Friday, November 8, 2013

Revel in the Relentless Naval Glory of Commodore John Rodgers

Apologies for another long hiatus - we're wrangling several submissions right now and will soon be back to our regular biweekly schedule.

One of the intriguing things about the War of 1812 was the nature of the American military leadership. Many military-minded fellows who were just starting their careers during the Revolution (or who were too young to fight in that conflict) were only too happy to chip in during the War of 1812, and since many of them were fairly well seasoned by that time, they brought both valuable experience and powerful personalities to the fray.

One of these singular individuals was Commodore John Rodgers. A vivid characterization of the Commodore was written by Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton shortly after Rodgers’ death. It’s rapturous:

“My idea of the perfect naval commander had been formed from history and from the study of such characters as the Von Tromps and De Ruyters of Holland the Blakes of England and the De Tourvilles of France, men modest and virtuous, frank and sincere, brave and patriotic, gentle in peace, terrible in war- formed for high command by nature, and raising themselves to their proper sphere by their own exertions from low beginnings. When I first saw Commodore Rodgers, which was after I had reached senatorial age and station, he recalled to me the idea of those modern admirals, and subsequent acquaintance confirmed the impression then made.

He was to me the complete impersonation of my idea of the perfect naval commander; person, mind and manners with the qualities of command grafted on the groundwork of a good citizen and good father of a family and all lodged in a frame to bespeak the seaman and officer. His very figure and face were those of the naval hero such as we conceive from naval songs and ballads and from the course of life which the sea officer leads exposed to the double peril of waves and war, contending with the storms of the elements as well as with the storm of battle. We associate the idea of bodily power with such a life, and when we find them united the heroic qualities in a frame of powerful muscular development, we experience a grateful feeling of completeness which fulfils a natural expectation and leaves nothing to be desired.

And when the same great qualities are found, as they often are, in the man of slight and slender frame, it requires some effort of reason to conquer a feeling of surprise at a combination which is a contrast and which presents so much power in a frame so little promising it, and hence all poets and orators, all painters and sculptors, all the dealers in imaginary perfections give a corresponding figure of strength and force to the heroes they create. Commodore Rodgers needed no help from the creative imagination to endow him with the form which naval heroism might require. His person was of the middle height, stout, square, solid, compact, well proportioned and combined in the perfect degree the idea of strength and endurance with the reality of manly comeliness- the statue of Mars in the rough state before the conscious chisel had lent the last polish.”

I think you all have to admit that this is basically the most flattering eulogy of all time. I'm not even making it up, it's all real! Thomas Hart Benton obviously lurved John Rodgers to the max, but why was he so great? What was all the fuss about?

Portrait of John Rodgers (date unknown) by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of Naval War College Museum

John Rodgers was born in Havre de Grace, Maryland in 1772 and was probably ready to go fight the British during the Revolution, if only his parents would have allowed it. Havre de Grace is a waterfront town, and by his early teens, Rodgers had developed a bad case of Passion For The Sea. He pined for square-rigged ships and so hared off to Baltimore in 1788. His dad rode after him and tried to persuade him to come home, but he refused, and so his father arranged an apprenticeship for him with a master shipbuilder in Fells Point. Rodgers' career at sea was begun.

Rodgers set himself apart from the average sailor by handling every adverse situation like a total boss. One notable example from his first command was discussed by Charles Oscar Paullin in his book about the Commodore:



THAT is how you handle pusillanimity!

Unsurprisingly, Rodgers began a career in the Navy and served in the Quasi-War and the Barbary Wars. In 1807, he took charge of the New York Flotilla and was charged with enforcing the Embargo Act along the Atlantic Coast. That was when things started to get really interesting.

As has been mentioned in numerous earlier posts, the Americans were sick of the British impressing American citizens all the time. So in 1811, when Rodgers was charged with "protecting American commerce," he may also have been told to stick it to the British if he had the chance. And Rodgers was the kind of guy who liked to make his own opportunities, if you're picking up what I'm putting down.

On May 16, 1811, Rodgers (in command of the ship President) sighted and followed the British sloop Little Belt off the coast of North Carolina. There may have been some confusion about Little Belt's true identity, since Rodgers thought it might actually be the HMS Guerriere, which had recently impressed an American sailor off the coast of New Jersey. After some hailing and counterhailing, of which very different versions are given on either side, a gun was fired.

Whoever fired first, pretty soon it was an all-out battle, with a foregone conclusion. The President bore 44 guns, the Little Belt, only 20. The smaller vessel was was ripped to shreds and thirteen men were killed, while the President incurred only one wounded. The incident came to be known as the Little Belt Affair, and was one of the incidents that eventually led the U.S. to declare war against the British in 1812.

