Central Park Still Awaits the British

| 16 Feb 2015 | 06:00

    About 10 days ago, I heard a friend humming a song from the early 60s, "The Battle of New Orleans." I arched an eyebrow. She replied, "The songwriter took it from an old bluegrass fiddle tune, called 'The Eighth of January.'" n The old tune's name is the date of the battle itself, our greatest and most pointless victory of the War of 1812. There, Andrew Jackson smashed the British invasion of Louisiana, roughly two weeks after British and American diplomats had successfully concluded peace negotiations by signing the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve 1814. Neither army knew the war was over. A ship bearing the news only reached New York on Feb. 11, 1815. Jackson did not learn until mid-March.

    The War of 1812 was a military and political disaster. The causes ranged from the important (the British insistence on stopping American ships to search them for British subjects avoiding naval service) to the paranoid (the British were conspiring with hostile Indians) to the imbecilic (Canadians just pined to join the Union). Some 19th-century American historians considered it the Second War for Independence. More realistically, it was a sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars.

    Part of New York's response to the War of 1812 still stands in Central Park. From Central Park W. and 103rd St. a path rises to the Great Hill. On a northeastern cliff, a weathered stone building overlooks Harlem Meer and the Loula D. Lasker Pool-Rink. This is Blockhouse No. 1, the survivor of the city's emergency fortifications built in the late summer of 1814, still waiting for the British to come.

    The city's post-Revolutionary defenses were molded by the Revolutionary experience. As the British had taken New York by entering the harbor through the Narrows, the War Dept. and the state and city governments fortified the Narrows, its approaches and the harbor itself. Castle Clinton at the Battery, Fort Jay and Castle Williams on Governor's Island, Forts Hamilton and Lafayette in Brooklyn and Fort Wood in Bedloes Island, among others, were then built or commenced. Apparently, no one seriously considered whether the British might sail west through Long Island Sound, land in lower Westchester (now the Bronx) or Queens and take Manhattan from the northeast. Around 4 p.m. on Aug. 9, 1814, a squadron of the Royal Navy, Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy commanding, appeared in Long Island Sound off Stonington, CT.

    Hardy commanded HMS Ramilles, a 74-gun ship of the line, HMS Pactolus, a 44-gun frigate, HMS Nimrod and HMS Dispatch, 22-gun brigs, HMS Terror, a bomb-ship, various barges and launches, and transports bearing Royal Marines. Philip Freneau, a popular American versifier, later wrote in The Battle of Stonington:

    Three gallant ships from England came, All freighted deep with fire and flame, And other things we need not name, To have a dash at Stonington. Around 5:30 p.m., Hardy sent an ultimatum: "Not wishing to destroy the unoffending inhabitants residing in the town of Stonington, one hour is granted them from the receipt of this to remove out of the town." The town officials requested negotiations. Hardy's representative replied, "No arrangements can be made." The Americans asked whether Hardy intended to destroy the town. They were assured that he did. They knew that he could.

    The town's leaders were not extraordinary. They were sailors, farmers and small merchants. Most of them even opposed the war as bad for business. Yet their reply was extraordinary: "We shall defend the place to the last extremity; should it be destroyed, we will perish in its ruins!"

    Thus, the people of Stonington were called to arms. The local militia (guys who were mustered once a year for a day of training and serious drinking) and townspeople opened the arsenal at the upper end of Main St. They rolled cannon down to the waterfront, threw up barricades and raised a huge battle flag, 11-1/2-feet-by-18 feet, bearing 16 stars and stripes. At 8 p.m., Terror began bombarding the town with 13- and 15-inch explosive shells as her escorts fired Congreve rockets (their fiery trails inspired Francis Scott Key's line about "the rockets' red glare"). The bombardment lasted until midnight, when Hardy ordered the Royal Marines to take the town. Their barges were quite visible in the light shed by the burning buildings and flaming rockets, and as they came within range, the town's artillery blasted them with solid shot. As Benson Lossing wrote in his history of the War of 1812, "these so shattered the enemy's vessels that (they) retreated in confusion..."

    At daylight on Aug. 10, Terror began firing carcasses?enormous incendiary projectiles?into the town even as Dispatch tacked into the harbor. She prepared to anchor and open fire. An American sailor and former prisoner of war, Capt. Jeremiah Holmes, lovingly trained one of the town's 18-pounders on the British warship and fired into her hull. She replied with a full broadside. Twenty-four-pound cannonballs whirled into the town, smashing into buildings and skipping through the streets like pebbles on a pond. Terror shelled Holmes' position as fast as her mortars could be served. Houses burst into flame. A shell exploded in the town graveyard; Mrs. Hall, who died of natural causes, was carried to the crater, bed and all, and buried in it.

