The raid was no small affair. The damage inflicted by the British amounted to the costliest maritime loss of the entire War of 1812. Now, historian Jerry Roberts and archaeologist Kevin McBride, of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, are heading a team seeking to confirm and document the logistics of the raid so it may be designated as a National Battlefield Site on the National Registry of Historic Places.
“The British Raid on Essex was once known throughout the country during a very short time in its immediate aftermath,” says Roberts. “The attack made headlines in over 90 newspapers across the country. But the fame was short-lived, for when the British burned Washington, D.C., only two months later, the attack on Essex was completely eclipsed.”
The attack, which took place on April 7–8, 1814, was a major military assault involving a high-risk nighttime attack deep into the Connecticut hinterland. It resulted in the torching of 27 vessels valued at the unprecedented and staggering sum of over $200,000. At the time, the community itself was eager to put the devastating event behind them, and more recently, was acknowledged only through a local Commemoration Day parade held each year, often referred to tongue-in-cheek (and more importantly, inaccurately) as the “Loser’s Day Parade.” The annual event was organized by the Essex Sailing Masters Fife and Drum Corps. If not for their efforts, the catastrophic attack on Essex during the War of 1812 likely would have slipped entirely out of public consciousness and been relegated to the dusty archives of history.
In the last several years, Roberts has turned his attention to a reexamination of the events of that l day, revealing a story filled with a turncoat, flames, and more than its fair share of mysteries. Roberts is publishing his findings in his forthcoming book titled, The British Raid on Essex: The Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812 (Wesleyan University Press, 2014). Roberts says: “As I began to research the battle, I realized almost immediately that the little that people thought they knew about this event was based on local myths and almost completely wrong.”
It all took place late in the night of April 7, 1814, when 136 British sailors and marines rowed six shallow-draft boats, loaded with weapons, about six miles up the Connecticut River with the river seaport town of Pettipaug (known today as Essex), as their destination. With their nighttime assault, at about 3:30 a.m., the British were able to successfully exploit the element of surprise. Rumor had it that it was a local man, exactly who no one could say for sure, who assisted the marines in their navigation of the tricky shifting sandbars that had previously protected the village from attack. Essex was a prime target for the British, who identified the village as a hotbed for the construction of privateering vessels. As the British arrived in the harbor, they were met by a volley fired by a handful of armed but disorganized men, certainly no match for the overwhelming force of the British marines. When the marines landed, they quickly cleared the town using their overwhelming firepower. To avoid a deeper more time-consuming conflict, the British chose to spare the buildings of the town and attack only the sailing vessels along the waterfront. The British proceeded to commandeer all available valuable maritime supplies and to burn every ship under construction, seizing two privateers, the 18-gun Young Anaconda and 16-gunner Eagle as prizes of war. The sailors worked thoroughly and quickly, eager to leave before daylight and risk conflict with the increasing number of townspeople gathering in the area as daybreak arrived.
At 11 a.m., the British began their return to the mouth of the Connecticut River and the safety of the guns of the warships guarding the entrance. Meanwhile, the Americans began mobilizing their forces. As the news of the raid spread to the surrounding countryside, armed men began making their way to the banks of the Connecticut River in an attempt to trap the British. Around 12:30 p.m., the Young Anaconda had run aground. Instead of wasting time meddling with the foundering vessel, Captain Richard Coote decided to transfer its contents to the Eagle and burn it. Coote and his men now faced the daunting prospect of the growing force the Americans were mounting along both the east and west banks of the narrowest part of the river, approximately three quarters of a mile wide. It was at this point that Commander Coote made an important and shrewd decision. He anchored his ships, along with the Eagle, and had his men duck low below the height of the side walls of their boats for cover, for they were still within musket shot of shore. They would not risk passing through the narrows further downriver in daylight, but would wait and attempt to pass under the cover of darkness that night. While anchored in the river, a local man named Captain Charles Harrison approached the barges in a boat flying a white flag and carrying a message from his senior militia officer, Major Marshe Ely. The American, Harrison, presented Coote with the following message:
“To avoid the effusion of human blood is the desire of every honorable man. The number of forces under my command are increased so much as to render it impossible for you to escape. I therefore suggest to you the propriety of surrendering yourselves prisoners of war and by that means prevent the consequence of an unequal conflict which must otherwise ensue.”
