War of 1812 Relic Hunting


War of 1812 Relic Hunting


by Michael Bernzweig

In 1732, George Washington was born in the era of slavery. Over time, he served as a surveyor, a farmer, a soldier, and a statesman. At Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1775, Washington led the Continental Army during the American Revolution. From 1789 until he died in 1799, Washington served as president of the United States.

Of all of America's wars, the so-called War of 1812 is surely the most misunderstood. To begin with, the name of the war is misleading, suggesting that this was a brief military dalliance that was confined to 1812, when in fact, it simply started in the summer of that year and didn't fully conclude until the spring of 1815. However, admittedly the peace terms had been agreed on in Europe by the end of 1814. The war itself was part of a long-running contest for control of the Great Lakes, one which had its origins in a clash between the French and the British back in the 1750s before the United States ever existed. This backstory has led some historians to refer to the War of 1812 as being the conclusion of a wider Sixty Years War for control of the Great Lakes region. During the earlier conflict, the British had held what subsequently became the United States, while the French occupied what would one day become Canada, which was then called New France. At the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763, France relinquished its lands here to Britain, and then with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, a new border was again established between the United States and the British in Canada.

During this war, James Monroe served as acting Secretary of War. War Hawks were a group of politicians who initiated legislation to lead the country to war. Many people in New England were unhappy with the war, and the Hartford Convention was held during the war to discuss the conflict and air grievances. Napoleonic Wars followed the French Revolution and precipitated the War of 1812. The War of 1812 broke out over disputes about respective territories along that border and British efforts to support the Native American peoples of the Lakes region and further west towards the Great Plains to resist westwards American expansion. Also at issue was continuing trade between the United States and Napoleonic France, with Britain having been at war since the early 1790s. The resulting war was a mixed affair. The British succeeded in marching to and burning Washington in August 1814. Still, elsewhere the US got the better of the Native Americans in the Lakes region and the Spanish, who had allied with Britain, in Florida. As a result, when both sides agreed to negotiate a peace late in 1814, primarily owing to war weariness given the general state of unrest that had prevailed in Europe for over twenty years, the Treaty of Ghent, which was negotiated in the Netherlands, was effectively a return to the status quo ante Bellum. The real losers were Britain's allies, Spain, which lost western Florida, and the Native Americans, whose rights were not respected after the war and whom the United States treated as though they did not have sovereign rights to their own territory.

Famous Forts and their Significance to the War

Many famous forts were a part of the War of 1812. They were pivotal in naval wars that the British navy fought against the United Kingdom during the time of President James Madison in the White House. President Madison declared war because Britain was taking American settlers for its own navy, and American Indians and Native Americans were being supported to battle these settlers. Many believe James Madison declared a war that America was not ready for. The Battle of Fort George took place in Upper Canada, and Colonel Winfield Scott was the famous military commander at the battle. He later would become the Commanding General of the United States Army. In Upper Canada, William Henry Harrison would earn his nickname, “Old Tippecanoe,” for the battle of the same name. Fort McHenry was famously the setting of the Star-Spangled Banner and the site of the Royal Navy attacking American forces and American ships. Fort Erie on Lake Erie was one of the last engagements of this civil war. The Battle of New Orleans is the actual final major battle that took place. General Andrew Jackson is widely known for being crucial to the American win over British North America. He is also known for being the sole representative of the U.S. at the Treaty of Fort Jackson. Fort Meigs was built at the confluence of the Maumee River and Auglaize Creek. The fort was constructed to ward off the threat of a British invasion of Ohio and an attack on Cincinnati. The threat of invasion had passed by the time construction began. Many famous battleships saw action at the forts, including the USS Constitution and the USS United States. Fort Mackinac saw the British force and American soldiers in a heated battle. Unfortunately, the British troops got the best of the United States soldiers, so Great Britain saw victory. Fort Washington was actively used through World War II and is a significant fort in American history.  On one of the Great Lakes in New York State, Fort Niagara was used in the War of 1812 and the American Revolution or Revolutionary War. Another battle in New York would be the Battle of Lake Champlain, also known as the Battle of Plattsburgh. Many naval battles were fought for African American soldiers who found service opportunities in the navy. Isaac Hull was born in New London, Connecticut, in 1773. After graduating from Yale University in 1793, he joined the United States Navy. It was aboard the USS Constitution that he served at the Battle of Lake Erie.

