Monday, January 28, 2013

Don't Give Up the Ship

Historian Esquire and I like to look at historical things. One of the historical things we looked at over the summer was the USS Niagara, which was docked in Buffalo for a little while. The USS Niagara was built in 1813 and was used in naval defense on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. Historian Esquire and I are probably the only ones who happen to have been reading up on early American history lately, so here are a few things to remember. First, the war of independence was not so much about freedom as about Indian land, and the money that came from the sale of Indian land, and whether that money would stay in the colonies or go back to England. The loyalty of the Indians, and who would get the opportunity to buy/steal their lands, continued to be an issue between the two nations. Second, even after the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783, ending the Revolutionary War, not everyone thought the war was really over. The British retreated not all the way to England, but only to Canada. For the next three decades, it was not obvious to either nation that the other one wouldn’t attack at any time. Third, when the colonists won the war, it was not clear that their little republic was going to last very long. The authority of the new American government was not accepted by everyone, and the founding fathers were still arguing about whether it was the federal government or the states that should have more power. Basically, even though the war was officially over, everything was in flux.

By 1812, there were further problems. The U.S. thought Britian was trying to monopolize trade with Europe. They were also annoyed that British naval captains kept impressing American sailors. On the American frontier (that includes western New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio), it was an issue of Indians. Both the British and the Americans were afraid of having to go to war with the Indians, and they each wanted them on their side. But, they also wanted their extremely valuable land. As the state of New York systematically dispossessed the Indians of all but a few patches of land, the British saw an opportunity to win the Indians over, by giving them all kinds of help -- and arming them against the Americans.

So, finally, in 1812, the former colonies and their former rulers went to war once again. The U.S.S. Niagara was in that war, patrolling Lake Erie. This ship is a replica, with just a couple of symbolic timbers from the original. But it was still just about the coolest thing ever.


It is 198 feet long, if you count the spar. The deck measures 116 feet from end to end.


The main mast is 118 feet tall -- longer than the length of the deck.


There are two 12-pounder long guns, and eighteen 32-pounder carronades. I don’t know what these are, but I assume if I saw one I’d call it a cannon.


There is . . . a lot of rope.


The crew numbered 155. Belowdecks, there wasn’t enough room to stand up. They slept in hammocks. It did not seem pleasant down there, and everyone around me was cheerful and showered. I can only imagine what it would be like with 154 other smelly, overworked men around.


I forgot all the other facts.


The original ship was purposely sunk in Lake Erie a few years after the war, to preserve it. About a hundred years later, it was raised and patched up. Since then it's been so extensively restored that it's not really the same ship. But it's still remarkable -- both that they were able to find the funding to restore it, and that the very new nation that first built it has survived (so far), in spite of how unlikely that seemed in the first few decades.

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