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Legendary Chesapeake campaigns

Towns' celebrations to shed light on their role in 1812

  • By Lara Lutz on July 14, 2013
  • Comments are closed for this article.
Dick Peskin, a volunteer at the St. Michaels Museum, notes that “St. Michaels wasn’t a major battle, and it wasn’t about famous people. It’s a people story, and it’s interesting to hear what people say, on all sides.” (Dave Harp) A model of the HMS Surprise, a 38-gun frigate that was present at the bombardment of Fort McHenry,  is on display at the St. Michaels Museum.  (Dave Harp) Eric Applegarth, who helped build the War of 1812 exhibit at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, examines a canon that Jacob Gibson gave to the city of St. Michaels in atonement for a prank in which he faked a British attack on the city. The cannon later saw action in the Battle of St. Michaels.  (Dave Harp)

If you live in St. Michaels, MD, you've probably heard the story of the lanterns. If you visit, you'll probably hear it, too. In fact, if you arrive by road, you'll pass a sign that welcomes you to "The Town that Fooled the British."

It's a good tale, and it goes like this: In 1813, Americans were at war with the British. Again.

It was the second year in the War of 1812. The British Navy had launched an aggressive campaign on the Chesapeake. They aimed to intimidate its towns, destroy ship-building centers and crush maritime trade. In August, they arrived at St. Michaels.

Luckily, the town had warning of a pre-dawn attack. The residents had no professional soldiers to defend them, but they did have time to cook up a plan.

Working by dark, they hung lanterns in trees beyond the town, past the roof lines of their homes and town buildings. When the British aimed cannons at the lights, they overshot the town. As a result, only one home was hit and the British soon withdrew.

It's a well-loved story of spunk and spirit. But it is not part of the historical record.

The attack did take place. In fact, the British attacked St. Michaels twice in August. It's also true that its homes and shipyards were undamaged, except for the one residence now known as the Cannonball House.

The lantern story, however, shows up much later in the town's oral history. No one knows who told it first, but the earliest references seem tied to the 100-year anniversary of the attack — in 1913.

The question of historical fact has caused some recent debate. The war's bicentennial is now under way and St. Michaels, like other Maryland towns that suffered British attack, are marking the date with a host of special events.

Dick Peskin, a volunteer at the St. Michaels Museum, is degreed in folklore. Peskin suggests that, in some cases, the spirit of the story means more than the facts.

"When you study folklore, the truth of such stories doesn't really matter," Peskin said. "You are trying to understand how people see the world."

At the core of the lantern legend is a small, resourceful community confronted by a great military power. The heroes are everyday people. That's the theme of the story, and it's repeated throughout the Chesapeake region where towns, farms and wharves were attacked, raided and burned during the War of 1812.

"St. Michaels wasn't a major battle, and it wasn't about famous people," Peskin said. "It's a people story, and it's interesting to hear what people say, on all sides."

Maryland communities are making a special effort to retell such tales and draw visitors to the historic waterfront settings where they began. Havre de Grace, at the Bay's northern end, raised a U.S.flag in defiance of nearby British ships and was attacked in reward.

As buildings burned and people fled to safety, including the town militia, an aging Revolutionary War veteran named John O'Neill stood his ground alone, firing a cannon until the British captured him.

On the Eastern Shore, the British also set fire to Fredericktown and many of the buildings in Georgetown. There, Kitty Knight persuaded the British to spare her home and that of a sick, elderly woman. Kitty is said to have stamped the flames out twice.

Special events and exhibits have marked the anniversary of these confrontations, and more are planned for 2013 and beyond. They include battles like Caulks' Field in Kent County and North Point in Baltimore County, where citizen-based militia played a major role in repelling a British advance.

St. Michaels celebrates its historic anniversary Aug. 10–11. With blocks of historic homes on walkable, tree-lined streets and a large waterfront campus at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, it's a great place to appreciate the drama and tension that dominated Bayside towns in the summer of 1813.

The British chose targets with productive farms and shipping wharves. They also aimed for shipyards, and those at St. Michaels were building hulls for the fast Baltimore clippers that had begun to harass the British fleet.

"When settlers first arrived at St. Michaels, they were planting tobacco," Peskin said. "By the 1700s, shipbuilding took over, and St. Michaels became a mercantile town and shipbuilding center. That's what it was in 1813."

