Two years into America’s war with England, Salem was suffering. Death and loss stalked the famous seaport, transforming the once bustling waterfront into a forlorn landscape of empty wharves and gaunt warehouses and skeletal masts of unsailing ships. In the houses along the dirt lanes of the seafaring East Parish, men and boys were scarce, as in peacetime. But now, instead of sailing to foreign ports, hundreds were crewing on naval vessels and privately owned warships known as privateers, hundreds more were languishing in crowded, disease-ridden hulks and prisons overseas, and several dozen were dead, killed in action, or fatally wounded.
From time to time, a Salem privateer would make a run for the open sea; but such forays were now rare, and rarer still were the arrivals of prize vessels captured from the English. The problem was the British naval blockade, generally effective against the shipping of Massachusetts, including the Salem Bay towns of Gloucester, Manchester, Beverly, Marblehead, and Salem. Rumors of peace wafted in every week, blasted by alarms of invasion from Halifax, the Nova Scotian home base to 130 British warships and several regular army regiments. Invasion now seemed much more likely than armistice, as the United States faced defeat.
In the heat of August, British battleships cruised among the islands off Salem Neck.1 For the second straight month, neither privateers nor captured prizes arrived; and dark rumors and false reports buzzed in the sweltering air. The discouraged Republicans had not bothered to sponsor an orator or hold a parade on the Fourth of July, leaving the field to the antiwar harangues of the Federalists.
Most of the town’s large merchant vessels lay careened on the beaches and sat leaking in the docks, and the privateers rode at their anchors. Out at Salem Neck, Colonel Joseph White Jr., thirty-three, the jaunty leader of the militia regiment, was supervising the final phases of rebuilding Fort Lee and the construction of a new battery at the point called the Juniper, to command the mouth of the harbor. White doubted the ability of his men or the federal garrison at nearby Fort Pickering to resist a serious British attack. And the British were known to be on the move: their recent capture of Eastport, Maine, was an indication that London was out of patience and would authorize all-out aggression against New England to end this half-fought American war.
Colonel White, a staunch Republican, did all he could to prepare Salem for the coming confrontation. Others, not so brave, had left on long trips or removed to new homes in the countryside.2 White himself wished to join them; he was heartily sick of war and disease and death. In February 1813, his infant daughter, Charlotte, had died; and in July of that year, he and his brother Stephen and their brother-in-law Judge Joseph Story had jointly purchased a large tomb. Colonel White’s other two children had been sick all that summer, and he himself had fallen so ill as to have gone off to Saratoga Springs for a cure, returning via New York City “quite recovered” by September.
With Salem’s Republican leaders caught up in illness, military duties, and privateering, the local Federalists had managed to win the district’s congressional seat for their candidates since 1809, including the incumbent Timothy Pickering, formerly a senator and cabinet member. The seaport was hardly a Federalist stronghold—its (absent) sailors made up a majority, and most voted Republican—but that was not the view from the outside. Salem had long been envied as a bastion of wealth and privilege by the rest of the nation, in whose imagination its people lived like lords and ladies off the accumulated wealth of the world. But money seemed to have made them mad: the pro-British antiwar ferocity of the Federalists was regarded as verging on treason.
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If the British stormed ashore at Salem Neck, Joseph White and his brother Captain Stephen White, twenty-seven, would do their best, although it would not be enough. They had no experience of combat, and their gunners were not particularly accurate, as they kept proving in rare target practice hampered by lack of ammunition. White had been watching the handsome British warships in the bay, one of them an immense seventy-four-gun ship of the line; through his telescope he could make out the colors of the sailors’ whiskers and count the muskets stacked on the deck. Two of these ships, a few frigates, and a dozen transports full of troops would reduce Salem’s forts to rubble in an hour—Essex County would be conquered, and he would be dead.
For Colonel White, who retired each day to a beautiful new mansion and his wife, Eliza, and little girls, death was not a welcome thought. He and his brother, colonel and captain, loved their lives and their shipping partnership, which they had managed profitably through some very difficult years. Joseph, a specialist in the importation of fine wines, was a lover of the high life and the elegance and gaiety of Salem’s social scene. His interest in the military arose more from a fondness for pomp and circumstance than a taste for blood. Not that he lacked resolve, or that Salem would not be defended honorably, for Joseph and Stephen White both lived in it as princes, fully partaking of its great wealth and imperial lifestyle, willing to fight as princes must.
