Sunday, 12 June 2016

The almost forgotten War of 1812

A view of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet,
taken from the observatory under the command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn
on the morning of the 13 Sept 1814 which lasted 24 hours, and thrown from 1500 to 
1800 shells in the night attempted to land by forcing a passage up the ferry branch
but were repulsed with great loss - courtesy of the Library of Congresss
Did you know that Britain was at war with the United States of America during the Regency period? A war involving thousands of British soldiers in North America, with hundreds killed in a host of battles? A war that included the British burning what is now one of the most prestigious buildings in the world - the White House in Washington DC?

It’s well known that the first half of the Regency (1811-1815) saw the end of a long military conflict with France. Wellington’s victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815 concluded a series of wars that began over twenty years earlier, in 1793.

This extended struggle made the military a familiar feature of Regency life. Jane Austen included significant references to both the army and the Royal Navy in her books. Elements of Regency women’s fashion incorporated details from military uniforms.

Today the war with the United States of America, from 1812 to 1814, is little more than a footnote in British history. It’s remembered, even celebrated, in both Canada and the United States. But here in Britain, the War of 1812, as it’s known, is easily overlooked.

Morning walking dress with 'military front'
from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1812)
The origins of the War of 1812

The American War of Independence had concluded in 1783. By the early 1800s, some of those idealistic young men and women who’d fought for freedom were frustrated by what they considered continued British arrogance.

In particular, the USA objected to Britain interfering with its ships and seamen. The Royal Navy’s domination of the seas meant many American vessels were prevented from trading with mainland Europe. Worse, American sailors were being forced to crew British ships, through the long-established tradition of press gangs.

America wanted to remain outside the conflicts that troubled Europe, and to trade freely with other nations.

Some have labelled the War of 1812 as the ‘Second War of Independence’, in which the young United States asserted its right to be free from British interference.

The USA declares its first war against another nation

Historians argue over the exact causes of the War of 1812. American pride was clearly offended by British treatment of its ships and sailors. It was also offended by Britain inciting Native American tribes to attack American settlers. There’s debate over whether some American politicians hoped a war would lead to the capture of Canada from the British.

Whatever the motivation, the enthusiasm for war grew steadily for several years before 1812.

On 18 June 1812, after several days of deliberation, the American government voted to declare war against Great Britain.

This was the first time the USA formally agreed to go to war with another nation and it wasn’t by an overwhelming majority. Of the 160 politicians who voted, 62 were against going to war.

200th anniversary ceremony at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland
© Jay Baker, Maryland Govpics 2012 via Flickr
Principal events of the War of 1812

Despite years of agitation for war, the Americans were not well prepared. Their army comprised ill-equipped local militias who were unwilling to travel far from home. In 1812 and 1813, they launched several small invasions into Canada, all of which were easily repulsed.

The British and American navies engaged in a number of actions off the Atlantic coast of the USA. In order to prevent the Americans from trading, the Royal Navy attempted to blockade the entire eastern coast. In a series of engagements, both sides captured and lost ships. The Americans made considerable use of privateers to bolster their naval forces.

From 1813 to 1815, hundreds of American sailors captured by the British were locked up in Dartmoor Prison.

The Great Lakes, which straddle a huge section of the border between Canada and the USA, saw military action on and off the water. A host of engagements saw first one side gain the upper hand, then the other.

The burning of Washington DC

Burnt out shell of the White House (1814) - engraving by W Strickland
after watercolour by George Munger - courtesty of the Library of Congress
The war took on a new character in 1814, following the abdication of Bonaparte and the end of war in Europe. British troops were now freed up to travel to America and some were enthusiastic to go. One British soldier later wrote:
“We were all, moreover, from our commanding officer down to the youngest ensign, anxious to gather a few more laurels, even in America.” (1)
In August 1814 a force of 4,500 British troops, supported by ships of the Royal Navy, targeted Washington DC.

The government of the USA had chosen to base itself in Washington DC, moving there in 1800. President James Madison and his government were in the city as the British approached, initially confident that their militia of 6,000 men offered adequate protection.

However, when the militia engaged the British at Bladensburg, six miles from the Capitol, it was clear they were outclassed by the smaller yet more professional army. President Madison himself rode out to witness some of the battle, leaving before the militia fled.

Washington DC was now undefended. According to a later account of a soldier present, the British commander sought payment from the Americans for sparing the city.

It was accepted tradition that the victors could help themselves to the spoils of war. Having limited means to remove valuables, the British knew their only choices were to destroy what they found, or accept a cash payment.

“Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent forward with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard; for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, when it was fired upon from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied it, killed. The indignation excited by this act throughout ranks and classes of men in the army, was such as the nature of the case could not fail to occasion. All thought of accommodation was instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town…they proceeded, without a moment’s delay, to burn and destroy every thing in the most distant degree connected with the Government.” (1)

On 24 August 1814, the British deliberately set fire to both the Capitol building and the President’s House, what we now know as the White House. 

Our eyewitness noted:
“I cannot help admiring the forbearance and humanity of the British troops, who, irritated as they had every right to be, spared as far as possible all private property, neither plundering nor destroying a single house in the place, except that from which the General’s horse had been killed.” (1)
The original star spangled banner

Fort McHenry, Baltimore, from Our Country's Story;
an elementary history of the United States by EM Tappan (1908)
Having achieved a symbolic conquest of Washington, the British moved on to the port city of Baltimore. They intended a land attack supported by fire from Royal Navy ships, but the vessels first needed to pass the recently fortified Fort McHenry, occupied by American troops.

Baltimore’s defences were much stronger than those in Washington DC. After initial forays, the British army decided to hold back until Fort McHenry was neutralised. On 13 September the Navy began bombarding the fort with cannon and Congreve rockets. The attack went on for over 24 hours.

An American lawyer, Francis Key Scott, had boarded one of the Royal Navy ships to negotiate a prisoner exchange. He remained aboard during the bombardment, having no idea of its impact on his fellow countrymen in the fort. On the morning of 14 September, he was delighted to see a large American stars and stripes flag raised over the fort, indicating that its defenders remained resolute. The British finally gave up their attacks on Baltimore and withdrew.

That image of the flag flying in the midst of the bombardment inspired Scott to write a patriotic poem. It was quickly spotted that the poem matched a popular melody and within days it began appearing in American newspapers.

During the later nineteenth century, the song became associated with the raising of the American flag at formal events. In 1931 it was adopted as the National Anthem for the USA.

The original star spangled banner, the flag flown over Fort McHenry in 1814, is in the National Museum of American History, Washington DC.

An account of the bombardment was published in Baltimore a few days after it occurred:
“But the attack on Fort M’Henry was terribly grand and magnificent. The enemy’s vessels formed a great halfcircle in front of the works on the 12th, but out of reach of our guns… At 6 o’clock on Tuesday morning, six bomb and some rocket vessels commenced the attack, keeping such a respectful distance as to make the fort rather a target than an opponent; though Major Armistead, the gallant commander, and his brave garrison fired occasionally to let the enemy know the place was not given up! Four or five bombs were frequently in the air at a time, and, making a double explosion, with the noise of the foolish rockets and the firings of our fort, Lazaretto and our barges, created a horrible clatter”. (2)
National star-spangled banner centennial
Baltimore, Maryland, September 1914
Peace negotiations begin

Even as the British and Americans tussled on the battlefields of continental USA in the late summer of 1814, their governments were starting to talk about peace. Negotiations began in Ghent, Belgium.

The Treaty of Ghent was ratified by the British on 27 December 1814 and by the American government on 18 February 1815.

Slow communication meant that even after the treaty was agreed, fighting continued. In late December 1814, a British army began its attempt to capture the city of New Orleans. After some initial successes, the British held back to allow the main body of their army to gather. This gave the Americans, under future President Andrew Jackson, time to construct defences.

The main attack on the city was launched on 8 January 1815 and was a dismal failure for the British. The unit responsible for supplying ladders to the attackers, necessary for climbing the defences, failed to deliver the equipment before the attack was launched.

A British soldier wrote later that soldiers:
“though thrown into some confusion by the enemy’s fire, pushed on with desperate gallantry to the ditch; but to scale the parapet without ladders was a work of no slight difficulty. Some few, indeed, by mounting one upon another’s shoulders, succeeded in entering the works, but these were speedily overpowered, most of them killed and the rest taken; whilst as many as stood without were exposed to a sweeping fire, which cut them down by whole companies.” (1)
Within a few hours, hundreds of British troops were dead, while the American defenders counted only 24 killed, and their defences were unbroken.

The Battle of New Orleans quickly gained a place in American culture as a major symbolic victory.

Who won the War of 1812?

Historians disagree about who, if anyone, won this war between the USA and Britain. The Americans initiated the war partly out of pride and perhaps in the hope of capturing Canada. They failed in the latter but their pride was boosted, particularly by the defence of Baltimore and the victory in New Orleans.

Perhaps some in Britain were pleased with the opportunity for a rematch against the upstarts across the Atlantic, who’d won independence thirty years earlier. They would be disappointed. However, disappointment with events in America were soon to be eclipsed by the re-emergence of a more immediate threat, as Bonaparte returned to France in March 1815.