Eighteen of the town's existing buildings were standing during the August attack. A thick black cannon, mounted by "The Green" at St. Mary's Square was used to defend the town on Aug. 10.

A lively stretch of shops and restaurants has become the town thoroughfare but its waterfront, just a few blocks away, still bustles with activity. You'll find restaurants and marinas near a small town park, and bike and kayak rentals, too. Hell's Crossing, now a quaint, quiet intersection, was once a notorious spot for brawling sailors.

The 18-acre campus of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum anchors the waterfront area. The museum explains and celebrates maritime heritage with displays and demonstrations such as shipbuilding, historic boats, a watermen's shanty and oystering.

A new exhibit offers a rich look at the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake. It's a portrait of society in flux, as lives of everyday people — both free and enslaved — began major shifts that would define and change the nation.

Project director Robert Folorney said that war on the Chesapeake felt very personal. "The raids and skirmishes were used to punish people and gain submission, to demoralize people and make them want to quit," he said.

To see the British withdraw from St. Michaels, when other towns had been sacked, spurred pride and relief. "It was incredibly uplifting," Folorney said.

A small cannon on an aging wooden carriage is nested among the museum displays. It's an artifact from another St. Michaels war story, better documented but lesser known than the legend of the lanterns.

This cannon came to St. Michaels from one of its residents, Jacob Gibson, who played an unwelcome prank on the town. While approaching the shore by boat, he raised a red handkerchief on his mast and instructed enslaved crewmen to improvise some drumming.

From a distance (some say at night), the town watch believed the British were coming. The people evacuated and the militia gathered before the joke was discovered.

"The town was furious," Folorney said. "Gibson had to do something to get back on their good side, so he gave them two cannon that were later used during the Battle of St. Michaels."

Community fabric, both new and old, will be at the heart of the August anniversary weekend in St. Michaels. And, yes, the town will light lanterns to mark the event — In honor of history and the human spirit, too.

Chesapeake Campaign Remembered

For details on these and other events, visit www.starspangled200.org.

  • Honoring our 1812 Heroes: Aug. 3–4, Queen Anne's County MD. Re-enactments, music, stories, speeches, dedication of a memorial park, and a program focusing on people who escaped slavery during the war to join British troops.
  • Battle of St. Michaels: Aug. 10–11, St. Michaels MD. Parade, children's activities, re-enactments, speakers, music, cannons, crab feast, boat-docking contests, skipjack and carriage rides, lantern lighting and watermen's appreciation day on Aug. 11.
  • Caulks' Field Remembered at the Mitchell House: Aug. 30 to Sept. 1, Chestertown MD. Music, militia encampment, demonstrations, re-enactments, wine, beer, crafts, wagon rides, archaeological dig at Washington College and a 5K run.
  • Defenders Day at North Point: Sept. 7-8, Baltimore County, MD. Re-enactments, militia encampment, period trades and crafts, displays and flag ceremonies.
  • Star-Spangled Weekend: Sept. 13-15. Fort McHenry, Baltimore. Re-enactments, parades, military bands, fireworks, symbolic ship-to-shore bombardment, cannons, historic boats including the Pride of Baltimore II, musket demonstrations and concert.

MD War of 1812 Sites

Explore history and landscape in these Maryland places that also experienced British assault during the War of 1812:

Exploring St. Michaels

  • St. Michaels in 1813: The St. Michaels Museum on St. Mary's Square is open 1–4 p.m. Friday and Sunday, and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, May through October. Museum admission is $3/adults and $1 ages 6–17. Walking tours are scheduled 10 a.m. July 20 and Aug. 10 & 31. Check with museum for the topic. The fee for the walk is $10/adults, and $5/ages 6–17 and include admission to the museum. Reservations are appreciated. Visit www.stmichaelsmuseum.org, call 410-745-0530 or e-mail stmichaelsmuseum@atlanticbb.net.
  • Navigating Freedom: The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake -- Exhibit at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels: The museum is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. through August, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through October. Admission is $13/adults; $10/seniors; and $6/ages 6–17. Admission includes access to the 1879 Hooper Strait Lighthouse and all of the museum exhibits on an 18-acre waterfront campus. For information, visit www.cbmm.org or call 410-745-2916.

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Lara Lutz

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