Our Forgotten War

Richmond's story is dominated by the American Revolution and Civil War. But the city has reminders of another chapter - the War of 1812.

Richmond has experienced close brushes with disaster. Soon after 9/11 terrorist strikes on lower Manhattan, the Pentagon and Pam Am Flight 103, the FBI reported that the Federal Reserve Bank on the shore of the James River may have been a potential target. The prospect was especially chilling considering that this sleek icon of the nation’s economic system was designed by Minori Yamusaki, the architect of the decimated World Trade Center.

But other scares from outside forces gave Richmond cause to quiver. From 1861 to 1865, during the Civil War, there was the unnerving Union battle cry “On to Richmond,” while Northern troops were entrenched within earshot on the eastern outskirts of town and nearby Petersburg was besieged.

At no time were Richmonders more clenched, however, than during the War of 1812, whose bicentennial observance begins this year.

The government’s last nerve had been plucked by the continued British practice of seizing cargo from U.S. ships, abducting American sailors for its navy and offensives to dominate the Northwest Territories while inciting Native Americans to fight there. In June 1812, the United States declared war.

Hampton, a short sail down river, was invaded on June 25, 1813. The reports were ugly: private homes plundered; a church pillaged, its communion silver stolen; elderly, bedridden men brutalized; and women raped — one by a gang of French mercenaries.

For older Richmonders, the new patriotic war cry, “Remember Hampton!” was cold comfort. They vividly recalled another war, the American Revolution, when Gov. Thomas Jefferson — in what wasn’t his finest hour — fled the fledging capital city with his cabinet and left it unprotected for Gen. Benedict Arnold to torch.

Never again.

With a population of 9,000, in 1810 Richmond was the nation’s 12th largest city. And although it was still coping with tragic deaths of 72 people in a theater in December 1811, residents endorsed President James Madison’s call for war.

When the president asked for 100,000 volunteers, Virginians stepped up. Richmond militia groups included the Rifle Volunteers, the Washington and Jefferson Artillery, the Light Infantry Mechanics, the Riflemen and fundraising support groups such as Friends of the Revolution. Many western Virginia troops marched to Richmond for training and to board vessels at Rockett’s Landing headed to assignments along the coast.

Petersburg, whose population was about half of Richmond’s, was especially gung-ho. Although Virginia had met enlistment quotas, a regiment drawn from that town’s elite — who’d been “nursed in the lap of ease,” according to an observer — proved highly effective in the Great Lakes region. It gained the moniker Cockade City for its hometown — a reference to the rosettelike badge attached to soldiers’ hats.

Meanwhile, Richmond “sleepth in inglorious repose,” reported the Richmond Enquirer newspaper, of the city’s relative lukewarm response as war continued.

Local attitudes shifted suddenly on Aug. 24, 1814, with reports that the British had stormed Washington, Madison’s government scattering to the countryside while the Capitol and the president’s house were in flames.

When the British announced that Richmond was next, local officials swung into action. The city was still recovering from devastating James River flooding a month earlier that had decimated the Mayo Bridge and caused severe damage along the riverbanks. But militiamen gathered at their posts.

Virginia Gov. James Barbour, who’d recently moved into the new Governor’s Mansion, called the General Assembly into emergency session and appealed for more volunteers. Men flocked from across the sprawling state, which included what is now West Virginia. It was a colorful force — mountaineers with muskets and fishermen with rifles joined locals toting any available weapon.

Richmond dodged a bullet when the British advanced no farther than Alexandria.

Despite these real threats, much of the War of 1812 was fought on water, and Richmond residents experienced the conflict vicariously and often through a romantic filter. Both the younger generation and older folks, who had experienced the heady Revolution, were mesmerized by the often daring exploits of the U.S. Navy. Much like Americans embraced astronauts in the 1960s, what happening on water during the War of 1812 was a new experience. There had been little that resembled a serviceable navy at the war’s start. So each victory on water — and there were victories — seemed improbable.

