War of 1812: How the digital age helped unearth history

As the colonists broke ties with England in favor of a fledgling nation built on the philosophy of “liberty and justice for all,” July Fourth came to symbolize independence. In keeping with that spirit, our commemoration of the War of 1812 continues in Boston where the cutter Eagle has steamed into port to help commemorate our nation’s history.

A scan from a log listing prisoners of war from the War of 1812. Courtesy of the University of Missouri Special Collections.

A scan from a log listing prisoners of war from the War of 1812. Courtesy of the University of Missouri Special Collections.

Written by Petty Officer 1st Class Judy L. Silverstein.

Aboard Coast Guard Cutter Eagle is a newly-constructed commemorative plaque with the names of 86 courageous men who fought for our country some 36 years after independence was officially won. Often referred to as the second half of the American Revolution, the War of 1812 exacted a toll on our nation and crews who fought fiercely to protect our independence. While the Coast Guard was aware prisoners of war had been taken captive during the War of 1812, there was uncertainty about the number of prisoners and details of their imprisonment.

Until recently.

Since the British burned the Treasury Building in 1814 during its attack on Washington, D.C., historical records from the Coast Guard’s predecessor Revenue Cutter Service had been lost. Thanks to the curiosity and meticulous research by a Coast Guard Auxiliary member, an Internet search yielded records kept by the British at their National Archives in Kew. As Bill Nelson pored over thousands of pages and listings, he soon learned the University of Missouri also had a special collection of cutterman records. But Nelson, a vice president of marketing by day, also gleaned quite a bit about 86 men who served their nation – and paid a price to protect our freedom.

Bill Nelson designed and constructed a plaque commemorating the prisoners of war which now resides aboard Coast Guard Cutter Eagle. Photo courtesy of Bill Nelson.

Bill Nelson designed and constructed a plaque commemorating the prisoners of war which now resides aboard Coast Guard Cutter Eagle. Photo courtesy of Bill Nelson.

“It was exciting,” he says. “These men were forgotten for 200 years. Yet in serving their country, they gave up some freedoms,” Nelson said.

Last winter, he painstakingly compiled a list of 86 POWs taken by the British during the War of 1812. The records he unearthed revealed information allowing the Coast Guard to fill critical information gaps, including which prisoners went to prisons in Halifax, Bermuda or Britain.

“Suddenly,” says Nelson, “it became clear we were going to have a chance to remember our nation’s freedom and these men who fought to keep our country free.”

Nelson is in Charlestown, Mass., this week talking in detail about these men and their lives. It’s something he has done in several cities in recent weeks as part of the Coast Guard’s celebration of the War of 1812. Nelson, who says he treasures his role as a Coast Guard auxiliarist, also thinks sharing his discovery with the public is inspiring. They may be former Coast Guardsmen, veterans of other military branches or history buffs. But Nelson breathes life into the narratives of the War of 1812 veterans. And his excitement resonates.

“You cannot believe how people are affected by the stories,” he says.

Sometimes he talks about the harsh treatment of War of 1812 POWs in Canada and letters from the prisoner agents detailing the harsh conditions. Other times he talks about Dartmoor, a British prison with bleak conditions. Nelson also talks about how the Internet has made the capture of this crucial information possible. But one thing is abundantly clear; he regards these POWs as having a significant link to Coast Guard history. And he’s proud to have helped reclaim this story.

Thanks to Nelson, we know where these men came from, their rank, complexion, hair and eye color, build, tattoos, scars and other markings. We know whether they were issued a bed and what some may have died from. And we know the list also includes:

• Several father-son teams
• 15-year-old prisoners
• Men who came from such far-flung colonies as Boston, the Carolinas, Maine, New York and Delaware
• Crewmembers from an array of vessels, although the cutter James Madison had the largest complement and therefore, the largest number (64 men)
• Four were slaves likely belonging to the mayor of Savannah, Ga., William Bellinger Bulloch, whose descendants include Theodore Roosevelt.

Auxiliary member Bill Nelson shakes hands with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp during a reception aboard Coast Guard Cutter Eagle. Photo courtesy of Bill Nelson.

Auxiliary member Bill Nelson shakes hands with Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Bob Papp during a reception aboard Coast Guard Cutter Eagle. Photo courtesy of Bill Nelson.

That makes the War of 1812 a story of ethnic and geographic diversity. As Nelson tallied the information and the numbers, he worked closely with the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area historian. Early on, they both realized this information was vitally important to the War of 1812 story.

As Nelson followed each thread, he sensed a deep commitment to commemorating the 86 freedom fighter cuttermen, linking their bravery to the commemoration of Independence Day some 200 years later. Nelson was hooked and his dedication never wavered as he designed and constructed a plaque commemorating the prisoners. The plaque now resides aboard the cutter Eagle, but he is quick to shrug off his part.

“They were all fathers, sons and brothers,” he said. “When they were taken into custody- they suddenly vanished from the lives of those who loved them. Some were gone two years, but others disappeared forever,” Nelson said.

Perhaps most importantly, he feels proud to honor these men in Boston, the birthplace of freedom.
Isn’t it fitting?” he asks. “The memorial plaque commemorating these men is in Boston as we celebrate on Independence Day, 200 years after the War of 1812.”

For more on Boston’s Independence Week, visit the schedule of events.

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  • Dave Austin CWO4 (AVI) Ret

    Thanks for all of your great work on this part of our history. It’ a great day to be reading this.
     

  • Lou Orsini

    What a wonderful thing you have done to help us better understand and appreciate an obscure but important part of our history.  We stand tall today because of the sacrifices of our predecessors. 

  • http://twitter.com/jimdolbow Jim Dolbow

     Great post and job well done Bill Nelson!  Great contribution to knowledge.

  • John Morris, Coast Guard HQ

    Bill, what a great discovery!  Thanks for all your efforts to enrich our Coast Guard, past and present.