Cockburn's Terror - British fleet attacks Upper Chesapeake Bay



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In the spring of 1813, Admiral Cockburn commanding the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay, led a series of raids to the Upper Chesapeake Bay.




    Realizing the vulnerability of settlements up and down the Chesapeake Bay and under orders to create diversions strong enough to force redeployment of American forces from the British settlements in Canada, British Rear Admiral Cockburn pursued a policy of devastation against any town, farm or plantation that showed any resistance to the British forces. Those areas that dared to defend themselves were burned and their livestock, produce, tobacco and anything else of use to the British troops were taken. Those that did not resist were paid for their supplies - at less than 20% of their actual value.

    After spending several weeks menacing Baltimore and then deciding that the town was too well defended to attack, Admiral Cockburn took his fleet into the Upper Chesapeake Bay. On April 23rd he occupied Spesutie island, carrying off cattle and hogs, but not molesting the inhabitants.. Three days later, they sailed down to Annapolis, spreading fear in the state capitol that an attack was imminent and causing Governor Winder to write a letter to President Madison requesting the protection of Federal troops that had already been promised but not delivered.



    From Terror on the Chesapeake, the War of 1812 on the Bay by Christopher T. George

    Cockburn sent his troops back up the Bay without attacking Annapolis, landing on Poole's Island, forcing the 100 fishing families living there to flee to the mainland of Harford County. The fleet anchored briefly off Worton Point in Kent county and attempted to land a foraging party at Still Pond. They were repulsed by local militia. On the 27th of April, several ships assembled off Havre de Grace. Joined by an additional brig and schooner, they sailed on the 29th under orders from Cockburn to attack Frenchtown at the head of the Elk river. At Frenchtow the heavily used stage coach stop from Philadelphia, connecting to water transportation to Baltimore, was only protected by a small battery of Revolutionary War four pounders manned by a few local militia and the stage coach drivers and wagoners present at any given time. With 13 barges and 400 marines, the outcome was not in doubt, although the defenders managed to drive the British back twice before retiring. The British plundered and burned a packet, four small vessels, the wharf, fishery, warehouses and goods. The force then moved up the Elk river to attack the town of Elkton. Militia at Fort Defiance saved the town and 30 sailing craft that had retreated up the river for protection from the fleet. The force returned to main fleet ships unable to get up the shallow river.


    Terror on the Chesapeake by Christopher T. George


    In the early morning of May 3rd, the British approached Havre de Grace at the mouth of the Susquehanna with 15 launches and a rocket boat. Apparently, Cockburn had not given the place much thought until he "observed Guns fired and the American Colours hoisted." The water was too shallow for the fleet to approach the town, so an attack similar to Frenchtown was planned. They opened fire with shot, artillery shells and Congreve rockets.

    In spite of the fact that the militia had been on alert for several days, all of the cavalry and some of the infantry had returned to their homes. Those who were present were disorganized and without many of their officers. The Potato Battery defended the town with one 9 pounder and two 6 pounders and a small battery with a skeleton garrison at Concord Point.


    The militia stood their ground until a Congreve rocket hit a Mr. Webster on the head, killing him instantly. The Congreve rocket was a new weapon to the North American continent. These cast iron cylinders three feet long and four inches in diameter and packed with explosive shrieked ominously as they arced through the air trailing sparks. To the untested, leaderless militia they were truly frightening, even though most of the rockets missed their targets. The militia retired after a few volleys with the exception of one defender, 2nd Lt. John O'Neill, an ancestor of mine and owner of the local nail factory, who remained to man his gun.

    "After firing a few shots, they retreated and left me alone in the battery. The grape-shot flew thick about me. I loaded the gun myself, without any one to serve the vent, which you know is very dangerous, and fired her, when she recoiled and ran over my thigh. I retreated down to town, and rejoined Mr. Barnes, of the nail manufactory, with a musket, and fired on the barges while we had ammunition, and then retreated to the common, where I kept waving my hat to the militia who had run away, to come to our assistance, but they proved cowardly and would not come back. At the same time and English officer on horseback, followed up by the marines, rode up and took me prisoner with two muskets in my hand."



    Photos by Hank McComas

    The commanding officer of the militia, Lt. Col. William Smith, did not arrive until after the town was sacked and the British were withdrawing. The batteries' cannon were turned on the retreating militia, who fought Indian style, as described by the British officer as "a teazing and irritating fire from behind their Houses, Walls, [and] Trees."

    After landing the Marines, the British plundered then burned many houses not already on fire from the bombardment. Cockburn himself came into town to supervise the burning. Houses were looted first, horses killed within their stables, and troops "cut hogs through the back, and some partly through, and then left them to run". Forty of Havre de Grace's sixty homes were destroyed in the four hour sack of the town. More houses would have been torched except for the pleas of several women to spare a portion of the town. A British officer was persuaded not to burn St. John's Episcopal church, although the pews, pulpit, and all of the windows were destroyed.

    John O'Neill, born an Irishman, was threatened with death for treason as a subject of His Majesty King George III. Upon appeal of the magistrates of Havre de Grace under a flag of truce, O'Neill and the other prisoners were released. The mercy did not extend to the property looted from the town. Consistent with his policy against those who offered resistance, he refused to return or pay for the property he seized. Losses were estimated at $50,000.00.

    A detachment was sent up the Susquehanna to Bell's (Smith's) ferry to destroy a large store of flour. The battery across the river at Creswell's ferry (Port Deposit) was not tested.

    Later in the day, having learned of the existence of a cannon foundry at Principio Creek from citizens of Havre de Grace, the British, with little difficulty with the unmanned site, overran the five long 24 pounder cannons protecting the foundry and destroyed 28 long 32-pounder ready to be shipped and eight other cannon barrels and four carronades in the boring process. Five vessels and a large store of flour were destroyed on the Susquehanna river. This cannon foundry was nationally important to the United States, and its destruction of much greater importance tactically than the destruction of Havre de Grace. It represented firepower much greater than possessed by the attackers and, if it had been defended, could have easily decimated Cockburn's forces. Cockburn's opportunistic success once again showed the disorganization of the new nation and the flaw in its dependence on volunteer militia.


    Kitty Knight Inn - Georgetown
    Photo by Hank McComas

    On May 5th the British moved into the Sassafras river where they were met by musket fire from militia men on both banks of the river and cannon fire from a small fort at Fredericktown. British marines landed with fixed bayonets. The inexperienced militia men withdrew. The two towns, Fredericktown and Georgetown, were burned with the exception of two houses defended vigorously by a local maiden lady, Miss Kitty Knight, caring for a shut-in in the neighboring farm house. Her courage and determination dousing flames started by the soldiers attempting to set fire to the buildings impressed Admiral Cockburn who ordered her house be spared. It stands today as a the Kitty Knight House restaurant and guest house

    Seeking to avoid the fate of the twin cities, a delegation from Charlestown met with Cockburn and assured him that guns and militiamen would not be tolerated in town. Having sacked and burned Havre de Grace, destroyed the foundry in Principio, attacked Frenchtown and burned Fredricktown and Georgetown, and seen his tactics effective in subduing Charlestown without a fight, Cockburn returned his fleet to blockade duty in the middle and lower bay.


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