The War of 1812 is an obscure chapter in American history, overshadowed by the War of Independence thirty years before it and the U.S. Civil War a half-century later.
Still, the 1812-15 rematch between the young United States and its former colonial master, Great Britain, did produce some recognizable images for the republic’s popular memory. The burning of the White House and the Capitol, “the bombs bursting in air,” over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans remain notable components of the American national experience, even if few citizens can place these historical snapshots neatly on the timeline.
Important figures on both sides of the war hailed from New Jersey, just one of eighteen states at the conflict’s onset. New Jerseyans proved especially opposed to the war’s declaration but participated in some of its most famous incidents. New Jersey politicians changed the state’s basic election statutes as a result of the war. For two years, British vessels and naval troops threatened citizens up and down the state’s coasts, yet these maritime menaces have all but disappeared from New Jersey’s popular history. Though removed from the primary campaigns on the U.S.-Canadian frontier, the Garden State has its own War of 1812 story to relate.
NEW JERSEY’S ANTIWAR POLITICS
In national politics, the war sharply divided the two major contemporary parties—the Federalists and the Republicans (it should be noted that the Republicans of 1812 and the modern Republican Party are two completely separate organizations). Republicans, led by President James Madison and House Speaker Henry Clay’s bellicose coalition, advocated for war with Great Britain. The Republicans listed a number of British offenses they sought to return with military action. “War Hawks,” alleged that London used indigenous peoples on the republic’s frontier as proxies to disrupt American interests and claimed grievances over Royal Navy impressment of sailors and interference in U.S. shipping. The former practice occurred both on the high seas and close to the American coast, including along the Jersey shore. In May 1811, the HMS Guerriere stopped the USS Spitfire off Sandy Hook, seizing several crewmen from the American vessel.
Federalists opposed a declaration of war. The party drew its support primarily from New England and preferred to avoid a situation that might threaten their constituencies’ shipping economies. The War of 1812 was the first conflict officially declared by the United States Congress. The Senate’s June 17 vote for war (19-13) remains the closest such motion in American history. On June 4, 1812 the declaration had carried in the House of Representatives with seventy-nine votes in favor. A significant bloc still dissented in the lower chamber—49 votes cast against the war.
Contrary to nationwide political trends, New Jersey officials of both parties generally united on early opposition to the war. Despite their political affinity for President Madison, the Garden State’s all-Republican House delegation voted unanimously against hostilities with Britain. New Jersey’s Republican Senator John Lambert also dissented on the war vote, making Senator John Condit the state’s only congressional representative to elect for war.
Unsurprisingly, New Jersey Federalists also objected to the war. On July 4, 1812 a Federalist meeting convened in Trenton. The delegates called to “use all constitutional means to obtain a Repeal of,” the June 18 declaration of war and to “promote the settlement of any differences with Great-Britain on honorable terms, by Negociation.” The Trenton gathering’s Address of the Convention of Delegates, to the People of New-Jersey asks its audience, “every class and description of industrious and GOOD CITIZENS…whether they and their families, expect that a long and deadly warfare…will be better than continued Peace, Commerce, Agriculture, Security and Union, among ourselves?” The Federalist assembly at Trenton predicted war would produce dire economic consequences for the state and for the country.
New Jersey’s 1812 state elections occurred in October, less than four months into the conflict’s course. The Federalists played the war issue on several demographics, including pacifist Quakers and merchants whose livelihoods the Anglo-American confrontation threatened. This politicking succeeded. The Federalists won a majority in the New Jersey legislature, taking a state solidly Republican since the First Party System’s inception. The Federalist-controlled state government immediately went about changing New Jersey’s election laws in anticipation of the November presidential race. Selection of presidential electors by popular vote was eliminated. The state legislature now chose presidential electors. This ensured James Madison’s opponent, DeWitt Clinton, would receive the Garden State’s electoral votes in November, though he lost the national contest to the incumbent candidate.
After the 1812 state elections, New Jersey’s Federalist legislature appointed Aaron Ogden as governor. Though averse to war, Governor Ogden sought to bolster the state’s defenses, pushing the legislature to allocate $5,000 to that end. This stood in stark contrast with other Federalist governors who approved more extreme, sometimes treasonous policies during the War of 1812: for instance, Caleb Strong of Massachusetts sought a separate peace with the British. The Federalists in the state legislature staunchly opposed the governor’s moderate course. They reacted to his defense spending with statutes prohibiting New Jersey militiamen from cooperating in the defense of Philadelphia and New York City. The political infighting upset New Jersey voters. Republicans meanwhile insisted that the Federalist Party failed to react to British raids along the Garden State’s shores. In 1813 this political climate returned Republicans to power after a one-year hiatus, bringing with them a new governor, William S. Pennington. Within a decade, the Federalist Party was largely extinct, both in NewJersey and in most other parts of the country.
