Fist Of History

Archive for the ‘War of 1812’ Category

James Wilkinson – Dick or Super Dick?

Monday, March 31st, 2014


One of the fascinating things about the history of the United States is the unusual cast of characters who played decisive roles in the formation of the nation – it is fair to say that the United States was founded by a blend of rebels, dreamers, plotters, visionaries, vagabonds, and scoundrels.  Above is one who fits in the last category, if one is being kind, James Wilkinson, born in 1757 and deceased in 1825.  Wilkinson began his career with the United States during its nascent years, serving initially as a Captain, and then being swiftly promoted to Colonel, during the opening years of the American Revolution.  In 1777 Wilkinson was charged by General Gates to carry the official dispatches back to the Continental Congress informing them of the major American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in New York.  Wilkinson completed his assignment, after a small delay to handle personal matters in Philadelphia, and while providing his report to the Congress of what happened he just happened to mention how incredibly brave and awesome he was at the battle.  Incredibly brave and awesome.  Carried the day brave and awesome.  But such flat out lying is understandable in a young and ambitious twenty year old and completely justifies his being promoted to Brigadier General by the Continental Congress and enraging other, more senior Colonels.  It also helped Wilkinson took part in a conspiracy to get General Washington tossed out as the Commander of the American Army, by 1778 Wilkinson feel in position due to General Gates having enough of his activities.  The Congress made Wilkinson a general in the supply services but he resigned the position.

But his career of messing with the United States had only just begun, in 1782 Wilkinson took a job as a general in the Pennsylvania militia and in 1783 served as a state assemblyman, but in 1787 he took a “special trip” down to New Orleans.  The purpose of his mission was to negotiate access for Kentucky to the Mississippi River – at the time Kentucky being a territory that was part of Pennsylvania and the Mississippi’s mouth being under the control of Spain, which also controlled New Orleans.  (Don’t ask.)  Wilkinson took this opportunity to try to hook up a deal with Spain, if they provided him with a “consideration” (money, property, position) he could ensure that Kentucky, rather than becoming a new state in the United States, instead peeled off and became a territory of Spain instead.  Wilkinson swore an oath of loyalty to Spain where he got the cool code name Agent 13, in reference to the secret code he used to communicate with Spain.  His plans with turning Kentucky into part of Spain failed and he didn’t get his money, but Wilkinson escaped being caught in his acts of questionable loyalty and was promoted to a position as commander of the entire United States army instead.  Wilkinson held this position from 1800 till 1812 when his lack of military skill and the demands of an actual war finally led to his being put in a lesser command, and later removed from the army entirely.  (He faced a court martial after losing two battles in the War of 1812 but was, of course, found innocent.)  In 1803 Wilkinson was the official who formally took ownership of the Louisiana Territory on behalf of the United States from France (again, don’t ask) – Wilkinson took advantage of this trip to hook back up with his Spanish buddies and offer to sell state secrets in exchange for getting his pension back.  (Which he totally did for another twelve years.)


In 1804 Aaron Burr (pictured above) decided that he had had enough of his political career being in free-fall and, after serving as the third Vice President of the United States, decided to pursue his own “questionable” venture in the western territories of the United States.  Burr traveled in the Ohio Territory and the Louisiana Territory talking to people about some interesting thoughts he’d had – about how the federal government was no longer following policies that really favored the west, about freedom, and about maybe organizing some other political arrangements in the western territories.  Was Burr advocating these areas secede from the United States and form a new nation?  Well, at his treason trial it was never really clear and he was acquitted, so from a legal perspective no.  But during his time working on this project Burr made a special friend who worked to help him in…whatever he was planning, a powerful general by the name of Wilkinson.  Wilkinson though decided, when the situation didn’t seem to be going his way, to cut his losses and provide evidence of Burr’s treasonous activities.  This included a helpful letter Wilkinson wrote that he said was a “copy” of a letter Burr had sent him asking him to help in treason, an action which of course horrified Wilkinson to his core.  Sadly he had lost the original of the letter but the copy had been made at the time and was most accurate.  The courts threw the copy out and Wilkinson was humiliated for this interesting evidence admission.

