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New London linked to opening salvos

By John Ruddy

Publication: The Day

Published 06/17/2012 12:00 AM
Updated 06/18/2012 12:40 PM
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

William John Huggins, a 19th-century marine painter from England, portrayed the opening engagement of the War of 1812 in "Escape of HMS 'Belvidera,' 23 June 1812." The Belvidera, a 36-gun frigate, left, is attacked by the 44-gun American frigate USS President, center, commanded by Commodore John Rodgers, who fired the first shot of the war.

Mystic man's research shows British targeted ship that brought future whaling titan to city

Commodore John Rodgers wasted no time upon the outbreak of the War of 1812.

Within minutes of receiving orders once war had been declared on Great Britain - 200 years ago this week - he put his five-ship squadron to sea. A fleet of British merchant vessels had sailed from Jamaica, and Rodgers meant to intercept them.

But sailing from New York, the U.S. Navy ships first sighted another vessel: the 36-gun frigate HMS Belvidera. Rodgers' flagship, the USS President, gave chase and closed the distance till it was in firing range.

Rodgers was aware no blood had yet been shed in the five-day-old war. So, sensing history, he manned the first gun himself, aimed at the Belvidera, and fired.

That's the standard account of how the war began on June 23, 1812, and it's in all the history books. What has been less well-known is that this notable moment is tied directly to New London.

A Mystic man whose hobby is researching history has spread the word about that link and deepened it. He says he has learned that the first shot of the war was tied to a seminal moment in New London's whaling history.

Joseph Greene has been on an odyssey of discovery since the day in 1975 when he heard a chance remark that one of his ancestors may have had a connection to the famous pirate Jean Lafitte. Intrigued, he started looking for information and soon found himself hooked on delving into the past.

"It's just been a treasure trove of information," he said.

The North Haven native, 59, moved to this region in 1991 when he got a job as a respiratory therapist at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. The hospital's name meant nothing to him until one day, when he was on Ocean Avenue, he noticed in amazement that a wing of the building was called the Nanine Lawrence Pond House. It is named for his great-grandmother.

Her grandfather, Joseph Lawrence, the man for whom the hospital was named, was the ancestor Greene had been trying to link to Jean Lafitte. Lawrence was also the founder of a New London whaling empire.

Newly aware of the connection between his family and his employer, Greene continued his research. In a 1910 story in The Day he found an account of Lawrence's arrival in New London. An Italian whose name was originally Giuseppe Lorenzo, Lawrence was a shadowy figure in his early years, and little information was available on him. According to the story, written by local historian R.B. Wall, he came to New London aboard a French privateer, the Marengo.

The Marengo visited New London in April 1812 and stayed for more than two months, during which time Lawrence, who was ill, recuperated in town. Greene speculates that the Marengo had recently tangled with the British navy and ducked into New London to avoid capture, but he said it's only a theory.

"Why she came to New London is, to me, the big question," he said.

The Marengo, "a long thievish looking schooner" in the eyes of an observer, was still in New London in June when the U.S. declared war on Britain. At the time, the British had intelligence that the Marengo was lying in wait to seize a British merchant vessel, so a navy frigate was posted to intercept it when it left New London.

That frigate was the Belvidera, which was soon attacked by Commodore Rodgers, launching the war.

"This just amazed me," Greene said of learning about New London's connection to the fateful first shot.

Historian Edgar Maclay compared the situation to a cat (the Belvidera) stalking a mouse (the Marengo) that was in search of a crumb of cheese. Then a dog (Rodgers) came along and chased off the cat.

Three shots fired in quick succession from Rodgers' ship all struck the Belvidera, whose captain knew war with the U.S. was imminent but was unaware it had been declared. Fleeing northeast, he soon returned fire, and the battle was on.

Rodgers had the Belvidera within his grasp, but 15 minutes into the fight, one of his guns exploded, killing or wounding 16 of the crew and hurling Rodgers into the air. He landed with a broken leg. The chaos allowed the Belvidera to escape, and it reached Halifax, Nova Scotia, with two dozen casualties and much damage.

The Belvidera's captain, Richard Byron, noted in his report that he had been awaiting the Marengo's exit from New London and gave the position of his ship when he encountered the Americans.

That raised another question that Greene has looked into: Where exactly did the battle take place? The answer seems to depend on the source.

Greene said he entered the longitude and latitude given by Byron into an online map, and they put the Belvidera due east of Atlantic City, N.J., which didn't seem to make sense. Greene said he is suspicious of position reports from the era because he has plotted others that place ships on dry land.

