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Anxiety high in Butler County as U.S. entered War of 1812

Indian attacks anticipated

Anxiety high in Butler County as U.S. entered War of 1812

(This is a bicentennial year, according to legislation passed in Ohio and other governments. The anniversary won’t receive much attention. It is a victim of the economy and stingy budgets. An Ohio act encourages the study and activities that "honor Americans who served in Ohio in the War of 1812," and "educating and raising awareness of residents of Ohio and of the nation about Ohio’s role in the War of 1812." This article is part of a series exploring some aspects of the War of 1812.)

Compiled by Jim Blount

Anxiety dominated sparsely-populated Butler County as 1812 began. Although Ohio had been a state since 1803, the region was still a frontier. Transportation and communications were primitive and the area was isolated from the original eastern states. The Appalachians divided the nation.

Nearly 20 years earlier, the 1783 Treaty of Paris had ended the American Revolution and, on paper, removed British troops from the area south of the Great Lakes. Indians remained and resisted settlement north of the Ohio River. After the 1790s Indian wars that involved Fort Hamilton, the 1795 Treaty of Greenville promised peace with the Native Americans.

But several problems -- some irrelevant to Butler County residents -- festered and chances of war with either Britain or France, plus the Indians, had been increasing for several years before 1812. In fact, many historians believe the War of 1812 is misnamed. The conflict also known as "The Second War for American Independence" and "President James Madison’s War," began in late 1811 with a battle only about 175 miles northwest of Hamilton.

East of the Appalachians, major international issues involved maritime problems, the impressment of sailors, trade disputes and embargoes. In Southwestern Ohio, the No. 1 concern was Indian aggression. Also aggravating was the presence of British troops on U. S. land south of the Great Lakes.

For several years, Shawnee leaders -- Tecumseh and his brother, The Prophet -- had been promoting Indian unification to resist and undo settlement in the Ohio region. When and where the expected violence would begin was unknown.

Another complication was Americans who wanted to expand the nation’s borders. "On to Canada!’ was their slogan as they urged military action to annex the British colony north of the Great Lakes. A group of congressmen (including Kentucky’s Henry Clay) and other expansionists were known as the "War Hawks."

John C. Calhoun (pictured at right), a prominent South Carolina representative, said "I believe that in four weeks from the time a declaration of war is heard on our frontier, the whole of Upper Canada and a part of Lower Canada will be in our power." Instead, the war extended into 1815 and U. S. northern borders remained unchanged.

Ohio population in 1810 was 230,750 people -- equal to about 63 percent of Butler County’s 2010 total of 368,130. Hamilton on the east bank of the Great Miami River had 294 peoples and 84 resided in Rossville on the west side of the river.

"Here, in Butler County," said the 1882 county history, "a success to Great Britain meant an army marching down to Cincinnati, and devastation by the Indians all through the western part of Ohio."

There was no form of rapid communications. The telegraph was almost 40 years away. Residents would have had short notice of the approach of an invading army or a small hit-and-run raid. Defense would depend on local men and boys quickly assembled and poorly trained and ill-equipped.

In anticipation of the worst, Gov. Return J. Meigs April 6, 1812, called 1,200 Ohioans to arms. By end of month, at least two companies of volunteers had formed in Butler County.

In Washington, tangled conflicts involving the U. S., the British and the French dominated the debate and congressional action. U. S. claims to neutrality in the war between Britain and France had been ignored. President Madison’s attempts at a compromise faded. Congress authorized an increase in the size of the army and approved borrowing to pay for defense needs, but U. S. banks were reluctant to make loans.

Madison (pictured at right), sent his rationale for a declaration of war to Congress:

1. British warships had violated the U. S. flag at sea by seizing American vessels and crewmen.

2. British warships interfered with American ships entering and leaving ports.

3. Britain had no right to interfere with U. S trade with France. 

4. Hostile Indians in Ohio and the surrounding area appeared to be receiving aid from British Canada and Indians were preparing for war.

Butler County residents had little knowledge or concern about the first three reasons, but the fourth had aroused fear for a few years. 

Congress approved a declaration of war against Britain -- by a 79-49 vote in the House and 19-13 in the Senate. Madison signed the declaration June 18, 1812.

Distance and time presented diplomatic problems in 1812. Could war have been averted if Washington and London had instant contact?

British Prime Minister Spencer Perceval’s problems were many -- including war against Napoleon, economic depression and industrial unrest in England and a mentally ill king. He also faced complaints that maritime orders against the U. S. were damaging England's economy.

May 11, 1812, before he could act on the latter, Perceval was assassinated (the only prime minister to die in that manner). June 16, the British government immediately ended the orders hindering American commerce.

By that time, Ohio troops were advancing north on the first phase of a U. S. offensive against Canada. A 61-man Butler County rifle company, led by Captain John Robinson of Dick's Creek in Lemon Township, was among the force that left Dayton May 21, 1812.

The War of 1812 -- one of nation's neglected 19th century conflicts -- gained momentum that summer.  It also may be forgotten because it was a war the U. S. didn’t win -- or lose.