Of course Wilkinson remained in command of the United States army even after this got out, personally I’m guessing because the federal government somehow lacked other people with military training.

Finally after being relieved of his command in the War of 1812 Wilkinson quietly faded into obscurity…which is of course a falsehood.  He actually wrote his memoirs trying to clear his name and in 1821 traveled to Mexico and attempted to get the government there to give him a special land grant in Texas.  He died in Mexico waiting for approval of his request.  His activities as a spy were finally proved in 1854 when a Louisiana historian found letters in Wilkinson’s handwriting documenting his activities on behalf of the Spanish crown.

James Wilkinson – definitely one of our more “colorful” founding figures.

Sources:  Wikipedia entry on James Wilkinson, PBS documentary entry on James Wilkinson, Wikipedia entry on Aaron Burr.

September 11…1814 – the Battle of Plattsburgh

Wednesday, September 11th, 2013


Today on 11 September the United States takes a moment to honor and remember the events that occurred in 2001, unfortunately one of the pains of being a historian was captured by a comment by one of my instructors in graduate school, Professor King:  “Anything newer than fifty years isn’t history, it’s politics.”  People may argue the timeline but as I’ve gotten older I’m realized I agree with him to a high degree, the more recent the event the less information is present and the smaller the role of the historian.  However 11 September is a date that should resonate through U.S. history for multiple reasons and today I get to talk about one of my favorites, the Battle of Plattsburgh which took place on Lake Champlain during the War of 1812, helped greatly shape U.S. history, and was an incredible military victory for the U.S. against the invading forces of Great Britain.   This battle was the linchpin in an effort by the U.S. to defeat a British invasion from Canada aimed at marching southward through New York state and slicing the United States apart to weaken its war effort and gain a stronger position during the negotiations to end the war taking place in Ghent.  Great Britain’s major goal was to wrestle control of the Great Lakes from the U.S., establishing itself as a dominant economic force in North America by controlling access to the valuable growing trade in the the Midwest and newly acquired Louisiana territory.  The U.S. goal was to stop this attack, blunt the British advance, and push the British position back to where it was at the start of the war, i.e. not controlling the Great Lakes and certainly having no troops on territory in New York.


Historically speaking the land battle for the village of Plattsburgh itself is boring, a column of British regulars marched slowly into New York state along the western shore of Lake Champlain, being delayed by a smaller force of U.S. regulars augmented by poorly trained New York militia forces.  The fascinating part is the naval battle that took place for control of Lake Champlain itself, a vital part of the British plan to ensure their ground invasion force could remain supplied.  The U.S. fleet on the lake had only recently gotten larger than the British fleet and was outgunned in long range cannon, but matched the British in short range cannon.  The U.S. commander, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, tucked his ships into Plattsburgh Bay to force the British fleet to engage him at close range, he’d anchored his ships in place to present a fortified line.  The British, in turn, planned to engage the U.S. fleet by sailing into it and focusing on the ends of the U.S. naval line, to hopefully pound the line to breaking and force the U.S. fleet to scatter.  The winds were not with the British and several of their larger vessels ended up not able to implement the plan, leading instead to a slogging battle between the U.S. fleet and the British fleet.  In particular the two main ships, the HMS Confiance and the USS Saratoga, flagships of the fleet, had battered each other into near submission, the HMS Confiance only giving ragged fire and the USS Saratoga having all its guns facing the Confiance knocked out of action.


What made the battle a U.S. victory though was the plan by Macdonough prior to the battle to carefully rig the Saratoga with a complex anchoring scheme, anchors bow and stern to hold it in place, and sideways anchors called kedge anchors.  At the moment when both flagships were in their worse state Macdonough had his bow anchor lines cut and his men haul on the kedge anchors, allowing the Saratoga to pull a 180 degree spin and suddenly face the British with its undamaged side, all guns intact and ready to rock and roll.  The ensuing bonus round of heavy fire from the Saratoga smashed the British flagship, that setback combined with the general losses both sides had taken resulted in the British fleet surrendering.   With the loss of Lake Champlain the British land forces pulled out and the campaign to invade New York came to an end.

