War of 1812 in Havre de Grace

Havre de Grace in 1813

Havre de Grace in 1813

This coming summer my new mystery, Forgotten Body, will be released. Since it centers around a reenactment of the War of 1812, I am sharing some of my research. What did the area look like? This diorama made to represent Havre de Grace at the time shows a sparsely settled area.

Havre de Grace sits on the shore of the Susquehanna River in Maryland. On May 2, 1813, the British under Admiral Cockburn attacked and burned most of the houses in the town. Several reports from that time tell the story. The Admiral planned to bypass Havre de Grace until he saw an American flag flying and someone shot cannon fire. That was probably John O’Neill. He stood his ground, firing until the cannon backfired on him, forcing him to leave. However, he did join others with their muskets.

O'Neill At The Cannon

O’Neill At The Cannon

The 40 local militia, mostly older men, wisely retreated in the face of an overwhelming force after one was killed. John O’Neill was captured. He was to be executed the next day, however his 15-year-old daughter rowed out the admiral’s vessel to plead for her father’s life. Since she had the papers that proved he was a military officer and not a civilian, he was released. The surviving articles hint that her comely ways and bravery affected the admiral. In any event, he gave her his gold-mounted tortoiseshell snuff box. (Exactly what any teenager would love to have.)

Other stories may not have been authenticated. One I heard was that the admiral declined to burn the home of a widow since she had no husband fighting against Mother England. (I must admit, that is the story I used in my upcoming mystery.)

Question: When the entire story is a fabrication, must the history be absolutely authentic?

My answer: Sometimes. If the history is presented as authentic—you bet your life. I’ll make it as authentic as I can. If the history is admittedly augmented—hey the writer/history doesn’t tell everything. And, if the history is presented as a fabrication—go for it! (I understand that was the thinking behind Unicorn Westerns.)

What is your answer?


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