Recalling Southern Maryland’s role in the War of 1812

September 5, 2012

Two hundred years ago, the United States declared war on England, bringing conflict, raids and plundering to the shores of Southern Maryland.

The largest naval battle of the Chesapeake Bay was fought in St. Leonard Creek; Calvert County’s courthouse was burned; Benedict was the launching point for 4,500 British troops heading for the District; and farms and homes on the shores of St. Mary’s County were raided.

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.

Barney took the flotilla into St. Leonard Creek; the two forces exchanged fire all day within the creek on June 10, 1814. Barney took the flotilla farther up the creek into shallower waters, where the larger British vessels could not follow.

In an attempt to draw out Barney, the British raided the shores of the Patuxent, including Benedict in Charles County. A skirmish occurred there June 21, 1814, between the English and the militias of St. Mary’s County and the District, which drove the British back to their ships.

The British returned to fight Barney’s flotilla on June 26, 1814. This time, U.S. infantry forces brought artillery to the site of today’s Jefferson Patterson Park. In the end, some of the British withdrew from the blockade of the creek and the American flotilla was able to come out of St. Leonard Creek to go up the Patuxent River. Barney eventually scuttled the fleet two months later.

“I look at it as a draw,” Eshelman said. The flotilla “never was able to carry out its objectives because it was bottled up by the British.”

The 560-acre Jefferson Patterson Park has an exhibit on the War of 1812 and the battles at St. Leonard Creek. The park also holds an annual battle re-enactment in September.

For 2014, “we’re working toward a big two-day event that year” in June to commemorate the battle of St. Leonard Creek, said Erin Atkinson, special events and marketing coordinator for the park.

The county seats of St. Mary’s and Calvert were raided on the same day — July 19, 1814, by two different British forces, Eshelman said. Upon reaching Prince Frederick, the British burned down the Calvert County courthouse because they thought it was being used for military purposes.

Adm. George Cockburn took a force of 1,500 men in three flanks from the Potomac River to take Leonardtown, where a division of U.S. infantry was camped. They fled upon hearing the British were coming, Eshelman said.

Finally, on Aug. 19, 1814, 4,500 British troops disembarked at Benedict to start their march to Washington.

Charles County is planning an event in 2014 to commemorate Benedict’s role in the War of 1812, said Catherine Carroll, the county’s tourism and marketing director.

The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent on April 10, 1815. But the terms of the treaty only returned things to how they were before the war started, Eshelman said.

“How do you declare that a victory when you declared war?” he asked.

But the United States gained confidence in itself and a new appreciation from foreign powers, he added.

“A country of united states became a country of states united,” he said.

For more information about the events and locations to visit involved with the War of 1812 in Southern Maryland, visit http://destinationsouthernmaryland.com. The Web site is sponsored by the Calvert Marine Museum, Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum, Sotterley Plantation, the Southern Maryland Heritage Area, the Calvert County government, the Charles County government and the St. Mary’s County government. A history class at St. Mary’s College of Maryland contributed a semester’s worth of work to the Web site.

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