History's Headlines: War of 1812 was Lehigh County's baptism of fire

Author: , Historian
Published: Nov 02 2012 10:24:22 PM EDT

On March 6, 1812 the Pennsylvania legislature created Lehigh County, but what really had the legislators' attention that day was the news coming out of Washington, D.C.

Issues between Great Britain and the United States over trade with Napoleonic France, impressments of American sailors by the Royal Navy (the British claimed they were deserters, which some were), and the still undetermined border of Canada were boiling over.

 In Congress, the so-called “War Hawks”- mostly members of the House of Representatives from the South and West- were claiming a “cake-walk” campaign would lead to America’s easy conquest of Canada. So, with the backing of most of Congress and the support of a large part of the country, on June 18, 1812 President James Madison declared war on Britain in what history has come to call the War of 1812.

Today, the War of 1812 is almost an afterthought in American history. Attempts to get funding for its 200th anniversary have largely fallen on deaf ears in Congress and state government. And where once the heroic words of its U.S. commanders like “don’t give up the ship” and “we have met the enemy, they are ours,” could be recited by any school child, few in our history-challenged time have any idea that there ever was such a war.

This would most surely have surprised those in the Lehigh Valley who lived it.

Four-month-old Lehigh County supported the war. When Governor Simon Snyder, the first Pennsylvania German to hold that office, had called for militia troops to answer the president’s call, the newly formed county responded. By July 1, 1812, 462 Lehigh County men had been enrolled as volunteers. By 1814 that number would swell to somewhere between 600 and 800 troops.

When the war broke out most of the fighting took place at sea, far from Lehigh County. As the frigates of the small U.S. Navy like the U.S.S. Constitution skillfully thwarted the British fleet in many single ship encounters, it must have seemed unreal in a region far from the sea coast. But in the spring of 1814, the collapse of the French empire enabled the British to turn their eyes across the sea.

Fear that Philadelphia might be a target for the British caused Snyder to beef up the defenses around the city. There were still many people around who could remember the British occupation during the Revolution and his caution was understandable.

Most of the Lehigh County militia was sent to fortifications at Marcus Hook in Delaware County. Here an earthwork, first known after its commander as Camp Gaines, and later Fort Snyder, was established. Equipped with cannon and breastworks it was considered a formidable defense. But what it did not have was many well trained regular U.S. Army soldiers.

Nationally, the militia was full of enthusiasm but they had never faced an enemy in open combat. Attempts by it to invade and take over Canada were blocked by the British troops that included Canadian militia. Today, many in Canada see the War of 1812 as a first step in the creation of a national identity.

As a part of Northampton County, Lehigh County men had fought in the Revolution. But this war would be able to show what they could do as Pennsylvania’s newest county.  Unfortunately as their descendants would discover in 1861, war was not all parades. Fort Snyder was ill prepared for them. One wrote home they only had crusts of bread to eat.  Dysentery killed many. Despite this, in its early days only one man attempted to go AWOL and he was one of the few Army regulars.

Although rumors of a possible enemy invasion had been circulating in the summer of 1814, few on the east coast of North America knew how close the enemy actually was. Then, like a thunderbolt, panic gripped Washington D.C.  On August 16, 1814 word came that a large British fleet had been sighted off the Virginia coast and was rapidly moving up Chesapeake Bay. On board the ships were 4,000 British troops who were ready to smash the east coast of the United States. By August 24, with the British just outside, the practically defenseless city had only ill-equipped raw militia to rely on.

Many books about what followed have been written about the collapse of the militia and the burning of Washington that followed. Dolley Madison and her servants managed to rescue Washington’s portrait but the rest of the White House was plundered by the British and left as a guttered ruin.

From the chair of the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the British commander ordered “this harbor of Yankee democracy” burned and the Capitol building went up in flames.

What the men at Fort Snyder thought when they heard of this is unknown but they might have wondered when the cannon of the Royal Navy would be aimed at them. But fortunately they never heard a shot fired in anger.

The troops defending Baltimore were made of different stuff than those in Washington. They defeated the British in a fierce battle that gave birth to “The Star Spangled Banner” at Fort McHenry.

Although the British were gone no one knew that yet. So the troops remained at Fort Snyder, in dysentery ridden garrison duty. Even a visit by the governor in October did not lift spirits. In November, their numbers reduced by illness to roughly 400, the troops were finally allowed to return home.

On Dec. 24, 1814, U.S. diplomats in Europe signed a peace treaty with Britain. Word of this treaty did not reach America until May, 1815. In that time General Andrew Jackson’s victory over a British Army in New Orleans had been hailed in Lehigh County with a brass band and cannon fire. Lehigh County’s first war was over.