Weapons of the War of 1812: The Spread of the Rifle

By the time the War of 1812 broke out, a much greater percentage of European and North American troops were using rifles rather than muskets. A smoothbore musket, which was the most commonly used gun in the eighteenth century, employs a gun bore that is smooth on the inside. The bullet fires straight through this when the gunpowder ignites and propels it out. By way of contrast, a rifle has small grooves cut into the inside of the gun bore. These grooves create a spin on the bullet as it passes through the bore, and this 'rifling' results in greater accuracy when the gun is fired. 'Rifling' had been practiced for decades before the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but the drawback of these earlier efforts was that rifles were much slower to load than muskets. Thus, one gained accuracy but lost speed. By the time the War of 1812 broke out, though, faster-loading rifles were proliferating. As a result, they were much more prominent on the battlefields of the conflict than they had been in the mid-1770s when the American Revolutionary War broke out. The most widely used rifle on the American side was the Harper's Ferry 1803 Model Rifle, a .54 caliber flintlock rifle that had been introduced by the US Secretary of War, Henry Dearborn, as the standard issue rifle of the US Regular Army in 1803. On the British side, a great many units would have carried the Pattern 1800 Infantry Rifle, a flintlock rifle that was the first standard-issue, British-made rifle ever used by the British armed forces. As noted, muskets did continue to be used for many decades. A popular one in 1812 was the Springfield Model 1795 Musket, which was the first musket manufactured at the famous Springfield Armoury in Massachusetts. In terms of small side arms, the Americans often carried the US Model 1805 Flintlock Pistols. Finally, a limited number of swords were still being issued by 1812. The most commonly used was the Starr Sabres manufactured by Nathan Starr. These were single-edged, curved iron blades that were nearly 40 inches in length. Unlike many other era blades, the Starr Sabre had a leather scabbard instead of iron. Generally speaking, swords were becoming either an officer's weapon or something exclusively issued to cavalry and dragoon divisions by the early nineteenth century.

Bullets in the Early Nineteenth Century

The objects which metal detectorists are probably most likely to discover dating to the War of 1812 are bullets. By the early nineteenth century, most guns were still employing the Buck and Ball Bullets, which were explored in our article on the American Revolutionary War. These lead balls contained several smaller pellets to ensure that muskets and rifles had a spray effect when fired, similar to a shotgun. A new development in terms of ammunition since the 1770s and 1780s was the advent of the Canister Shot for use in cannons and other large ordnance. The bullet here was a large metal cylinder, usually made of tin, which was packed with round lead or iron balls and sawdust. When the canister or cylinder was fired, it generally disintegrated after leaving the cannon. The result was that the smaller lead or iron balls within the cylinder spread out and were much more damaging when fired at the enemy because these smaller balls do not look like cannonballs or ordnance shots. They can often be mistaken for small arms bullets when discovered while metal detecting.

Buckles and Buttons of the Napoleonic Era

Both the British Army and US Army wore various buttons and buckles on their uniforms during the War of 1812, and the number and arrangement of the same were heavily dependent on the individual's rank, with officers wearing complex arrangements of buttons depending on how senior they were. The exact extent of these is glimpsed from this directive which was sent from Major General Pinckney to the Adjutant General's Office in response to a query regarding US Army uniforms in December 1812:

"Field officers will wear blue coats with scarlet collars & cuffs; the length to reach to the bend of the knee; single-breasted with one row of ten buttons in front, with blind holes worked on each side, 3½ inches at the bottom & 5½ inches at top; the length of the waist not to extend below the hips; white linings; the buttons white, bearing the name of the corps & [the number] of the regiment, standing collar to rise to reach the lower part of the ear, with two buttons & holes in each side laced 4½ inches long with silver lace. The lace to continue around the lower & upper edge of the collar. The cuffs are not less than four nor more than 4½ inches wide; on each, four buttons & blind holes worked with silk. The pocket flaps cross indented below, nor more than 10 nor less than 7 inches in length, nor less than 2¼ nor more than 3 inches wide, with four buttons & blind holes worked on each, the bottom of the breast, top of the pocket flaps, & hip buttons to the range."

Thus, one gets an idea of how obsessive armies were at the time about the arrangement of buttons. These were made out of various substances, some being brass, others being made from pewter, and others still being made of cloth. Some buttons of this era were also made of tin, and it has been conjectured that part of the reason for Napoleon's catastrophic defeat in Russia in the winter of 1812, just as the War of 1812 was being fought on the other side of the world, was that these tin buttons effectively disintegrated in the Russian winter. Many US buttons of the time bore the letters I.R.F.G. meaning Infantry Regiment of the Federal Government. Others, as Pinckney noted, bore the name of the corps and the number of soldier's regiment.

Both belt and sword buckles continued to be used by both the British Redcoats and the US Army in the early nineteenth century. Conversely, the distinctly eighteenth-century practice of wearing shoe buckles had largely died out. This was owing to changing trends in footwear in general across Europe and North America during the 1790s and 1800s, as they were seen as an aristocratic fashion and were thus considered outdated in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

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