November 3rd, 2014
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.
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.
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: cecil county public library, david and ginger hildebrand, David Healey, free events ccpl, free music cecil county, maryland museum of military history, museum exhibit, music of 1812, remembering the war of 1812, war of 1812, when freemen shall stand