The storm of war

Hark! Hark! what sounds salute my ear?
What means this thund’ring din I hear?
Why roars the deep-mouth’d cannon? Why
Does joy seem beaming in each eye
          Which look’d of late so sad?

Why are Fredonia’s flags display’d?
Why beat the drums? Why this parade?
Why peal the bells? Why mirth abounding?
While with shouts the air’s resounding
          Huzza! Huzza!

—“Song on the return of peace to America” (1815) 1

A view of Newark’s Lower Common in the 1840s.

WITHIN sight of William A. Whitehead’s birthplace at Broad and Bank Streets, Military Park enshrines the martial past of Newark and the nation, not only through “The Wars of America,” a monumental sculpture of 42 bronze figures that has served as the park’s centerpiece since 1926, but through a smattering of lesser statuary, tablets, artillery, decorative details, and even a tree stump. This roughly triangular plot of land, bounded by Broad Street on the west and Park Place on the north and east, is a public space where official Newark remembers, or has remembered, sacrifice and valor on fields of battle from Québec to Pearl Harbor.

Here, just over a hundred years ago, was placed a commemorative stone seat, now among Military Park’s less conspicuous memorials. Its timeworn inscription recalls the ancient military associations of the spot:

          Presented to the City of NEWARK on its
250th Anniversary by The DAUGHTERS of the
REVOLUTION of the State of New Jersey to mark
the site of the TRAINING PLACE established in
1669 and used for that purpose at every call to
defend the rights and liberties of our country

For its first century and a half, this was Newark’s principal mustering and training ground. When Whitehead was born in 1810, it had yet to undergo its complete transformation into a public park.2 As a little boy he would have been accustomed to see men and horses parading on what was then called the Lower Common. The sounds of fife and drum were familiar even before he understood their significance. But such sensations grew larger and more exciting as tensions with Great Britain increased, culminating in open hostilities in 1812. In the aftermath of the 1814 burning of Washington, local militia up and down the coast answered President Madison’s call to defend other “exposed and threatened places.” Newark that summer and fall experienced a massive mobilization.

Thousands of citizen soldiers went to aid in the defense of New York. Some 700 Newark volunteers traveled to Brooklyn Heights to help build harbor fortifications. An estimated 3,000 militia passed through on the way to their encampment at Paulus Hook, on the Jersey side. The weekly Centinel of Freedom remarked on the companies’ appearance, “the most brilliant and warlike we have witnessed in Newark,” as evincing a spirit “worthy of the glorious days of ancient Rome.”3 Under the headline “Extraordinary Patriotism” the New York Columbian wrote, “Newark will for ever live in the grateful remembrance of the people of New-York.”4

But Newark, too, worried about invasion. “If New-York, or the Harbour was in possession of the enemy, what would become of this town?” asked “Leonidas,” a nervous correspondent of the Centinel. “I answer, it would be destroyed; they could with 2 or 300 men lay the town in ashes, in our present state of defence.”5 An early warning system of artillery and beacon fires was put in place, in the event that the British got as far as Newark Bay.6 Officers of the Essex Brigade were summoned “to parade on the Common in Newark, in full Uniform, with Muskets and side arms … for the purpose of improvement in discipline.”7 Those too old for the regular militia, recalling the depredations of Revolutionary days, did not sit idly by but formed the “Newark Exempt Corps,” some eighty of them holding exercises on the Upper Common (modern Washington Park).8

British warships off the Jersey coast.

Whitehead’s father seems already to have gone into the service at the not-so-tender age of 41, for his name appears on the rolls of Colonel John Dodd’s Essex regiment beginning the 1st of September. On the 17th the company broke camp at Hoboken to rendezvous with the rest of its brigade in the Highlands near Sandy Hook.9

The King’s troops, however, failed to occupy any city north of Washington, and while tension reigned along the American seaboard peace talks proceeded an ocean away in Ghent. In the new year came word, though none too quickly, that a treaty had been signed at the end of December. Although the peace of Ghent left territorial lines as they had been before the war, the United States, having stood up to one of the world’s great powers, considered the British withdrawal a victory.

