November 3, 1814, fell on a Thursday. In a coincidence that can be seen only when one is wasting time, it turns out that November 3, 2214, will be a Thursday, as well. Today is the bicentennial of things that happened on this date, and two centuries from now, something taking place or yet to happen today might be bicentennial-ized. (As of this typing, there are several hours left for major history to be made. [Eastern time.])
What was important on this date two centuries ago? The U.S. Congress awarded eight Congressional Gold Medals, making November 3, 1814, one of the larger single-day award hand-outs in our history. Going back to the Revolutionary War, there have been fewer than 200 Congressional Gold Medals awarded, total; some were awarded to entire groups like the Native American Code Talkers and some of the medals were awarded posthmously, but fewer than 400 people in the history of the United States are Congressional Gold Medal recipients. Something important must have been worth commemorating that autumn day.
The eight medal winners were Captain Johnston Blakely, Major General Jacob Brown, Major General Winfield Scott, Brigadier General Eleazar Ripley, Brigadier General James Miller, Major General Peter Porter, Major General Edmund Gaines, and Major General Alexander Macomb. Here is the entire, updated list of Congressional Gold Medal winners from the U.S. House of Representatives: Gold Medal Recipients.
In 1814, the United States was at war with Great Britain, in our mostly forgotten conflict, the War of 1812. Every time one sings “The Star Spangled Banner” one is commemorating the War of 1812, but other than that, U.S. history classes skip over it on their way from the Revolutionary War to the Civil War. The War of 1812 was unique, however; it was a war in which a U.S. mainland city was captured, as British forces occupied Washington, DC, in August 1814. They looted the Capitol Building, destroyed every book held by the Library of Congress, and burned the White House, leaving an empty shell of a building. The occupation lasted one day, as a sudden August thunderstorm forced the British back to their storm-damaged ships.
The war is a confusing one for cursory study, as its many causes are still under debate, its fronts covered every region in the young United States, Canada, and the Caribbean; and, all the worse for ease of understanding, in Canada it is seen as a Canadian victory, in Europe it is viewed as one portion of the larger Napoleonic Wars, and in the U.S. it is seen as a victory but one in which our national capitol was occupied.
Congress in November 1814 was meeting in a replacement building that was quickly built for it, so every recent victory and city liberation in the still ongoing war was viewed as a something to be celebrated in grand style. The Siege of Fort Erie, the Battle of Chippawa, the Battle of Plattsburgh, and the recent heroic exploits of Captain Johnston Blakely were deemed worthy of our nation’s top honor. These were the skirmishes and doings the Congress honored with medals; each was a recent action that contributed to the overall war effort but none was decisive; Blakely had died at sea less than a month before.
Blakely’s 1814 had been a successful one, in which his ship, the USS Wasp, had fought many times near Europe and in the English Channel. All told, the Wasp encountered 15 rival ships in two separate cruises, sinking three ships and capturing or scuttling the remainder. Fifteen for fifteen. There is a mystery about the Wasp that remains to this day, however: What happened to it. Its final encounter was with the HMS Atalanta on August 21, 1814, which the crew of the Wasp captured and considered valuable enough to keep afloat, appoint a captain and crew, and send across the Atlantic to the States. It arrived here on November 4. The Wasp was only seen one more time after this and on some unknown date, it, its crew, and its captain probably sank during a storm (September and October are hurricane season) as it was crossing the Atlantic. Blakely was about 33 years old.
These were the efforts and achievements that two centuries ago we commemorated as eternal and unforgettable. And we do not remember them. Winfield Scott remained famous for decades after 1814, won a second Congressional Gold Medal, and was the Whig Party’s nominee for President in 1852. In Navy history, three ships have been named the USS Blakely in honor of the lost Captain Blakely. The last one was active from the mid-1970s to 1990, a period of little action at all.
On November 3, 1814, our nation honored eight by listing them on a roll of the eternals, and two hundred years later we think of them not at all. Whatever we think we might teach those who will follow, two hundred years from now, whoever we deem noteworthy (“#AlexfromTarget, anyone?”), it, he, or she will likely not be.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 3 asks, “The year is 2214, and your computer’s dusty hard drive has just resurfaced at an antique store. Write a note to the curious buyer explaining what he or she will find there.”
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