In his personal papers, Coote recorded his response to the brazen demand: “My reply was verbal, and merely expressed my surprise at such summons, assuring the bearer, that though sensible of their humane intentions, we set their power to detain us at defiance.”
As evening approached, Captain Ely’s threat became a reality. Local militia were out in force and had finally positioned a six pound cannon putting the anchored British vessels within range. They met immediate success. Two British were killed, and the danger of further casualties forced the British to abandon their position. By now it was about 7 p.m., and Coote determined that it was dark enough to risk escape through the gauntlet of American forces. Since speed and secrecy were of the essence, Coote chose to order the Eagle to be burned before weighing anchor. By now, the combined American forces of about 400 men included local residents, town militia, and hundreds of marines from the military fort located 20 miles away in New London. The weaponry varied but was considerable, including six to eight 6-pound cannons, the standard artillery pieces of the state militia of the day. The men were clamoring along the banks of the river trying to find the optimal positions from which to fire their guns.
Fully aware of Coote’s plans, Americans on both sides of the river built massive bonfires in the hope of producing enough light to spot the British boats as they passed. Silently drifting, and with no moonlight to reveal their position, the British slipped quietly down the river. Because of the mist along the water, the frustrated Americans were essentially shooting blindly into the darkness, not knowing when or precisely where the British were actually passing. Coote recalled, “I have reason to suppose it must have proved much more destructive to their friends [on the opposite side] than to [us].” By turning nature to their advantage, the British were able to elude the Americans largely unscathed. The Americans knew the game was up when they heard British sailors and marines cheering, “God save the King!” as they escaped the range of American firepower into Long Island Sound.
Through their extensive archaeological efforts, Kevin McBride and his team have been able to shed significant new light upon the battle.
“It is clear from the archeological evidence that the Battle of Essex took place in many more locations and with far greater intensity than we ever could otherwise have known,” McBride says. Indeed, his team has found concentrations of bullets at many locations from which the Americans tried to slow, trap, and ultimately capture the British troops. There is even the possibility that one of the burned British prizes has been found in the river, although, while the location and size of the wreck is promising, its identity may never be confirmed. Jerry Roberts, working in conjunction with Amy Trout of the Connecticut River Museum, among others, has uncovered many important details to the story. That turncoat local who guided the troops up the river? He is referred to as Torpedo Jack, of New London, and his fascinating fate is detailed in the book. Just as importantly, Roberts and his team have discredited many local legends surrounding the event, such as the perception that the Essex residents offered little resistance as they passively watched their livelihood go up in flames. The team’s research reveals the extent and willingness of the people of the Connecticut Shoreline to put up a fight, a fact obscured by names like the ‘Loser’s Day Parade’ and by numerous other myths.
McBride, Roberts, and their team are in the process of submitting an application to the National Register of Historic Places, requesting that the Essex waterfront, and various locations along the banks of the river, be recognized as an official historic battle. Roberts’ book is due out in May 2014. It will represent a central contribution to the bicentennial festivities of the British Raid on Essex. Dozens of organizations from the Essex community and across Connecticut will be hosting events during the “Bicentennial Week,” as well as the rest of the year. Roberts reflects, “It will be a great opportunity to commemorate an event that is important to our community and nation’s history. It is also an important and rewarding opportunity for us to begin to set the historic and public record straight.”
So what accounts for the overwhelming exclusion of the Battle of Essex from the history books over the years? For a long time, it wasn’t the type of event locals were interested in celebrating. The perceived lack of resistance, and the existence of a purported local turncoat, were not points of pride for the community. But they turned out largely to be just that, perceptions rather than facts. An impressive effort was made to prevent the British from escaping. It is now our obligation to set the record straight by placing the Essex raid in its rightful position in the history of the War of 1812.
Image Credits: Mural by Russell Buckingham, courtesy of The Connecticut River Museum