A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 5, "The War Of 1812: Eastern Theatre." TOC
Ch. 6, - The Years Leading Up To The War Of 1812.

In 1794, the American Congress established a navy. I quote from an old work which I have consulted.

"A new enemy was now about to contest the dominion of the seas with England. The navy of the United States, though insignificant taken as a whole, was composed of large and heavy frigates. In the year 1794 the American government gave orders for building two 74-gun ships, of 1,620 tons of American measurement (equivalent to 1,750 tons English); and also for one 44-gun frigate. The timbers were prepared and set up, but a more amicable footing having been established in reference to England, they remained on the stocks unproceeded with. Subsequently, it was determined to finish the two former as frigates; and this was effected by contracting them a little in the bean, which reduced their tonnage to about 1,530 tons English measurement. The first was launched in 1798, and named the United States, and the second in the same year, and named the Constitution. They were described as 44-gun frigates, and for many years their real force remained a mystery. The ship intended for a 44-gun frigate, although built exactly upon the original plan, was then nominally reduced to a 36-gun frigate. In 1798, two more 44-gun frigates were built, and named the President and Philadelphia, but the latter was destroyed by fire."1
Joseph Allen, the author of the preceding paragraph observed that the American "44-gun frigate" actually mounted fifty-six guns. Typically she carried a crew of 475: 80 officers and petty officers, 325 seamen, 65 marines, and five boys. "In fact, the American 44-gun frigates were 'line-of-battle' ships in disguise."2

There are three more American frigates that need mentioning: the 38-gun Constellation, the 38-gun Congress and the 38-gun Chesapeake. (The last of these, the Chesapeake figures very much into our story, both in the "Chesapeake Incident" of 1807, and in her historic fight with H.M.S Shannon.) For a full count, the United States started out at the beginning of The War of 1812 with six sizable warships.3 In addition, during the pre-war years the American government saw to the building of "two sloops of 18 guns, and two brigs of 16.4

As early as 1804, Governor Wentworth expressed his fear over the build-up in the United States. In the circumstances Wentworth thought that there might be a greater presence of British navy at Nova Scotia to secure the coast from American raiders. The fact of the matter was that Britain needed her navy to be in home waters.5 It was not until 1805, when Nelson defeated the combined navies of France and of Spain at Trafalgar, that Britain was in a position to send certain of her larger naval vessels to prowl the waters off the American coast. Only with the outbreak of war with the United States in 1812, did the people of Halifax see any kind of a concentration of British naval ships. British bound fleets under the escort of the navy did come into Halifax for provisions and repair.6 But it would not appear the British Navy used Halifax as a base of operations in any extensive way until 1807.

In 1802, The Peace of Amiens was signed by the French and the English. It lasted only eighteen months. In March of 1803, the British Commons passed a resolution calling for an additional number of 10,000 men to be employed for the sea service.7 Included in this number was the provision for 3,400 Marines. On the 18th of May, a declaration of war was laid before Parliament. On the 20th, Lord Nelson sailed from Portsmouth in the Victory to take the command in the Mediterranean, a sea that needed an extensive British presence. So too, the English Channel needed extensive British presence. "In the winter of 1803-4 the British nation became aware that a flotilla of 3000 craft had been collected near the camp of the Grand Army at Boulogne."8 On 24th of November, 1803, Wentworth writes at Halifax, "We are daily and very anxiously waiting the event of Buonaparte's projected invasion of Great Britain."9