Consider: The United States entered the war with 16 warships up against 600 British vessels.

But there were factors in favor of the Americans. Most of this generation of naval officers had been weaned aboard ships, knew the U.S. coast, were seasoned by previous wars in Tripoli in the Mediterranean, and were close-knit. The tightness of the naval community allowed Washington officialdom an excellent grasp of the optimum assignments for each officer.

Naval heroes of the War of 1812 — such as William Bainbridge, Stephen Decatur, Isaac Hull, William MacDonough, Hazard Perry, David Porter and Robert Stockton — so captured the local imagination that soon after the 1814 Treaty of Ghent brought an end to the conflict, the town of Manchester renamed its major streets for these men, none of whom were Virginians.

When Manchester and Richmond merged in 1910, those 100 square blocks became the city’s most sprawling, if forgotten, de facto war memorial. In the 1960s and ’70s most of the sturdy and handsome houses on Bainbridge, Perry, Porter and MacDonough streets were demolished. But today, residential construction in Manchester is making a comeback. And while Hull Street has lost its former retail draw, Decatur and Stockton streets in the adjacent Blackwell neighborhood are being revived with intensive and attractive new housing.

So while America revisits the War of 1812 on its 200th anniversary and the Manchester and Blackwell neighborhoods continue their comebacks, it’s an appropriate time to look back at the men — saints and sinners — who established the U.S. Navy and whose forgotten names long have been imbedded in our city’s streets and landscape.

David Dixon Porter (1780-1843)

A seasoned naval officer in the War of 1812, Porter provided Americans their first taste of victory on Aug. 13, 1812, just weeks after war began. The Bostonian, whose father had fought in the Revolution, commanded the USS Essex when it captured the British warship, the HMS Alert, as well as its crew.

Later in the war Porter sailed along the coast of South America, around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa and fought British whalers. He was a solid amateur artist and created a visual record of these voyages.

He’d joined the navy at age 19 and served on the USS Constellation, a storied ship that saw action during the Revolution. He was an officer on the USS Philadelphia when that ship ran aground in Tripoli Harbor in 1803. Along with the ship’s commander, William Bainbridge, he and 300 others were imprisoned for almost two years in North Africa.

Before the War of 1812 Porter mentored America’s first admiral, David Farragut. In 1808 Porter had adopted the 8-year-old orphan. After dogged appeals to the president, at just 9 years old Farragut was commissioned a midshipman and went to sea under the watchful eye of Porter, his guardian.

Porter’s career took a nose dive when in 1823, he invaded a Puerto Rican town to avenge the seizure of one of his officers. He was court-martialed for this unauthorized action. Undeterred, he moved to Mexico and became commander-in-chief of its navy.

By 1829 he’d entered the U.S. diplomatic corps and died while serving as ambassador to Turkey.

Isaac Hull (1773-1843)

Within a week of Porter’s celebrated capture of the British HMS Alert, on Aug. 19, 1812, the USS Constitution — at sea under the command of Hull — encountered the HMS Guerriere and pounded her mercilessly. Hull proved to the world that however fledgling, the U.S. Navy could be a dangerous opponent.

During the later part of the war Hull commanded the Portsmouth, N.H., naval yard, a critical assignment because America was playing catch-up at ship retrofitting and construction. Hull also served on the elite and powerful Navy Board of Commissioners, which basically ran the service.

Hull was born in Connecticut and developed his sea legs on trips with his mariner father along New England’s coast and on longer jaunts to the West Indies. Like Porter, prior to the War of 1812 Hull served in Tripoli. He supervised the construction of gunboats and at various times commanded the USS Chesapeake, the USS President and the USS Constitution. Hull later headed the Boston Navy Yard. He received a congressional gold medal.


Stephen Decatur Jr. (1779-1820)

As the War of 1812 began, President James Madison assigned naval vessels to patrol the nation’s coast. Decatur commanded the USS United States, one of the largest with 44 guns. Three days after war was declared Decatur steered the United States out of New York harbor and soon thereafter 500 miles south of the Azores where he encountered the British HMS Macedonian.

