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The War of 1812 and the State Cemetery

Poorly understood and poorly remembered, the War of 1812 often gets short shrift in American History and even less than that in British History. Despite its poorly understood nature, the war was a turning point in U.S. history. Two-hundred years ago Monday, the United States declared war on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. There was no single cause of the war, but many. What one needs to understand about the War of 1812 was the general situation in Europe on the eve of the declaration of war. Napoleon Bonaparte ruled France and was at the height of his power, France was the tiger of Europe, with virtually no one country able to stand against his armies. While he was master of the land, the British were the unquestioned masters of the sea. The Royal Navy consisted of 600 ships requiring 140,000 men to operate them. What are now known as the Napoleonic Wars were a number of conflicts involving France, England, Austria, Russia, Prussia, Spain and many, many others. Alliances formed and fell, battles won and lost. All the major British victories happened at sea, all Napoleon’s happened on land. Had Napoleon been able to, he would have invaded England. That would require a massive, massive, flotilla of ships, transports, supplies and an equal amount of military ships to defend it. What stood between a Napoleonic England and France was the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy was immense and powerful, 175 ships of the line or three-decked floating batteries of cannon were the backbone of the Royal Navy and immensely effective at what they did. Three major sea battles took place roughly within the years of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of the Nile, Trafalgar and the Battle of Copenhagen. All three were overwhelming British victories and only served to underscore the importance of the British Navy to the United Kingdom and just like armies, navies needed men.

While the British Navy could impress its own citizens during wartime, men were scarce and seasoned seamen were even scarcer. While the United States recognized British men and women could become naturalized Americans, Britain did not. The Royal Navy impressed British-American and Irish-American sailors off of American ships, mostly merchants, though one particular incident occurred on an American naval vessel in 1807. None of this added up to good feelings between the United States and Great Britain, this, along with the seizure of goods from American merchant vessels allegedly headed to France and a strong shift in power from the pro-British Federalist Party to the anti-British, expansionist Democratic-Republican Party was underway in Washington D.C. What brought the proto-Southern Democrats into the fray were the expansionist minded southerners and would-be Midwesterners. The British supported the Indian Nations under Tecumseh in their war against the United States in what would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin and the Creek in the South (see an earlier article here).  James Madison led the Democratic-Republicans and sought a declaration of war, which Congress and the Senate gave him. With Great Britain busy with Napoleon, they fought a defensive war in America. However, when Napoleon abdicated after the Allies captured Paris in early 1814, the British turned their full attention to America. The outcome, after three years of bloody war between the Americans and various Indian tribes, Americans and Canadians and Americans against the British, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war on paper. However, the Battle of New Orleans was fought not long after the treaty was signed and the Second Battle of Fort Bowyer fought after that. It was back to the status quo, officially, according to the Treaty of Ghent.

Unofficially, the war had been a success for the expansionist minded Democratic-Republican Party. The Creek nation in the South were defeated, the Cherokee and Choctaw brought to heel and the British Alliance with the Midwest tribes was abolished, though their power not completely broken. It set the United States up for an era of expansion and self-centered assuredness that would last for quite a while. The list of men who fought in the War of 1812 and became Texans two decades later is a long one. Just at the State Cemetery alone, some of our most notable Republic of Texas figures fought in the War of 1812 and almost all fought in the Creek War with Andrew Jackson and his Indian allies. The first man buried at the Cemetery, Edward Burleson, fought in the War and was at the Battle of New Orleans when he was just 17. The Cemetery’s most notable burial, Stephen F. Austin, was a quartermaster sergeant during the war. Robert Rankin and Stephen Williams, both veterans of the American Revolution fought in the War of 1812 along with the first secretary of the Texas Navy Robert Potter, Texas naturalist Gideon Lincecum and Texas Supreme Court Justice Abner Lipscomb also fought in 1812. Mostly, these men fought against the Creek on the frontier of western expansion and then settled those areas before moving west again and becoming the founding fathers of Texas.


- Will Erwin