By Chuck Fithian, HCA Curator of Archaeology
200 years have passed since the War of 1812, but few realize the dynamic role that the First State and its citizens played within the conflict. This article is the first of four excerpts to be blogged from Mr. Fithian’s essay entitled, “For the Common Defense,” “Infernals,” and a “Maraudering Species of War”: The War of 1812 in Delaware.
One of the most obscure of America’s conflicts is the War of 1812 . Wedged between our War for Independence and the Civil War, it is poorly known by many Americans. It was one of the most far flung of any of our nation’s wars. It would rage from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico, from Delaware to the coast of the Pacific Northwest, to Valparaiso, Chile and Ghent, Belgium, with the final shots being fired in the Indian Ocean near the island of Java.
While the war was comparatively brief in duration, its consequences would affect the United States long into the nineteenth century. Delawareans would be participants in nearly all aspects of this conflict. They would serve in the federal government, the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps; participate in diplomatic efforts; sail on privateering cruises; and provide extensive military service as the front line in the defense of the economically vital Delaware Valley. While Delawareans served in many important capacities outside of the region, this essay is intended to provide an introduction to the history of the War of 1812 within Delaware and the lower Delaware Valley.
The economy of the Delaware Valley in the early nineteenth century was inextricably linked to regional, national, and far-reaching global networks, all of which made the region vital to the economic health of the United States. These networks meant that Delawareans were directly connected to the many events that occurred throughout the Atlantic world. As citizens of a politically Federalist state, Delawareans were mainly opposed to the moves toward war with Great Britain.
While many of the complex issues that underlay the coming conflict resonated among the state’s populace, they were keenly aware of the dangers war would bring to the state with its exposed Delaware Bay and River and Atlantic frontier. Supported by the “War Hawks” who dominated Congress, and over unanimous opposition by Delaware’s congressional delegation, the administration of President James Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
Governor Joseph Haslet had begun to prepare Delaware before the declaration of war through the acquisition of additional arms and equipment from the federal government. Some of the earliest efforts to protect the state were the erection and manning of fortifications at Wilmington, New Castle, and Lewes. After the declaration of war, along with the fortifications, sites such as encampments, arsenals, training areas, military administrative facilities, and observation posts, would be established across the state during the course of the war.
The governor also drew upon the state’s well established militia. In what for many would be extensive periods of time, his citizen soldiers left their farms and respective trades for military service in manning the fortifications and in the field. Throughout the war, the governor would be assisted by capable military officers such as Colonel Samuel Boyer Davis and Captain Caesar A. Rodney. Revolutionary War veterans, such as Allen McLane and Caleb P. Bennett, would help rally the support of the state’s citizens and provide valuable assistance and advice with defensive measures and other military operations.
Chuck Fithian holds a master’s degree in history from Salisbury University and has extensive expertise in military and maritime history/archaeology, in material-culture studies, and social history of Colonial- and Revolutionary War-era America. Mr. Fithian is responsible for the curation of the archaeological collections of the state of Delaware and for conducting historical/archaeological research. His current work includes directing the research and conservation of the artifact collection and hull of His Majesty’s Sloop DeBraak and conducting a survey of Delaware sites related to the War of 1812.