New London linked to opening salvos

William John Huggins, a 19th-century marine painter from England, portrayed the opening engagement of the War of 1812 in "Escape of HMS 'Belvidera,' 23 June 1812." The Belvidera, a 36-gun frigate, left, is attacked by the 44-gun American frigate USS President, center, commanded by Commodore John Rodgers, who fired the first shot of the war.
William John Huggins, a 19th-century marine painter from England, portrayed the opening engagement of the War of 1812 in "Escape of HMS 'Belvidera,' 23 June 1812." The Belvidera, a 36-gun frigate, left, is attacked by the 44-gun American frigate USS President, center, commanded by Commodore John Rodgers, who fired the first shot of the war. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Commodore John Rodgers wasted no time upon the outbreak of the War of 1812.

Within minutes of receiving orders once war had been declared on Great Britain - 200 years ago this week - he put his five-ship squadron to sea. A fleet of British merchant vessels had sailed from Jamaica, and Rodgers meant to intercept them.

But sailing from New York, the U.S. Navy ships first sighted another vessel: the 36-gun frigate HMS Belvidera. Rodgers' flagship, the USS President, gave chase and closed the distance till it was in firing range.

Rodgers was aware no blood had yet been shed in the five-day-old war. So, sensing history, he manned the first gun himself, aimed at the Belvidera, and fired.

That's the standard account of how the war began on June 23, 1812, and it's in all the history books. What has been less well-known is that this notable moment is tied directly to New London.

A Mystic man whose hobby is researching history has spread the word about that link and deepened it. He says he has learned that the first shot of the war was tied to a seminal moment in New London's whaling history.

Joseph Greene has been on an odyssey of discovery since the day in 1975 when he heard a chance remark that one of his ancestors may have had a connection to the famous pirate Jean Lafitte. Intrigued, he started looking for information and soon found himself hooked on delving into the past.

"It's just been a treasure trove of information," he said.

The North Haven native, 59, moved to this region in 1991 when he got a job as a respiratory therapist at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. The hospital's name meant nothing to him until one day, when he was on Ocean Avenue, he noticed in amazement that a wing of the building was called the Nanine Lawrence Pond House. It is named for his great-grandmother.

Her grandfather, Joseph Lawrence, the man for whom the hospital was named, was the ancestor Greene had been trying to link to Jean Lafitte. Lawrence was also the founder of a New London whaling empire.

Newly aware of the connection between his family and his employer, Greene continued his research. In a 1910 story in The Day he found an account of Lawrence's arrival in New London. An Italian whose name was originally Giuseppe Lorenzo, Lawrence was a shadowy figure in his early years, and little information was available on him. According to the story, written by local historian R.B. Wall, he came to New London aboard a French privateer, the Marengo.

The Marengo visited New London in April 1812 and stayed for more than two months, during which time Lawrence, who was ill, recuperated in town. Greene speculates that the Marengo had recently tangled with the British navy and ducked into New London to avoid capture, but he said it's only a theory.

"Why she came to New London is, to me, the big question," he said.

The Marengo, "a long thievish looking schooner" in the eyes of an observer, was still in New London in June when the U.S. declared war on Britain. At the time, the British had intelligence that the Marengo was lying in wait to seize a British merchant vessel, so a navy frigate was posted to intercept it when it left New London.

That frigate was the Belvidera, which was soon attacked by Commodore Rodgers, launching the war.

"This just amazed me," Greene said of learning about New London's connection to the fateful first shot.

Historian Edgar Maclay compared the situation to a cat (the Belvidera) stalking a mouse (the Marengo) that was in search of a crumb of cheese. Then a dog (Rodgers) came along and chased off the cat.

Three shots fired in quick succession from Rodgers' ship all struck the Belvidera, whose captain knew war with the U.S. was imminent but was unaware it had been declared. Fleeing northeast, he soon returned fire, and the battle was on.