This threat of the French, this fear of the English, that a huge French fleet would bring Napoleon's army to English shores obliged Britain to keep her fleet at sea and at the ready. It was a threat and a fear which lasted through to 1805. To that point, Halifax had received only the occasional British warship. It was in 1805 that word was received of the most famous of all sea-battles. The people as far away as Nova Scotia heard reports of naval activity. On June 1st, Simeon Perkins wrote in his diary. "Some news in the papers about a French & Spanish fleet of 20 sail about the Windward Islands." On June 11th, news is heard by Governor Wentworth, via Newfoundland, that "a large fleet of Spanish and French Men-of-War had gathered at Cadiz, and, evading the British picket-ships, set to sea: destination, not known."10 Then Perkins wrote on the 14th, "If there is such a fleet in the West Indies all the shipping and perhaps all the English Islands will fall a sacrifice if a superior fleet of English ships does not soon follow them." Perkins returned to this topic on July 22nd. He had heard from arriving captains "that several vessels belonging to Nova Scotia, bound home from the West Indies, had fallen in with the French squadron returning to France. That one, Captain Harris, had escaped by heaving his papers overboard and having some place in the United States wrote on his stern."11 In the meantime, on the 24th of August, Napoleon, who had joined the invasion army waiting at Boulogne three weeks earlier, ordered it to break camp so that it might proceed to meet the gathering armies of Russia and Austria to the east. With the La Grande Armée marching away from the Channel, the threat of an invasion on England was considerably reduced. In the meantime, what Perkins had hoped for, "a superior fleet of English ships," was, in chase across the broad Atlantic sniffing up the wind for any trace of the French and Spanish fleets. Hearing that the French and Spanish fleets had been in the Caribbean but had returned east from where they had come, and that they were but just days ahead of them, the English squadron chased back over the Atlantic. These were long-ranged dance steps between the French and Spanish admirals, and the inimitable Nelson. The dance ended on October 21st, at Trafalgar, off the coast of Spain. Though trading his life for it, Nelson annihilated both the French and Spanish navies.12 Thus, the danger of any invasion of England melted away like a dream.

The first three British warships operating out of Halifax during 1807 which draw our interest are the Leopard, the Columbine and the Triumph.13 The Leopard's claim to historical fame arises from her stopping the American frigate Chesapeake on the high seas. The event occured on June 22nd, 1807. The Chesapeake was stopped in order to search for British naval deserters. It is known as the "Chesapeake Incident," a pre-war event we shall deal with in more detail in Chapter 8. As for the Leopard, she was a 50-gun warship. She had come to the Halifax Station in 1806. She was to be the flagship of Vice Admiral George Berkeley. It was, however, Captain Salusbury Pryce Humphreys who was in charge when the Leopard brought on the "Chesapeake Incident."

As for the Columbine, nothing listed fits.14 I note that two years later, on April 9th, 1809, there was a mutiny off St. Andrews, New Brunswick on the sloop, HMS Columbine. Six men, the boatswain, three seamen, and two marines, were involved. On September 18th, the six were "hung in gibbets on Mauger's beach." Also, in 1810, there is to be seen, a Columbine working out of Halifax. The most interesting of the British warships working out of Halifax in 1807, however, was the 74-gun Triumph.15 Interesting because she was under the command of Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy -- Nelson’s Hardy.16

There were others that visited Halifax in the summer of 1807.17 Between July 26th and August 23rd, there came three 74-gun ships, two 36-gun ships and one 18-gun. Thus, it is not surprising to see that, on August 24th, a declaration made by the local authorities that "all export of provisions from the Province prohibited until 1 November to prevent speculators advancing prices in consequence in arrival of a fleet." At this time Rear Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane was at Halifax.18 Cochrane's fleet, with repairs effected and provisions loaded, was ready for sea by September 19th.19

We have considerable detail of the movements of British warships because of the observations of John Liddell. Liddell was merchant at Halifax, much interested in the ships that came into the harbour.20

  • July 26th, 1807: HMS Ethallion [36 guns] came in from the West Indies. Also the HMS Bellona21 [74 guns], Captain [John Erskine] Douglas and HMS Indian [18 guns], Captain Austen came in from the Chesapeake.
  • August 9th: HMS Squirrel came in.
  • August 22th: HMS Northumberland22 [74 guns], Rear Admiral Alex Cochrane came in from the West Indies.
  • August 23rd: HMS Ramillies [74 guns] came in from the West Indies. Also the HMS Melampus23 came in from the Chesapeake.
  • August 31st: Halifax: "This morning the two seaman, who were taken from on board the Frigate Chesapeake in conformity to the sentence passed upon them last week, was inflicted, one of them undergoing the flogging thro the fleet died at nine o'clock the other was hanged on board the Halifax Sloop-of-war."
  • September 9th: HMS Squirrel came in from her cruise.
  • September 16th: HMS Jason24 came in from New York.
  • September 17th: HMS Bellona, Captain Douglas and Brig Speedy sailed for the Chesapeake "with water and provisions for our squadron there.
  • October 4th: Sailed for Barbadoes, HMS Bellisle25 [50-gun], Admiral Cochran; HMS Ramillies, Capt Pickmore; together with the frigates Ethallion [36-guns] and Jason.
  • October 9th: HMS Melampus, frigate, sailed for the Chesapeake.
  • October 12th: Two men hung on the Jason [yet she sailed on the 4th?] "for mutiny."
  • October 12th: HMS Triumph and HMS Leopard came in from the Chesapeake
  • November 15th: HMS Comus [22-gun] came in 29 days from Portsmouth.
  • December 4th: HMS Horatio, Captain Scott sailed for the Chesapeake.
  • December 4th: HMS Muros [22-gun] sailed "with the trade for Jama [sic]".
  • December 12th: HMS Triumph, Captain Sir Thomas Hardy, sailed.
  • In Europe, the year 1807 ended stormily. On the 4th of November, Great Britain declared war on Denmark. (This was only done after Nelson bombarded Copenhagen and captured the Danish fleet.) On the 8th of the month, Portugal was compelled by Napoleon to confiscate British property, and shut its ports to England. Britain thought to strengthen her hand in North America with a view to restricting trade with France and to take French posessions in the Caribbean. Their man on the ground at the Halifax station was getting old and had no military experience. On Thursday, April 7th, 1808, Sir George Prevost arrived at Halifax bringing with him 3,000 soldiers, consisting of three Regiments.26 He brought with him his commission signed by Castlereagh making him the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia replacing Wentworth. Prevost would serve in this post until 1811.

