By Lara Lutz
John O’Neill had a fire in his eyes that was unlikely to dim any time soon. He’d fought the British in the Revolutionary War and now the redcoats were at his door again. The British attacked the Chesapeake town of Havre de Grace just before dawn, rockets blazing from their ships, then continued the raid on foot. Buildings burned, and people fled inland until O’Neill alone remained, firing his cannon and waving his hat to beckon the retreating American militiamen. When the British finally captured him, O’Neill had a musket for each hand.
Revolutionary spirit may have been driving his fight, but that war had ended almost 30 years before. The War of 1812 was under way, and the British were trampling the Chesapeake. The War of 1812 often takes a back seat to two other wars that defined the republic — the Revolutionary War, which created the nation, and the Civil War, which threatened its unity and freed thousands of people from slavery.
But the War of 1812 created “Americans.”
Maryland historian Ralph Eshelman said few people in 1812 described themselves that way. The Revolution had ended just 30 years earlier, and people identified themselves with their states instead of the nation as a whole. Confronting the British a second time resulted in a greater sense of patriotism and unity.
Eshelman calls it the Americanization of the United States. “Prior to the war you would have said, ‘The United States are…’ After the war, you would have said, ‘The United States is…,’” Eshelman said. “To me, that’s a turning point.” Some of the war’s defining moments took place in the Chesapeake Bay region. As a center of vibrant trade, fast ships and the national government, the Chesapeake was a natural target. The British burned and raided towns, and destroyed the cannon foundry at Principio Furnace, just across the river from Havre de Grace near Perryville.
In Washington, DC, the British burned the White House and other government buildings. They attacked Baltimore a few weeks later, but the Americans repelled them. The conflict gave birth to the Star-Spangled Banner — the enormous American flag that flew over Fort McHenry — and inspired what would become the national anthem, which became the best known legacy of this largely forgotten war.
This June, the war’s bicentennial opens with a roar as hundreds of sites across the Chesapeake region revive stories of the local heroes, invading British forces and dramatic conflicts that tested a nation. Many can be found along the Star-Spangled Banner National Historic Trail. The trail traces historic troop movements and war events in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Northern Virginia, weaving through some of the region’s best parks, scenic waterways, vibrant city centers and quaint shoreline towns.
Take to the roads or the water, linger on a foot path or travel by bike — you’ll discover great tales of Chesapeake heritage and outdoor fun along the way. To explore British raids on the Chesapeake, you’ll be wandering pleasant waterfront towns and byways on both sides of the Bay in Maryland and Virginia. In 1813 and 1814, citizens of these same places lived in fear. While the bulk of the British fleet anchored at Norfolk, a base on Tangier Island allowed them to raid these communities without warning. When the first rockets screamed through the air, unarmed citizens had little recourse against hundreds of trained marines who burned stores, homes and farms.
“The British admiral, George Cockburn, was the great villain in this thing,” said Burt Kummerow of the Maryland Historical Society. “He was given the task of pushing home the British presence in the Chesapeake Bay.” Based on comments in Cockburn’s writings, he seemed to enjoy the job.
Without organized troops to protect them, local heroes like John O’Neill stepped forward. At Georgetown in the Upper Bay, an independent young woman confronted Admiral Cochrane herself and successfully saved both her home and that of an aging neighbor, both of which stand today as the Kitty Knight House. The town of St. Michaels is said to have tricked the British by hanging lanterns in the tree tops, which caused British guns to aim high and mostly miss the town below.
Historic Elk Landing, in contemporary Elkton, also managed to chase off the British. Twice.
Charlestown was the only Maryland community to surrender before the damage could begin. “As a consequence what you have left is this beautiful town, which was never burnt like Havre de Grace,” Eshelman said, “with its quaint homes, inns, a beautiful view of the river and a stone wharf that was there in 1812.”