Theodore Roosevelt, in his celebrated book "The Naval War of 1812," places the Belvidera 100 miles south and 48 miles west of the Nantucket Shoals, heading northeast by east, 4½ hours before Rodgers opened fire. This puts the action well out in the Atlantic Ocean, as do most other accounts of the incident.

But Greene found a 1979 book called "The Frigates" that has Rodgers' squadron 35 miles due east of New York when the Belvidera was spotted to the northeast. This puts the action more or less in local waters, which jibes with the Belvidera's mission, he said.

Glenn Gordinier, the historian at Mystic Seaport and primary author of the just-released book "The Rockets' Red Glare: The War of 1812 and Connecticut," said he has reviewed Greene's research on the Marengo and is impressed.

"I'm convinced enough that I've included it in the book," he said.

Gordinier, who thanks Greene in a footnote, writes that "Connecticut played an important role" in the firing of the first shot. He places the engagement southeast of Nantucket but writes that the Belvidera was in southern New England waters in search of the Marengo, which had put ashore the ill Lawrence in New London. He also notes Lawrence's later importance to the local whaling industry.

"So it's a very direct link, in my view," he said.

Greene said he wanted the event recognized and claimed, in a sense, for the region, so he talked to the organizers of OpSail, which is marking the war's bicentennial. Plans were discussed to fire a cannon from Fort Trumbull in commemoration of the first shot, but nothing came of it.

In the aftermath of the attack on the Belvidera, the Marengo left New London, free to pursue the British merchant vessel Lady Sherlock, which it captured soon afterward.

New London, unaware of the sea battle till it was reported in the press, later became embroiled in the war when Commodore Stephen Decatur and his three-ship squadron were trapped in the Thames River by a British blockade that lasted the better part of two years. Decatur had commanded one of the ships in Rodgers' squadron when it attacked the Belvidera but played no part in the fight.

Joseph Lawrence was in and out of New London for the next seven years until he settled here for good around 1819. Greene has yet to link him to Jean Lafitte. After whaling died out, Lawrence's son, Sebastian, spent much of the family fortune on public gifts to New London, most notably the hospital where Greene now works.

Greene said he has begun to focus his research on a subject that has received little attention from scholars: the surprising degree to which French privateers like the Marengo were tolerated in U.S. waters in the years before the War of 1812.

The privateers were welcomed into American ports even as they were plundering American shipping, said Greene, who has written a draft of an article he would like to have published in an academic journal.

He was recently consulted about the discovery last year of a 200-year-old shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. The well-preserved, copper-sheathed hull has not been identified, but one candidate is the Diligent, a French privateer that associated with the Marengo and figures in Greene's research.

"The more you learn, the more you realize what you don't know," he said.


June 97, 2012 Article Washington Post entitled: THE WAR OF 1812, STILL SEEKING A LITTLE RESPECT :OPEN

You will be forgiven for not noticing that the bicentennial of the War of 1812 is nearing full swingNo such dispensation could be granted for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, of course,as it is impossible to miss the armies of reenactors, the newspaper special sections, the magazine covers, the Civil War travel packages — all this, even though sesquicentennial has none of the zing of bicentennial..Other anniversaries are much in the news. It gets no respect, this Rodney Dangerfield of American wars.

Some 36 percent of Americans say there were no significant outcomes to the War of 1812, or if there were any, they could not name them, according to a recent poll by the Canadian research firm Ipsos Reid for the Historica-Dominion Institute. While 17 percent of Canadians consider the War of 1812 the most important war in the formation of their nation’s identity, only 3 percent of Americans feel the same way. (True, Americans have a lot more wars to choose from than Canadians.) Historians duel over which deserves the title of most obscure major American war, Korea or 1812. Clay Blair titled his fine 1987 history of Korea “The Forgotten War”; Donald Hickey, one of 1812’s foremost scholars, countered two years later with “The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict.” (J. MacKay Hitsman named his book “The Incredible War of 1812,” but he was Canadian.) There are pockets of enthusiasm, to be sure, nowhere more so than in Maryland, which kicks off three years of commemorations with the “Star-Spangled Sailabration” beginning Wednesday in Baltimore, and where the cars sport War of 1812 license plates and the governor (Martin O’Malley) shows up at 1812 reenactments on horseback, dressed as a Maryland militia officer.

The Maryland Historical Society on Sunday opened “In Full Glory Reflected,” a major exhibit on the war, and on June 17, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra will premiere “Overture for 2012” by Baltimore native Philip Glass, who composed it as a companion piece to Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which will also be performed.

But in New York, site of some of war’s most important fighting, funding for a state War of 1812 commission was blocked for three years before a token amount of money for bicentennial programs was allotted in March.

