Given the amount of effort and resources the U.S. Navy has dedicated to the War of 1812 bicentennial commemoration, it is gratifying to see an outstanding display of historical art and artifacts on exhibit at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum honoring the event. The breadth and depth of the exhibit are created by interweaving War of 1812 art and artifacts from the collections of William I. Koch with the Naval Academy’s Beverley R. Robinson Collection. Koch, a descendant of Captain James Lawrence on his mother’s side, decided to acquire Lawrence-related memorabilia years ago, and the collection grew to include many valuable objects relating to Royal Navy Captain Philip B. V. Broke, whose frigate Shannon defeated Lawrence’s Chesapeake in an 1813 engagement off Cape Ann, Massachusetts.
The exhibit, titled “Seas, Lakes, and Bay,” is displayed in the Hart Room on the second floor of Mahan Hall, and visitors are reminded of naval traditions of the era as they proceed through the foyer toward the elaborate marble staircase. Encased on each side of the stairs are faded battle ensigns of several British ships captured during the war, including those of HMS Macedonian, Frolic, Confiance, Levant, Cyane, Peacock, Penguin, Detroit, Reindeer, and Lady Prevost. On entering the Hart Room, the exhibition commences with the section “Why War?” and contains images, paintings, and graphics that exemplify and explain the prewar tensions among the United States, Britain, and France as America tried to steer a neutral course between these nations and their allies that had been at war since 1793.
The next sections, “Season of Victory” and “On the Seas,” highlight the frigate engagements of the first year of the war when, with most of the Royal Navy’s warships committed to European waters, British and American naval forces were on relatively equal footing off the northeast coast of North America. A number of U.S. Navy captains and their ships are displayed in oils, watercolors, and engravings accompanied by interpretive panels. Among them are portraits of Captain Isaac Hull and paintings of his ship the Constitution, a British squadron in chase of the Constitution, and several renderings of the Constitution vs. Guerriere engagement. To dramatize this battle, two well-executed ship models face a grim portrait of U.S. Commodore John Rodgers, whose President and entire squadron were unable to bag the elusive Belvidera.
Commodore Stephen Decatur Jr., the frigate United States, and the captured Macedonian are well portrayed, and a massive plaster cast of the Macedonian’s figurehead dominates the scene. Nearby are small paintings of the stormy Wasp vs. Frolic battle but no image of Master Commandant Jacob Jones, the Wasp’s commander. Commodore William Bainbridge’s portrait, paintings, and ship engravings from the Beverley R. Robinson Collection remind us of the Constitution vs. Java battle. The journal of Baltimore Captain Joshua Barney’s privateer schooner Rossie represents the contributions of “America’s private navy,” as one of hundreds of such vessels that surged from Middle Atlantic and New England seaports in search of profits in pursuit of Britain’s merchant ships.
“Season of Victory” depicts the shifting fortunes of war and a more somber time in 1813. British frigates and the larger 74-gun ships of the line took station off ports including Boston and New York, at the mouth of the Delaware River, and the Chesapeake Capes to detain, capture, and destroy American merchantmen, privateers, and naval vessels. The British blockade began to take effect, bottling up ships in port and diverting coastal trade to more expensive and slower overland routes.
The central section of the exhibition is devoted to the Chesapeake vs. Shannon paintings and artifacts, many of which came from William Koch’s private collection. This includes beautiful models of the frigates, two portraits of Lawrence, a full-length portrait of Captain Broke—accompanied by his gold medal—and the sword presented by the City of London. The famous paintings of the Shannon leading the captured Chesapeake into the port of Halifax, by artist John Christian Schetky, symbolize the shift of power on the high seas. An adjacent case displays Broke’s letter of 11 June 1813 to his wife, telling her of his slow recovery from a head wound received after boarding the Chesapeake.
These displays are framed by the billet head of the Chesapeake and the imposing figurehead of the Shannon. On the opposite walls are several paintings of the battle in different stages, and to one side hangs Thomas Henry’s immense 7- by 9-foot painting, Close Quarters, portraying the British sailors boarding the Chesapeake. Alongside, several boarding pikes, two boarding axes, and a leather boarding cap reinforced with metal ridges represent the tools used in hand-to-hand sea battles. Sadly, Lawrence did not long survive the action.
