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?