Now, 200 years later, many organizations in Southern Maryland are commemorating the war’s bicentennial.
In fact, the British did not terrorize people living on the Chesapeake Bay until 1813 and 1814.
August 1814 saw 45 British vessels sail up the Patuxent River on their way to invade Washington. Waterfront plantations along the river’s shores were decimated.
Ralph Eshelman of Lusby, the author of several books about the war, called the War of 1812 “America’s most misunderstood war.” Some call the war America’s second war of independence, but Eshelman said the war really was a matter of the United States asserting its autonomy.
For years, British policies impeded American free trade. So while England was busy fighting a war with France under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, the United States declared war on June 18, 1812.
The strategy to defeat England was to conquer its holdings in Canada, Eshelman wrote. In early 1813, portions of the British Navy — the strongest in the world at that time — entered the Chesapeake Bay to divert American forces from Canada and to bring the war to the nation’s capital.
On April 7, 1813, British ships began probing the Potomac River, said Joseph Whitehorne, author of “The Battle for Baltimore: 1814.”
The Maryland Gazette reported on April 22, 1813, that five British ships were anchored in the harbor of Annapolis, and state records were whisked out of the state capital. The same edition noted: “A few ships sailing up and down the Chesapeake have excited an alarm in all those places which lie on any of its navigable waters, and produced almost a total suspension of business.”
On July 19, 1813, the British occupied St. Clement’s and St. George islands and landed forces just north of Point Lookout in St. Mary’s County, Whitehorne wrote, starting further raids along the shores of the Potomac and Patuxent rivers.
The British already had established a blockade along the Atlantic coast, creating an economic war against the United States; raiding was part of that.
“That’s when it became real” to Americans, Eshelman said.
The English took pigs, cattle, grain and tobacco. They also took slaves, some of whom were trained and mustered into British service.
Commodore Joshua Barney was a veteran of the Revolutionary War. During the War of 1812, he was commander of a privateer ship, Whitehorne wrote. Barney proposed a defensive flotilla in 1813. His job was to harass the British Navy and protect American property, Eshelman said.
Barney skirmished with a small British force off Cedar Point in the Chesapeake on June 1, 1814.
The flotilla was blocked from reaching the Potomac River to head to the safety of the District, so Barney entered the Patuxent River. The British blocked the mouth of the river behind him at Point Patience.