War of 1812 in St. Michaels

cover-St Michaels bookSt. Michaels, Md. calls itself “The Town That Fooled The British.” During the War of 1812, there were as many as six shipbuilders in and near St. Michaels. One ship they produced was a fast schooner (later known as the Baltimore clipper). These vessels were well suited for outrunning pirates or foreign naval vessels at sea. A military battery was stationed at St. Michaels to protect the town and the shipyards. On August 10, 1813, the British attacked. However, the residents had turned off any lights in their homes and hung lanterns high in the trees. As a result, most of the cannon balls sailed over and beyond the village. One house  was hit by a cannonball. It went through the roof, and bounced down the stairs next to a child sitting there. (She told all about it in later years.) There are other stories of that time in the book—about the women sewing an American flag, about the battle against the military battery, about getting information from a British deserter, and about a farmer on a nearby island who tried to fool St. Michaels.

Several years ago, when my husband and I were sailing on Chesapeak Bay Maritime museum2Chesapeake Bay, we often stopped at St. Michaels and tied up in a slip next to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum (shown here). Of course, I shopped for souvenirs. I purchased the booklet shown above. The story is engrossing. I vowed to write about the War of 1812 someday. That day arrived in 2013, and my mystery is now finished. It is in the process of cover design and manuscript formatting, to be published this summer. So, I haven’t hit exactly 200 years from 1813, when the St. Michaels incident occurred, but the war officially ended in 2015. Shortly, Forgotten Body, the second in the Jo Durbin Mysteries, will be published. It isn’t exactly about the war, but it does involve a reenactment of the Forgotten War of 1812.

 

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?

America At War-1812

My Thursday series on the War of 1812 continues.

President Madison

President Madison

They called it President Madison’s War. It was a war to free the impossible conditions on the Atlantic Ocean—Britain seizing ships and conscripting sailors, while both Britain and France declared our shipments illegal. The country was deep in depression with the President forbidding trade across the ocean. Although also illegal, commerce continued to the north, across the Great Lakes with Canada.

But the lack of commerce and the resulting American financial depression wasn’t the only reason many in the United States favored war. Some wanted to overcome the advantage the British had with the Indians who often joined English forces against the United States. Others were looking to grab land, to add farmable acres, specifically Canada and Florida. Thomas Jefferson is said to have remarked that capturing Canada was, “a mere matter of marching.”  There were areas of Canada largely populated by Americans. Meanwhile, England believed that Canada was adequately protected. The United States did battle with Canadian and British forces, with victories going each way.

One notable American victory was at Put-In-Bay when American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry turned possible defeat into victory and captured an entire British fleet. His report became famous. “We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.”

Eventually, however, the American attack was defeated. The Americans in Canada didn’t rally around their former countrymen. They only wanted to be left alone. They probably numbered among those who were united by the Canadian victories into the country that, in 2012 celebrated their two hundredth anniversary of victory against their southern neighbors.

During much of 1812, most British ships were too involved fighting France to worry about our east coast. The only fortifications on both sides were along our Northern boarder with Canada. Life went on as usual on most of the Atlantic coast. Various civilian militia formed along the waterfront and in towns and villages. However, no United States military forces were placed on Chesapeake Bay.

The Forgotten War

This year, 2015, marks the 200th anniversary of the last battle of the War of 1812. Note that I didn’t say this is two hundred years since the end of the War of 1812, because that officially came on December 24, 1814, when The Treaty of Ghent was signed. But that was in Europe, and without twenty-first century communication, such as cell phones, radio, or even cable messages, the news had to wait until a ship crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

Why am I interested in that bit of history? My next book revolves around a reenactment of the War of 1812, so I did a bit of research for incidental comments as my characters speak. I wanted to know what was true, although some of my characters may not know the real facts. But why did I choose that time to reenact instead of the more common Revolutionary War or the Civil War?

That’s another story.

My husband and I spent a lot of time sailing on Chesapeake Bay. We stopped at various ports and I shopped the local gift shops. They always had a book about the local history, which included the War of 1812 and battles on Chesapeake Bay. I read up on those battles. The burning of Havre de Grace. How the people of St. Michaels fooled the British. The defeat of Washington, D.C. and the burning of the White House. The successful battle at Baltimore. So I knew when I wrote the next book my character, Jo Durbin would be involved in a reenactment of the Forgotten War. Of course, there’s a Forgotten Body.

And, while the subject is fresh in my mind, I’ll spend the next few Thursdays telling bits of American history that changed the lives of our ancestors (and, eventually, our lives as well).

Why did we go to war with Britain? What happened back in 1803-07? The United Kingdom (England) and Napolianic France went to war against each other. Neither side wanted American supplies to reach the other. They both declared it illegal for American ships to deliver goods to the other. Which, they figured, made it perfectly okay to seize ships defying their laws. France seized 206 United States flag ships, but England seized 528 American ships. Not only that, but England seized around 6,000 men from our ships and put them to work on their ships, often claiming they were really AWOL from British ships. They also barricaded American ports.

In 1811, President Thomas Jefferson decided the only way to solve that Henry Clayproblem was to forbid the American companies from shipping anything anywhere. Congress agreed. That put the whole country into a financial depression. Not hard to imagine what came next. Fully half the old congress was voted out. The old guard was replaced by the young War Hawks. Henry Clay became the new Speaker of the House, a position, until then merely as a presiding officer. Under Henry Clay the office became one of party leadership, as it is now. (That would be the Democratic- Republicans, before the party split. The other party was the Federalists.)

So America went to war against Great Britain. America was completely unprepared for war.