Even though this year is the bicentennial of the War of 1812, it is surprising how many of us know so little about the causes, battles, and outcomes of the war.
By Paul Hicks
Even though this year is the bicentennial of the War of 1812, it is surprising how many of us know so little about the causes, battles, and outcomes of the war. For starters, I was not aware that the hostilities did not end until 1815, nor that U.S. public opinion was deeply divided about the war.
Historians cite a number of causes, which varied in importance depending on their effects on different regions of the country. Residents of New York and the New England states were largely opposed to the war primarily because of the disruptions to their economies caused by the British blockades.
Within a month of the war declaration of June 19, 1812 (the vote in favor was 19 to 13 in the Senate and 79 to 49 in the House), Royal Naval squadrons began patrolling off the East Coast. However, it took almost a year before they had a full-scale blockade in place around all major Atlantic ports from Georgia to Maine.
In this area, the British fleet posted ships at the eastern end of Long Island as well as off New York City, effectively stifling the maritime traffic up and down Long Island Sound. The British captured many American merchant ships in the course of this blockade, frequently ransoming them back to their owners.
At the same time, the British government continued to need grain and other products from its established New England and New York suppliers to support its army fighting Napoleon’s soldiers in Europe. Special safe-passage licenses were therefore granted to Long Island Sound merchant ships bound for Spain and Portugal, where they could avoid the French blockades of British ports.
Many of the naval battles and other action on Long Island Sound occurred at the upper end near New London. However, a recent article in the Westchester Historian by Blake A. Bell makes it clear that Westchester’s Sound Shore communities from Port Chester to Pelham were directly affected by the war, especially in 1813.
Bell writes that, “On Tuesday, September 7, four British ships of war lingered near the shores of ‘Horse Neck’ (today’s Greenwich, Connecticut) the entire day. The ships ventured as far south as Rye and reportedly captured 7 or 8… coasters — one of them the sloop Elvira bound to Hartford…”
The account continues: “The following day…a British frigate and a sloop anchored off the shore at Rye. Several tenders cruised between Rye and City Island. By 11 am the British reportedly had nine sloops and schooners…all of which were supposed to be prizes.”
The U.S. military authorities in New York City finally dispatched troops to defend the residents of southern Westchester after a detachment of enemy troops landed at Mamaroneck. According to Bell, “they had fired on some locals walking on the beach and stole from 60 to 80 sheep, causing the nearby population to panic.”
Baird’s “History of Rye:” describes another nearby encounter in June 1813, when “three British vessels lay anchored, on one occasion, off Manussing [the original name for Manursing] Island, in the middle of the Sound, stationed there for the purpose of intercepting market boats carrying provisions to New York. Several of these boats were taken and set fire to. ..”
A meeting was held soon after “to consult on some measures to pursue in defence of the Village of Saw Pit [present-day Port Chester] and its vicinity in case of invasion.” Baird noted that “No injury was experienced by our inhabitants at this time. But the alarm was general. The people were afraid to leave their cattle near the shore, lest the enemy should land and commit depredations.”
A recent book, “How Britain Won the War of 1812” by Brian Arthur argues that the successful blockade had a devastating effect on the young American economy. The negative effects on the residents of the Sound Shore communities were undoubtedly very severe. Farmers had to ship produce by road rather than water, ship owners lost vessels, and prices kept rising for many essential items.
The end of the war brought economic gains to some parts of the country, especially through the growth of manufacturing. Yet the Sound Shore area was slow to develop from its agricultural traditions. According to the 1810 census, the population of the Town of Rye was 1,278, and by 1820 it had grown by only 64 people to 1,342. Of that number, there were 177 persons still employed in agriculture. By 1830, however, steamboat traffic between New York City and Rye (as well as other Sound Shore communities) in the words of Charles Baird,”opened a new era in the history of the place.”