SACKETS HARBOR — A war between the United States and Great Britain that fell out of the spotlight of American history is back in the public eye starting this week, two centuries after the first shots were fired.
The War of 1812 is best remembered for the burning of the White House by British forces and the American victory in New Orleans after the war was declared officially over. The war’s lasting legacy is the “The Star-Spangled Banner” written by Francis Scott Key following the unsuccessful British attack on Baltimore.
American history books give the war scant review, and that includes the significant battles that took place in the Great Lakes region. But historians in the area see the bicentennial as an opportunity for Sackets Harbor to reaffirm its standing as one of America’s most critical military outposts during the war.
“This was the focal point,” said Gary M. Gibson, a historian and village resident who has spent more than 15 years studying the military operations of the time. “You’re sitting on it.”
In addition to serving as a main military post on Lake Ontario, the village housed one of the most impressive shipbuilding operations in the young nation.
And Canadian historians agree.
Maj. John R. Grodzinski, a professor at the Royal Military College of Canada, noted that Sackets Harbor is much more than “just a quaint little town with an interesting story.”
He told residents in a recent lecture at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site that the village was nothing less than “crucial to the development” of the U.S. Army.
RUMORS OF WAR
When war with Great Britain was declared on June 18, 1812, reaction in the north country was mixed. Despite hostilities between the two nations, people along the border had shared culture, language, trade and even family ties.
“This was a war between two groups of people who had no differences,” said Timothy J. Abel, former executive director of both the Jefferson County Historical Society and the Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance.
The village would receive its first military test about a month into the conflict, as British forces pressed the harbor on July 19 in what would be known as the First Battle of Sackets Harbor.
Best summarized as an exchange of cannonfire between British forces on the water and Americans on land, the battle led to relatively few casualties and minimal damage for the Americans.
“The only thing broken was the Sabbath,” Mr. Abel joked.
The motive for the first attack was questionable, as orders from higher British leadership at the time said to avoid unprovoked conflict so as to not rally American opposition.
And with no results to show for the effort, there was practically no British record of the battle, save for a mention in an editorial of a Kingston newspaper, Mr. Gibson said.
In the following months, the village saw a dramatic shift from its relatively humble beginnings.
Settled by Augustus Sackett about a decade earlier, the village had built a small yet sustainable economy based on trade with nearby Canadian ports such as Kingston, Ontario. As trade was restricted in the years building up to the war, the smuggling of goods from the village into Canada became rampant, continuing well after the conflict began.
With war fully under way, the village’s population skyrocketed from a couple hundred people living in 40 homes to thousands of soldiers, sailors, Marines, shipbuilders and merchants. Mr. Gibson said the village population through the war varied from 5,000 to about 12,000.
With much of the main fighting taking place on Lake Ontario, the village would become the state’s third-largest population center, behind only New York City and Albany. The village also would see rapid building of defenses and forts with names like Pike, Volunteer, Kentucky, Virginia and Tompkins.
Several prominent names would become regulars in the area, most notably Commodore Isaac Chauncey and Generals Zebulon Pike and Jacob Brown. Gen. Pike, killed in the 1813 offensive at Fort York in present-day Toronto, was buried in the village. Pike’s Peak in Colorado is named for him.
The village area would become a fixture in headlines of the period.
“By 1814, every literate person knew of Sackets Harbor and where it was,” Mr. Gibson said, adding that such recognition was remarkable given the limited access to maps at the time. The village area would be regularly identified in foreign outlets such as the Times of London.
Shipbuilding was in full force, with several notable builders such as Henry Eckford and the brothers Adam and Noah Brown calling the village home.
Mr. Eckford and his men could build a ship in about a month and a half, several times faster than their British counterparts.
“He was turning out ships like printing presses turn out newspapers,” Mr. Gibson said.
Growth came despite massive costs and difficulties in transporting resources over land to the remote area.
Though the village was booming, conditions there at times could be abysmal. Illnesses such as lake fever, which some compared to a more dangerous type of flu, sickened and killed large numbers of military members. Cold weather also was a detrimental factor.
Drunkenness was common among soldiers, as alcohol was supplied with their rations. Meanwhile, there was a cantankerous relationship between the military — which was in charge of securing the region from invaders and spies — and shipbuilders, who were ready to hire on the spot any able-bodied man who found his way to the village.
Espionage was common on both sides of the lake, and the military’s answer was to limit who could come and go in to Sackets Harbor. But when the lack of manpower began to affect shipbuilding, orders from military leadership to leave shipbuilders alone meant it was not difficult for outsiders to enter Sackets Harbor and observe the village’s operations.
Mr. Gibson said it was common for the British to receive eyewitness reports of activities in the village about every seven to 10 days.
“They knew exactly what was going on here,” Mr. Gibson said.
ON GUARD AROUND THE CLOCK
Lake Ontario was an unpopular place for service during the war, even with pay raises given to soldiers and sailors fighting in the area. One reason was the proximity of Canadian villages, which led to the constant threat of battle. Many midshipmen slept next to their gun stations.
They “were constantly on guard,” Mr. Gibson said. “It was exhausting work.”
Mr. Gibson said midshipmen would take advantage of winter furloughs to seek transfers, usually to ships on the Atlantic Ocean with senior officers they previously had served under.
The village would be a launching point for much of America’s offensive action on the lake, and its naval activity in April and May of 1813 would lead to its most noteworthy engagement.
British forces had learned that much of the American fleet and manpower led by Commodore Isaac Chauncey were away, fighting at both Fort York and Fort George, which is near the Niagara peninsula.
The British realized, in a war so reliant on supply lines and bodies of water, that a victory in the village could mean domination of Lake Ontario.
“They saw it as a chance to control the lake and swing the war,” Mr. Abel said.
And so they set sail.
As they arrived near the village on May 28, 1813, slow winds stopped the pressing British offensive of more than 1,200 highly trained soldiers traveling on more than 30 ships, and heavy fog limited their options for scouting. With a day to sound alarms and rally more militia members, the American presence slowly trickled upward from 300 militiamen at the start of the engagement to 900 men and about 500 Army regulars.
The British began their attack the next morning and, despite meeting serious opposition in their crossing from Horse Island to the village, were able to come ashore.
Though many American fighters stood their ground, several groups of militia ran from the battle into nearby woods. In the rush, Gen. Jacob Brown, a militia leader from Brownville, chased after his own men to bring them back into the fight.
In this scramble, the British continued to advance, confining the limited American forces to small encampments around the village.
The situation was so dire that American soldiers began to burn ships and supplies to prevent the British from acquiring them.
Seemingly on the doorstep of victory, the British made a miscalculation. Despite their clear advantage, they became convinced American reinforcements were en route from their rear, cutting off the return path to their ships. Rather than face defeat or larger losses, the British decided to retreat. Rushing from the village, they left behind hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers.
The exit was a large misstep for the British, who had held — and by a healthy margin — the upper hand for the entire battle.
“Had they pressed their attack, the U.S. would’ve lost Sackets Harbor,” Mr. Abel said.
The American forces celebrated the unexpected British retreat, but they had lost substantial amounts of supplies as a result of the fires they set to keep the materials out of enemy hands.
“They go up like matchsticks,” Mr. Abel said.
Ships like the under-construction General Pike also were set ablaze. However, the green wood used to build it slowed the burning, and the ship was saved.
The battle is listed among the 20 most significant battles of the War of 1812, according to the National Park Service. It also would produce some notable names, primarily Gen. Brown, who was commissioned as a brigadier general as a result of his conduct in the battle and later became commanding general of the U.S. Army. The May 1813 attack would be the last direct assault on Sackets Harbor, although it was far from the last potential engagement. Mr. Abel said British forces had at least three more attempts in mind on the village, and that the May 1814 Battle of Oswego originally was meant to be an attack on the village. British leaders, seeing the strength of the fleet docked in the harbor, decided to attack farther south instead.
RETURN TO NORMAL
The war’s end in 1815 signaled a return to trade and family life for many residents along America’s northern border.
Though the manpower in Sackets Harbor was greatly reduced, the village still carried on after the war as an active military facility. And the construction of Madison Barracks in 1816 kept the village in military relevancy for more than a century.
“Otherwise, it would’ve just faded into obscurity,” Mr. Abel said.
Among the soldiers who were stationed at the barracks in the postwar period was Ulysses S. Grant, who, as president decades later, would allocate funds to save the site.
Other prominent names who found their way to the village include Winfield Scott, who served as the Army’s commanding general for 20 years; three-term New York Gov. Fiorello LaGuardia, who went to school in the village,President Martin Van Buren and author Washington Irving, famous for his work “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Mr. Irving named that story’s lead character, Ichabod Crane, for a soldier he met while stationed at the village.
Madison Barracks’s military use came to a close at the end of World War II. However, the region’s military legacy lives on through Fort Drum, which rose in prominence in the early 1900s as Camp Hughes and Pine Camp.
Editor's Note: The following sources were used for this story:
- Bugles on the Border; by Harry F. Landon; Watertown Daily Times
- Lords of the Lake: The Naval War on Lake Ontario, 1812-1814; by Robert Malcomson; Naval Institute Press
- A Nation on Trial: American and the War of 1812; by Patrick C.T. White; John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
- Our County and Its People: A Descriptive Work on Jefferson County; edited by Edgar C. Emerson; The Boston History Company
- Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812; by Benson J. Lossing; Harper & Brothers