“On The Defensive” features the impact of British naval reinforcements on the Atlantic Coast. Nonetheless, there were still some American victories, as represented in the painting of the Enterprise vs. Boxer engagement in which both brig commanders were killed. Others include Captain Lewis Warrington, whose Peacock captured the Epervier off the coast of Georgia, and Captain Johnston Blakeley, a North Carolinian whose Wasp captured the Avon and Reindeer in European waters in 1814. Perhaps his brooding image foreshadowed the Wasp’s disappearance without a trace as she returned to the United States in late 1814.
Privateers continued to slip through the blockade, as exemplified by the Baltimore-based brig General Armstrong and her commander Samuel C. Reid, who led a determined resistance against British boat attacks in the Azores. Reid’s portrait and service sword are displayed beneath a large painting of the action by Edward Moran.
An exhibit on Captain David Porter’s foray into the Pacific Ocean in 1813–14 highlights how far afield the War of 1812 spread. Porter’s capture and destruction of many British whaling ships near their hunting grounds led the Admiralty in early 1814 to dispatch two British frigates in pursuit. The Phoebe and Cherub caught up with Porter’s 32-gun frigate Essex at Valparaiso, Chile, where they destroyed Porter’s frigate during a ferocious battle. The display features a portrait of Porter, several watercolors of the Essex in action with the Phoebe and Cherub, and a model of the Essex.
The strategically important naval battles of Lake Erie and Lake Champlain receive their fair share of space, featuring portraits of U.S. Commodores Isaac Chauncey, Oliver Hazard Perry, and Thomas Macdonough; a watercolor of Master Commandant Jesse Elliott’s capture of the brigs Detroit and Caledoni; watercolors, lithographs, and engravings of the principal battles; and the congressional medals awarded to these naval leaders. One exceptional artifact is a carved, gilded sculpture of a lion reportedly taken from the parliament house in York, Upper Canada, in 1813. Hand written. encased documents of the time are of interest to the visitor with the time to read them.
“In the Chesapeake Bay” features engravings, maps, and documents describing how the British Rear Admiral George Cockburn and his troops raided small Chesapeake towns and plantations and encouraged slaves to escape in 1813 and 1814. An equally important part of this story is the role of U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney and his flotilla, which opposed the British in the Patuxent River and at Bladensburg, Maryland, diverting and delaying the British attacks on Washington and Baltimore. Images of Washington burning and Baltimore’s Battle of North Point and the bombardment of Fort McHenry provide additional drama.
The closing months of the war in 1815 are illustrated in Thomas Hornbrook’s oil painting of the Battle of Lake Borgne, maps of the Mississippi Sound, and a Kurz and Allen lithograph of General Andrew Jackson leading his troops in the Battle of New Orleans.
Without firm knowledge concerning the completion of peace negotiations at Ghent and the ratification of a treaty, the navies fought on in the Atlantic. Three aquatint engravings show vividly how Commodore Decatur was overmatched by a British squadron after he sailed from New York. Captain Charles Stewart’s victory in the Constitution over the British frigates Cyane and Levant one month later is commemorated in a watercolor, lithograph, and Thomas Sully’s portrait of Stewart. To one side, the billet head of Cyane stands to represent that action, as do the congressional medals and presentation swords of Stewart and one of his officers. Artist Joseph Wood’s imposing portrait of American Captain James Biddle portrays that officer in honor of his capture of the British ship-sloop Penguin in March 1815. Following Biddle’s return to Philadelphia, the citizens presented him with a beautiful engraved silver urn for this victory.
The exhibit closes with commemorative china of both British and American manufacture, demonstrating how these former enemies chose to remember the war. Examples of scrimshaw, commemorative coins, and carved snuff boxes, principally from the Koch collection, reflect the memories of veterans and legends of the war as it thrived in the public’s imagination.
Seas, Lakes, and Bay: The Naval War of 1812
Mahan Hall, U.S. Naval Academy
1 April–3 November 2013
Mon.–Thurs., 1000–1600; Sun. 1100–1600
The catalog for the collection is coauthored by J. Scott Harmon, the exhibition’s curator, and William Dudley and is available for purchase at the Naval Academy Visitor’s Center and on-line at www.navyonline.com.