Problems Pacifying the Chesapeake, 1813

From The Age of Fighting Sail: The Story of the Naval War of 1812, by C. S. Forester (Doubleday, 1952; eNet, 2012), Kindle Loc. 1971-2013:

Cockburn acted with considerable energy. He sent his boats where his ships could not penetrate. One of Warren’s reports (dated from ‘Annapolis, Chesapeake’!) told of sending the boats of the fleet fifteen miles up the Rappahannock, where they boarded and captured four armed schooners—a privateer and three letters of marque—manned by heavy crews totalling over two hundred officers and men, the British loss being only thirteen; undoubtedly the Americans flinched, and undoubtedly the demoralization resulting from the arrival of the British in the Chesapeake was considerable. Cockburn pushed on northwards into the farthest extremity of the Chesapeake, striking at the communications between Baltimore and Philadelphia; today the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal runs close to the scene of his operations. He had no troops with him at present, save for a small detachment of artillerymen, but he had a rocket-boat, and several craft of small draught, mostly prizes he had previously captured, and with his marines and a detachment of seamen he could scrape together a force of some four hundred men. He made a feint at Baltimore, occasioning considerable alarm, and then struck at the other side. There was militia to oppose him, but badly led and quite uninspired, even though Washington was only a day’s ride away. The tiny landing-parties met with almost no resistance, the militia abandoning their positions the moment an attack was launched; in one battery a hundred and thirty stand of small-arms were picked up after having been thrown away by the men supposed to use them. Cockburn reached all the objectives (‘foundries, stores, and public works’) assigned to him by Warren’s orders. He destroyed a foundry (‘the Cecil or Principio Foundery, one of the most valuable works of the kind in America’) on the outskirts of Havre-de-Grace, along with Government depots of provisions and military equipment; he burned a dozen sail of coasters, and vast stores of flour, sending one party far up the Susquehanna, all this at a cost of less than a dozen wounded.

He had been faced, from the moment of his arrival, with the problem of dealing with civilian opposition. It was not only militiamen, and certainly not only militiamen in uniform, who fired on his landing-parties. It was not in human nature, and certainly not in American human nature, to refrain from taking a shot at red-coated marines landed on a mission of destruction in a country whose constitution declared that ‘the right of the people to bear and carry arms shall not be infringed’. The laws of war had not yet been codified. It was understood, however, that a man who fought without a uniform was liable to death if caught, his house was liable to destruction, and even the village or town from which he came; but the invading regular troops, on the other hand, were bound to respect civilian life and property. Moreover, there was an occasionally accepted ruling—later incorporated in the Geneva Convention—that a people might be permitted to take up arms in a spontaneous uprising; a year or two before Wellington had maintained this point in correspondence with Massena regarding the status of the un-uniformed Portuguese militia. In essence, therefore, the ultimate policy was decided by the commanding officer of the invading force. Cockburn deplored the ‘useless rancour’ of the inhabitants in opposing him, and burned houses and towns where such opposition was offered him. He congratulated himself, and felicitated Warren, on having achieved his object, for Charlestown submitted to him without opposition and he was assured that ‘all the places in the upper part of the Chesapeake’ had adopted the resolution that neither guns nor militiamen should be suffered there. On the surface the policy of reprisals had succeeded, but it is doubtful whether it had conduced towards the ultimate end of the invasion, which was to prevail on the American people to agree to peace.

In the prevailing state of sullen resentment Cockburn had to decide on another question of policy, closely allied to the matter of reprisals. Like every naval officer of the time he was faced by the chronic problem of the supply of drinking-water, and by the nearly as urgent problem of the supply of fresh provisions. He could hardly be expected to detach ships to his base hundreds of miles away to fill up with water, nor could he expect his men to live on salt meat when they could see cattle browsing on shore and hear cocks crowing. Yet the parties he landed to fill up his water-casks were always liable to have shots fired at them; his efforts to buy fresh provisions were not very successful. He maintained that it was inhuman to deprive his men of drinking water, and he was quite sincere in his protestations that he was offering genuine value for livestock. He did not make allowance for the irresistible temptation his landing-parties offered to the local man with a rifle who had heard nothing about the resolution of the towns to make no resistance, and who would have cared nothing whatever he heard. And Cockburn tried to buy cattle with bills on the British Treasury; he was an able and active officer, but he displayed complete ignorance of the people he was fighting if he expected a Maryland farmer to part with his herd in exchange for bills redeemable in London at some vague future date. Wellington was dealing with the similar problem in Spain and France by paying handsomely in gold and silver—even taking care to have supplies ready of the actual currency of the country in which he found himself—but Cockburn had no gold or silver to spare, partly because Wellington had all the available supply. Refusal to sell, in Cockburn’s eyes, was a hostile act. He was justified then in seizing provisions without payment, and that, even in the chaotic state of the laws of war, justified armed resistance; resistance justified reprisals, and the vicious circle was started again at the moment when he thought the country was pacified.

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Filed under Britain, Canada, economics, military, nationalism, U.S., war

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