To commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, we are pleased to present a guest post by David Taylor, co-author of The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy, who brings us firsthand accounts from those who experienced the war when it came into New York Harbor.
Besides co-authoring National Geographic’s The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy, David Taylor is author of Soul of a People: The WPA Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America (Wiley, 2009), ranked among Best Books of 2009 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He wrote and co-produced the Smithsonian documentary based on the book, Soul of A People: Writing America’s Story, narrated by Patricia Clarkson. His other books include Ginseng, the Divine Root (Algonquin, 2006), and a fiction collection, Success: Stories (WWPH, 2008).
The war provided a central theme in maritime painting for decades. This print by T. Buttersworth depicts a battle between the U.S.S. President and H.M.S. Endymion. From The War of 1812 and the Rise of the U.S. Navy; Courtesy, U.S. Navy Art Collection.
When the War of 1812 Came to New York Harbor
by David Taylor
The War of 1812 is famously a forgotten war even this year with lots of bicentennial hoopla. It had confusing origins and involved misguided political and military strategies. For the people who lived through it, however, it was a fiercely vivid crisis that changed how Americans saw themselves. So in writing a National Geographic book about the war and its defining encounters on the water, Mark Jenkins and I chose to highlight the stories of people who experienced them firsthand, many of them unknown.
Some of their experiences happened in New York.
In the fall of 1812, an English boy named Samuel Leech set sail as a “powder monkey” – an apprentice who ferried gunpowder from the ship’s hold to the guns — aboard the H.M.S. Macedonian. Leech didn’t know when the crew left Portsmouth, England for the Mediterranean that Britain was at war with the United States. The officers had kept that news quiet – because the crew included several American sailors forced into the British Navy under the notorious practice of “impressment,” which the U.S. cited as a cause of the war.
Off the Canary Islands, the Macedonian’s lookout spotted a ship. It was the U.S.S. United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur. Just months before, Decatur had hosted the captain of the Macedonian for dinner at home in Norfolk, Virginia. The two had cheerfully wagered that they would beat the other if their ships ever had a chance to fight one to one.
Now, abruptly, that moment had arrived.
“A strange noise, such as I had never heard before, arrested my attention,” Leech recalled later. “It sounded like the tearing of sails, just over our heads.” It was the wind from American cannonballs. The boy then endured a terrifying scene:
By and by I heard the shot strike the sides of our ship; the whole scene grew indescribably confused and horrible; it was like some awfully tremendous thunder-storm, carrying death in every flash, and strewing the ground with the victims. . . I was busily supplying my gun with powder, when I saw blood suddenly fly from the arm of a man stationed at our gun. I saw nothing strike him; the effect alone was visible. The third lieutenant tied his handkerchief round the wounded arm, and sent the groaning wretch below to the surgeon…
The cries of the wounded rang through all parts of the ship. These were carried to the cockpit as fast as they fell. [M]ore fortunate men who were killed outright were immediately thrown overboard…
The boys belonging to the guns next to mine were wounded in the early part of the action…I saw two of these lads fall nearly together… A man who saw [another boy] killed, afterwards told me that his powder caught fire and burnt the flesh almost off his face. In this pitiable situation, the agonized boy lifted up both hands, as if imploring relief, when a passing shot instantly cut him in two . . .
In minutes the British captain surrendered and the Macedonian became a prize of war, hauled to New York harbor where it stoked American patriotic fervor and amazement at an underdog victory.
Young Leech managed to avoid imprisonment in New York and even enlisted in the U.S. Navy. By 1814, his hair grown long and tied neatly back, he had dressed to blend in aboard a U.S. ship.
Others, too, remade their identities in the Navy including a number of women. A popular 1815 account of The Female Marine was later revealed to be a fraud written by a man, but there were authenticated cases of women who served in the war. As early as September 1812, just three months after the war began, a navy surgeon reported that the crew discovered a woman among their numbers. And in an American squadron captured on Lake Champlain in 1813, Eliza Romley of Ipswich, New Hampshire appeared on a list of prisoners of war. Romley, Prisoner 240, was just 19 years old. She arrived at the camp with other veterans of a hard-fought battle and spent weeks in detention with the other U.S. prisoners before the British discovered and released her. By the war’s end, Decatur and other officers allowed women to serve openly onboard ships … as nurses.
Decades later, Samuel Leech had changed again: to a shopkeeper in Massachusetts. During a visit to New York, he was walking past the harbor docks and did a doubletake at seeing his old ship, the Macedonian.
Almost overcome with emotion, he climbed aboard and “stood on the spot where I had fought in the din of battle” as a boy, he wrote later, “and with many a serious reflection recalled the horrors of that dreadful scene.”
Soon the ship’s new crew gathered around him, “eagerly listening to my tale of the battle . . . ” The visit moved him so deeply that he started to write a memoir, Thirty Years from Home. It was published in 1842 and now holds space on the shelf in the New York Public Library.