Our ships all in motion once whitened the ocean.
They sailed and returned with cargo
Now doomed to decay, they are fallen a prey
To Jefferson — worms — and Embargo
— Newburyport Herald 1808
On a recent visit to the Custom House, Michael Mroz and Kevin MacDonald shared riveting tales of the War of 1812 and the Port’s valiant fight for maritime rights against the Brits. Newburyport was particularly distinguished for the bravery and success of its privateers who were “helping to thin out the enemy’s merchant ships.”
Much like the Revolution, this conflict depended on the voluntary service of brave locals. Despite the popularity of privateering during the war for independence, Federalists thought the practice was “unprincipled.” Governor Strong ordered a public fast to protest the war, and the atmosphere was one of angst. MacDonald stressed the impact of the economic crisis caused by the Embargo Act; it crippled the local merchants and the whole Merrimack Valley market hit ground zero. The effect was devastating, and for the first time, soup kitchens rose up to feed the once-prosperous citizens.
The sentiment was universal: “In every seaport there was much distress. Labor was impeded; the most industrious were enforced to idleness; poverty took the place of plenty. Many a noble man became a mere wreck of humanity.” The destitution spread with the “Great Fire” of 1811 that left many homeless as “nearly two hundred and fifty buildings were totally and suddenly consumed.”
Although this privation capped the harbor like a thick fog, a gallant hero “with flashing eyes and lion heart courage” eventually emerged to lift people’s spirits. A vibrant, daredevil seaman born and bred in the Port, Capt. William Nichols sent many of his enemies to Davy Jones’ Locker, while spinning tales of aquatic omnipotence that would put Ulysses to shame.