THE RUTGERS CONNECTION
The Federalist financial forecast for the War of 1812 proved a tangible reality for New Brunswick’s Queen’s College, which became unable to support its operations, partly as a result of the conflict. At the war’s onset, the school’s Board of Trustees was already strained by expenses incurred in the ongoing construction of a new building, now known as Old Queens. By January 1812, five months before the war, the College had raised only $12,000 of the $20,000 spent on construction. A depressed economic environment developed in wartime, only worsening the school’s situation. A British blockade of the Atlantic coast sealed off the United States’ commercial centers. Royal Navy vessels closed the Delaware and New York Bays and raided American commerce between Manhattan and the Jersey shore. Taxes also spiked during the conflict. Under these conditions, Queen’s College could not even pay the salaries for its faculty. In 1816, one year after the war’s conclusion, the drained College terminated instruction and Old Queens was given to the New Brunswick Theological Seminary.
The school remained closed for nearly a decade though the Board of Trustees was still active. The dormant institution served as a constant reminder of the Republicans’ 1812 folly in an otherwise jubilant postwar environment that cast the second Anglo-American confrontation as a U.S. victory by highlighting a few successes in the conflict’s final six months. In 1825, the Queen’s trustees managed to raise $20,000. The school reopened on November 14 and was renamed for Henry Rutgers, a retired army officer, former Queen’s trustee and financial benefactor of the College. Incidentally, it was Colonel Rutgers who had organized New York City’s defenses during the 1812-15 conflict that nearly ended the College’s operations forever.
THE GARDEN STATE’S DEFENSES
While Queen’s College suffered as a result of the War of 1812, other parts of New Jersey remained economically healthy during the conflict. In many cases, this was a result of smuggling, which persisted for the duration of hostilities. Illicit agricultural trade with the British helped feed the Crown’s armies fighting Napoleon Bonaparte in Europe and kept New Jersey communities financially secure. The scale of the New Jersey smuggling enterprise was significant: an 1813 raid by American customs officers revealed $25,000 in contraband at just one Newark location. South Jersey citizens sold goods to British troops operating from the Delaware Bay. In other cases, Garden State residents persevered thanks to cautionary measures. A major salt works near the Delaware Bay in Cumberland County continued operations during the conflict after being removed farther inland to Port Elizabeth in order to avoid enemy raiding parties. Joseph Falkinburg, a Federalist leader in Cape May County, foresaw war and prepared his community accordingly. As a result, British naval activity in the area failed to seriously disrupt the local economy.
In addition to instituting economic safeguards, local leaders endeavored to physically secure their publics against British attack. Some communities pursued martial readiness by utilizing equipment leftover from the American War of Independence. This was the case in Cape May County and in New Brunswick. An eighteenth century cannon from the Trenton area was relocated to New Brunswick during the war to better the city’s defenses. This particular artillery piece later became the focus of the infamous Rutgers-Princeton cannon rivalry. In July 1812 the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders motioned to secure Revolutionary War-era cannons at gun sheds in the towns of Cape May Court House and Cold Spring, though the anti-war county treasurer initially blocked the move by withholding funds needed for the guns’ transportation. The state government supplemented these local measures by activating militia forces. New Jersey possessed in 1812 about 35,000 men of military age of whom 2,500 already belonged to uniformed militia companies. In December 1814, near the war’s conclusion, the state had just over 3,500 men on active militia service. One of the New Jersey militia’s primary duties during the War of 1812 was protecting New York City. To this end, militiamen from the Garden State deployed to the Atlantic Highlands, Sandy Hook, Paulus Hook (Jersey City) and Staten Island. Mobilizing New Jersey militia to Staten Island proved difficult. Many refused to cross the Arthur Kill and serve out-of-state. In order to compel them to go to Staten Island, some New Jersey militiamen had to be threatened with execution.
NEW JERSEYANS ON THE FRONT LINES
Although the conflict was unpopular among Garden State politicians, many New Jerseyans enlisted in the United States military during the War of 1812. A number of the state’s residents served with the 15th U.S. Infantry, commonly referred to as the “New Jersey Regiment.”
