On June 18, 1812, at the request of President James Madison, Congress did something it had never done before. It voted to declare war — to take on mighty Great Britain in what historians would later call “America’s Second War for Independence” or “The Forgotten War of 1812.”
In retrospect, said Chuck Fithian, curator of archaeology for Delaware’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, who has done extensive research on the War of 1812, Madison’s decision to go to war “was not one of our better moments…. Declaring war on the strongest nation in the world — this was not too wise, but you could see our frustration building.”
The war, which would last just over two and a half years, was fought for two primary reasons: to halt Britain’s practice of “impressing” American merchant seamen — boarding U.S. ships in search of British turncoats and capturing Americans and forcing them to work on British vessels — and to put an end to the support the British were giving Native American tribes in the Northwest Territories, slowing the pace of expansion west of the Appalachians.
Much of the war would be fought along the Canadian border and in the Northwest Territories. Then, in 1814 the British would burn Washington, D.C., and make an unsuccessful assault on Baltimore — a battle that would inspire Francis Scott Key to write the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The war’s final combat action, occurring more than two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, came on Jan. 8, 1815, at the Battle of New Orleans, an encounter that would solidify Andrew Jackson’s reputation as a military leader and serve as a springboard for his election as president of the United States in 1828.
While the war’s primary battlegrounds were located far from Delaware, the First State produced a number of combat heroes, endured a memorable shelling at the hands of the British navy and saw a mill on the Brandywine experience remarkable growth as it supplied gunpowder to the U.S. military throughout the war.
The war had hardly begun when the British imposed a naval blockade against the nation that had declared its independence just 36 years earlier. After shutting off the Chesapeake Bay in December 1812, British ships sailed north, entering the mouth of the Delaware Bay in February 1813.
The action hardly surprised the 800 or so citizens of Lewes, who recalled how the river pilots within their ranks had monitored British naval activity during the Revolution and had dispatched messengers on horseback to alert the Continental Congress in Philadelphia of any ship movements.
The War of 1812: Delaware’s role in “America’s Second War for Independence”
Lewes Historical Society executive director Mike DiPaolo: The bombardment of Lewes during the War of 1812.
Tensions built in March, as British vessels sailed around Cape Henlopen and dropped anchor in the bay, about a mile and a half offshore. “There was concern, certainly. I don’t know if it was fear at first, but definitely concern,” said Mike DiPaolo, executive director of the Lewes Historical Society.
Militia companies — mostly from Sussex but including one unit from Wilmington —began to mass at two forts, one on the waterfront at the foot of Market Street and the other about a mile north at Pilottown, near the current University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment campus, and at an encampment near Blockhouse Pond. “We’re talking thousands, in the low thousands,” DiPaolo said.
On March 16, Commodore John Beresford, commander of the British ships in the bay, wrote to Lewes officials, demanding 20 live bullocks and other provisions and warning that, if the request was refused, he would “be under the necessity of destroying your town.” Historians still debate whether the British were low on provisions or merely attempting to exact some tribute from the town.
Over the next three weeks, Beresford and Col. Samuel Boyer Davis, commander of the troops at Lewes, exchanged messages, dispatching small boats between the harbor and the anchored British ships, sailing under a flag of truce. In their final note, the British suggested that women and children be removed from town; Davis tartly responded that he had “already taken care of the ladies.”
On the afternoon of April 6, the British began a 22-hour assault. Some of their cannonballs fell short, landing in the bay and on Lewes Beach. Others flew long, soaring as far as where Beebe Medical Center now stands. Still others damaged homes, shops and offices; one remains lodged in the wall of the McCracken residence on Main Street, now better known as “The Cannonball House.” The troops at Lewes stood their ground, even firing back at the British some of their cannonballs that had missed their mark. Some of the gunpowder used in the defense of Lewes had been manufactured on the Brandywine outside of Wilmington, at the powder yards of the 11-year-old DuPont Company.
Most notable, Fithian said, was the new weaponry rolled out during the bombardment. For the first time in the Americas, the British debuted their Congreve rockets, cylindrical missiles with a range of two miles or more. The Congreves’ “rockets’ red glare” would become a memorable phrase in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The American innovation was the “Fulton torpedo,” invented by steamboat pioneer Robert Fulton. These gunpowder-filled barrels, equipped with a timing device and rowed into the bay for release near the British ships, would be considered mines today, he said.