    Just after Prevost settled into his new post he determined, as a good military man, to obtain the lie of the ground. At Halifax, he immediately got his engineers and sappers busy to rebuild the fortifications. Prevost was also very keen in getting the lie of the ground along the coast of the United States. He determined to send a spy. This spy was a printer at Halifax who Prevost had befriended. He was John Howe, whose son Joe was to become in later years one of Nova Scotia's most famous politicians. John Howe made visits -- it seems without too much difficulty -- to Washington, Norfolk and New York.27 (We might observe at this point that six years later Washington was to be sacked by the British with the expedition being fitted out at Halifax. An event we will write of, in some detail, at a later point in this part.) That July, in 1808, Lord Castlereagh wrote to Prevost "to hold the troops he had accompanied to North America in readiness for distance service."28 Prevost prepared his forces for transport to the Caribbean. The fleet sailed on December 6th. In the new year, the French island of Martinique fell to the British.

    The year 1808 marks the first year in the long war with Napoleonic France that British troops were to see action. Up to this point, Britain was content to be an island of powerful merchants protected by its naval superiority. She was content to ship arms, munition and money to her European allies. In 1808, the British ministers changed their strategy. They sent George Prevost with 4,000 troops to the Caribbean, and sent Sir Arthur Wellesley (later to become the Duke of Wellington) with 9,000 into the Peninsula of Spain. The British made their move in support of a Spanish uprising. Thus it was, though they had been at war with France for fifteen years, in July of 1808, the first of the British forces landed within the French fortress of Europe. It marked the beginning of a long ending.

    It was in the following year, on May 19th, 1809, that Prevost transmitted a copy of John Howe's report showing the results of his secret mission. Prevost pointed out "the merit of Mr. Howe who has traversed the United States from North to South, in pursuit of intelligence, and has proven himself an industrious gleaner and a judicious observer. The information that I received from Mr. Howe in December, respecting the disposition of the Eastern States, was so satisfactory, that on it I decided on proceeding to the West Indies. I therefore recommend him to the favourable consideration of His Majesty's Ministers."29 Other than this, there is nothing much to report about the events of 1809 which relate to those leading up to the war with the States. At Halifax the effects of quick justice were there to be observed. In addition to the six mutinous seamen who were "hung in gibbets on Mauger's beach"30 in September, there was the execution of Edward Jordan on Monday, November 23rd. Jordon was "hung in chains" on the beach at Black Rock Point (near Freshwater Bridge). He had been convicted of piracy and murder on board the Three Sisters on September 13th, 1809.31 It was also in 1809 that James Madison (1751-1836) was sworn in as the Fourth President of the United States. He served from 1809 to 1817. In England, that October, with the death of the Duke of Portland, Spencer Perceval became the English Prime Minister and Liverpool Secretary for War and the Colonies.32 As the year wound down, George III's 50th Jubilee was celebrated at Halifax with "great ceremony" on October 23rd.33

    On April 3rd, 1810, Perkins reported that the "Brig Caroline, John Barss34, arrives from Dominico 21 days passage. Loaded with rum 140 odd puncheons 40 hh sugar, etc. He brings confirmation of Guadalupe being captured & that it is well supplied with fish. He brings intelligence of all our vessels that have been out a sufficient time to hear which is great news for their friends & owners as well as our insurance office." On April 29th, this entry: "The Brig Hope, Thos. Freeman, arrives from Barbados and the schooner, Speedwell, James Freeman, arrives from St. Kitts. They reported that Americans arrive in the West Indies & say the non-intercourse is abolished." On the 22nd of July, the "Brig Caroline, John Barss, Master, sails for West Indies with a great cargo of dry and pickled fish."35

    It is in 1810 that we are able to pick up, once again, the entries of the diarist John Liddell. (The years, 1808 to 1809, are missing.)