There are several artistic representations of the battle between the Little Belt and the President. This one was engraved by Edward Orme in 1811, and is titled The Little Belt, Sloop of War, Captn. Bingham nobly supporting the Honor of the British Flag, against the President, United States Frigate, Commodore Rogers, May 15th, 1811. I expect you have probably sussed out that Orme was British? Well he was. Here's his take:

The Little Belt nobly standing up to the big American bullies on the President
The disagreement about who started the Little Belt Affair continued for months, and it was clearly very upsetting to the British (although, let's be fair, impressing American citizens into the British navy all the time was also very annoying). In a saucy little riposte to the whole kerfuffle, the crew painted the foretopsail of the Guerriere (the real Guerriere) to read "NOT THE LITTLE BELT" before they sailed to their battle against the USS Constitution. That is a nice example of that dry British humor we've all heard so much about. 

Rodgers was still in command of the New York Flotilla after the U.S. declared war against the British in 1812. He sailed directly into action, not even waiting for the powers that be in Washington to dither about it! His enthusiasm for confrontations with the British inspired this amusing little cartoon:


The title of this cartoon is "Hieroglyphics of John Bull’s Overthrow," with “John Bull’s Overthrow” being what both the Americans and Napoleon sought in the early 19th century, albeit for very different reasons. The bit of verse below “John Rogers” (sic) in this cartoon reads, “My fleet to John Bull no true homage will pay…he had better be silent and send me no threat/Lest I catch his fish in my old Yankee net.”

Rodgers’ speech balloon reads, “Let me at him, Bona, and I’ll blow him to atoms.” You can examine the entire document more thoroughly at the Brown University Library

The British didn't find this sort of thing at all funny, and decided that it was time to get personal.

Rodgers' family home outside Havre de Grace is called Sion Hill, and today it's listed on the National Register and is a National Historic Landmark (but it's privately owned, so you can't go there unless you are invited). Rodgers' awesomely-named wife, Minerva, and some other members of his family were all at Sion Hill in the spring of 1813, when Admiral Cockburn launched his campaign of terror and destruction in the Chesapeake, which you might remember from this post about Fort Hollingsworth? Anyway, there they were when Cockburn showed up to burn the town, and although they begged and pleaded with him to spare the town, he was unmoved. According to some sources, Rodgers' sister begged him not to burn their mother's house, and Cockburn did it anyway. That's right. He dissed John Rodgers' MOM. 

Then, he looted Sion Hill, reportedly stealing a sofa to sit on while he enjoyed all his plundered Maryland produce, and the desk from Rodgers' office. I am happy to report that when Rodgers later took a British vessel as a prize in 1814, he got his desk back. Also, the Rodgers family was in good company, when it comes to  British aristocrats burning down houses. 

Rodgers led the almost hilariously outclassed U.S. Navy against the British for the remainder of the war, and successfully drove the British out of the Potomac and prevented a second attempt against Baltimore after all the to-do at Fort McHenry

After the war, Rodgers kept things energetic and navylike. He began the Navy's support system of hospitals, established what became the Naval Observatory in Washington, and constructed the Navy's first steam-powered battleship. Rodgers was the first to see the need for a Naval Academy. He planned its initial curriculum and continuously lobbied for its establishment at Annapolis. Although Commodore Rodgers died before the Naval Academy could be officially opened in 1845, his nephew Christopher Rodgers served as the Academy's president in the 1870s. 

After Commodore Rodgers' death, four generations of his direct descendants maintained the family's illustrious Naval tradition. Commodore John Rodgers II (1812-1892) was honored by Lincoln during the Civil War, was president of both the United States Naval Institute and the first Naval Advisory Board and superintendent of Naval Observatory, which his father, the first Commodore, had founded. Admiral John Rodgers (1848-1933) brought wireless telegraphy to the Navy. Commander John Rodgers (1881-1926) was a pioneer in Naval aviation and was first commandant of the air base at Pearl Harbor.

This Gilbert Stuart portrait of Rodgers (at the beginning of this post) is fine, but give me this one any day. It's by John Wesley Jarvis and you can visit it at the National Gallery of Art.
AND, just in case you have any lingering doubts about whether or not Commodore Rodgers deserves to be your War of 1812 boyfriend (or brofriend?), his letters to his wife, Minerva Denison Rodgers, are widely rumored to be some of the greatest love letters of all time. The problem is, the people who keep mentioning this extremely tantalizing information are military historians who do not actually share any of the letters. There is one letter to be found in print in this book, so if anyone has (or buys) it, please let me know if this correspondence lives up to the hype?

If you have a project involving the War of 1812, you should share it with us! Hopefully we'll be back in two weeks with more art, history, architecture, and archaeology of the War of 1812.

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