Defining a Nation

Defining a Nation > Trade & Commerce > Chesapeake’s Wartime Industries

Although agriculture dominated the economy of the Chesapeake region at the time of the War of 1812, there were military and maritime industries in the region that were also affected. The war actually gave a boost to manufacturing in some areas. Military industries, such as gunpowder mills, ropewalks, and arms manufacturers, profited from the war.

Following the American Revolution, President George Washington commissioned a new United States arsenal and armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, now West Virginia, and some of the rifles used in the War of 1812 were manufactured there.

Virginia’s legislature authorized construction of an armory to manufacture weapons for the state in 1797. It was the only state after the Revolutionary War to arm its own forces with state manufactured weapons. The Virginia Manufactory began production in Richmond in 1801.

The Columbian Foundry, or Foxall Foundry, located in western District of Columbia produced 32-pounder carronades for the US frigate Constitution. During the War of 1812, this foundry was the leading manufacturer of ordnance for the US government. Other ordnance foundries in the Chesapeake region included Mount Aetna Furnace in Washington County, and Northampton Foundry in Baltimore County.

St. Leonard Creek
After destroying Havre de Grace on May 3, 1813, British raiders crossed the Susquehanna River and attacked the old Cecil Furnace, later called Principio Iron Furnace. The fire from the burning complex lit up the sky and terrified Americans for miles around.

The largest manufacturer of gunpowder in the US was DuPont Gunpowder Company northwest of Wilmington, Delaware. In 1813 the US government ordered 500,000 pounds of power from the firm, some of it intended for use at Fort McHenry. To protect this prime military target, President Madison ordered the Corps of the Brandywine Rangers exempt from other military service in order to protect the mill. Other producers of gunpowder in the Chesapeake region included Aetna Powder Mill and Bellona Gunpowder Mills, Baltimore County, Maryland.

Ropewalks were used in making line for rigging of ships. Several ropewalks were located in Baltimore, Portsmouth, and Washington. When Washington was occupied by the British in August 1814, at least two ropewalks were burned because they were considered military targets. When Baltimore was threatened by attack in September 1814, one of the ropewalks below Hampstead Hill was burned by the Americans to keep it from the British.

Not all military industries prospered. The British directed raids on industrial complexes when opportunity presented itself.

Cecil Furnace in Cecil County, Maryland, suffered. Better known as Principio Iron Works, the furnace supplied 24-pounder long guns for the US frigate Constitution. The complex in 1813 consisted of a blast furnace, two air furnaces, and a boring mill capable of boring five cannon at one time.

On May 3, 1813, the British destroyed the iron works as well as 36 cannon and 4 carronades ready to be shipped. The British also destroyed the foundry and cannon boring machinery and burned the mills, coal houses, and the bridge across Principio Creek. The total loss to the owner was around $20,000. Colonel Samuel Hughes rebuilt the works the same year and on December 16, 1813, received a contract for 40 cannons. But Hughes never recovered from his debts and was forced to sell the property.

  • Some non-military manufacturing also felt the brunt of British raids in the Chesapeake. A cloth factory was established at Great Mills, St. Mary’s County, Maryland, in 1810, in an unsuccessful attempt to develop cotton as an alternative crop to tobacco. The British burned the textile mill in August 1814.
  • Read about places throughout the Chesapeake that were part of the region’s economy and War of 1812 story: Eshelman, Ralph E., Scott S. Sheads, and Donald R. Hickey. The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

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