Castle Williams and the War of 1812

Jonathan Williams Signature
Signature of Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams

Castle Williams and The War of 1812

Commonly called America’s Second War of Independence, the War of 1812 was a major conflict with Great Britain in the early years of the nineteenth century. Unlike the American Revolution, the causes of the War of 1812 are far more economically and politically motivated rather than idealistic. Instead, the War of 1812 pitted the fledgling United States, barely twenty years old against Great Britain in a conflict that centered on the recognition of American commercial and political rights. The United States was looking to take its place in the world and to do this, it had to convince Great Britain that it would no longer be bullied or intimidated by European influences.

After the American Revolution, the United States sought to insulate itself from European affairs and focus on building up the new nation. George Washington, in his Farewell Address, laid out this policy of American neutrality in European affairs.

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. – George Washington, 1796

However, this would prove to be impossible, as the French Revolution sent Europe into political upheavals. Both the British and the French expected American support during the war and would not accept American neutrality in the matter. Both sides attacked and impounded American shipping, trusting that the United States Navy was unable to respond effectively to this violation of American neutrality. The British, confident that the American experiment in democracy was doomed to failure, continued to harass American merchantmen and impress American seamen, forcibly conscripting American sailors for service in the British Royal Navy. Meanwhile, British agents in North America supported insurrections by Native American tribes against the United States government in the Old Northwest.

At the same time, the American alliance with the French, dating back to the Revolutionary War was beginning to unravel. The first forts built in the United States, beginning in the 1790’s, were designed and overseen by French military engineers. However, with the French Revolution and the United States’ neutral stance, the alliance was soon tossed aside. This state of conflict between the new French Republic and the United States was a major impetus for American self-reliance. The country could no longer rely on the French to build its forts so it became necessary to train engineers to build the next generation of coastal defense.

A major player in this self reliance revolution was Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams, the commandant of the Army Corps of Engineers and the superintendent of the United States Military Academy at West Point. Williams was a relative of Benjamin Franklin’s and while Franklin spent the American Revolution in Paris negotiating the French alliance, Williams studied military engineering from the same engineers who would soon become America’s enemies. Full of these ideas, Williams was selected to improve American coastal fortifications in the years leading up to the War of 1812. One of his major additions was the construction of Castle Williams, here on Governors Island. With the other forts in New York Harbor, Castle Williams worked to defend the largest economic center in the new country from attack, an attack that almost came at the outbreak of the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States.

After all the diplomatic issues with Great Britain, from preventing trade to impressing sailors, the United States declared war on Great Britain, thinking this would give the country a chance to attack and capture parts of Canada. This plan did not work out well for the United States, however. Its troops were often ill-disciplined militia with a very small core of regular, professional soldiers. The British, on the other hand, had massive numbers of experienced troops from their wars in Europe against Napoleon. Also, the Royal Navy was the most powerful Navy afloat after its stunning victory over the combined Spanish and French fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar.

During this war, Castle Williams never had to fire a shot in anger. Admiral Cochrane, the commander of British naval forces in the North American theater declined to attack New York Harbor because of the system of coastal defense in place. During the American Revolution, the British were able to capture the major port of New York, a fact that spurred the construction of the coastal defense forts like Castle Williams in case of another attack. The four story masonry fortress with its massed artillery batteries was a sufficient deterrent on its own, guarding the major approaches to Lower Manhattan by sea. Instead, the Royal Navy landed General Ross and his British invasion force on the coast of Maryland. This veteran British force swept aside pitiful American resistance and went on to burn Washington D.C. to the ground.

The War of 1812 was a stalemate in the final analysis. Despite stunning American victories in single-ship actions at sea, like the fight between the USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere, and Andrew Jackson’s defense of New Orleans, the United States had not won enough major battles to call for a favorable peace. Instead, things were restored to the same state of affairs as before the war with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent between the United States and Great Britain. Castle Williams, untested in combat, was no longer on a state of alert and slowly began to transition into another use for the US Army.

Check back soon for information about this next stage!

For more reading on the War of 1812, see Ranger Greg's Blog.

Also, don't forget to follow Governors Island on both Twitter and Flickr.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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