The 15th’s commander, Zebulon Montgomery Pike, was born in 1779 in Lamberton, now part of Trenton. By the start of the second Anglo-American war Pike already had eighteen years of experience in the army. Notably, the young officer directed a military expedition to the Louisiana Purchase, dispatched by President Thomas Jefferson in 1806. The wayward explorers veered south of the American border in early 1807, leading Pike to spend five months in Spanish captivity.
Perhaps his most memorable campaign, Pike led an American assault on York (now Toronto), the provincial capital of Upper Canada (modern-day Ontario). On April 27, 1813 Pike’s force, including the New Jersey Regiment, launched an amphibious attack from across Lake Ontario. The British retreated, in the process blowing up Fort York’s gunpowder store. The explosion wounded 222 American soldiers and killed 38 more, including Pike. The battle’s most infamous action followed: after the British withdrew, the 15th and other U.S. troops present burned Upper Canada’s government buildings.
James Lawrence was another New Jerseyan who served with distinction in the War of 1812. Like Zebulon Pike, Lawrence’s fame derives from his final actions. Lawrence was a Burlington native who grew up in the care of his half-sister. Born in 1781, his mother died early on and his loyalist father fled to Canada following the American Revolution. Lawrence joined the United States Navy in 1798 and served through the Quasi-War with France and the First Barbary War in North Africa. During the first year of the War of 1812, Lawrence captured the British privateer Dolphin and sank the Royal Navy’s HMS Peacock.
In spring 1813, Lawrence was promoted to the rank of Captain and given command of the USS Chesapeake. The Chesapeake left port at Boston on June 1 of that year. Later in the day, Lawrence encountered the HMS Shannon. The Shannon quickly neutralized its American opponent and a British boarding party seized control of the ship. Mortally wounded, Captain Lawrence famously told his sailors: “Don’t give up the ship!” Chesapeake’s fate was already sealed, however. The Americans did give up the ship, but Lawrence’s dying words became immortal. Lawrence’s friend Captain Oliver Hazard Perry had the rallying cry sewn into his personal battle flag. In September 1813, Perry, with his Lawrence-inspired banner, won a spectacular victory over the Royal Navy on Lake Erie. The words “Don’t give up the ship,” remain an unofficial slogan in the U.S. Navy.
In the British ranks, a New Jerseyan occupied the highest position on the North American front. Governor-General of the Canadas Sir George Prévost was born in 1767, when New Jersey was still a British colony. He was delivered at the Hermitage, a home in Ho-Ho-Kus and baptized at a Hackensack church. Prévost came from a prominent family. His aunt and godmother, Theodosia Bartow Prévost married Aaron Burr after the death of her first husband. Prévost’s father, Augustin, was a high-ranking Swiss-born army officer who helped lead the Crown’s forces to victory over French and American troops at Savannah, Georgia in 1779.
George Prévost himself did not spend much time in New Jersey, beginning military training in England at six years old. He joined the 60th Regiment of Foot in 1779 and served in several commands during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Fluent in both French and English and now with battle experience, Prévost seemed a good fit for the Governor-Generalship of the Canadas when appointed in 1811. During the ensuing Anglo-American war, the New Jersey native led British troops in the field at two major battles: Sackets Harbor, in 1813, and Plattsburgh, in 1814. Both confrontations ended in American victories. Prévost’s failure at Plattsburgh was especially humiliating, leaving hundreds of his men dead and wounded, terminating a British invasion into upstate New York and granting the United States clear control over Lake Champlain. In 1815 the humiliated Governor-General returned to London and a court martial was planned regarding his handling of the Plattsburgh campaign. Prévost died on January 5, 1816, before any trial could be convened.
SOUTH JERSEY AND THE DELAWARE BAY BLOCKADE
During the War of 1812, the Royal Navy undertook a practice of raiding American shipping and attacking coastal settlements. While the most infamous strikes took place in Virginia and Maryland, along the Chesapeake littoral, New Jersey was hardly exempt from British incursions.
In March 1813, a Royal Navy squadron arrived at the Delaware Bay, sealing it off as part of a larger naval blockade that covered the young republic’s Atlantic coast. In need of supplies, British naval troops descended on coastal areas. Raiding parties drawing drinking water from Cape May County’s Lily Lake were foiled by area residents. Citizens dug trenches between the lake and the Delaware Bay, thus filling the freshwater body with salt water. In other cases, British forces successfully recovered provisions from South Jersey communities. Royal Navy troops frequently conducted sorties along the Maurice River in Cumberland County, stealing livestock and other materials.