The two ships shared a bet. In 1810 the ships had been alongside each other in Norfolk. The captain of the Macedonian bet a fur beaver cap that if they ever met in battle, the Macedonian would prevail. That day occurred on Oct. 25, 1812, south of the Azores: Not only did the USS United States prevail, but also Decatur repaired the Macedonian and sailed it back to New London as a prize.

In January 1815, before word reached the United States of a peace treaty, Decatur was assigned a mission to the East Indies. There was, however, a British blockade of New York harbor and Decatur attempted to sneak out to sea. Poor planning and charting caused his ship to run aground. He was captured and sent to prison in Bermuda. A month later, with the cessation of hostilities, he was set free. He was awarded a congressional medal.


Born on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Decatur was the son of an American naval officer who’d served in the Revolution. Decatur went to sea at age 8 because it was thought salt air would cure his whooping cough. He was not only cured but also became smitten by sailing. Despite his mother’s pleas that he become an Episcopal minister, he joined the Navy at 19 and became the youngest American to reach the rank of captain. Like Porter and Hull, he fought in the Tripolitan War.

Decatur married Susan Wheeler, whose father was Norfolk’s mayor. The Virginia belle had previously been wooed by Aaron Burr and Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Jerome.

Before the War of 1812 the Decaturs lived in Washington where he was a Navy commissioner. The couple built an elegant house on Lafayette Square across from the White House where they entertained lavishly. The house now is open to the public.

In 1820 Commodore James Barron, a colleague of Decatur’s who believed he was denying him appointment to a desired naval commission, challenged Decatur to a duel. Decatur asked a close friend, Thomas MacDonough, to be his second. MacDonough refused, being opposed to dueling. Decatur then turned to William Bainbridge, who had deep jealousies of Decatur’s successes and popularity — he was considered the first great American war hero since the Revolution.

Both duelists were shot, but Decatur died. He was 41.

President James Monroe, the Supreme Court and most of Congress led the mourners at Decatur’s funeral. Porter and MacDonough were pallbearers. For the rest of her life, Susan Wheeler Decatur railed against all involved in the duel. She called Bainbridge and the others “assassins.”


William Bainbridge (1774-1833)

With the outbreak of the War of 1812, Bainbridge was given command of the USS Constitution, relieving Hull. He sailed the South Atlantic. In December 1812 the Constitution encountered the HMS Java, which Bainbridge soon cut to pieces. He was twice wounded in the battle but prevailed, forcing the Java to surrender.

Born in Princeton, N.J., Bainbridge’s’ father was a loyalist during the American Revolution and was convicted of treason. After the elder Bainbridge moved to England, William was adopted by his maternal grandfather and sent off to sea at age 14 as a merchant marine.

In 1798 Bainbridge was appointed a commanding lieutenant of the newly organized U.S. Navy and given command of the USS Retaliation. He was forced to surrender his ship when he approached two British vessels he’d mistaken as French. It was the first surrender in the history of the U.S. Navy. He wasn’t disciplined.


The next year he was commander of the USS Norfolk, and later was given command of the USS Philadelphia with the task of blockading the harbor at Tripoli. He mistakenly ran the ship aground on uncharted reef. Tripolitan gunboats opened fire and Bainbridge surrendered. He and 300 other Americans, including Porter, were imprisoned for 19 months.

Throughout his career Bainbridge was famous for his indifference to the plight of his men and sadistic punishments. He’d called them “perfect rabble” and “damned rascals” to their faces and was a harsh disciplinarian. Drunkenness was punished by six weeks locked in irons. He often personally gave 36 lashes and required all hands on deck to witness the punishment. On one occasion 13 sailors mutinied before leaving port rather than serve under him. He once fractured a man’s skull by cracking him over the head with the flat of his sword.

But Richmond embraced him. After his release from prison in Tripoli in June 1805, he was given a celebratory public dinner here, with Chief Justice John Marshall as host.


