North Carolina and The War of 1812

By Robert Kelly-goss

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Photo courtesy US NavyThis painting depicts the British burning Washington D.C. According to local historian George Converse, when word of the burning of the nation's capitol reached North Carolina, it was assumed that the British would make their way south to burn out cities along the coast.

Photo courtesy US NavyThis painting depicts the British burning Washington D.C. According to local historian George Converse, when word of the burning of the nation’s capitol reached North Carolina, it was assumed that the British would make their way south to burn out cities along the coast.

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This is the bicentennial of The War of 1812, and North Carolina has a story to tell. It has a story to tell, so Museum of the Albemarle is helping with the tale.

The museum has erected an informational exhibit examining the war and the Tar Heel State’s role in it. But according to local historian George Converse, you shouldn’t get too excited about grand battles and confrontations with the British. Although there is history here, the Tar Heel state just wasn’t entirely in the thick of it.

“For North Carolina, The War of 1812 was a non-event,” says Converse.

So why bother celebrating here? Well, while as a whole the war was a non-event, there was some activity here, but most importantly North Carolina was a smaller part of the larger history that would not only help build a navy, but also establish the viability of what would become the U.S. Coast Guard as a protective force along the fledgling nation’s waterways (see related story).

The bulk of the war would take place further north, however the British had been attempting to establish trade blockades up and down the nation’s coastline. The Revenue Cutter Service would intervene and engage the British, along with American privateers who had been given letters of marque allowing them to plunder British ships for the government.

“The big issue with North Carolina and the war at sea is that we provided a lot of privateers,” said Converse. “We didn’t have a big navy here. The big ships couldn’t come here, so they didn’t have big ships in North Carolina. But they did have small, coastal sloops.

“They would arm them with one or two guns and these guys would go out and raid British shipping.”

The war with Britain was brought about for several reasons. One was the British support of American Indians on American soil. Another was that the Royal Navy was pressing American sailors into service and finally, and perhaps most significant, was that the British was blockading trading with the French, a county it was at war with at the time.

Here in North Carolina, word had spread that the war was on. Converse says folks in northeast North Carolina built up a militia county by county to defend the state from the British.

Each county, he estimates, had 70 to 100 men ready to fight. Depending on access to horses and weaponry, each county would form units of cavalry, infantry and artillery. The infantry, says Converse, was largely comprised of musket soldiers, but new technology had already produced the bored rifle barrel and units of riflemen were popping up in the region.

Converse explains that while both weapons would be powder and ball, the bored rifle allowed the soldier to shoot with more accuracy.

“So depending on an ability of a county, if it had a lot of guys that had horses, they formed a cavalry unit,” he said. “They didn’t have a whole lot of canons so what the state would do is cluster those canons and form a group.

“All of them were only for the defense of the state. These were state militia but they were capable, given enough time and money, to move from one county to another.”

But for these militiamen, the British never came.

“It was a big let down for these guys,” Converse said.

However, the British did attempt to come by sea. British ships raided Ocracoke and nearby Portsmouth Island and had made an attempt to head inland to New Bern.

The problem, however, is that the shallow waters of North Carolina weren’t condusive to big ships. Carolinians running those smaller sloops could defend their home waters and subsequently the British barely made any waves at all here.

Converse does say, however, that it’s important to note that while coastal folks were ready for a fight, inland folks were keeping an eye on the Indian situation. A chief named Tacumseh was rallying eastern Indian tribes for an uprising, supported by the British.

Folks were concerned that North Carolina Cherokee might join in that uprising. Fortunately, explained Converse, the head of the North Carolina tribe, Juna Luska, wasn’t interested in joining the uprising.

Converse says that while North Carolina wasn’t a major battleground during the war, there were major players in the conflict. Johnston Blakely of Wilmington was a naval commander who fought the British while in command of two ships, the Enterprise and the Wasp.

And the first lady Dolly Madison was a North Carolina native.

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