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Soundings’ home port and its role in the War of 1812

Quaint, manicured, quintessentially New England, Essex, Conn., is known for the historic Griswold Inn, its Federalist and Colonial-era homes and, among history buffs, the surprise British raid on Essex harbor’s merchant and privateer fleet in April 1814.

The British torched 27 ships in a surpirse attack on Essex, Conn., on April 6, 1814.

An audacious attack against slumbering defenses that some have likened to Pearl Harbor, the Essex raid inflicted the largest single maritime loss of the War of 1812. The Connecticut River Museum, at the Essex town docks where the naval force came ashore, will figure prominently in a bicentennial observance of this rout — one of the darker days in the town’s history.

The observance started at the museum March 20 with a three-month marine art exhibit about the War of 1812 and a four-lecture series on the art of the war. It included a night of bonfires April 8 to remember the lost ships and culminates May 10 with boat tours; a parade on Main Street with fifes, drums and bagpipes; a re-enactment of the British landing; and a Regency Ball. “It’s going to be a busy day in Essex,” says town resident and history buff Herb Clark, co-chairman of the Essex Battle Site Committee.

He says Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy might well turn up for the commemoration. “We’ll have British troops coming in a boat with their cannon to confront the Essex militia,” who were significantly outgunned and outmanned, Clark says. The town has observed the anniversary of the British raid annually since 1964 with a fife-and-drum parade on Main Street known tongue-in-cheek as “The Losers’ Parade” and a Regency Ball in period costume at Essex Town Hall.

Known during the early 19th century as Pettipaug, Essex was a thriving shipbuilding and port town, but the British naval blockade of Long Island Sound strangled shipping, so the struggling yards started building and outfitting privateers — privately owned but government-licensed warships — according to accounts written by Jerry Roberts, former executive director of the Connecticut River Museum and a battlefield historian who researched the raid under a National Park Service grant.

His work likely will lead to designation of the Essex town docks, where the British landed, and sites along the river in neighboring Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, where militia fired on the British as they made their escape, as national battlefield sites. Based on his research, Roberts has written a book about the raid, “The British Raid on Essex: The Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812” (Wesleyan University Press, 2014).

Aiming to destroy Essex’s privateers, the British sent two warships to the Connecticut River, where sandbars prevented them from sailing upriver. The ships anchored at the river’s mouth on the night of April 7 and dispatched 136 British officers, sailors and Royal Marines upriver under the command of Capt. Richard Coote to torch the ships at anchor in Essex harbor, along the wharves and on the hard.

Finding the fort at Saybrook Point undefended, the raiding party secured the fort, slipped up the river on six large and heavily armed ships’ boats, and landed at Essex about 3:30 a.m. April 8. The sortie handily captured the town after an exchange of gunfire with local militia, according to Roberts. Before day’s end, they set fire to 27 vessels totaling 5,000 tons, including six ships believed to have been privateers, and confiscated naval stores from waterfront chandleries and warehouses.

Twenty-five of the ships were torched in Essex. The other two — both privateers, the schooner Eagle and the brig Young Anaconda — aided the British party’s escape and were set afire farther downriver. Roberts, bringing new research to light, reports that more than 500 local militiamen set up breastworks on the bluffs overlooking the river and laid down a gauntlet of musket and cannon fire as the British troops returned to their ships under cover of darkness. The British suffered two deaths, and two men were wounded during the daring mission. Quickly subdued, Essex was spared any loss of life or shoreside property.

Archaeological excavations have unearthed cannon balls and other evidence of the battle on the river bluffs and the remains of one of the American ships the British burned downriver as they returned to their ships.

Information and a schedule of bicentennial events are available at

Remembering the raid

- Through June 29 - "1812: Star Spangled National Exhibition," art related to the War.

- May 10 - Narrated boat tours leaving from the Essex waterfront, annual Commemoration Day parade on Main Street, re-enactment of British landing at Essex waterfront, annual 1812 Regency Ball at Essex TOwn Hall.

May 2014 issue