Although not historical I personally like to think of the British commander that day in purely modern gaming terms – cussing and yelling as he watched his American counterpart use some B.S. cheat mode to suddenly get his ship back up and running with full guns.  Macdonough was a national hero for his victory and, along with an elevation in rank, got a shiny gold medal of thanks from the U.S. Congress.


The British commander who was in overall command of the invasion of New York was relieved of his command of Canada’s armed forces and sent home.  What makes this battle particularly impressive though is the larger context, this victory took place at the same time that the city of Baltimore was under attack (a battle every U.S. citizen has heard of as it that victory is commemorated in the U.S. national anthem) and right after Washington D.C. got turned into a crispy fritter.  The United States at the time seemed to be in danger of coming apart at the seams and this victory was a key moment that proved that even in the face of such setbacks and dangers, the U.S. had the strength, and the resolve, to survive and even triumph in the face of incredible odds.

Source:  Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Plattsburgh and the Battle of Plattsburgh site on America’s Historic Lakes (with maps!)



Phillips Code – Telegraphy and Shorthand Expressions

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

It struck me yesterday that today’s trend towards acronyms and shorthand expressions when using instant messaging software, of any sort, might have had a parallel in the 19th century and the telegraph.  (Considering in most cases you were billed by the word/message length by Western Union.)  A little research revealed that a shorthand code did exist in the 19th and early 20th century – but it was not in widespread use by the general public and was hideously complicated.

It was known as Phillips Code – created by a telegraph operator named Walter P. Phillips in 1879 and then reprinted multiple times from the 1880s through the 1930s.  Each addition made slight modifications to the code but left the core concept intact, using a series of letters to refer to specific words so that stories could be transmitted more rapidly.  In some cases the letter combinations made sense but in most cases the book had to be used as a reference for both encoding and decoding the messages.  It was commonly used by newspaper reporters and some professionals when sending long messages/submitting stories by telegraph.

Apparently the terms POTUS (President of the United States) and SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) have survived and are attributed to the Phillips Code as their point of origin.  I checked and “Lol” is in the code list but at the time meant “Loss of Life” rather then its more cheerful meaning now.  (In case you are curious Cgs was the code for Congress – I suppose it was felt that national identity on that was not needed.)

The idea may be old but just looking at the code system in place I have to say – the modern shorthand seems A LOT more organic in approach and A LOT more successful.

Sources: Wikipedia Article on Phillips Code and a listing of the acronyms used in the Phillips Code.

National Debt and the War of 1812

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

One of the topics currently bandying around the news, once more, is the issue of the current federal/national debt of the United States, as of this writing floating around $14 trillion dollars.  Also at the time of this writing the US federal government’s revenue so far has floated around $2 trillion.  This puts the current national debt at around seven times the governments yearly operational capital.  The federal deficit at the time of this writing, (the shortfall between money in and money out in a single financial year), is hovering around $1.3 trillion, roughly half its total income.  So the US government currently owes about seven times its yearly income and it is currently overspending its yearly income by about half-again what it takes in.  These are impressive numbers, especially because they visually are long, but the United States has faced worse debt crises in the past under far harder economic situations.  In particular the War of 1812 put the US federal government in a particular bind, income to shortfalls to national debt load, a bind that makes today’s fiscal situation look positively rosy.

Prior to the start of the War of 1812 Presidents Jefferson and Madison had attempted to offset French and British diplomatic pressure upon the United States, pressure specifically to make the United States support either France or Britain in their on-going war, by economic policy.  The Embargo Act was the fruit of this policy, a law and a series of subsequent amendments, that attempted to halt all United States trade with any foreign powers.  The idea basically was that if France and Britain, well due to the British Naval blockade of France actually effectively just Britain, was cut off from the raw materials and agricultural products of the United States it would stop harassing US shipping and stealing US sailors from US ships.  The Embargo Act failed, badly, it hurt the economy of the United States and that was about the extent of its impact foreign relations-wise, but it also really hurt the federal government.  For most of the 19th century the United States did not have any federal income tax, instead the federal government got most of its operational revenue from import duties, taxes on imported goods of all sorts.  The Embargo Act reduced the volume of legal imports and therefore lowered the amount of revenue the federal government collected per year.