More than anything, as they prepared for battle, they yearned for peace and a chance to resume the commerce of a place that now seemed only a dream of former magnificence. The people of that Salem had built an imperial capital with boulevards of brick mansions and beautiful parks and cobbled streets of handsome stores and high-steepled churches.3 From their grand houses, White and his fellow shipowners in high beaver hats and cutaway coats had headed downtown to the insurance offices to hear the morning news and perhaps find a cargo or lease space on a freighter before going off to their respective countinghouses. Salem had been the most relentlessly commercial place in the country, at a time that “commerce” meant “trade across the waters” and when “merchant” meant “shipowner importing and exporting goods.” Represented in the overseas markets by their shipmasters and supercargoes (business agents), these merchants had the knowledge and judgment to compete successfully in international trade, with its shifting markets and currencies, embargoes and wars, pirates, privateers, and rival merchant fleets. Great wealth had been their reward, and would be again, if only peace would come.
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Two years before, in June 1812, as Congress had declared war, Salem had declared its own refusal to fight. At a town meeting, the voters of both parties had passed a resolution instructing Congress not to engage in an “unnecessary, impolitic and unjust” contest with England.4 The merchants’ great fear had always been war with either of the European superpowers, Britain or France, which had been fighting each other worldwide since 1793.
In Salem, neutrality meant prosperity. For twenty years, the American policy of neutrality had enabled shippers to extend their trade around the world. In spite of losses and insults, American merchants had the largest and most lucrative trading fleet on earth. Others might resent bullying by France or Britain enough to rattle sabers, but not the merchants: as long as profits were high, vessel seizures and ransom negotiations were acceptable parts of the game; and they gladly paid for insurance coverage, which they also underwrote, as their hedge.
The Federalists were, in fact, not opposed to war, but their preferred enemy was Napoleon’s France. Before 1812, the French had impounded hundreds of American ships and cargoes worth millions of dollars and had offered no reparations. Britain’s Royal Navy had also harassed and sometimes captured American vessels and impressed some of their crewmen. But London had apologized for its worst insults and had paid for its thievery; and the seaport Federalists excused the British as long as they thwarted Napoleon—no Federalist had forgotten the emperor’s 1802 invasion of the Caribbean with an army of sixty thousand fever-doomed French soldiers.
By the summer of 1812, Salem was out of business—its commerce had ceased. Regarding the war as a matter of partisan politics rather than patriotism, the Federalist merchants had withheld their ships and money from the war effort and had defiantly proclaimed that “no allegiance is due, where no protection is afforded.”5 Their position would not soften over time; they despised the fomenters of the war, their values, and their ambition to rule in America, and many hoped—some prayed—for a speedy British victory.
At first, people in other regions of the country had not understood, for British attacks on shipping had been cited as the main cause for going to war. But the Federalists had set them straight in speeches and newspapers, blasting away at mad President Madison and his suicidal friends. So deep was their antipathy that the Massachusetts governor, a Federalist, backed by the legislature, refused to place the state militia under General Henry Dearborn, federal commander in New England.
Salem’s Republicans dutifully answered the call of their country, and the richest—Crowninshields, Silsbees, and Whites—created partnerships to spread the risk of privateering. Their efforts soon paid off, as Salem became the terror of British commerce: in the first six months of war, eighteen Salem privateers captured eighty-seven English freighters and transports.6 These encounters resulted in few casualties and in much new property. The prizes, sent into Salem to be sold at auction, resulted in profit for the owners, pay for the sailors, and new vessels and valuable provisions for the town.
Risking their fortunes, the youthful White brothers, Joseph and Stephen, partners in a shipping firm, gradually outfitted a total of nine privateers. Their large brig, the 310-ton Grand Turk, mounting eighteen guns, was a fast sailer and a good predator. Under Captain Holton Breed, forty-one, she captured many prizes, as did the Whites’ schooner General Stark and their ship Alfred. They experimented with new models for speed. To Baltimore, famous for its fast clipper-style schooners, they sent their friend Joseph J. Knapp to supervise construction of a 172-ton privateer schooner, Growler, which went to sea by Thanksgiving 1812 and made several captures on her first cruise.7
Throughout the year 1813, the British increased their naval presence in the North Atlantic, but some privateers still beat the odds. By the end of 1813, one of the Salem Crowninshields, Benjamin W., chief owner of the privateer ship America, had raked in more than $1 million in prizes, and he had risked most of his winnings in loans to the federal government. In defiance of the ever-tightening blockade, the Whites, the Crowninshields, and their Republican friends continued to send out their vessels: privateers on their cruises, coasters making trips along the shore, and a class of privateers known as letters of marque, laden with freight and looking for trade overseas.
The merchants of the Federalist Party, dominant in Massachusetts, watched from the sidelines as the American military campaigns failed on the northern and western fronts. They smiled, too, at the news of the decimation of Napoleon’s army in Russia during the winter of 1812–13. The French collapse could only mean a larger British war effort in North America and the likely defeat of the Republicans’ war machine.