Though the Delaware Bay, along with Raritan Bay and other New Jersey waterways, remained closed for most of the War of 1812, British naval forces did allow neutral vessels access to ports in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Crews from non-combatant countries could move beyond the blockade by presenting papers to Royal Navy sailors proving their national origin.
SIR THOMAS MASTERMAN HARDY: SCOURGE OF BARNEGAT INLET
In 1813, Royal Navy Commodore Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy placed the Jersey shore at his squadron’s mercy. Hardy was a decorated officer, serving the Crown in Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt and the Peninsular War before being transferred to North America in 1812. From his 74-gun flagship, the HMS Ramillies, he sought to interrupt trade between New York and the Garden State. The British flotilla focused on the area around Barnegat Inlet, launching barges to chase and seize outward-bound American vessels and on rare occasions, deploying troops ashore. In a March 1813 incident, Hardy’s troops burned two ships and proceeded to land near Barnegat Inlet where they killed fifteen head of cattle. Events such as these prompted a militia draft along the Garden State’s Atlantic coast to call up every seventh man for service.
An 1890 history of the region indicates shore residents viewed Commodore Hardy as an honorable sailor despite the damage he inflicted. Hardy refrained from seizing or destroying private property without adequately compensating the owners. In the case of the aforementioned March 1813 raid, the cattle owners were absent, but British troops responsible for the devastation left word that Commodore Hardy would cover the aggrieved residents’ damages if they wrote him with a bill. 19th century historians used this policy to distinguish the Ramillies’ commander from the better-known Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, notorious for his sorties against Washington, Baltimore and other Chesapeake cities in 1813-14. While Hardy’s behavior with respect to private property was certainly principled, it is worth noting that another, more sinister factor may have colored the juxtaposition between the “noble” Commodore and “evil” Admiral Cockburn. In the north, British forces had only livestock and crops to seize. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Crown’s troops not only stole material supplies, they also freed thousands of slaves.
ACTION NEAR SANDY HOOK
Sandy Hook was another hotbed of military activity during the War of 1812. Occupying an important location at the entrance to the Lower New York Bay, the peninsula had units of the New York and New Jersey militias garrisoned on it during the conflict. Most men selected for service via the wartime draft instituted for Jersey coast residents deployed to the strategic Hook. These troops formed the core of a signal system designed to protect New York City. Soldiers on Sandy Hook watched for British warships. If a hostile vessel was spotted, a signal was flashed to the Atlantic Highlands. Lookouts on Staten Island read the signal in the Highlands via telescope before relaying the alert to Manhattan. This was a tested system, in use since the 1740s when New Jersey colonists guarded the Lower Bay against a potential French attack during the War of the Austrian Succession. During the War of 1812, the signal in Manhattan displayed the number of British warships visible. Spotters on Sandy Hook reported an enemy presence almost every clear day during the war.
The waters off Sandy Hook became the site of a U.S. defeat in the second Anglo-American conflict’s final days. HMS Endymion, along with several British frigates, pursued and captured the USS President near the peninsula. The President’s commander, Stephen Decatur, was a talented officer. Decatur previously held several commands, including one at the American victory in Tripoli during the First Barbary War. However, all of Commodore Decatur’s experience and ability could not help him when the President sustained serious damage in an accident shortly before its engagement with Endymion. On the evening of January 14, 1815 Decatur had tried to break the British blockade off New York under cover of darkness and a snowstorm. Instead of quietly passing from the Lower Bay, Decatur ran aground on Sandy Hook. After a few hours the ship was freed but the damage slowed the President significantly. This made her easy prey for the British in the engagement which took place the following day. The Endymion’s success produced jubilant lyrics from British songwriters:
“Now let Commodore Decatur and all his Yankee crew Write home to cowardly Madison what British Tars can do, Whilst our trophies we’ll bring home unto the British shore, And cans of grog we’ll pledge, my boys, now tempests cease to roar”
Decatur’s breakout attempt and subsequent defeat might never have occurred if not for the slowness of period communications. American and British delegates concluded a peace treaty in the Dutch (now Belgian) city of Ghent on December 24, 1814. The duel of the President and Endymion, like the famous Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815), occurred weeks after Anglo-American enmity was officially terminated. In the end, only the length of the transatlantic voyage kept the war along New Jersey’s coasts alive.