Most of the military action in Connecticut against the British during the War of 1812 occurred in and around Long Island Sound. In fact, it was an American attempt to blow up a British ship anchored in New London Harbor that precipitated the British attack on Pettipaug Point, known today as Essex.
A New London-area sea captain and privateer named Jeremiah Holmes agreed to blow up a British Man of War named the La Hogue commanded by a Capt. Capel. The effort was part of an attempt to free Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron from a British blockade of Long Island Sound. Under cover of darkness, Holmes steered his barge near to the British ship and deployed a torpedo to blow it up; however, the hauling line used to deploy the torpedo got caught in the anchor line of the British ship, and the bomb exploded prematurely, doing no damage to the target.
So incensed were the British at the attack that the next day they sent out ships to patrol Long Island Sound to find the attackers. Just off of Old Saybrook — near the mouth of the Connecticut River — the British collared an American rowing a skiff with muffled oars. Immediately suspicious, they threw him in irons and threatened his life. Dubbed “Torpedo Jack” by his captors, the imprisoned American offered to guide the Brits up to Pettipaug Point if they would spare his life. A deal was struck.
Early in the morning of April 8, 1814, about 220 British soldiers in several boats from four warships anchored in Long Island Sound made their way up the Connecticut River about 6 miles to attack Pettipaug Point. The traitorous “Torpedo Jack” guided them. Area militiamen stood ready to oppose the invaders, but the two sides never engaged. It seems that the commanders struck a deal to spare their homes there if they allowed the Brits to torch the ships.
The British marauders proceeded to destroy a total of 28 American ships — 10 more than were destroyed by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor! The raid on Essex was the single most destructive raid on American shipping in our history.
When news spread throughout the country about the deal to save the village, tremendous anger came their way. Most people saw the capitulation as cowardice; however, others believe that the deal that was struck was a pragmatic solution to a problem: the Americans were outgunned and outmanned. Interestingly, the people of Essex still “celebrate” the raid with a patriotic parade on the second Saturday in May known as the “Burning of the Ships Commemoration.” A fife and drum corps known as the “Sailing Masters of 1812” leads the commemoration as a way of acknowledging its significance in “galvanizing support for the defeat of the British” in the War of 1812.
In addition to torching 28 vessels, the British took 2 along with them as they headed back down the river about 6 hours later; however, the tide was low, impeding their progress. As a result, militiamen summoned from Killingworth lined the banks and fired shots at the British. At least two British soldiers were killed — perhaps more.
At the time of the raid on Pettipaug Point, it was common practice both in Europe and in America for governments to commission privately owned vessels to fight for them during wartime. In fact, Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution lists as one of the powers of Congress the power to issue letters of marque and reprisal — legally sanctioned authority for privately held ships to fight for the United States government. Their prize would be the spoils of war obtained from any vessel which they seized. It was considered an honorable profession at the time. Pettipaug Point was a hotbed of activity for privateers, and the British knew it; consequently, the principal reason for attacking the port was to remove the threat that privateering posed to the British fleet in Long Island Sound. Thus, Essex became one of the few communities in the United States which can say that it was once under attack from a foreign power.
Interestingly, the power of Congress to issue a letter of marque and reprisal —dormant since the War of 1812 but still part of the Constitution — recently was resurrected by Congressman and presidential candidate Ron Paul. Congressman Paul introduced the “Marque and Reprisal Act of 2001” to combat terrorism following the 9/11 attacks. The act would have commissioned the President to issue letters of marque against groups like Al-Qaeda as an alternative to declaring war. Congressman Paul also proposed legislation to issue letters of marque and reprisal against the Somali pirates in April of 2009 as an alternative to war. His legislation did not pass, though one has to admit that it’s an interesting concept and one that goes a long way toward explaining why the attack by the British on Pettipaug Point occurred — an attack that destroyed 10 more American ships than the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor did in 1941!
Notes, Sources, and Links
1. Sir Francis Drake--famous for his raids on the Spanish--was a privateer.
2. The Battle of Stonington by James Tertius de Kay (1990)
3. A future column will deal with the other Connecticut community assaulted by the British during the War of 1812--Stonington.
4. website of "Sailing Masters of 1812."
5. Record of Service of Connecticut Men compiled by the Adjutant General's Office (1889)
6. The parade in May is sometimes called "The Loser's Day Parade."