The anticipated British victory could not come soon enough. When some of Salem’s Republican merchants ventured in 1814 on high-risk commerce with the embattled ports of southern Europe, a few younger Federalists joined in. Among others, George Nichols, thirty-five, and his brother-in-law Benjamin Peirce assembled valuable cargoes and fitted out three of their best vessels. They could get only a little insurance coverage on such perilous voyages, but these men could no longer sit idle in their mansions, retired from the great game of trade. One after another, their beautiful ships sailed out from Salem Harbor and over the horizon.
None would ever return.
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In the summer of 1814, English warships sailed unchallenged in Salem Bay, ominous precursors of the nightmare fleet. “Our seacoast was defenseless,” wrote one Salemite, “and British ships were all the time cruising up and down as near the shore as they could safely get. Every little while they landed somewhere or chased a coaster or fisherman, or made a pretense of intending to bombard some town. Merchants who had stocks of goods on hand moved them into the country. Many families that were able took themselves away. The whole community was in a state of terror and agitation…”8
Weeks passed without any big news, but with a mounting sense of dread; then, at the end of August, word came that the English army had captured Washington and burned down the White House and the United States Capitol. Some Federalists were glad. Without a functioning federal government, New England could make a settlement with Britain. But soon rumors flew that a fleet had sailed from Halifax to punish Salem and Marblehead for their privateering. Panic set in, and Salem families swarmed into the countryside. On September 9, Salem learned that the British had captured Penobscot Bay in Maine and set up a naval base at Castine. Next day an express rider gave the alarm that British commandos had landed only twelve miles from Salem at the fishing village of Sandy Bay. Salem’s panic turned into full-blown frenzy, with “people tumbling over one another” to escape the onrushing disaster.9
With their wives and children safely departed, the White brothers and their volunteers held on at Fort Lee, posting lookouts on the highlands, scanning the horizon for the first sign of apocalypse. Early on September 15, Salem’s would-be defenders received the joyful news of Commodore MacDonough’s great victory over the British on Lake Champlain. Within a week, the families flooded back into town. At a grand regimental review on the Common, Colonel Joseph White Jr.’s militia turned out in uniform, along with the artillery, the cavalry, and Stephen White’s elite cadets, very handsome in new caps and shortened red coats.10
That marked the turning point. The churches filled on Sundays; the children played in the lanes; the men and boys shipped out on board the Republican merchants’ privateers. Defeated at Baltimore, the British abandoned the Chesapeake “by the rocket’s red glare” and broke off their campaigns in Florida and New York. By the end of November, as a large rum-laden prize entered Salem Harbor, not even the tremors of a mild earthquake could disturb the Salemites in their Thanksgiving rites. The worst, they felt, was over.
In December, the most successful of the Crowninshields, Benjamin W., was appointed secretary of the navy, which gave Salem a presence in the highest counsels of war policy.11 At that moment, Parson William Bentley, of the East Church, Unitarian, noticed that Crowninshield’s prodigal brother, Richard, had returned from an absence of several years. Bentley rode out the three miles to South Danvers to visit his former parishioner, once an East India shipmaster and then a New York banker for his family’s Salem shipping firm. Richard, cross-eyed and impetuous, had married a volatile young Irish widow, Ann Sterling, and with her had a family of young children. Eager to profit from wartime textile shortages, he had tried manufacturing; but his Connecticut woolen factory had burned down upon completion, and his next one had made him a bankrupt.12 Despite these failures, Richard had fallen in love with machinery and the idea of making first-class woolen broadcloth, and he had the support of his very rich old father.
Back in the vicinity of Salem, Crowninshield resided with his wife and children—the eldest, Richard Jr., was ten—on the farm formerly of his uncle Hasket Derby, where he had a large flock of imported merino sheep. Richard was convinced that his was the way of the future: pre-war, Americans had relied on importers for almost all of their textiles; but the cessation of commerce had created a new American industry, as workshops and cloth factories were built along the falls of swift-moving rivers. There were no such rivers in Salem; but in nearby Danvers a Captain Foster had set up a cotton-cloth mill, and certain rich Boston Federalists had clubbed together to build an English-style textile complex at suburban Waltham. The marketplace’s acceptance of the Boston Associates’ cotton sheeting signaled the rise of a capitalist class—formerly shipping merchants—at the head of the new industrial order envisaged by Richard Crowninshield.
At Buxton Hill, Bentley found him building a large brick factory to be powered by water from a new dam. Bentley, “very hospitably received,” entered a barn housing the unfamiliar forms of textile equipment—“carding and spinning machines, and looms with spring shuttles,” and a prototype shearing machine—like pieces of exotic sculpture, inert and disparate. The man of God was much impressed by this ambitious Crowninshield and his wonderful machinery, awaiting the jolt that would bring them to life.
No doubt Bentley was familiar, also, with the work of Sarah Savage, a Salem teacher who had just published a novel called The Factory Girl, examining millwork and its impact on young women and society.13 The author had observed in the courtroom of her father, Justice Ezekiel Savage, the fate of unmarried women who had turned to thievery or prostitution rather than submit to societal constraints. Her main character, Mary, welcomes the Industrial Revolution as a life-changing opportunity. Escaping from the closed-in drudgery of domestic service—the typical employment of that time—a young woman might enter a spacious factory, where her spinning and weaving were transformed into real wages.14
Savage fearlessly explored social structures and stereotypes and showed factories as places where young women might assert themselves, learning from one another and making their own choices. Most of her readers, however, saw factories as hives of corruption, not unlike Salem’s own ropewalks, the low, long, dirty buildings where drunks made cordage for the ships. For those readers, factory work denied the American ideal of the self-reliant worker—the craftsman or farmer, or the hardy sailors and their captains faring bravely around the world. Work was not supposed to be degrading; people were not to be herded like animals into oversize buildings and yoked to machines, as they were in England.
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Following the American victory at Lake Champlain, the British leaders decided to end this war that the Americans had started. Both nations’ representatives signed a truce in December in the Belgian town of Ghent. But news traveled slowly across the ocean, and therefore hostilities would continue. On January 8, 1815, with their commanders unaware of the proceedings at Ghent, two armies came together at New Orleans. General Andrew Jackson’s artillery serenely blew apart whole companies of General Sir Edward Pakenham’s British regulars, and the battle became a rout.
After a war made up of many losses, America celebrated the victorious finale. In Washington, the congressmen, without a Capitol, partied harder than anyone; and President Madison, long and widely derided, was toasted as a hero along with Jackson, MacDonough, Decatur, Perry, and other commanders. Amid the snowdrifts, Salem celebrated, too, with artillery barrages and fizzling fireworks and nighttime illuminations and feasts in the taverns, minus most of the Federalists and all of the hundreds of seafaring men still locked up in British prisons.
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The war was over: the war in America and the war in the world. Britain had won everywhere and would impose a Pax Britannica. None of the war aims of President Madison and Speaker Henry Clay had been achieved: impressment of sailors, the main casus belli, was not even discussed, and Canada proudly kept flying the British flag. But Jackson or New Orleans had given the propagandists what they needed, and America went forward with a new sense of unity as a nation—indivisible, with slavery, Indian clearances, industrial development, and manifest destiny for all.
Judge Story of Salem saw this as the moment to “extend national authority over the whole extent of power given by the Constitution.” Regional differences would dissolve, and Americans would come together under a federal government “endeared to the people,” while “the factions of the great states will be rendered harmless.”15 America was united in a Republican vision. The Federalists, not the British, had been completely defeated. For misjudging their country, they had forfeited their standing as a national political force.
Absent from the world for three years, Salem was left in a very difficult position. The Federalists had been right about the disastrous consequences of war, for Salem had surrendered its commerce to other nations, suffered further sundering of its politics, and endured the terrorizing of its citizenry and the imprisonment of hundreds of men and the deaths of dozens more. As manufacturers asserted their claims to the future, the British battleships sailed away, and the oceans were opened to free trade and fierce competition among all nations.
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The White brothers, the Crowninshields, George Nichols, and other Salem merchants sent smallish schooners to Baltimore and Norfolk and on to Havana and awaited more clarity regarding overseas trade. As months passed, and as liberated sailors came home from prison, a euphoric spirit swept the town. Optimism—a belief that the future would prove prosperous, that voyages would bring profits—was essential to the conduct of a large commerce; and optimism now reigned. Voyages were planned. New partnerships were formed; huge sums of money were put at risk on great expectations. The reality of peace, and the desire to take advantage of it, finally overcame wartime paralysis and exhaustion, and the very process of refitting the great ships helped to restore a belief in good times to come. Joseph L. Tillinghast’s “Ode to Commerce,” printed in the Essex Register in the spring of 1815, captured the moment.
By freedom roused from death’s cold sleep
Again see Commerce cheer the deep;
Peace to her shining vesture clings
And treasures load her spreading wings.
Hail, returning Commerce, hail!
Ride the billow, rule the gale!
Columbia’s flag again unfurled
Shall wave her honors thro’ the world;
Once more her eagle’s flaming eye
Shall pierce the clouds in Europe’s sky.
Hail, returning Commerce, hail!
Ride the billow, rule the gale!
These are the boons we Yankees boast,
And neither singly shall be lost:
Freedom and Commerce shall be ours
While life supplies resisting powers!
Hail, returning Commerce, hail!
Ride the billow, rule the gale!
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Booth