Rodgers had the Belvidera within his grasp, but 15 minutes into the fight, one of his guns exploded, killing or wounding 16 of the crew and hurling Rodgers into the air. He landed with a broken leg. The chaos allowed the Belvidera to escape, and it reached Halifax, Nova Scotia, with two dozen casualties and much damage.

The Belvidera's captain, Richard Byron, noted in his report that he had been awaiting the Marengo's exit from New London and gave the position of his ship when he encountered the Americans.

That raised another question that Greene has looked into: Where exactly did the battle take place? The answer seems to depend on the source.

Greene said he entered the longitude and latitude given by Byron into an online map, and they put the Belvidera due east of Atlantic City, N.J., which didn't seem to make sense. Greene said he is suspicious of position reports from the era because he has plotted others that place ships on dry land.

Theodore Roosevelt, in his celebrated book "The Naval War of 1812," places the Belvidera 100 miles south and 48 miles west of the Nantucket Shoals, heading northeast by east, 4½ hours before Rodgers opened fire. This puts the action well out in the Atlantic Ocean, as do most other accounts of the incident.

But Greene found a 1979 book called "The Frigates" that has Rodgers' squadron 35 miles due east of New York when the Belvidera was spotted to the northeast. This puts the action more or less in local waters, which jibes with the Belvidera's mission, he said.

Glenn Gordinier, the historian at Mystic Seaport and primary author of the just-released book "The Rockets' Red Glare: The War of 1812 and Connecticut," said he has reviewed Greene's research on the Marengo and is impressed.

"I'm convinced enough that I've included it in the book," he said.

Gordinier, who thanks Greene in a footnote, writes that "Connecticut played an important role" in the firing of the first shot. He places the engagement southeast of Nantucket but writes that the Belvidera was in southern New England waters in search of the Marengo, which had put ashore the ill Lawrence in New London. He also notes Lawrence's later importance to the local whaling industry.

"So it's a very direct link, in my view," he said.

Greene said he wanted the event recognized and claimed, in a sense, for the region, so he talked to the organizers of OpSail, which is marking the war's bicentennial. Plans were discussed to fire a cannon from Fort Trumbull in commemoration of the first shot, but nothing came of it.

In the aftermath of the attack on the Belvidera, the Marengo left New London, free to pursue the British merchant vessel Lady Sherlock, which it captured soon afterward.

New London, unaware of the sea battle till it was reported in the press, later became embroiled in the war when Commodore Stephen Decatur and his three-ship squadron were trapped in the Thames River by a British blockade that lasted the better part of two years. Decatur had commanded one of the ships in Rodgers' squadron when it attacked the Belvidera but played no part in the fight.

Joseph Lawrence was in and out of New London for the next seven years until he settled here for good around 1819. Greene has yet to link him to Jean Lafitte. After whaling died out, Lawrence's son, Sebastian, spent much of the family fortune on public gifts to New London, most notably the hospital where Greene now works.

Greene said he has begun to focus his research on a subject that has received little attention from scholars: the surprising degree to which French privateers like the Marengo were tolerated in U.S. waters in the years before the War of 1812.

The privateers were welcomed into American ports even as they were plundering American shipping, said Greene, who has written a draft of an article he would like to have published in an academic journal.

He was recently consulted about the discovery last year of a 200-year-old shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. The well-preserved, copper-sheathed hull has not been identified, but one candidate is the Diligent, a French privateer that associated with the Marengo and figures in Greene's research.

"The more you learn, the more you realize what you don't know," he said.

j.ruddy@theday.com

A daguerreotype of Joseph Lawrence owned by descendant Joseph Greene of Mystic.
A daguerreotype of Joseph Lawrence owned by descendant Joseph Greene of Mystic. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
Joseph Greene, an amateur historian and descendant of Joseph Lawrence, looks through photos of his ancestors at his home in Mystic Wednesday.
Joseph Greene, an amateur historian and descendant of Joseph Lawrence, looks through photos of his ancestors at his home in Mystic Wednesday. Dana Jensen/The Day Buy Photo
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