Hudson Valley Celebrates War of 1812’s 200th Anniversary, Parrot Gun Cannon Foundry, and the Birth of Uncle Sam

War stories: A gun and a grocer were the Valley’s contributions to the War of 1812

O say, can you… explain what the War of 1812 was all about?

There are wars, and then there are wars. Last year, we honored the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, the war that, as historian Shelby Foote remarked, turned the United States from a plural “are” to a singular “is.” In 2014 we will mark the centennial of World War I, the “war to end all wars.”
This year, however, we are stuck with the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. “Like Avogadro’s number or the rules of subjunctive verbs,” notes historian James M. Lundberg on, “the War of 1812 is one of those things that you learned about in school and promptly forgot without major consequence.”

Sure, you may remember some things about the war. The poem that inspired our National Anthem was written during the battle for Ft. McHenry. (Or maybe you thought that was the Civil War.) Andrew Jackson became the hero of New Orleans. (Ditto.) The White House burned. (Okay, you get the point.)
Here in the Hudson Valley, there is even less reason to hail the war. No battles were fought here. Few hardships were felt. Some local militias did participate, and commendably so, but what’s Avogadro’s number again?

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Indeed, there are, as far as we can tell, but two significant and lasting local consequences from the War of 1812. Unlike subjunctive verbs, we hope you remember them long after you move on to the next article.

parrott gunUnion soldiers are shown with a Parrott gun, the powerful weapon produced at the foundry during the Civil War

Photograph courtesy of Library of Congress

Cannon fodder

What was the War of 1812 all about? Well, it was about several things — including land borders with Canada and naval rights of European powers — and it involved several players, including the British, the French, Native Americans, and us. For the Brits, it was an annoying sidebar to their much larger war with Napoleonic France. The main battles were fought on the high seas; along the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes; around the mid-Atlantic states; and in the “Southwest,” which in the early 19th century was Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

The war came to an inconclusive end with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 (although fighting continued into 1815), with no territory won or lost and little resolved on any of the participants’ sides. It’s really no wonder the conflict is so memorably unmemorable.

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But the war did reveal a startling weakness in our still-young nation’s ability to defend itself. Militias were controlled by the various states; there was no national army or navy to speak of. When the British navy started seizing American merchant ships and grabbing their cargo and sailors for their tussle with France, President James Madison declared war. But he had precious little to fight with: “Only 7,000 scattered members of the regular army, and a navy that numbered only 16 ships,” according to research from the Hudson River Valley Institute. If France and Britain hadn’t settled their differences, one or the other might have easily turned our fledgling democracy back into a colony.

Having dodged this literal bullet, the federal government looked to invigorate the military. In order to do so, it needed to rectify a glaring vulnerability in the nation’s defenses: not enough cannons. There were only two cannon foundries operating in the United States during the war; Madison ordered the creation of four more, one of which was in the Hudson Valley, across the river from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Along with its proximity to the academy, the Hudson Highlands site also had strategic natural resources, including deposits of iron, forests to feed the furnaces, and water to provide both power and transportation. The foundry was incorporated in 1818 and immediately began making weapons for the navy. Cannons cost about $130, cannon shot from five to eight cents a pound, and guns were about eight dollars a ton.

During the Civil War, the foundry produced a cannon called the Parrott gun. It became the weapon of choice during that conflict, shooting further with more power and accuracy than previous weaponry. But by the end of the century, iron was out and steel was in. The foundry went bankrupt in 1889 and closed in 1911. Once military operations ceased, nature’s operations took over, covering the property with flora and fauna. Today, the West Point Foundry Preserve is owned by Scenic Hudson, which just announced plans to turn the 87-acre site into an interpretive park that will feature information about the foundry and its history.

uncle sam tombstoneSam I am: Troy meatpacker Samuel Wilson (right) inadvertently became the personification of the United States’ symbol “Uncle Sam.” Wilson is buried in Troy’s Oakwood Cemetery

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Photograph by Jennifer May

Born on the Fourth of July

Soldiers need to eat, and the warriors of 1812 ate, among other provisions, beef and pork packaged in barrels by a Troy meatpacker named Sam Wilson. All incoming rations were stamped with the producer’s name, where they came from and where they were headed; the Troy barrels bore a stamp that read “E.A.‹U.S.” The E.A. was Elbert Anderson, Jr., the contractor who hired Wilson. The U.S. stood for the United States, but soldiers from Troy thought it referred to their local butcher, and joked that the meat was from “Uncle Sam.”

samuel wilsonTroy meatpacker Samuel “Uncle Sam” Wilson

It didn’t take long for Uncle Sam and the U.S. to become interchangeable. The character Uncle Sam first appeared in print in 1816; over the next decades took hold, both in word and image, as the Uncle Sam who adorns recruitment posters and patriotic tchotchkes to this day. The current image, in fact, dates to a century after the War of 1812. An artist named James Montgomery Flagg published a magazine cover in 1916 with the ultimate representation of Uncle Sam, asking “What are you doing for preparedness?” He was asking, of course, about preparing for World War I.

Now, that was a war.


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