(1) From Gleig, George Robert, The campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, in the years 1814-15 (1821) (This edition 1827)
(2) From The Citizen Soldiers at North Point and Fort McHenry, September 12 & 13 1814 (1889 reprint)

Sources used include:
Gleig, George Robert, The campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, in the years 1814-15 (1821) (This edition 1827)
Risjord, Norman K, 1812: Conservatives, War Hawks and the Nation's Honor in The William and Mary Quarterly Vol 18 no.2 (April 1961)
Soldiers' and citizens' album of biographical record containing personal sketches of army men and citizens prominent in loyalty to the union (1890)
The Citizen Soldiers at North Point and Fort McHenry, September 12 & 13 1814 (1889 reprint)

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The Austen-Edgeworth connection

Left: Maria Edgeworth from Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth ed A Hare (1895)
Right: Jane Austen from A Memoir of Jane Austen by JE Austen Leigh (1871)
Two of the women I am researching for my book—What Regency Women Did For Us—were novelists. One is undoubtedly today’s best known Regency novelist – Jane Austen; the other is the lesser known Maria Edgeworth. You might be surprised to hear that it was not always that way round. Back in their day, it was Maria Edgeworth who was the more famous of the two and the more commercially successful. Indeed, she probably earned more money from her novels during her lifetime than any of her contemporaries.

Maria Edgeworth wrote both fiction and non-fiction works and became well-known after the publication of Essays on Practical Education in 1798, which she co-wrote with her father, Richard Lovell Edgeworth.

The Leigh Perrot connection

I don’t know whether Maria’s family knew the Austens, but her father was certainly acquainted with Jane’s great aunt and uncle, the Leigh Perrots. Richard Lovell Edgeworth became acquainted with the Leigh Perrots when living in Berkshire before Maria was born. His memoirs include a letter written by James Leigh Perrot in 1795 confirming his observations of Richard’s experiments in telegraphic communication back in 1767.

Richard wrote to congratulate the Leigh Perrots in 1800 after Mrs Leigh Perrot was successfully cleared from false charges of shoplifting.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth
from Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1821)
I wonder whether Jane and Maria ever met. I haven’t come across any evidence of such a meeting. However, they were definitely aware of each other’s work and read some, if not all, of it.

Austen on Edgeworth

In a letter to her niece Anna, an aspiring author, Jane Austen wrote:
“I have made up my mind to like no novels really but Miss Edgeworth's, yours, and my own.” (1)
Belinda, one of Maria Edgeworth’s novels, was published in 1801 and Jane made reference to it in Northanger Abbey. Although the first draft, then entitled Susan, was written in the late 1790s, Jane revised the manuscript before selling it to the publisher Crosby in 1803. She mentions Belinda in her wonderful defence of the novel, along with Cecilia and Camilla, two books written by Fanny Burney:
“‘And what are you reading, Miss——?’
‘Oh, it is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference or momentary shame. ‘It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.’” (2)
Top: Illustration from Belinda
by Maria Edgeworth (1848 edition)
Bottom: Illustration from Northanger Abbey
by Jane Austen (1833 edition)
Edgeworth on Austen

Maria Edgeworth clearly enjoyed reading Jane Austen’s work. She wrote in a letter to her cousin:
“We have been much entertained with Mansfield Park.” (3)
When Emma was published, Jane sent a list of people to her publisher to whom she wanted a set of volumes sent, unbound, labelled ‘from the author’. Maria Edgeworth was one of those to whom Emma was sent.