Robert Stockton (1795-1866)

The son of a wealthy farming family near Princeton, N.J., Stockton was the youngest of the War of 1812 naval figures to be honored with a street name in Manchester. He joined the navy at 16 in 1811 and was a midshipman on the USS President when war was declared.

After the war he served with Decatur in the Mediterranean.


But Stockton is less known for his naval career than for his role in introducing canals and railroads to New Jersey and establishing California as a solid American settlement on the Pacific Coast: The city of Stockton in that state is named for him.

An abolitionist, in 1821 he was a major proponent of the American Colonization Society, which sought to settle free blacks in Africa. He personally visited what is today Liberia and negotiated the land acquisition for that nation and its eventual capital city, Monrovia.


Thomas MacDonough (1783-1825)

MacDonough was the most celebrated naval officer at the end of the War of 1812 when his forces defeated the British at the Battle of Lake Champlain. This ended the British and Native American threat from Canada and ultimately ended the war.

Just prior to the outbreak of the War of 1812, MacDonough, who had joined the navy at 16, was assigned to the USS Constellation but was blockaded in Washington for much of the war.

MacDonough found action during the bloody Battle of Plattsburgh Bay in New York on Sept. 11, 1814. During the battle a quarter of combatants on each side were killed or wounded. Commanding officer MacDonough took two horrendous hits. First, he was knocked down by a falling boom. Pulling himself together, he was almost killed when the head of a decapitated American midshipman smashed into his face. Although MacDonough’s flagship, the Saratoga, was severely damaged, it managed to hold off the British, who retreated.


It was one of the most decisive naval battles of the War of 1812. The British army retreated northward after Plattsburgh and lost its enthusiasm for the costly war.

On Dec. 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed. Word spread across international waters and the conflict gradually died down. The United States had taken its place as a world power.

And Americans had a new generation of heroes. “In one month,” MacDonough, a Delaware native who was a devout Episcopalian, later wrote, “I went from [being] a poor lieutenant [and] I became a rich man.” For his bravery, MacDonough received gifts from private citizens — land, elaborate swords and silver sets. He, too, was awarded a congressional medal.

And along with his contemporary naval officers, he was immortalized in the landscape of South Richmond.


Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819)

At Perry’s request, during the War of 1812 he was given command of naval forces on the western war front on Lake Erie. In September 1813, Perry led a successful fleet action against the British there. When his flagship, the USS Lawrence, was severely disabled, the British thought he would surrender. But his battle flag was emblazoned “Don’t give up the ship” (which had been the dying words of Capt. James Lawrence, the ship’s namesake). While the Lawrence fired its last salvo, Perry left the heavily damaged vessel and was rowed a half mile through heavy fire to the USS Niagara. The Americans continued to pound away at the British until they surrendered.

Perry’s words in his battle report became as famous as those on his flag: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”

This was the first time that an entire British naval squadron had surrendered anywhere — two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.

It was one of the most significant victories of the war and Perry received a congressional medal.


Perry loved the sea and became a midshipman at 13. Assigned his father’s ship, he experienced his first combat at the age of 15 off the coast of Haiti. In 1806 he commanded the USS Revenge enforcing the Embargo Act, set in place by President Thomas Jefferson. In 1811 Perry ran the Revenge aground near Rhode Island and it was lost. After his court martial, he took a leave of absence. During his break from the Navy he was married to Elizabeth Champlin Mason of Newport, R.I. His younger brother was Matthew C. Perry, who opened Japan to trade with the United States.

At the close of the War of 1812, Perry was provoked into slapping a fellow officer, John Heath. Both were court martialed. Heath challenged Perry to a duel, which took place in Weehawken, N.J., on the same field where Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton. Heath fired first and missed Perry. Perry refused to fire.

Later in his career Perry was sent on a diplomatic mission to South America where he was successful in working with Simon Bolivar to avert piracy in the Caribbean. There, he contracted yellow fever from mosquitoes and died on ship.


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