July 13th, 2015

On Summer Nights and Skirmishes During the War of 1812

IMG_5931With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 just behind us, it would be a shame if this conflict slips back into the realm of forgotten history. With so many good stories and amazing personalities, this era deserves to be celebrated and remembered as one that belongs uniquely to Marylanders.

On hot summer nights when the heat lightning flickers on the horizon, my thoughts often turn to the battle of Caulk’s Field in nearby Kent County. Though time has changed many things, it hasn’t changed a good story—or the steamy quality of a Chesapeake Bay summer.

Caulk’s Field was one of the smaller battles of the war, a kind of prelude to the much more famous battle of Baltimore that would take place weeks later. Yet it was an example of the dire and dangerous times that Upper Bay residents lived through.

Imagine the British troops slipping ashore, intent on a deadly “frolic” with the Maryland militia camped nearby. Wool uniforms were not the most comfortable outfit to wear on a summer night while marching down miles of country backroads in total darkness. The Royal Marines moved as quietly as possible over the unfamiliar roads, carrying heavy muskets and cartridges, trying to keep their swords and bayonets from clanking together. Sound travels far on the humid air of a summer night, and any noise might alert the American sentries.

The Americans, however, were not about to be surprised. They soon turned the tables on the British and ambushed them in a moonlit corn field. In the first volley of musket fire, 28-year-old Captain Sir Peter Parker was mortally wounded.

On July 21 at 6:30 p.m., I will be giving a talk at the North East Branch Library about the “Heroes and Villains of the War of 1812.” Guess into which category Royal Navy Captain Parker falls? The young officer was hardly a real villain—unless you happened to be a Marylander living around the Chesapeake Bay 200 years ago.

The War of 1812 is rich with stories like the battle of Caulk’s Field, about clever Marylanders who fought back against a powerful invader. More often than not, the British weren’t so easily fooled or defeated—at least not without a fight. Just ask folks in Georgetown or St. Michaels or Havre de Grace or Head of Elk about that! Waterfront towns up and down the Chesapeake Bay were attacked. Even the nation’s capital would be captured and burned in the days following Parker’s death.

Fortunately, Marylanders had their share of heroes to thwart these villains. You have probably heard of the famous heroes like Francis Scott Key, but there are others: John O’Neill, who single-handedly defended Havre de Grace; Mary Pickersgill,  who sewed the Star-Spangled Banner flag; and even the boys who helped win the pivotal battle of North Point—and lost their lives as a result.

I think they deserve to be remembered, especially in summertime when so much of the action of the War of 1812 took place. I hope that you can join me this month to rediscover some of these heroes and villains from two hundred years ago, when that rumbling on the horizon wasn’t always thunder, but the sound of British guns.

David Healey is has written several historical novels and nonfiction books on regional history, including “Delmarva Legends & Lore,” “Great Storms of the Chesapeake” and “1812: Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War.” His website is www.davidhealey.net.

Photo by David Healey. This cannon in Havre de Grace marks the spot near where Maryland hero John O’Neill defended the town from British invaders in 1813.


Tags:


November 3rd, 2014

Library programs help us rediscover our War of 1812 history

flag and words - no event detailsThese days when we see a British flag we tend to think of the Beatles, the Queen, and tea with scones—all safe and friendly associations with our cousins across the Pond. But if you were a Cecil County resident 200 years ago the sight of that flag would have represented fire, plunder, and Royal Marines with fixed bayonets on your doorstep.

Residents all around the Chesapeake Bay were literally under attack during the War of 1812. It’s a conflict that is largely overshadowed today by the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and yet it’s the rare time that there was actual military conflict literally in our backyards.

This amazing local history was something I learned about when researching my book, “1812: Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War.” Until then, I had mostly been a Civil War buff. I soon “rediscovered” some surprising history.

The war began because we Americans were upset about a few things, not the least of which was the Royal Navy stopping American merchant ships and grabbing up our sailors for their own crews. It was an issue of “sovereignty” — the idea that the United States was not being recognized as an independent nation. President James Madison and other hawkish-minded Americans decided that declaring war would teach the British a lesson, so that’s what we did in June of 1812.

Unfortunately, the war did not go well from the start. Things got worse with the defeat of Napoleon in Europe, enabling the British to devote more military resources to North America.

For Chesapeake Bay residents, that meant frequent raids beginning in 1813 of the small towns and farms all around the waterfront. Leading these raids was a highly capable military commander named George Cockburn. Admiral Cockburn (he would have pronounced his name “co-burn” but Marylanders said “cock-burn”) struck on the Sassafras River in 1813 when his forces burned Georgetown and Fredericktown. The attack gave rise to the legend of Kitty Knight—who chased off those raiders with a broom.

Then the British struck at Elkton, attempting to capture the important crossroads town, before being turned back by the milita’s defense at Elk Landing. That was a temporary setback for the Redcoats. The British moved on to Havre de Grace and burned most of the town, despite the heroic efforts of an obstreperous Irishman named John O’Neill.

Time has put these events in soft focus and dulled the edges of the British swords in our imaginations, but make no mistake—this was a terrifying era to be living along the shores of the Chesapeake.

It was local militia officer Captain Andrew Hall who said it best in 1813: “The times in these parts has been troublesome. Our waters have been polluted with the English since last spring and are yet.”

Our greatest indignity of the war came in August 1814 when the British overwhelmed the Maryland militia near what is today College Park and marched into Washington. British troops then burned the White House, Capitol, and Library of Congress.

It wasn’t that Marylanders were helpless or cowardly. Quite the contrary, in fact. I think it would take a great deal of courage. Most of the local militia members were untrained, possibly middle-aged shopkeepers, farmers and teachers who grabbed their fowling pieces (shotguns) to take a stand against crack British troops who were not only well-armed, but who were combat veterans of the Napoleonic Wars.

Finally at the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814, the tide turned on Chesapeake Bay with the defeat of British forces. That victory gave us “The Star-Spangled Banner” song and the flag itself as a powerful American icon.

During the month of November, you can rediscover more of the War of 1812 during an exhibit at the Elkton Central Library called “When Free Men Shall Stand: Remembering Maryland and the War of 1812” on loan from the Maryland Museum of Military History.

Even better, you can experience the music of the era on Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. during a live music event with David & Ginger Hildebrand called “Music of the War of 1812.”

You will be amazed at this chapter in local history, but be forewarned: you may never look at that British flag in quite the same way again.

David Healey is has written several historical novels and nonfiction books on regional history, including “Great Storms of the Chesapeake.” He will be giving a talk called “Keepers of the Light: Legends & Lore of Local Lighthouses” on Nov. 17 at the Chesapeake City Branch Library at 6:30 p.m.

These days when we see a British flag we tend to think of the Beatles, the Queen, and tea with scones—all safe and friendly associations with our cousins across the Pond. But if you were a Cecil County resident 200 years ago the sight of that flag would have represented fire, plunder, and Royal Marines with fixed bayonets on your doorstep.

Residents all around the Chesapeake Bay were literally under attack during the War of 1812. It’s a conflict that is largely overshadowed today by the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, and yet it’s the rare time that there was actual military conflict literally in our backyards.

This amazing local history was something I learned about when researching my book, “1812: Rediscovering Chesapeake Bay’s Forgotten War.” Until then, I had mostly been a Civil War buff. I soon “rediscovered” some surprising history.

The war began because we Americans were upset about a few things, not the least of which was the Royal Navy stopping American merchant ships and grabbing up our sailors for their own crews. It was an issue of “sovereignty” — the idea that the United States was not being recognized as an independent nation. President James Madison and other hawkish-minded Americans decided that declaring war would teach the British a lesson, so that’s what we did in June of 1812.

Unfortunately, the war did not go well from the start. Things got worse with the defeat of Napoleon in Europe, enabling the British to devote more military resources to North America.

For Chesapeake Bay residents, that meant frequent raids beginning in 1813 of the small towns and farms all around the waterfront. Leading these raids was a highly capable military commander named George Cockburn. Admiral Cockburn (he would have pronounced his name “co-burn” but Marylanders said “cock-burn”) struck on the Sassafras River in 1813 when his forces burned Georgetown and Fredericktown. The attack gave rise to the legend of Kitty Knight—who chased off those raiders with a broom.

Then the British struck at Elkton, attempting to capture the important crossroads town, before being turned back by the milita’s defense at Elk Landing. That was a temporary setback for the Redcoats. The British moved on to Havre de Grace and burned most of the town, despite the heroic efforts of an obstreperous Irishman named John O’Neill.

Time has put these events in soft focus and dulled the edges of the British swords in our imaginations, but make no mistake—this was a terrifying era to be living along the shores of the Chesapeake.

It was local militia officer Captain Andrew Hall who said it best in 1813: “The times in these parts has been troublesome. Our waters have been polluted wth the English since last spring and are yet.”

Our greatest indignity of the war came in August 1814 when the British overwhelmed the Maryland militia near what is today College Park and marched into Washington. British troops then burned the White House, Capitol, and Library of Congress.

It wasn’t that Marylanders were helpless or cowardly. Quite the contrary, in fact. I think it would take a great deal of courage. Most of the local militia members were untrained, possibly middleaged shopkeepers, farmers and teachers who grabbed their fowling pieces (shotguns) to take a stand against crack British troops who were not only well-armed, but who were combat veterans of the Napoleonic Wars.

Finally at the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814, the tide turned on Chesapeake Bay with the defeat of British forces. That victory gave us “The Star-spangled Banner” song and the flag itself as a powerful American icon.

During the month of November, you can rediscover more of the War of 1812 during an exhibit at the Elkton Library called “When Free Men Shall Stand: Remembering Maryland and the War of 1812.”

Even better, you can experience the music of the era on Nov. 15 at 7 p.m. during a program called “Music of the War of 1812.”

You will be amazed at this chapter in local history, but be forewarned: you may never look at that British flag in quite the same way again.

David Healey is has written several historical novels and nonfiction books on regional history, including “Great Storms of the Chesapeake.” He will be giving a talk called “Keepers of the Light: Legends & Lore of Local Lighthouses” on Nov. 17 at the Chesapeake City Branch Library at 6:30 p.m.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,