  • January 14th; A convoy of at least seven ships (merchantmen, store ships and a transport) sail from Halifax under the escort of H.M. Brig Columbine.
  • March 18th: HMS Driver36, Captain Lawrence, sailed.
  • March 28th: HMS Little Belt [32 guns], sailed for Bermuda.37
  • April 27th: HMS Milan [38 guns], came in from Bermuda.38
  • May 20th: HMS Furieuse [38 guns], frigate sails for England.
  • May 29th: HMS Swiftsure [38 guns] and Indian [18 guns] come in from Bermuda.39
  • June 7th: Four transports with the 98th Regiment come into Halifax from Quebec, after a six day sail.
  • June 16th: HMS Eurydice [24 guns] and Indian go on a cruise.
  • July 1st: HMS Swiftsure, Milan, Ferret40, Martin [18 guns] and Harpy [18 guns] sail, for Portugal with the 7th Regiment on board, also the Ariel, a transport for England.
  • July 2nd: HMS Eolus [Aeolus, [32 guns] and Penelope [36-guns] come in from cruise.41
  • July 3rd: HMS Melampus [36 guns] and Driver come in from Bermuda.
  • July 5th: HMS Guerrière came in from cruise.42
  • July 25th: HMS Atalante [18-gun, Capt Hickey] and Driver go on a cruise. HMS Cleopatra [32 guns] came in from a cruise.
  • July 30th: HMS Little Belt, came in from Bermuda.
  • August 3rd: HMS Emulous and the Brig Colibry [Colibri, 16 guns] come in from Bermuda, 8 days.
  • August 4th: HMS Halifax43 [18 guns] came in from cruise. HMS Penelope sails for England with the Dillegence, store ship under her protection.
  • August 13th: HMS Little Belt goes on a cruise.
  • August 28-31st: HMS Eolus [Captain Lord James Townshend] and Melampus [Captain Hawker] go on a cruise.
  • September 1st: HMS Eurydice and Indian arrive from Fayal.
  • September 3rd: HMS Swiftsure (Captain Austen) arrives from Portugal, 37 days.
  • September 13th: HMS Emulous sails for Vera Cruz.
  • September 16th: HMS Halifax and HMS Eurydice go on a cruise.
  • September 20th: HMS Penelope (Captain Hamlin) came in from Greenock, 26 days.
  • October 2nd: HMS Regulus [44-gun, though apparently she came in, en flûte] and HMS Diadem [14-gun, also, en flûte] come in from Portsmouth with the 2nd Battalion of the 8th Regiment on board.
  • October 9th-11th: HMS Cleopatra, sailed for Bermuda.
  • October 12th: HMS Regulus and HMS Diadem sail for Portugal with the 23rd Regiment on board.
  • October 15th: HMS Atalante came in from cruise.
  • October 17th: HMS Driver [Captain Dyer] came in from a cruise with a captured ship, La Mereed out of Philadelphia, detained by HMS Driver and HMS Atalante.
  • October 27th: HMS Goree [24 guns] sails for England together with three vessels in convoy.
  • October 29th: HMS Penelope (Captain Hamlin) sails for the West Indies.
  • November 4th: HMS Halifax and HMS Eurydice come in.
  • November 9th: HMS Driver sails for England; Atalante and HMS Guerrière go on a cruise.
  • November 15th: HMS Little Belt, came in from a cruise.
  • November 28th: HMS Eurydice and Indian go on a cruise.
  • December 24th: HMS Swiftsure [Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren] and HMS Little Belt [Captain Crispo] sail for Bermuda.
  • Generally, there is not much to write about Nova Scotia for the year 1810.
    "There appears to be very little of local affairs during 1810, of which I can find any record. The newspapers of Halifax are filled with the war in Europe, &c. - the sailing or arrival of men-of-war, and ordinary advertisements. The official letters of the governor are brief and few."
    In Britain, during the years of 1806 through to 1810, there was a great speculative frenzy. Even people of humble circumstances sent their savings off to far away lands. This financial frenzy, of course, could not last. During July of 1810, the Bank of England at London failed, followed by another in Exeter and a third in Salisbury. Merchants started to refuse bank notes in payment and the want of confidence was spreading rapidly. "In August another London bank failed, this time one of the old-established houses, bringing down a number of country banks in its train. ... The war, the commercial embargoes, the heavy taxes, the new machinery, and the paper money were all blamed for the distress of the people."44

    Walter Bagehot wrote of the financial woes of Britain at the time.

    "Not only clerks and labourers, but menial servants, engaged the little sums which they had been laying up for a provision against old age and sickness; persons went around tempting them to adventure in the trade to Holland, and Germany, and the Baltic ... the bubble soon burst, like its predecessors of the South Sea, the Mississippi, and Buenos Ayres. ... The great speculators broke; the middling ones lingered out of precarious existence [some things just never change], deprived of all means of continuing their dealings either at home or abroad; the poor dupes of the delusion had lost their little hoards, and went upon the parish the next mishap that befell them; but the result of the whole has been much commercial distress ..."45

    And so we have come to briefly reviewing the year before the war with the United States. Everyone was paying attention to the events in Spain. Wellington was making headway against the unbeatable French. Whenever news arrived of one of Wellington's victories, "the merchants of Halifax usually procured a military band, who, mounted on the flat roof of the market house, played marches and loyal tunes during the evening. Across the square, the merchants assembled in their reading room ... and drank toasts in honour of the victory. Meanwhile, the people all illuminated their dwellings, and the young and cheerful visited from house to house, where all comers were welcomed, or sauntered about to view the effect of the illumination."46 It was thought by the British, that should a fight break out with the United States, that British possessions around the Great Lakes would come under land attack. To strengthen the British hold on central Canada, Prevost was sent to become the Governor of Canada. John Liddell reported that on August 25th, 1811, "His Excellency Sir Geo. Prevost, his family & suite passengers" go aboard the Frigate, HMS Melampus, 36 guns, Captain Hawker. They sailed in company with HMS Rattler47, 16 guns, Captain Gordon. Within a couple of months Nova Scotia received a new governor. "On 16 October, General Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, K.B., arrived with his lady and family at Halifax after a 37 day passage from Portsmouth in HMS Manilla. At 10, A.M., Lady Sherbrooke and her sister landed and went to government House. His Excellency landed at 11, at the King's Slip, and was sworn in at the Council chamber."48 Sherbrooke was to continue as Nova Scotia's governor until 1816.

    John Liddell's entries for 1811 show that Halifax Harbour was busy -- busier than the year before. A number of those ships at the Halifax Station in 1810 can be seen coming and going in 1811. The 64-gun Africa, built in 1781 at Deptford, and which had been at Trafalgar in 1805, came into Halifax on June 19th. Her captain was John Bastard; on board was Rear Admiral Herbert Sawyer. The Africa cruised out of Halifax until November 19th, when she carried Admiral Sawyer to Bermuda. On the 29th of June, in came the 36-gun Belvidera. Her captain was Richard Byron, having been appointed February 2nd, 1810. The Belvidera was at the Halifax station in 1811. She become Admiral Sawyer's flagship. We shall return to a discussion of the Belvidera. (Just as war opened up in 1812, she was chased by the American fleet headed by the USS President.) The 36-gun Melampus came up the harbour on October 14th, 14 days from Quebec. A month after that Melampus went to sea with mail on board for England. As the year closed a number of the ships mentioned by Liddell were out of Halifax Harbour, having gone south to seek better ship working weather.

  • November 19th: Sailed HMS Rattler Captain Gordon & the Indian Captain Jane, with the ship Leicster under convoy for Barbadoes.
  • December 10th: Sailed HMS Emululous Captain Mulcaster, & the Transport Henry, Captain Jackson, with two companies of the 98th Regt. for Bermuda.
  • December 17th: Sailed HMS Goree Captain Bing for Bermuda.
  • Oh, yes, there was one other ship that came into Halifax Harbour about which we have much to tell. On September 24th, 1811, HMS Shannon, Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke, hauled into Halifax Harbour, 45 days from Portsmouth.

    [NEXT: Pt. 5, Ch. 7 - "The Halifax Station."]

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