We know that Maria received the volumes because she wrote to her aunt:
“The authoress of Pride and Prejudice has been so good as to send me a new novel just published, Emma.” (4)
But the most fascinating passage I have come across is in a letter that Maria Edgeworth wrote to her aunt in 1818, after reading Northanger Abbey, and whilst she was in the middle of reading Persuasion:
“I entirely agree with you, my dearest aunt, on one subject, as indeed I generally do on most subjects, but particularly about Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. The behaviour of the General in Northanger Abbey, packing off the young lady without a servant or the common civilities which any bear of a man, not to say gentleman, would have shown, is quite outrageously out of drawing and out of nature. Persuasion— excepting the tangled, useless histories of the family in the first fifty pages—appears to me, especially in all that relates to poor Anne and her lover, to be exceedingly interesting and natural. The love and the lover admirably well drawn: don't you see Captain Wentworth, or rather don't you in her place feel him taking the boisterous child off her back as she kneels by the sick boy on the sofa? And is not the first meeting after their long separation admirably well done? And the overheard conversation about the nut? But I must stop: we have got no farther than the disaster of Miss Musgrave's jumping off the steps.” (5)
My daughter Belle on The Cobb steps, Lyme Regis
I find Maria Edgeworth’s criticism of General Tilney’s behaviour very interesting, especially in the light of a much later letter to a friend in which she discussed her writing technique. Her argument was that even if such inconsistent behaviour as the General’s was exhibited in real life, it was unbelievable unless the reader knew that it was true.
“I acknowledge that even a perfectly true character absolutely taken as a facsimile from real life would not be interesting in a fiction, might not be believed, and could not be useful. The value of these odd characters depends, I acknowledge, upon their being actually known to be true. In history, extraordinary characters always interest us with all their inconsistencies, feeling we thus add to our actual knowledge of human nature. In fiction we have not this conviction, and therefore not this sort or source of pleasure even if ever so well done; if it be quite a new inconsistency we feel doubtful and averse; but we submit when we know it is true: we say, ‘don't therefore tell me it is not in human nature.’” (6)
(1) From The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne, ed Sarah Woolsey (1892).
(2) From Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1818).
(3) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter to Miss Ruxton dated 26 December 1814.
(4) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter to her aunt dated 10 January 1816.
(5) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter dated 21 February 1818 to her aunt, Mrs Ruxton in Life and Letter vol 1
(6) From Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth (1895), in a letter dated 6 Sept 1834 to Mrs Stark in response to the criticism of her cousin, Colonel Matthew Stewart, on her novel, Helen.

Sources used include:
Austen, Jane, The Letters of Jane Austen selected from the compilation of her great nephew, Edward, Lord Bradbourne ed Sarah Woolsey (1892)
Austen, Jane, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1818)
Austen-Leigh, James Edward, Memoir of Jane Austen (1871)
Edgeworth, Maria, Belinda (1801)
Edgeworth, Maria, The Life and Letters of Maria Edgeworth, ed by Augustus JC Hare (1895)
Edgeworth, Richard Lovell and Maria, Memoirs of Richard Lovell Edgeworth esq (1821)

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

1816: the year without a summer

A wet day on the beach in Weymouth, Dorset
We might joke that you can blink and miss the English summer, but what if it really was cancelled this year?

Two hundred years ago, in 1816, people in England and much of Europe were bemused by a summer that was noticeably colder and wetter than usual. This was bad news for a society that depended largely on a good harvest for its wellbeing. It was even worse news for nations ravaged by the recent Napoleonic wars.

1816: the year without a summer

A priest in northern Portugal wrote:
“July of 1816 was a particularly unusual month concerning both rainfall and temperature. I am 78 years old and I have never seen so much rain and cold, not even in winter months.” (1)
Scientist Luke Howard (1772-1864), who kept detailed records of the weather in London for forty years from 1801, noted that much of 1816 was wetter and colder than usual. In September he toured parts of Europe and observed that along the length of the Rhine:
“Not meadows and villages alone but portions of cities and large towns lay long underwater; dikes were broken, bridges blown up, the crops spoiled or carried off by torrents and the vintage ruined by the want of sun to bring out and ripen the fruit.” (2)
The Times newspaper of 13 July 1816 reported that heavy rain in Switzerland and Germany had led the Rhine to flood in Holland. 
“Farmers who had cut their hay eight days ago have lost the whole, it is all washed away; the grass which is yet standing is now rotting in the ground.” (3)
Flood waters in Weymouth, Dorset, in 2012
The eastern United States was also affected by the adverse weather. Six inches of snow fell across New England on 6 June 1816. This and continued heavy frosts destroyed crops and killed livestock. Famine drove people to eat hedgehogs, nettles and pigeons.

The effects of the exceptionally cold year stretched into future years. In 1817-18, the price of bread almost doubled as supplies of grain and flour ran short. Over half a million barrels of flour came into Liverpool in 1818, the year that Britain imported more food than ever before.

Britain, with its well-developed trade network and relatively easy access to ports, was not as badly impacted by food shortages as other nations. Areas where travel was more difficult, such as central Europe, saw food prices spiral and people going hungry. Demonstrations, riots and looting were not uncommon, as people were desperate to express their frustration and feed their families.

Did the poor summer of 1816 create a monster?

The bad weather in England drove a group of writers to head for Switzerland. On arrival, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and his young lover, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later Shelley), enjoyed a few days of good weather before being driven indoors by continued storms and rain.
“It proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house,” wrote Mary Shelley in 1831. “‘We will each write a ghost story,’ said Lord Byron; and his proposition was acceded to.” (4)
As a result, Mary was inspired to write Frankenstein, creating a monster that’s become an established character in popular culture.

