Historical Perspective: Martha’s Vineyard during the War of 1812

Colored lithograph by L. Haghe, after a painting by J.C. Schetky based on a design by Captain R.H. King, RN. Published by Smith, Elder & Company, London, in 1830. This print depicts the commencement of the action between HMS Shannon and USS Chesapeake, with the two frigates exchanging gunfire at close range. — Photo courtesy of U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regularly appearing series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

June 18 was the 200th anniversary of Congress’s declaration of the War of 1812. Of all the wars fought by the United States, it may have the easiest date to remember, but its causes and consequences are among the most difficult for non-historians to understand (another is the Spanish-American War).

In an informal, unscientific, and frankly unfair survey that I conducted last week at the Museum, most respondents did not even want to guess what might have led to the conflict (impressment of sailors from U.S. vessels into the British navy, restriction of commerce, British alliance with Native Americans against U.S. expansion) and few could recall the supposedly memorable events of the war (the burning of the White House and Capitol, Francis Scott Key’s writing of the Star Spangled Banner, Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans). Many were not even sure who the United States was fighting (answers included France and Spain, in addition to the correct answer, Britain).

Everyone I spoke to was an adult, and most of them resented the mental journey back to the eighth grade, which is the last time they thought about the War of 1812.

This lack of information and understanding extends to Vineyard history of that period. There was no Island newspaper during the two and a half years of the war and no one has delved into the Museum’s archives to piece together a thorough history of the Island during wartime. The late Art Railton, long-time editor of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s journal, the Dukes County Intelligencer, summarized the local attitude in his “History of Martha’s Vineyard” (2006), noting that the war was “strongly opposed by New England and especially by the Vineyard, where the economic losses were serious.” He quoted an 1813 message from Tisbury to Congress that detailed hardships suffered because of the war. It described many residents as “destitute of employment by being deprived of their real Occupations” and bread being “nearly double the Usual price.”

Though first-hand references to the war on the Island are relatively rare, several appear in the diaries of two Island sisters, Hannah (1789-1878) and Rebecca Smith (1795-1821) of Pohoganut, on the south shore in Edgartown. These diaries are in the Museum’s archives, transcribed by former museum director and current researcher Marian Halperin, who is preparing them for publication.

The diaries did not begin until April 1813, yet Rebecca’s first entry referred to the war. “Tuesday evening 20th, A dead silence reigns throughout this mansion all is still save the roaring of distant cannon. I am here alone… This day I have spent in sober contemplation reflecting on the many dangers that hover around the virtuous sons of America. America once happy land is now involved in war; America methinks I saw your blooming sons fall in battle, methinks I hear the bitter groans of the wounded and on their bleeding bosoms heave with pain and anguish wishing for the moment to arrive which will seal their eyelids forever.”

On June 6, Rebecca wrote “I have just been informed that the Frigate Chesapeake is taken. Uncle Thaxter was in Boston, was an eyewitness saw the battle fought and saw the conquoring enemy bear away the prize. — Mr B Luce is here and tells the same.” Hannah also noted the event, stating “I have just been informed that the Frigate Chesapeake has struck her thirteen stars to the haughty sons of Britain – melancholy catastrophe sad event.” The Chesapeake was captured by the HMS Shannon on June 1, 1813, so the news had taken scarcely a week to reach the girls.

The Chesapeake incident continued to be a topic of conversation on the Island, with both sisters mentioning it again several days later. “Mr. Jabez Smith and Mr. Charles Look have honored us with their company this evening. The former appeared very melancholy I asked him the cause of the sudden alteration of his appearance he said it was occasioned by the melancholy news of the capture of the gallant and noble Frigate Chesapeake.”

On July 7, Hannah and Rebecca both reported a visit from Jabez Smith, who brought along a newspaper with reports of the war as it was being fought in Canada. Using almost the same language in both of their diaries, they wrote, “Thus thousands of our country-men have lost their lives by this ungenerous and cruel war — Methinks I see them wounded and mangled, their vestures reeking with gore and rolled in dust.” This disturbing language echoed Alexander Pope’s 1726 Translation of Homer’s Odyssey, which was widely reprinted and available in America in the 19th century.

In addition to references to other specific events far from the Island, the diaries often mention hearing cannon fire in the distance. There is only one date that refers to an attack on Martha’s Vineyard. On October 20, 1813, Hannah and Rebecca wrote of a visit from Levet Thaxter that morning. He “informs us that there is an English Privateer in Old Town [Edgartown] Harbour. Yesterday they burnt one of the Smacks [fishing boats] belonging to Mr Fisher and Mr Coffin.”

This incident was reported without the ornate language that the girls used for describing wartime casualties, but it brings home the vulnerable position the Vineyard was in, both economically and physically.

By 1815 the war was over. Island life for Hannah and Rebecca Smith no longer meant scarce food and cannon-fire in the distance. Commerce was returning to normal and the threat of attack from British ships was gone.

Bonnie Stacy is chief curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, on School Street in Edgartown. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441 for more information on tours and exhibits.