to the local economy.
I have also discussed Herman Knickerbacker, elected a U.S. Congressman in 1809 as a Federalist. The Federalists, mostly New Englanders, opposed the coming war with Great Britain. They knew that war would disrupt their trade with Great Britain. They felt that to oppose such a great power was folly and that the U.S. should compromise to preserve the strong economic link between the two nations. The U.S. imposed an embargo on trade with Britain from 1807-1809, which devastated our nation’s economy. Knickerbacker’s maiden address in the House of Representatives was to urge the end of the embargo. Knickerbacker was not reelected to Congress, so was not actually in Congress during the war. He did continue active opposition to the war, even while it was in progress. The April 20, 1813 issue of the “Troy Post” records Herman as secretary of the Federal Republican party organization for Rensselaer County. Their nominating convention slogan was: “Peace, Liberty, and Commerce.”
One of the most famous people ever to live in Schaghticoke, John Ellis Wool, began his military career in the War of 1812. He had experience in a Troy militia unit before the war, so that when he enlisted in the regular Army, it was as a Captain. After the battle of Queenston, Ontario in 1813, he was promoted to Major for his heroism. After the battle of Plattsburgh in 1814, he was promoted to Colonel, and by the end of the war he was Inspector General of the whole U.S. Army. He went on to be a General in the Mexican and Civil Wars and was proposed as a Presidential candidate. The Rensselaer County Historical Society in Troy has quite a few of the possessions of Wool, including his uniform coatee from the War of 1812. This extremely rare coatee will be part of an exhibit in Canada celebrating the bicentennial of the war. In future columns I will tell the whole story of this very important but virtually forgotten man.
I am sad to say that so far I know very little about individual Schaghticoke men in the War of 1812. The Rensselaer County probate files include a record dated January 31, 1814, for a young man from Schaghticoke named Abner Hammond, “late a soldier in the Army of the U.S. who is dead.” He died at French Mills, which is on the border of the U.S. and Canada, north of Malone, NY. There was a brief battle between the Americans and the British at that location, near Fort Covington, at the end of November in 1812. From what I have read, the Troy Militia was involved in it- but this record implies Hammond was in the regular Army. Whether Hammond died at that time, or later, I don’t know. I cannot find him in any record of the town. The rest of the probate record merely states that he left an estate less than $150 to his widow, Purity, and her five children. I hope she had family in the town who could help her!
I can also report about a couple of men from Pittstown. Jonathan Read was in an artillery company of militia from Pittstown, which may have included Schaghticoke residents. Shortly after the war began in 1812, Read’s artillery unit was called to service for three months, as a part of 13,500 militia men mobilized by Governor Tompkins in New York State. Read left a journal of his service, a Xerox of which is in the Rensselaer County Historical Society. Unfortunately he only gives names of others in his company as appropriate- for example, if a man became ill, or was court martialled. So we don’t know many of the men who were with him. His commander was Captain, later Major, Andrew Brown.
The Company left Pittstown on September 15, 1812, met up with another company in Waterford, and walked to Sacket’s Harbor, on Lake Ontario just west of Watertown. Achieving from 12 to 18 miles a day, they arrived in Sacket’s Harbor on Sunday, October 4. The company finished its three months of duty on December 18. Read stayed a few more days, leaving with a few others on December 23rd. They traveled by sleigh, making about 25 miles a day, arriving in Lansingburgh on December 29th. Read walked home to Pittstown the next day.
While Read’s militia company did see a bit of action, sparring with the British on the opposite shore several times, there was no major battle during his service. The main battle of Sacket’s Harbor took place in 1813. Read recorded just one fatality in the company, a man who died of disease. Indeed, he seemed to have enjoyed his deployment. He recorded generous hospitality in the inns they stayed near both going and returning, and made no mention of any hardships or deprivations. He often described the countryside they passed through, noting soil type and vegetation. I was surprised that he recorded seeing two deer on the trip home, the first he had ever seen. He also ate venison for the first time on that journey. He summarized that he had been away from home for three months and twelve days and traveled 475 miles. Google Maps gives the distance as about 420 miles- so his estimate was quite accurate.
According to Sylvester’s “History of Rensselaer County”, Herman Knickerbacker’s brother William was Colonel of a local militia regiment during the War of 1812. He states, “Many from this town either participated in the war or were in the “Eddy expedition” so called, that marched north at the time of Plattsburgh, but was not in time to join that fight and returned home in a few days.” Thanks to Ronald Bachman and his book about Michael Vandercook of Pittstown, “A Fine Commanding Presence”, we know more about the Eddy expedition and the local militia in the war in general. Michael Vandercook, born in 1774, had been in the militia for many years. He was appointed Brigade Major and Inspector of the Third Brigade when Governor Tompkins called up the militia and divided it into eight brigades at the start of the war.
In June of 1812, Vandercook was ordered to go to Plattsburgh, along with militia men- this probably included local people. General Henry Dearborn was supposed to be executing an invasion of Canada and the capture of Montreal. After much delay, Dearborn acted in November. The militia men were virtually unequipped for battle and many refused to cross the border into Canada. The invasion failed. Vandercook and the militia were discharged from duty in time to be home by Christmas.
But on to “the Eddy expedition”. In the summer of 1814, the British attempted to invade New York State. The militia were called out again, and Michael Vandercook’s service record notes that the 8th Brigade, led by General Gilbert Eddy, was “mustered at Troy & Schaghticoke” on the 8th, the muster completed on the 13th. They headed north for Plattsburgh on September 13, and reached Granville by September 16. At that point they received word that the British had been defeated in the Battle of Lake Champlain on September 11 and were discharged to go home. I would love a list of those men!
Hopefully I will learn more about the role of Schaghticoke in the War of 1812 as the year goes on. It seems to me that the impact of the war on the town would have been rather minimal- there was not much industry here yet to be impacted by the embargo on trade with Great Britain. In fact, one new industry, the Powder Mill, arose in response to the needs of the war. Most residents would still be farmers, whose market would be quite local. In fact, it’s possible that there was a greater than usual market for agricultural products thanks to the large Cantonment in East Greenbush. Militia men were called up, but apparently suffered few casualties. Please let me know if you have input or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sylvester, Nathan History of Rensselaer County 1880.
Bachman, Ronald,A Fine Commanding Presence, 2010.
“Jonathan Read’s Memorandum Book” 1812, Xerox in the Rensselaer County Historical Society
“The Troy Post”, several editions, in the collection of the Rensselaer County Historical Society