Friday, June 8, 2012

War of 1812

An Overview

On June 18, 1812, President James Madison signed the war bill and the “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights War” or “War of 1812” against the British began. The War lasted two years and eight months, ending February 17, 1815 with the Treaty of Ghent in which the parties in the conflict agreed to the status quo antebellum.

In this article, we begin with an abbreviated overview of some of the interesting events and outcomes of the war for the United States. We conclude with an effort to describe the participation of the Rockingham County militia in the War. Scholars of the War debate the cause or causes of the War. There is no denying that British Government’s treatment of American seamen and its interference with American merchant ships irked the United States Government. The fact that British seaman often preferred the conditions on American ships over the conditions on their own ships contributed to the tensions. The Federal law that American ship owners provide medical services for sailors appealed to British sailors. Also, the British Navy had been at War with France since the French Revolution 20 years ago. The parties in “The Great War” on the European continent viewed the American issues as pesky nuisances.

What the War Accomplished

After the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, the parties returned to where they were before the War, but the United States had changed as a result of the War. The failed Indian battles against the Americans by the Red Sticks in the South and Tecumseh and the Prophet in the Old Northwest Territories effectively ended Indian unrest east of the Mississippi River. The Indian Wars provided the Federal Government with an excuse to force the migration of Indians to lands west of the Mississippi River. Also, never again would foreign powers interfere with the American Indians.

Another consequence of the War was that the President and Congress realized that reliance on State militias for national defense was not a guarantee of military readiness and professionalism. Congress saw the need to provide funding for a professional military. During the War, most of the military leadership came from political connections. The small group of national professional military leaders (West Point was only ten years old when the War began) were particularly frustrated by the poor training of and the refusal to cross borders by State militias. As a result, the people of Canada, freed from the worry of invasion from the south, solidified their sense of national identity, albeit within the British Commonwealth.

Finally, for Americans the uncertainties of its infancy and nationhood were tested and resolved, along with a reinforcement of Anglophobia that lasted another century. After the War, the nation entered into the “Era of Good Feelings” with Americans bent on industrial innovation and westward expansion. Its foreign policy focused on protecting the Americas from European incursions.


Most Americans identify the burning of their Capitol city, the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner (originally titled Defense of Ft. McHenry), and the Battle of New Orleans as the primary events of the War of 1812. The latter, which happened after the signing of the peace treaty, forged the myth that the War was an American victory. Certainly the impressive naval engagements on the northern lakes, in the Chesapeake Bay, and on the high seas rightfully bestowed hero status to Commanders Oliver Hazard Perry, William Bainbridge, and Stephen Decatur. Under the leadership of War Hawks, Henry Clay and Winfred Scott, a new national political dynamic emerged that, among other things, brought an end to the Federalist Party (though much of its nationalistic agenda was enacted). Four heroes of the War went on to the Presidency: James Monroe, John Q. Adams, Andrew Jackson, and William Harrison.[1]

The Virginia Militia

References to the War of 1812 in the local histories and genealogies are scant. John Wayland in his History of Rockingham County[2] devoted less than two paragraphs to this subject and in the Appendix listed five militia companies and their members. Overall the lack of reliability of information in Federal and State records compounds confusion and contradictions. The inadequacies of records present challenges to researching the subject of local participation, particularly if the County was some distance from the action.[3] In addition, compounding the confusion local companies were assigned to larger units or combined with other units from another county. One guide to threading ones way through the War is Butler’s A Guide to Virginia Militia Units in the War of 1812.[4] We relied on this publication in an effort to determine where Rockingham County militia units participated in the War. By using the county data found in Butler’s Guide, and sorting the data by dates, regiments, commanders, and camp location, we can gain some understanding of the participation of men from Rockingham in the War of 1812.

Of course, Rockingham County was never under the direct threat of an engagement with the British. The men who were called-up marched, often 25 miles a day, to Richmond, Norfolk, and Maryland - any place within a short distance of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries - to fulfill their service. Recruits arrived at their destination often wearing unbleached, tow-linen shirts and trousers. Their hats were low-crowned and had a black cockade on the left side. Soldiers carried a tomahawk, a knife, a cartridge box, a bayonet, and a quart-size canteen. Complaints from military officers forced the Virginia Governor to try to upgrade the dress code, but, in fact, most militia men went to war in everyday clothes.[5]

The Virginia militia regiments were organized by County. The work of supervising and coordinating the call-up of the Virginia militia was assigned to the Adjutant General, who was appointed by the Governor, the commander-in-chief. A called-up unit served up to six months after arriving at the rendezvous point. This caused hardship and complaint from distant companies, like those from Rockingham, who traveled many days to eastern Virginia.

Under the US Constitution, Congress had the power to call the militia of the states to repel invasion or insurrection. In addition, the Virginia Adjutant General could also direct troop movement without prior Federal approval. In Virginia, the first call-up was April 12, 1812 and the last was February 20, 1815. The State called-up the militias from the Piedmont and the mountain counties when the British threatened the Chesapeake Bay counties and Northern Neck.

Militia law required all able-bodied white males, 18-45 years, to enroll in their district. Mustering usually took place in April and October. On mustering day, usually at the courthouse, tavern, or church, training lasted about two hours. An infantry unit usually included one captain, one lieutenant, one ensign, four sergeants, four corporals, a drummer and a fifer. Volunteers enlisted first, before the drafting of men. Certain occupations were exempt, including court officials, councils of state, tobacco inspectors, licensed ministers, and hospital staff. Substitution was allowed. (To be continued)

[1] Daniel R. Hickey. The War of 1812. A Short History. University of Illinois Press. 1995
Jon Latimer. 1812 War with America. The Belknap Press of Harvard University. 2007.
[2] John Wayland. A History of Rockingham County Virginia. C.J. Carrier Co., Harrisonburg, VA. 1996. pp 110-111
[3] Fifty years later, the destruction of records during the Civil War and that War overrode much of the memory of the War of 1812.
[4] Stuart Lee Butler. A Guide to Virginia Militia Units in the War of 1812. Iberian Publishing Co. Athens, Georgia. 1988.
[5] Tow-linen was made from hemp and a new garment was uncomfortably, scratchy to wear. Tow-linen was mostly used clothing the slaves and in the Rockingham County area hemp was a cash crop.

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