The War of 1812, a massive continent wide struggle against Great Britain, which included multiple ambitious invasions of Canada, a multiple sea naval campaign, raising the largest national army so far in United States history, and investing in infrastructure improvements to support this war effort, left the federal government fiscally in a tight spot.  So the government resorted to borrowing initially, a policy resisted prior to the War of 1812 strenuously as a long-term financial plan but embraced by the United States due the escalating costs of the War of 1812.  By 1814, the last full year of the War of 1812, and combat wise the heaviest, the government was in a critical situation:

Total Federal Revenues for 1814: $11.9 million dollars

Total Federal Expenditures for 1814: $35.4 million dollars of which $27.8 million was spent on Defense and $5.7 million was spent on the interest incurred on the federal debt

Federal Debt Load in 1815, by the way: $81.5 million dollars

So in 1815 the government owed about seven times its yearly income in debt, was spending around a third of its yearly revenue to cover the interest on its debt – today the United States federal government spends around 5 percent of its total income to cover the interest on its debt, owes about seven times but only over spends by around 50%, not around 290%.

But beyond the numbers what marks 1814 as a particularly challenging year for the US federal government is how the tax and borrowing situation looked: the United States Congress passed, and the federal government collected, from 1812 to 1814 an increasing heavy tax burden on the citizens, to the point the federal government was leery of increasing taxes further out of fear of mass unrest.  The US federal government also borrowed so much money that it ran out of lenders willing to extend it further loans.  Think about that for a moment, the federal government didn’t stop borrowing due to political squabbles or differences in philosophical outlook, it had to stop borrowing because literally no one, domestic or foreign, would lend it any more money.

So the government resolved the problem in a unique manner – it began to issue Treasury Notes that could be used by the government, and anyone else, as legal tender.  Prior to the War of 1812 the federal government had worked on a strict precious metals basis, every United States federal dollar was minted in either gold or (predominately) silver.  The federal government didn’t issue paper money, but to finance the War of 1812 it had to issue paper currency, but it wasn’t the paper currency you and I are used to.  These were interest bearing Treasury Notes that the federal government promised to redeem, in the future, with coined money and promised to pay 5.5% interest yearly on the notes.  However the federal government also agreed to accept these Treasury Notes as payment by its citizens for taxes owed to the government. effectively creating our first paper currency.  The government, by the way, had considerable difficulty in getting the public to accept these Treasury Notes and had to offer considerable additional incentives to make people use them.  (One example – in 1814 Treasury Notes issued could be purchased with metal money at a 20% discount off face value – and that was just one bonus incentive to sell the Treasury Notes.)

In the end after the conclusion of the War of 1812 the federal government began redeeming the paper Treasury Notes with metal money, using revenue from its suddenly increased revenue flow due to the re-establishment of trade levels.  The massive problems in borrowing money lead to the chartering of the Second Bank of the United States by President Madison after the war, specifically due to these difficulties.  However it took a long time for the economy to right itself after the War of 1812, the huge infusion of government debt into the economy had caused widespread inflation and the United States, as a nation, had the worst credit rating in its history since its victory after the Revolution.

Key grist to consider though:  By 1815 the United States had reached a cap on how much it could squeeze in taxes, in borrowing, and resorted to simply borrowing by pumping debt into the economy.  As of this writing the United States is facing fiscal challenges, but is in no way as close to its fiscal end as it was in 1815.


