In the early nineteenth century, trade issues caused tension between the
United States and Great Britain. Basically, the United States wanted the right
to trade with all nations, even during wartime. Specifically, they wanted to
continue trade with France during the French Revolutionary Wars, which began in
1792. President Thomas Jefferson hoped to assert our right to trade by passing a
series of Embargo Acts stopping foreign trade. These actions adversely affected
the livelihood of Rhode Island’s shipping industry.
In 1808, Great Britain began forcibly seizing sailors thought to be British
deserters from American ships, and claiming them as their own. This practice,
known as “impressment,” continued until 1811, and more than six thousand sailors
in all were taken from American vessels.As a result of this practice and
trade issues, the Jeffersonian Party headed by James Madison declared war on
England in June of 1812. However, Rhode Islanders, and the rest of New England,
cried foul. They objected to the conflict, calling it “Mr. Madison’s War.”
Providence citizens even declared a day of mourning — shops were closed and
state flags were at half-mast.
The Rhode Island General Assembly initially refused to allow the state
militia to serve on the national level. Rhode Islanders enlisted in the United
States military fought as part of the national armed forces. Naval officer and
Rhode Island native Oliver Hazard Perry bought success to the naval campaigns on
the Great Lakes. In September 1813 Perry reported, “We have met the enemy and
they are ours.” By the end of the war in 1815, five hundred Rhode Islanders had
Finding evidence of these men requires consulting published and unpublished
records available on local, state, and national levels. During the war, East
Providence and the eastern part of Pawtucket were still part of Massachusetts so
researchers might look for records in that state as well.
John K. Mahon’s definitive military history, The War of 1812 (DaCapo Press, 1991) provides an
overview of the conflict. An Amazon.com review states: “Detailed enough
for scholars, yet vivid enough for the general reader, this study will remain
the standard source for anyone who wishes to gain a complete understanding of
the War of 1812.” General information on Rhode Island’s participation in the war
appears in a short article by Robert N. Cool, “Rhode Island in the War of 1812”
(Rhode Island Yearbook  H102-H107).
United States military records of those who participated in the war are
available on CD and abstracted in book form. Muster rolls containing close to
600,000 records appear in the Military Records Collection on CD [A1215AP], available
from Willow Bend Books.
Men who participated in the war could apply for a pension from the United
States government. Virgil White’s Index to United States Military Pension
Applications for Remarried Widows 1812-1911 (Waynesboro, TN: National
Historical Publishing Co, 1999) and Index to the War of 1812 Pension Files (two volumes,
Waynesboro, TN: National Historical Publishing Co., 1992) include abstracts from
veterans’ pension files and applications submitted by widows of
Researchers searching for evidence of their ancestor’s service in the state
militia during the War of 1812 should begin their genealogical inquiries at the
Rhode Island State Archives (337 Westminster St., Providence, RI 02903). Among
their holdings are indexes to four volumes of manuscripts at the State Archives,
which were compiled by archivist Ken Carlson. Each volume contains miscellaneous
documents such as records of service for Rhode Islanders serving on the state
level, supply orders, and receipts. Carlson has over one thousand names in his
database including politicians and soldiers.
For record sources on federal troops consult James C. Neagles, U.S.
Military Records: A Guide to Federal and State Sources (Ancestry, 1994).
His book includes data on pension requirements, land warrants, and a list of
related material available on microfilm from the National Archives. You can also
search the National Archives and
Records Service website for additional details.
If you have an ancestor who served for Rhode Island in the War of 1812,
reading the news is one way to understand the political and social climate of
the times. The Rhode Island Historical
Society (121 Hope St., Providence, RI 02908) has the best collection of
newspapers in the state. You’ll discover local and national news that will fill
in the details about life in the state and Rhode Island’s participation in the
Perhaps your ancestor immigrated during the war. In the midst of the strife,
Brits continued to migrate to the United States. Two publications list those
individuals: Peter J. Coleman and Penelope K. Majeske’s “British immigrants in
Rhode Island during the War of 1812” (Rhode Island History 34 , pp.
66-75) and British Aliens in the United States During the War of 1812 by
Kenneth Scott (Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Co. 1979). More than twelve
thousand individuals appear in the Scott book, which is based on the returns of
aliens residing in the United States during the War of 1812. Individuals aged
fourteen and older are named along with the number of years they lived in the
United States, number of people in the family, where they lived, and their
A Rhode Island Hero--Oliver Hazard Perry
Can you research your ancestor’s service record during the War of 1812 and
not be interested in the war exploits of Oliver Hazard Perry? In a war that was
full of political and military missteps it’s difficult not to be curious about
Perry. Born in Washington County in 1785, he began his naval career at thirteen
as a midshipman under the command of his father, naval officer Christopher
Raymond Perry. He served in the West Indies and the Tripolitan War, and was
given command of the Great Lakes Fleet in 1812, when he was twenty-seven. He
died in 1819 from yellow fever he contracted on a mission to Venezuela. Read
Gerard T. Altoff’s Oliver Hazard Perry and the Battle of Lake Erie (Perry
Group, 1999) for more information on this Rhode Island war hero.Perry’s papers are at the Clements Library at the University of
Michigan at Ann Arbor. The collection contains material relating to his
participation in the War of 1812—order books, notebooks, and letters, as well as
personal correspondence sent to family members. The scope and contents of the
collection is available online.
While Rhode Island’s participation in the War of 1812 was minimal, the above
sources will be useful to researchers interested in the Rhode Islanders that
were active in military service.