A Red Terror Arrives on the Chesapeake

Guest post by Ralph E. Eshelman

“I have no hesitation in pronouncing that the whole of the Shores and Towns within this Vast Bay, not excepting the Capital itself will be wholly at your mercy, and subject if not to be permanently occupied, certainly to be successively insulted or destroyed at your Pleasure.” Rear Admiral George Cockburn to Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, March 3, 1813.

When the United States declared war on Great Britain in June 1812 the British were slow to respond, but in November, worried about American forces pouring into a one-front campaign against Canada, Royal Navy Admiral John Borlase Warren, commanding the North American Station, ordered raids against ports along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. On a cold and blustery February 1813, a British squadron appeared at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and proclamations of a blockade were issued. The Royal Navy set out to prove it meant business. Two days later, the first American casualty, a privateer named Lottery, was taken near the mouth of the Chesapeake. A frightening and destructive terror would descend on the tidewater for the next two years.

Admiral Cockburn burning and plundering Havre de Grace on the 1st of June 1813. Done from a Sketch [sic] taken on the spot at the time. Hambleton Print Collection.

Admiral Cockburn burning and plundering Havre de Grace on the 1st of June, 1813. Done from a Sketch [sic] taken on the spot at the time. Hambleton Print Collection.

With no navy, the U.S. had only poorly trained and equipped militia to protect its shores, allowing the British to move unmolested up the Bay. During March they conducted raids at Cherrystone Inlet, Cape Charles, and Sharps Island. In April, the British destroyed vessels in the Rappahannock River, conducted raids on Poplar, Deal, and Pooles Islands, and burned Frenchtown. Actions in May were even worse. The red terror looted and burned Havre de Grace, destroyed the Principio Iron Works, and burned most of Fredericktown and Georgetown. In June, the Americans repulsed a British attack on Craney Island, saving Norfolk and Portsmouth, but only days later the enemy sacked Hampton. Such raids, met by little American resistance, continued for the rest of the summer and fall.

While the blockade of the Bay continued during the winter, citizens of the Chesapeake tidewater could only image what Spring would bring. The result was the same, with British raids on Carter Creek, Tangier and Smith Islands, Windmill Point, and on the Potomac River. In June, Commodore Joshua Barney and his newly formed flotilla of armed barges attempted to harass the Royal Navy but it became bottled up in St. Leonard Creek, resulting in the largest naval engagement ever to take place in Maryland waters. By now the enemy had set its sight on even a greater target—an attack on the United States Capital. With the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British occupied Washington and burned government buildings, including the Capitol and the President’s House. No area of the United States suffered more raids, skirmishes, and battles during the war than the Chesapeake. Arguably, this was the lowest point in the war for America.

Less than a month later, however, the tide turned. American forces stopped a British invasion of the United States at the Battle of Lake Champlain. Their victory was followed only a few days later by the British defeat at the Battle for Baltimore. This later battle gave the United States two of its most cherished icons—a grand flag and our national anthem, both called “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The Chesapeake played a significant role in the War of 1812, and the people who live within and outside the tidewater region should be proud of that heritage.

To help commemorate the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, many communities are hosting events and celebrations for the remainder of 2013. On August 10-11, the town of St. Michaels is offering a parade, reenactments, music, talks, and a crab feast. Living history demonstrations, period music, a militia encampment, and local and regional foods and will be part of the festivities at the historic Mitchell House, near Chestertown, MD, from August 30 through September 1. The Battle of North Point will be recreated at Fort Howard from September 7-8, and visitors can witness living history programs, displays, and pageantry. Fort McHenry will host a Star-Spangled Banner Weekend (September 13-15) that will feature demonstrations, flag talks, educational activities, tours, a concert, and fireworks. Visit the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission website for information on these and even more events.

Ralph E. Eshelman is a cultural resource management consultant and historian who served as historian for the National Park Service’s Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail study. He is coauthor of The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia and In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake, and author of A Travel Guide to the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: Eighteen Tours in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, all available from JHU Press.