US Government Revenue and US Government Spending websites ( and

1812: The War That Forged A Nation – Walter R. Borneman

Monetary Aspects of Treasury Notes of the War of 1812 – Donald H. Kagin, appearing in The Journal of Economic History, March 1984

War of 1812 – Reflections on a Legacy

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

It is March of 2011 – currently making news around the nation is the hundred and fifty year anniversary of the wave of secessions that sparked the outbreak of the American Civil War – you can fully expect over the next few years to have a regular wave of commentary and news stories about reenactments of the US Civil War, the major events and battles of the Civil War being hashed out again, and of course controversy about the meaning of the US Civil War and the conduct of its key leaders on both sides.  All well and fitting, a good dialogue about the US Civil War will be useful and 2012 – 2015 does neatly fall into that one hundred and fifty year mark, I look forward to commemorative currency releases and modified US currency by private mints – perhaps will see a re-release of Confederate paper money, a fun collectible of many years.  However amidst the wave of excitement over the anniversary of the US Civil War the bicentennial of another, just as critical, US war is being drowned out, the bicentennial of the War of 1812.  There are some local commemorative events being planned, the City of Niagara Falls is putting forward a major commemorative tourist initiative for example, but nationally this is a war which the US has semi-forgotten, which is not surprising considering the conduct of the war but also sad because of its incredible importance in shaping our modern nation.

First off the name of the War of 1812 is an odd one – think about it for a moment, most US wars are named after the antagonists in the war or in the case of multi-combatant wars a catchy summary name is given.  World War I (formally the Great War) and World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the War with Mexico, the Spanish-American War, names that mark with whom we fought or signifying a major engagement.  The War of 1812 we have a date, you have to dig just to find out with whom we went to war.  A more proper, but less tongue rolling name, would be the Second Anglo-American War, this was a conflict between the United States and the Kingdom of Great Britain over a series of unresolved issues from the First Anglo-American War (also known as the American Revolution.)  Of particular import for the newly fledged United States was the impact of policies by the British government upon US shipping – the British navy regularly searched and boarded US ships and seized sailors for service in the British navy, under the argument that said sailors were escaped British seaman being returned to their legal duty.  (Often, honestly, they were not and the British navy was just filling its voracious appetite for sailors.)  There were issues regarding the presence of British military forces in territory that was supposed to have been fully turned over to the United States after 1783 – forces in the upper portions of the modern Midwest that threatened to undermine US political control of the region.  Great Britain was also channeling weapons to native tribes in the area as well, fomenting resistance to the rule of the United States over its newly acquired territories.

But this war came in the midst of a period of overall major changes for the United States and it helped redefine how our nation handled itself and it represented some incredibly close calls for the United State as a nation – some historians have called it the Second American Revolution and in many ways their catchy label is a valid one.  During this war the United States faced serious internal divisions over the war, politically waging it was a charged issue and many in the United States felt disconnected from the war, especially in the (at the time) populous and economically important New England states.  This discontent led to a threatened secession by many of the New England states in 1815, the news of the signing of the treaty ending the war forestalled what might have lead to a collapse of the United States as a nation in 1815.  From 1812 to 1815 the United States saw serious armed invasions on its shores, including in 1814 a major assault upon the territory of the United States from three directions – through upper New York southwards, along the coast line against Washington D.C. and against Baltimore, MD, and from the south against New Orleans.  In fact the capital itself was burned by the British after their successful routing of US military forces protecting the capital, an event that scattered the national government and put local authority in control of the war effort temporarily.

The War of 1812 also is filled with stirring stories as well – such as the defense of the Great Lakes by a US admiral commanding a fleet of ships built on-location and defeating the British Navy on station on the lakes, a victory critical to the future economic development of the United States.  All the commerce that flows along the Great Lakes today, including through the St. Lawrence canal to the Atlantic Ocean, all of that is because the United States gained control of the Great Lakes.  The War of 1812 also shifted the United States away from the ideal of a decentralized nation with a minimal federal government to one in which the central government had more authority, more resources, and more power.  It even profoundly impacted how the United States addressed issues of national defense and the role of the military.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing a series of posts on this war – both its impact and some of the major interesting events that occurred during the War of 1812 – in the hopes of bringing people’s awareness of it up.