On 21 February 1815, Newarkers united in a “day of general thanksgiving and joy,” in accordance with arrangements made by a six-man committee. These began at dawn with pealing church bells and the firing of a “national salute.” Public buildings were draped with the stars and stripes. Churches held services of thanks for the blessings of peace, and took up collections for “their respective poor.” At sunset there was a second salute and another hour of bell-ringing, and from 7 to 9 p.m. candles burned in windows all over town, their light reflected on the melting snow and in the faces of passersby.10

Not all the jubilation was so tightly programmed. The Lower Common, so recently a scene of strict military discipline, became a place of pandemonium, as an old stagecoach, filled with kindling and powder and set alight, was drawn over it by a team of horses ridden at full gallop. The riders unhitched the terrified horses from the vehicle just before it was completely consumed. Only five years old, William Whitehead, in spite of the cold and the late hour, had gotten permission to walk with an older sister up and down Broad Street to enjoy the illuminations. He looked wide-eyed on the spectacle of the burning stagecoach, which left, he said, “a permanent impression.”11

After the fires had gone out and Newark returned to normal business, Whitehead would relive the scene on the Common often: we know this only because it’s one of the very few early memories he recorded. A childhood is no easy thing for the biographer to reconstruct, but, given that Whitehead’s initial development occurred amid the din of war, we can surmise that what would become his own most prized armament, namely his speech and language, was imbued with the dominant vocabulary of the time, words such as liberty, independence, honor and sacrifice.

The conflict of 1812-15 shaped Whitehead’s life and all American lives by the idea that citizenship entailed a commitment, at least in principle, to defend the country’s honor at any cost. It was a muscular, ultimately an imperialist, concept of nationhood that matured with the war’s happy conclusion and the crowning of the victor of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson, as a national hero. Of the ensuing expansion to the south and west William Whitehead was to be both spectator and participant, and he would bear witness to the consequences as his country began to assume dominion over a continent.

Copyright © 2019-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] A Newarker was likely the anonymous versifier behind these lines, included in the curious compilation entitled The poetical vagaries of a Knight of the Folding-stick, of Paste-castle. To which is annexed, the history of the Garret, &c. &c. Translated from the hieroglyphics of the Society. By a member of the Order of the Blue-string (“Gotham” 1815) 55-57.

[2] A learned contemporary of Whitehead’s, Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley, left the following brief account of the metamorphosis: “the training place, being no longer wanted for that use, as there were hundreds of places in the vicinity much better fitted for it, was converted into a public park, and planted with the beautiful trees that adorn it; first, those grand old elms were planted about the beginning of the present century, and the interior trees were set out in 1838, many of them being brought from Prince’s nursery, on Long Island, and finally, the park was enclosed with an iron fence.” “History of Washington Park, Newark, N.J.” in Charles Bradley, ed. and comp. Miscellaneous writings of the late Hon. Joseph P. Bradley … (Newark 1902) (294-297) 295-296.

[3] The centinel of freedom (Newark, N.J.) 6 September 1814 3:4, 13 September 1814 3:3.

[4] The Columbian (New York, N.Y.) 3 September 1814 3:2; The centinel of freedom 6 September 1814 3:4.

[5] The centinel of freedom 27 September 1814 3:2.

[6] The centinel of freedom 4 October 1814 3:1.

[7] The centinel of freedom 27 September 1814 3:5.

[8] The centinel of freedom 6 September 1814 3:4-5, 20 September 1814 3:3, 4 October 1814 3:5.

[9] Records of officers and men of New Jersey in wars 1791-1815 compiled in the office of the Adjutant General (Trenton 1909) 72; The centinel of freedom 20 September 1814 3:2.

[10] The centinel of freedom 14 February 1815 3:4; 21 February 1815 3:4; 28 February 1815 3:3.

[11] “Childhood and youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830.” A transcription of this memoir is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida; pages 4-5 of the transcription contain the reference.

Images: 1) “The park, or military common, Newark, N.J.” from John W. Barber and Henry Howe, Historical collections of New Jersey: past and present… (New Haven, Conn. 1844), facing 176. 2) “The high land of Never-sink and Sandy Hook light House,” J.E. delt. Baily sc., published 30 March 1814 by Joyce Gold, Naval Chronicle Office, London, from Dawlish chronicles. Duty and daring in the heyday of empire, 17 June 2016.

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