This past August Stonington Borough celebrated the 250th anniversary of the Battle of Stonington. The battle was part of the War of 1812 which was the first large scale test of the American Republic on the world stage.
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The cause of the war was a trade dispute between Britain and the United States and the impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy. Britain had been at war with Napoleonic France for twenty years and was enforcing a naval blockade on the United States to try and choke off supplies being shipped to France. The US considered this illegal. To help fight the war with Napoleon Britain needed men to man its 600 ship Royal Navy. It began impressing American merchant sailors into its service and it’s estimated that up to 10,000 Americans were forced to serve. On June 18, 1812, after heavy pressure from the War Hawks in Congress, President James Madison signed into law the American declaration of war against Great Britain.
At the time of the war, the Borough of Stonington was a prosperous small village with about 700 inhabitance, 120 homes, and a few piers and warehouses. On the morning of August 9, 1814, people were going about their daily business. The harbor was busy with men working on their vessels. Women were doing the laundry and the children had been let out of school to help with the harvest when on the horizon there appeared the sails of a squadron of British warships. The worried citizens of the Borough watched as the squadron approached and anchored about three miles off the point.
What do the British want was the question on everyone’s mind. The largest ship was the frigate Pactolus a 44 gun frigate, following this powerful ship was the brig Dispatch, of 20 guns, and most concerning to the citizenry was the sight of the bomb ship Terror, easily identified by the lack of a foremast. To make space for her powerful mortars which everyone knew were used against land targets.
A barge put out from the Pactolus under a white flag of truce to deliver a handwritten message from Captain Thomas Masterson Hardy, hero of Trafalgar and the most renowned of all British Naval officers. A British Lieutenant handed the notification to two Stonington magistrates and Lieutenant Hough of the Connecticut militia who had met the barge. The message read;
“On board his Majesties ship, Ramilies, August 9th.
To the Magistrates of Stonington:
Not wishing to destroy the unoffending inhabitants residing in the town of Stonington, one hour is granted them from the receipt of this to remove out of town.”
T.M. Hardy Captain
Of H.M. Ship Ramillies
The magistrates and Lieutenant Hough read the note with surprise. Why on earth, they wondered, would a British squadron attack the Borough of Stonington which had no strategic value? They had committed no offense against the British that they knew of. Unbeknownst to them, Stonington had been chosen by the British to be made an example of. Historians surmise that Hardy might have thought the town would surrender without a fight. Only one month earlier Hardy had led four warships and several transports carrying 2,000 men against Fort Sullivan in Eastport, Maine with a similar ultimatum. The American defending force there had surrendered without a fight.
But Stonington was not Eastport. Thirty-nine years earlier during the Revolutionary War another squadron of British warships had attacked Stonington. This first attack was led by the HMS Rose and the British were repulsed in that raid. Perhaps the people of Stonington thought, we beat them once; we can do it again. Suppressing his anger as best he could magistrate Captain Palmer told the British lieutenant, “We shall defend this place to the last extremity; should it be destroyed we shall perish in its ruins.”
A large crowd had gathered to hear the news about what the British wanted. When the message was read to the crowd there was great consternation in the town. Lieutenant Hough immediately sent a dispatch to General Cushing at New London requesting support. A number of volunteers started to gather supplies and ammunition.
A team of oxen were sent to get the two large and one small cannon out of a barn where they had been stored. The canon was hauled to the hastily constructed earthen battery, jokingly called the Grasshopper Fort on the harbor side of the point. Confusion reigned as people ran to collect their valuables and get the women and children inland to safety.
A small number of men, perhaps as many as 20 in number, gathered at the battery with the two 18 pound canon. They faced a much larger force of 1,500 British soldiers and sailors with 160 canons. A 16-star battle flag was raised over the small Grasshopper Fort, sown by the local ladies of the Congregational Church. It proclaimed to the British and the world that the brave American defenders were determined to fight for their freedom to the last man.
For more than 200 years, the Battle of Stonington has perplexed scholars and historians alike. The mystery of why a powerful British Naval squadron would attack a strategically unimportant village has never been completely explained? One of the reasons cited is an order Captain Hardy received from British Admiral Hotham to attack and lay waste to such towns along the east coast of the United States in retaliation for perceived atrocities against the British in Ontario.
But why did Hardy choose Stonington? Mystic was the obvious choice it was a hotbed of privateers and saboteurs who had repeatedly attacked Hardy’s squadron. But Mystic was protected by its shallow harbor. There was no way the large British ships could get up the shallow Mystic River to attack the town. One attempt had been made with British barges and after getting stuck in the mud the British had been lucky to escape. New London was a tempting target with the US squadron bottled up in the Thames River but the entrance to the harbor was protected by the guns of Fort Griswold and Fort Trumbull. Hardy would need a much larger force to have any chance there.
But Stonington’s Point stuck out into deep water and could be approached directly by large warships. Hardy probably thought that Stonington would be an easy target and an easy victory. But to Hardy’s surprise and dismay instead of capitulating, Stonington’s citizens, with almost foolhardy bravery, decided to fight. Reluctantly Hardy was forced into attacking the town. Later he would describe this action as “a most unpleasant expedition.” How this small force with only two cannon, were able to defeat such a superior force remains one of the greatest mysteries of the War of 1812.
To help solve some of the mysteries surrounding the battle the Stonington Historical Society applied for and received a National Parks Service Battlefield Grant to fully research and document the battlefield. The battlefield includes the entire Borough of Stonington and the surrounding waters totaling about 1000 acres.
The research effort has already yielded many interesting discoveries. What became apparent to the researchers was that most of what we know about the Battle came from American sources. An effort is being made to gain a British perspective on the battle.
There are many discrepancies between the American version of the battle and the British version. One example is the account of an attempted British landing that was reportedly repulsed by the American forces. In the American version, this landing was repelled by canon fire with many British causalities. In the British version, there is no mention of this landing attempt in any of the British ship’s logs. Did this landing attempt even happen?
Another mystery is why Hardy, whose superior forces could have easily overrun the point if they had attacked immediately, allowed the town time to deploy its forces. First, he offered the town one hour to prepare and even then at the appointed hour he did not open fire but waited until nightfall which made it much more difficult for the British gun crews to aim their cannon.
It now seems likely that Hardy was following Admiral Hotham’s orders but his heart wasn’t in it. Hardy was an honorable soldier who must have felt a twinge of dishonor in having to attack a small inoffensive village. Finally, at 8 p.m. the bomb ship Terror opened fire. The battle had begun.