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: , , , , , , , , , ,


April 22nd, 2013

The British are Coming! Spreading the News about the War of 1812

USS_Constitution_vs_GuerriereIn the Spring of 1813, exactly 200 years ago, war came to the upper Chesapeake Bay. The War of 1812, declared nearly a year before by President James Madison and followed by an ill-fated invasion of Canada, surely seemed far removed to many Marylanders. But rumors of war changed to all-too-real smoke and flame with the arrival of British forces commanded by Admiral Sir George Cockburn.

Cockburn’s orders were quite clear—he was to wreak havoc and punish Americans as part of an amphibious campaign that would eventually reach from Norfolk to Havre de Grace. The sight of a British flag soon struck fear in the hearts of Marylanders up and down the Chesapeake.

While the war would continue for months to come and lead to the burning of Washington, the battle of Baltimore and the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and ultimately the British defeat at the Battle of New Orleans, Chesapeake Bay residents faced the worst of the British onslaught beginning in April 1813.

On Monday, April 22 at 6:30 p.m., join accomplished historian Mike Dixon for “Spread the News: The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake,” offering a look at how news and information was shared in an era before the instant communication we take for granted today.

Two centuries previously, the British campaign directly impacted Cecil County residents. Dixon will share anecdotes from local residents of the day, as well as details about the British rampages on the Sassafras River, Frenchtown, Elkton,  Principio and Havre de Grace—where much of the riverfront town was put to the torch despite the efforts of the heroic John O’Neill.

Mr. Dixon will be exploring how reports of the British campaign spread like wildfire, causing panic in some quarters, and in others prompting the local militia to organize a defense. He will also share some of the new discoveries that have come to light about the location of the earthworks at Elk Landing, the local historic site that played a key role in the defense of Elkton or “Head of Elk,” as it was then called.

“The times in these parts has been troublesome,” wrote militia Captain Andrew Hall of the 30th Maryland Regiment that took part in the defense of Elkton. “Our waters has been polluted with the English since last spring and is yet. They’re blockading all our seaport towns which causes merchandise of all sorts to be very high … on the 28th (of April) the British landed at Frenchtown two miles below Elkton and set it on fire, and consumed it to ashes and would have destroyed Elkton if they had not got cowed by the shot of one cannonball from a small battery thrown up at (Elk Landing).”

The War 1812 is sometimes called the Second War of Independence or even the Forgotten War, although so much of the action took place almost in our backyards here in Cecil County. After this talk, you’ll know and appreciate far more about what the War of 1812 meant for those who lived in Cecil County two centuries before.

Registration is requested due to limited seating for this talk, so please call 410-996-1134 or click here to sign up.


Tags: , , , , , ,