    They blazed away at Stonington... The bombs were thrown, the rockets flew. Holmes dueled with the British until his powder ran out. At this point, around 8 a.m., some citizen suggested surrendering by lowering the Stars and Stripes. Holmes roared, "That flag shall never come down while I am alive," and nailed the colors to the staff. An hour later, after finding six bags of gunpowder, Holmes went back into the artillery business with such positive effect that Dispatch slipped her cables at noon and ran for the sound.

    Although the balladeer names the wrong ship, he has the right idea:

    They bored the Nimrod through and through, And killed and mangled half her crew; When riddled, crippled, she withdrew, And cursed the boys of Stonington. Terror remained beyond Holmes' range and continued lobbing shells into the town until nightfall. On the morning of the 11th, Ramilles and Pactolus came up with the tide, placing the town under 120 additional guns. Terror resumed shelling at 3 p.m. until nightfall and began again on the 12th at sunrise. At 8 a.m., Ramilles and Pactolus fired their first broadsides into the town. A full broadside from a British ship-of-the-line was a memorable event, and Hardy gave Stonington three of them. It was his farewell: the two men-of-war turned and sailed down the harbor for the sound. Terror fired until noon. Four hours later, she and her companions followed Ramilles and Pactolus.

    The Ramilles gave up their fray And with her comrades sneaked away Such was the valor on that day, Of British tars at Stonington. The British had fired over 50 tons of cannonballs, shells and rockets into Stonington, losing 20 men dead and more than 50 wounded. The American losses were two dead horses, seven men wounded and 40 damaged houses.

    New York's response was panic. On Aug. 18, 1814, nine days after Hardy anchored off Stonington, civilian volunteers under the command of Gen. Joseph Swift, including the Tammany Society, the Tallow Chandlers, the Marine Society, the Sons of Erin, Free Masons, Columbia College scholars, medical students, butchers, lawyers, firemen and "colored citizens" began digging ditches and building earthworks across upper Manhattan. Thus, in late September 1814, the Master Butchers' Association marched six miles with a brass band from the city to Harlem, bearing a huge banner with the inscription: "Friends of Our County Free Trade and Butchers' Rights From Brooklyn's Fields to Harlem Heights"

    By sundown they had thrown up a breastwork about 100 feet long, 20 feet thick and four feet high. The volunteers built a chain of batteries and blockhouses across upper Manhattan, from Benson's Point (the site of today's Benjamin Franklin Plaza at 3rd Ave. and 106th St.) to Manhattanville (today's Morningside Houses, near the northeast corner of 124th St. and West End Ave.). In today's Central Park, they fortified McGown's Pass with a gate and battery (today, McGown's Pass is on the park's East Dr. at 106th St.; its namesake, John McGown, and his successors operated a popular tavern there until the turn of the 20th century). They also built Fort Clinton, with three guns, overlooking Harlem Creek; Fort Fish, with five heavy guns, overlooking both Harlem Creek and McGown's Pass; and Nutter's Battery, just south of Harlem Creek, with one gun. Blockhouse No. 1, off to the northwest, had a sunken roof with "a single heavy gun traversing en barbette," that is, a large cannon that could be swiveled to fire over the parapet in any direction. Nearly 2000 New York state militiamen garrisoned the fortifications.

    The British never came. When news of the Treaty of Ghent reached New York in early February 1815, the forts were abandoned almost overnight. Most were torn down for building materials. Today, the little of them remaining exists only in Central Park. The Parks Dept. has marked the sites of Fort Fish, Fort Clinton and Nutter's Battery. About 85 years ago, someone unearthed a small mortar and a field piece at the site of Fort Clinton. The little guns were placed in a monument with a plaque reading, "This eminence, commanding McGown's Pass, was occupied by British troops September 15, 1776 and evacuated November 18, 1783. The citizens of New York built Fort Clinton for the defense of the City during the Second War with Great Britain." Apparently, the cannon and the plaque were stolen during the late 60s, leaving only the plinth.

    Olmstead and Vaux treated Blockhouse No. 1 as a picturesque ruin, romantically overrun with vines and Alpine shrubbery. In 1905, the Veteran Corps of Artillery, the ceremonial military unit that fires an annual Independence Day salute at the Battery, hauled a fieldpiece up the Great Hill. They fired a salute as representatives of several patriotic societies unveiled a plaque bearing the inscription, "This blockhouse was part of a line of fortifications extending from the Hudson to the Harlem River. Built for the defense of New York by its patriotic citizens during the War of 1812-1815."

    This, too, vanished during the 60s, and until a few years ago the Blockhouse was merely a roofless ruin. Yet by 1999, Blockhouse No. 1 had been stabilized and a sign erected describing its history. Its once-rusty flagpole has been painted and its halyards rehung, and so the Stars and Stripes fly once more above the Great Hill.