Frontispiece of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831 edition)
The cause of the year without a summer

Modern scientific study now links the poor weather of 1816 to a massive volcanic eruption in April 1815, on the other side of the world.

Mount Tambora, on the small Sumbawa Island in Indonesia, exploded dramatically in mid-April 1815. The eruption was the largest volcanic event for hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of years. It threw around 160 cubic kilometres of material into the atmosphere, which would have been enough to cover the entire surface of the UK in ash up to 45 cm (18 inches) deep.

The eruption killed tens of thousands of people and could be heard hundreds of miles away. But in 1815, news travelled more slowly than soundwaves and it was months before the story of the eruption reached Britain.

Even then, no one understood the impact the event would have on the weather. It’s taken scientists nearly two hundred years to connect the Mount Tambora eruption with the dismal summer of 1816 and its consequences.

Aerial view of the caldera of Mount Tambora,
Sumbawa, Indonesia - photo by Jialiang Gao (6)
Reports from the scene of the Mount Tambora eruption

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826), Lieutenant Governor of British Java, recorded and published accounts of the eruption.
“The first explosions were heard on this Island in the evening of the 5th of April; they were noticed in every quarter, and continued at intervals until the following day. The noise was in the first instance almost universally attributed to distant cannon.” (5)
“On the following morning, however, a slight fall of ashes removed all doubt as to the cause of the sound, and it is worthy of remark, that as the Eruption continued, the sound appeared to be so close that in each district it seemed near at hand.” (5)
The inhabitants of Java thought that a nearer volcano had erupted, but in reality, the source was hundreds of miles away.
“From the 6th, the sun became observed: it had everywhere the appearance of being enveloped in fog, the weather was sultry and the atmosphere close and still; the sun seemed shorn of its rays, and the general stillness and pressure of the atmosphere foreboded an Earthquake.” (5)
In the following days, the sky filled with ash. Some accounts talk of days being so unnaturally dark that candles were needed throughout and visibility was reduced to a few metres.

An account from a sailor recorded:
“On the 11th April, while at sea far distant form Sumbawa, he was in utter darkness; that on his passing the Tomboro Mountain at a distance of 5 miles, the lower part of it was in flames, and the upper part covered with clouds; he went on shore for water and found the ground covered with ashes to the depth of three feet, several large prows thrown on the land by a concussion of the sea, and many of the Inhabitants dead from famine.” (5)
Some reported how for miles the surface of the sea was covered in a solid mass of pumice stone, up to several feet deep.

View in Bima, Sumbawa, Indonesia from The Cruise of the Marchesa (1887)
Cold weather and dramatic sunsets

Today, science tells us that the volcanic eruption created a huge cloud of sulphur. Over the following months this spread across much of the world, acting as an almost invisible barrier to the heating effect of the sun.

The painter Joseph Turner (1775-1851) is famous for his moody skies and rich sunsets. The colours of these dramatic sunsets were affected by the sulphur in the sky following volcanic eruptions: Tambora in 1815, Babuyan in the Philippines in 1831 and Cosiguina in Nicaragua in 1835. Study has shown that when the air was dirtiest, the sunsets were reddest.

Although Turner’s most famous sunsets were painted after these later eruptions, we can be fairly confident that there must have been some spectacular sunsets in 1816 too. A small compensation for those who had to endure the year without a summer.

Sunset? by JMW Turner © Tate (1856)
Used under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (unported)
(1) From Iberia in 1816, the year without a summer by RM Trigo et al (2008).
(2) From The Climate of London by Luke Howard (1818).
(3) From The Times newspaper Saturday July 13 1816 p3 © Times Digital Newspaper Archive
(4) From the introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1831).
(5) From Narrative of the Effects of the Eruption from the Tomboro Mountain by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles (1816).
(6) Photo by Jialiang Gao ( under a Creative Commons licence via Wikimedia Commons.

Sources include
Howard, Luke, The Climate of London: Deduced from Meteorological Observations (1818)
Raffles, Sir Thomas, Narrative of the Effects of the Eruption from the Tomboro Mountain, in the island of Sumbawa on the 11th and 12th April 1815 (1816)
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein (1831 edition)
Trigo, RM, Vaquero, JM, Alcoforado, M, Barriendos, M, Taborda, J, Garcia-Herrera, R and Luterbacher, J, Iberia in 1816, the year without a summer in the International Journal of Climatology © Royal Meteorological Society (2008) website
Times Newspaper Archive Online