Its anonymity is certainly no fault of the war itself, which has a gripping plot: Upstart nation with a tiny army and even smaller navy declares war on former colonial master, one of the most powerful nations on earth, and nearly gets blown off the map, but rallies in the end to squeak out a moral victory.

The war, which was declared on June 18, 1812, featured some of the most dramatic episodes in the nation’s history. These are familiar to most Americans, but as floating moments in time, ones they often can’t quite place in the War of 1812:

The dastardly British burning of Washington. Quite a few folks think that must have been during the Revolutionary War; never mind that the White House and the Capitol, not to mention Washington, did not exist.

The USS Constitution’s great victories at sea. Nope, “Old Ironsides” did not fight during the Revolutionary War. Yep, War of 1812. Oliver Hazard Perry’s message after his signal victory on Lake Erie — “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” No, that wasn’t from a “Pogo” cartoon strip. Most at least know the Battle of New Orleans happened in the War of 1812, though almost all knowledge comes from Johnny Horton’s 1959 hit “Battle of New Orleans,” a song that manages to get almost every fact wrong. (“Colonel Jackson” and his men did not make a little trip “down the mighty Mississipp’ ” — Major Gen. Andrew Jackson and his army were in Alabama. Need we go on?)

A popular theory as to the war’s anonymity is that no one can figure out why it was fought. The Revolutionary War was fought for American independence. The Civil War was fought to preserve the union and/or end slavery. World War I was fought to save Europe. World War II was fought to save the world. Vietnam was fought to stop the spread of communism.But the War of 1812? Well, it was fought to end the British practice of impressment. And to end onerous trade restrictions. You know, Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights. Or actually, it was about Western expansion — the first major war of American imperialism, as a (British) scholar recently called it.

The dilemma was captured perfectly in a War of 1812 video last year from College Humor, in which an American officer struggles to explain to his wife what the war is all about. “It might have something to do with taxes,” he muses.

The hardest point for many Americans to accept — and one reason the war is overlooked — is that the United States declared war. A lot of Americans assume Britain, still sore about losing the Revolutionary War, launched the war to reclaim its colonies.

Consumed with its titanic struggle against Napoleon’s France, Britain had no interest in launching a new conflict on an enormous continent across the ocean.

The British had a with-us-or-against-us mentality — not unlike that of the United States after Sept. 11, 2001 — and regularly trampled on American sovereignty. They seized American sailors of suspected British origin to man Royal Navy ships, and they severelyrestricted American trade.

Bowing to this British behavior would leave Americans “not an independent people, but colonists and vassals,” President James Madison believed. The War Hawks — an aptly named band of members of Congress from the South and West— were eager to see North America cleared of the British, allowing unimpeded expansion to the west, and, some hoped, to the north.

On some levels, historian Alan Taylor argues, the conflict is best seen as a civil war, completing unfinished business from the American Revolution. The Americans and the loyalists who had moved across the border had competing visions for the future of the North American continent, neither involving the other.

The only thing greater than the confusion over what the war was about is the disagreement over who won.

Canada would have the best claim, except that technically it did not yet exist — it was then British North America. But multiple American invasions of the colonies of Upper Canada (today Ontario) and Lower Canada (today Quebec) ended in failure.The successful defense set the stage for Canada’s future independence and nationhood. Among the calamities Canadians believe they thus avoided, named by 6 percent in the Ipsos Reid poll: Sharing American citizenship with Snooki and the cast of “Jersey Shore.

The British preserved their position in North America, but the war was hardly an unqualified success. Waging the war proved enormously expensive, the Royal Navy suffered shocking defeats at the hands of the fledgling U.S. Navy, and the British army met with disaster at New Orleans.As for Americans, they endured humiliating defeats on the Canadian frontier, the disgraceful loss of Washington and a government that was bankrupt by the war’s end (having refused to raise taxes to pay for it — another precedent!). Yet a string of victories at the end of the war — including at Baltimore and Plattsburgh — allowed the United States to emerge from peace negotiations in Ghent with decent terms. The Americans may have lost militarily, Hickey has observed, but they won the peace.

The only point virtually all scholars agree on— as required by guild regulations governing the assessment of American wars — is that Native Americans were the big losers. British efforts to establish an Indian buffer state in the Old Northwest were abandoned at Ghent, and America’s westward expansion continued inexorably.

Some argue that Americans want to remember only victories, and that therefore they have forgotten the War of 1812, which ended in failure. Or as a draw. Or with no clear-cut victory. But it was certainly more of a success than Vietnam, and no one has a problem remembering that war.

A bigger factor may be the name. The War of 1812 is a singularly poor name for a war that lasted nearly three years. The Spanish-American war, everybody knows the contestants. The Barbary Wars are nothing if not atmospheric.

