Blockades and war stopped trade

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Blockades and war stopped trade

March 6, 1997 
By Pamela Cressey

GAZ973 image
The olive green wine bottles were excavated from the Courthouse archaeological site, 500 block of King Street. They are similar to the "empty English bottles" on board the Alexandria ship seized in New Orleans after its arrival from Barbados. Apparently the customs official thought the few bottles were sufficient evidence of violating trade restrictions with England.
Photo courtesy , Alexandria Archaeology Collection.

Alexandria’s early heydays as a robust port are often cited in public speeches and books. It is a bit hard to imagine as you see people rollerblading down Union Street today that 200 years ago this same place was teeming with ships from exotic ports of call, seamen, crates of cargo and hogsheads of tobacco. Warehouses lined Union Street with small frame buildings tucked in between for worker homes and taverns. 

Only a few of the warehouses still survive. If you stand at the intersection of South Union and Prince Streets and look west, you can see two of our best warehouses. On the northwest corner is Captain John Harper’s warehouse constructed about 1785. The building has contained a wide variety of commodities over the years, including fertilizer in the 19th century and Christmas ornaments in the late 20th century. Across the street on the southwest corner, the Benjamin Shreve and James Lawrason warehouse still stands and is a contemporary of Harper’s building.

The third commercial building to survive on Union Street is at the foot of King Street. Constructed by Colonel John Fitzgerald of Revolutionary War fame after he was granted the "sunken ground" south of King Street and east of Water (now Lee Street) in 1778. Three warehouses and a sail loft occupied the building, which now houses a restaurant and shop. To my knowledge, the only other historic warehouse is located in Swift’s Alley behind Burke and Herbert Bank.

Understanding the port’s activities requires extensive research with primary documents of the period. Michael Carter is currently recording all the information in the "Ships News" section of the Alexandria Gazette in the fascinating years 1810 to 1820. Paired with information from the Inward Manifests at the National Archives which Jennifer H is entering in a Paradox database, we will be able to analyze how our local merchants, ship masters and seamen were affected by international events and Congressional decisions.

In 1810 commerce was brisk. The commercial future looked relatively bright, although trade had been intermittent in previous years. Wars between Britain and France created an on-again/off-again trading climate and danger to America’s neutral ships. Napoleon’s strategy to starve England failed partly due to large imports of American wheat. According to Terry Sharrer, Alexandria exported 94,954 bushels of wheat in 1803, most of which was shipped to England. However, trade was chaotic and vessels were constantly threatened with seizure by one European power or another. Page Smith writes: "American ships, sailors, and cargoes were being constantly intercepted at sea, carried into the ports of one belligerent or another, and condemned as prizes of war. How could commerce flourish under such conditions?" President Jefferson’s plan to stop these actions by keeping all ships in American ports was passed by Congress in December 1807. The embargo curtailed business and created anger in the port towns. In 1808, Alexandria did not export any wheat at all.

The year 1811 did not look promising. Congress debated going to war, building a navy or enforcing embargoes against England. Events in nature did not auger well for the superstitious: a harsh winter; heavy spring rains and floods; squirrels moving south in huge numbers; a comet in the sky; earthquakes rocking the Mississippi Valley. In April, Congress imposed a 60 day embargo on English trade prior to a declaration of war. Then in June, President James Madison signed the proclamation of war committing the new country with only five frigates to an extended battle with the strongest navy in the world.

Looking specifically at the Alexandria port we can see the effects of the 1811 embargo. Generally ships sailed between our port and many West Indian islands, England and Portugal. While the island trade brought raw materials and foodstuffs, ships from Liverpool were laden with marino sheep, cutlery, furniture, earthenware, and glassware. Before the April embargo, a ship coming from Barbados brought brown sugar, lime juice, tamarinds, lemons and " cocoa nuts." But when the Brig Sally Eliza arrived in April she carried only ballast, a desk and three trunks of wearing apparel. The Gazette brought news of penalties rendered against ships trading with English ports even before this embargo. On March 26, it was reported: "The schooner Freighter, Levering, of this port, arrived at New Orleans on the 22 ult. from Barbados, was seized by the custom-house for having a few empty English bottles on board, but was expected to be released and to sail with cargo for this port about the 1st instant".

Ultimately, the war brought more hardship to our port with a British blockade and capture of Alexandria. The town did not export any wheat in 1813 or 1814, and then Parliament enacted the Corn Laws prohibiting American wheat in 1815. Our port had an insignificant foreign wheat trade until 1846 when the Laws were repealed. By 1857, wheat exports grew to a high of 231,572 bushels only to be crushed four years later by the seizure of Alexandria by federal troops signaling the onset of the Civil War.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist