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.


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November 18th, 2013

Cecil Countians Invited to Remember Kennedy Visit

kennedy at dedicationIn the photograph, his back to the camera, President John F. Kennedy faces a sea of smiling faces and reaches for dozens of outstretched hands. It’s a big day as officials from Maryland and Delaware, along with the youthful president, straddle the Mason-Dixon Line on Nov. 14, 1963.

The occasion isn’t a campaign stop, but the ribbon-cutting for a road we take for granted today: Interstate 95. Even with traffic we can get to Baltimore or Philadelphia in about an hour. Until that day almost exactly 50 years ago, travelers had to trundle along Route 40 or even Route 1.

According to newspaper accounts, the highway was considered expensive to build, costing 41 cents per inch to construct in Delaware alone.

There would be another cost. Opening I-95 would change the fate of Cecil County’s small towns significantly, of course, because there was no longer a need for the Route 40 eateries and motels once frequented by long-distance travelers on their way to New York or Florida.

While most seemed ready to celebrate the opening, there were a few protesters. They were not disgruntled business owners along Route 40 but African-Americans waving signs that read, “Highways are interstate. Help us make public accommodations inter-racial.”

NJ front pagePresident Kennedy, along with Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes and Delaware Gov. Elbert N. Carvel, cut the ribbon, officially opening the major East Coast highway. At midnight sharp, cars and trucks entered the highway, the first of millions upon millions that would use the highway in the decades to follow.

First through the turnpike toll in Delaware was a man nicknamed “Mr. First.” Omero C. Catan of Teaneck, N.J., had been “first” at 516 similar events. His celebrity was enough to warrant a sidebar in the Wilmington News Journal.

While the opening of the new highway was a big event, the crowds had really come out to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy. You can see the excitement in their faces as they swarm around Kennedy. Among those snapping photos was Jim Cheeseman of the Cecil Whig. “Cheese” as he was known locally had a long career as a newspaper photographer. Today, the photographs he donated to the Historical Society of Cecil

County create an incredible record of news events around Cecil County from the 1960s to 1980s.

One of the photographs Cheese took that day would become iconic. It captures the moment that Kennedy cuts the ribbon, flanked by the other governors. It’s one of the more famous photos taken in Cecil County, and often reprinted. I have a framed copy in my office; I just wish I’d gotten Cheese to sign it.

I remember longtime Whig editor Don Herring telling me how Cheese, upon returning to the newsroom, expressed his surprise at the lack of security surrounding Kennedy. Just about anybody could walk right up to the president. In hindsight, those words would turn out to be almost prophetic.

On Nov. 22, while Kennedy’s visit was still the talk of the town locally, came shocking and tragic news from Dallas. A rifleman had shot and killed the president, who was 46 years old.

The news left local people stunned and frightened. Stores and offices shut down. People cried as they gathered around their black and white televisions to hang on Walter Cronkite’s every word. As it turned out, two other famous men died that day of less violent causes—the writers Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) and C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia”). Their deaths received a passing mention, if any that day.

And what a whirlwind time it was for news. On Nov. 24, the president’s apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed. Closer to home, in December, lightning would strike a jet plane in the skies above Elkton, ending the lives of more than 80 people.

Cecil Countians who lived through those times aren’t likely to forget them. On Monday, Nov. 25, they are invited to visit the Chesapeake City Branch Library at 6:30 p.m. for a program called “Remembering Kennedy: Fifty Years After Camelot.” There will be a brief introduction as we share some images of Kennedy and his visit to Cecil County. But more importantly, we’ll be opening the floor for folks to share their own memories of what it was like to experience those twin days of excitement and sorrow—Kennedy’s visit here and then the assassination—that took place 50 years ago this month.

What do you or your family members remember from that time?