The assault proved to be pretty much a standoff, yet that in itself was a matter of pride for the militiamen at Lewes. In his final report to Gov. Joseph Haslet, Davis wrote, “The honour of our state has not been tarnished.”
While unable to capture Lewes, the British continued to torment American shipping in the Delaware River and Bay. They sailed north nearly to New Castle, conducting raids on both sides of the river and destroying about 20 ships, Fithian said.
The British presence on the river and in the Chesapeake Bay (a British naval squadron looted and burned much of Havre de Grace, Md., four weeks after the bombardment of Lewes) raised fears in New Castle County in 1813.
“Delaware became a very militarized landscape, with fortifications at every major community,” Fithian said. “There wasn’t much in the way of pitched battle, just ongoing pressure, irregular warfare and amphibious operations. It never really stopped for 2 1/2 years.”
The War of 1812: Delaware’s role in “America’s Second War for Independence”
Hagley Museum archivist Lucas Clawson: The DuPont Co. powder mills’ role during the War of 1812.
“There was not a big danger of a British army coming here but, in the minds of the people, the Wilmington area was a very enticing target,” said Lucas Clawson, a reference archivist at the Hagley Museum and Library.
The DuPont powder mills were a major reason for that concern. Members of the du Pont family, through connections with Thomas Jefferson that dated back to the American Revolution, secured government contracts soon after the company’s founding in 1802. With the start of the war, the government contracts grew, and E.I. du Pont, the company’s founder, in 1813 directed the company’s first expansion, the construction of the Hagley Yard, to supplement the original Upper Yard.
During the war, gunpowder orders soared — from 204,046 pounds (2,850 from the government) in 1811 to 519,551 pounds (374,000 from the government) in 1814, Clawson said.
E.I. du Pont was also a leader in promoting manufacturing, Clawson said, and he encouraged other entrepreneurs to construct various mills along the Brandywine. He and his brother Victor also built a fabric mill on the east side of the Brandywine, and they soon secured a government contract to make military uniforms, Clawson said.
To protect Wilmington and the powder mills from possible attack, 19th-century Delaware historian J. Thomas Scharf wrote, numerous riverfront fortifications were erected from Wilmington to south of New Castle. In addition, three militia units totaling about 350 men were sent from Philadelphia to the Wilmington area in mid-1813, positioning themselves first near Stanton, then later at Shellpot Hill north of the city and finally at Oak Hill, west of the city and south of the DuPont powder mills.
Also in 1813, in response to the attack on Lewes, Clawson said, E.I. and Victor du Pont established another militia unit, the Brandywine Rangers, composed largely of millworkers. By the end of the year, the threat of attack had waned, the Pennsylvania militias returned home and the Brandywine Rangers disbanded.
In the summer of 1814, the British Chesapeake campaign stoked a new round of fears, prompting a reorganization of the Brandywine Rangers, Clawson said. “With their concentration on Baltimore and Washington, it was going to be difficult for the British to reach the Wilmington area, but the perception here was different,” he said.
In late August, the British marched through Washington, burning down the White House, the navy yards and other government buildings. In September, militiamen thwarted a British attempt to take Baltimore by land and Fort McHenry, at the entrance to Baltimore’s harbor, withstood a 25-hour bombardment. The engagements at Baltimore effectively ended combat in the region.
As for the war’s impact, the Lewes watermen and merchants whose livelihoods depended on the maritime trade found themselves with no sources of income, DiPaolo said. Local business records from the period are scarce, but DiPaolo speculated that residents must have made out well. “There were troops here. They had to be fed. They needed clothes. They needed supplies.”
On the Brandywine, some mills faltered when the postwar reopening of trade routes returned inexpensive imported goods to local markets, but the powder mills continued to prosper. As roads, canals and rail lines were built to strengthen the young nation’s infrastructure, demand for blasting powder essential for construction continued to grow, Clawson said.
Having expanded and secured its reputation for reliability during the war, DuPont became a leading supplier.
“The war enhanced Du Pont’s stature,” Clawson said. “It was a boon for DuPont.” And Delaware’s pride was enhanced through its contributions to a war that brought a new sense of security to a fledgling nation.