But the War of 1812? It has a clerical feel, something to be filed after the Enabling Act of 1802 but before the Panic of 1819.Despite such challenges, there are signs of hope for the War of 1812 in the Ipsos Reid poll: 77 percent of Americans believe it had a significant impact on the nation’s identity. Certainly, Americans of the day believed that.

“The war has renewed and reinstated the national feelings and character which the Revolution had given, and which were daily lessening,” said Albert Gallatin, the former treasury secretary who helped negotiate the treaty. The people, Gallatin added, “are moreAmerican; they feel and act more as a nation; and I hope that the permanency of the Union is thereby better secured.”

The war left America with its national anthem, and its most enduring icon, the Star-Spangled Banner. It firmly established the sovereignty of the United States and cleared the path for Canada’s eventual independence.

For those reasons and many others not involving Snooki, the War of 1812 deserves to be better remembered and better respected.

Steve Vogel is the author of “Through The Perilous Fight,” an account of the British invasion of the Chesapeake in 1814, to be published next spring by Random House.


here is a good argument that the "dastardly British burning of Washington" was due to bad karma. Early in the war when American troops captured York (now Toronto), they put part of the town to the torch (possibly in revenge for the death of commander Zebulon Pike of Pike's Peak fame). Later in the war, US forces captured Newark (now called Niagara-On-The-Lake) on the Canadian side. Unable to maintain the foothold it was decided to withdraw back to the American side of the river in December 1813, but not before burning the town while leaving the British fort intact. British/Canadian troops then raided the New York side of the river and burnt American homes in retaliation. As in modern times, war always seems to degenerate into dumb pointless acts.


The biggest take-away of the War of 1812 is this. If you want to learn how not to wage a war properly, study this one carefully. The leadership on both sides was, with a few brilliant exceptions, for the most part catastrophic. Old, sick politically appointed men who could not or would not lead their men. Many militias marched proudly up to the Canadian border...and stopped. They did not have the mandate to fight on foreign soil.

The US had very good reason for declaring war, but then those issues for starting the war were not even addressed in the peace treaty. The US navy did very well indeed. And Old Hickory Jackson must still be rotating in his grave knowing that the battle of New Orleans had no effect on the peace treaty.

The episode of the invasion raid up the Chesapeake by the Brits indirectly gave some important legacy to the US. Pres. Madison retreated across the Potomac, leaving Dolly Madison to rescue the painting of Geo Washington and 'entertaining the British Officers'. All very civil somehow. And then Capt. Ross getting killed at Baltimore. The Canadians is true style pickled his body in a barrel of rum, to take back up to Halifax for burial. I always wondered what the crew did do with that rum. Surely with that extra body, they did not let it go to waste. And of course that trip gave the US its national anthem, and changed the Executive Mansion into the White House.

This is the war that established the real independence of the United States and set the country on the road to becoming a genuine world power. Arguably one the most important of our conflicts, certainly more so than Viet Nam and a number of others.

Kuato down below there ignores the signal achievements of the US navy against a vastly superior British armada, on sea as well as on the Great Lakes, in addition to the victory at the Battle of New Orleans (which took place, admittedly , after the Treaty of Ghent was signed.) One of the reasons the British ultimately declined to join the Civil War through blockade or other action was the memory of 1812 (Antietam of course also played a major role).

War of 1812 Remembrance Day

WHEREAS, the Bicentennial of the War of 1812 sometimes referred to as “The
Second War for American Independence” officially begins on June 18, 2012; and

Whereas the sacrifices by those soldiers, citizens and their families that fought in the War of 1812, further defended the liberties previously won in the American Revolution; and

Whereas those sacrifices would include heroic efforts by Dolly Madison to save some of our National treasures from destruction during the burning of the White House by the British in 1814; and

Whereas the conflict and bravery shown would inspire Francis Scott Key to write a poem describing the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor and the said writings would become our country’s National Anthem, known as the Star Spangled Banner; and

Whereas General Andrew Jackson helped win a stunning victory over the British in the Battle of New Orleans on 08 January 1815; and

Whereas the War of 1812 further solidified the United States independence from
Great Britain; and

WHEREAS, descendents of some of the veterans of the war of 1812 in the state of ______are members of the U,S, Daughters of the War of 1812 and the General Society of the War of 1812; whose primary  purpose is to promote a more general awareness of the history of said war throughout this state and among the citizens this nation:

Now, Therefore I                        , Mayor of                       ,  I_______ do herby proclaim  June 18th as “The War of 1812 Remembrance Day” and urge all citizens to become more knowledgeable of the role the War of 1812 played in the history of our great nation and citizens of the state of ________.




Copyright 2012