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.