Heading out of the inlet of Barnegat on New Jersey’s coast one dawn this summer, my yawl, Nimble, leapt into roaring seas racing ashore from Hurricane Erin. These shoals have been known for their treachery since they were first visited by Hendrick Hudson in 1609. His visit also took place in September — when the surf is often restive from great storms far at sea.
The waves were breaking into great masses of foam on either side this morning, but with the deeper channel ahead, I believed I could travel safely out to sea.
Suddenly, a huge comber broke in front of me — a hundred yards wide — across the channel. There was no turning back; one cannot swing broadside to breaking seas. Nimble advanced at flank speed as two huge waves approached. She reared up on the first, her 7 tons leaping into space, then slamming into the trough. The second wave, a steep, 10-foot wall, glowed eerily as the sunlight illuminated its green water, giving its ragged crest the appearance of gold lace.
“Nimble and I might not survive this…” I thought, but then, as before, she slammed through it and into calmer water outside the bar. That was close, and I was grateful for my own safety as well as that of my little ship.
About 20 miles out, I passed the Aurora of London, a cruise ship displacing more than 7,000 tons, with more than 1,200 people aboard. This is a highly irregular appearance outside the New York approach channels and a recreational fisherman from Atlantic City, seeing her hull on the horizon, reported her as a “huge submarine” to the Coast Guard. I, being closer, accurately described the ship and her bearing.
The USCG made radio contact and ultimately dispatched a helicopter to inspect her. “We are a charter to the Richmond Events company,” said her radioman in a deep Scottish brogue, “and are unable to enter New York harbor but hoping to do so by 8 p.m.”
Three hours later, I made landfall at Cape May, the mouth of Delaware Bay, and contacted my colleague, John Kraeuter at Rutgers University’s Haskin Shellfish Laboratory. It was then that I received the terrible news of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks and the plane crash in Pennsylvania.
How trivial my earlier adventure now seemed, even though it might have taken my life and destroyed Nimble. I had had far more control over my fate. I had almost an infinity of choices. That beautiful sunlit morning, thousands of my fellow Americans, and many brethren from foreign nations had none. That weighed heavily as I lay at anchor that night in darkness with Coast Guard patrol boats prowling the harbor around me.
While entering the Chesapeake at the C&D Canal the next day, I realized that exactly 187 years ago to the day, during the War of 1812, the United States had been girding for another challenge, one which might well have ended our democracy.
By that September in 1814, the war’s largest domestic naval battle had already been fought the previous June in the Chesapeake — literally in my home’s front yard — on St. Leonard Creek.
The series of engagements were ultimately only a delaying action that cost Commodore Joshua Barney his flagship sloop and entire fleet of gunboats, which were blown up on the upper Patuxent River to prevent their capture. Barney and his men fought a pitched battle at Bladensburg, in a valiant but failed attempt to deny British troops access to Washington D.C.
The White House, as well as most public buildings in the capital, were set ablaze. Panic-stricken U.S. officials put the torch to a pair of new ships almost ready for service at the Washington Navy Yard: Columbia, with 44 guns and Argus, with 18 guns.
Our republic was to receive its most severe test from the British expeditionary force under Admiral Sir George Cockburn. His fleet and invasion force had mustered at Tangier Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore.
His goal was to crush federal defenses and sack Baltimore and its shipyards, a nest of pirates that had produced an irritating succession of swift Baltimore Clippers to harass British merchant ships throughout the war.
The Rev. Joshua Thomas, a Methodist missionary who visited the Chesapeake islands, had been detained and was told in no uncertain terms to preach a sermon of comfort to these troops as they went into battle. Their souls he comforted, but with the message that their mission was unjust and that in it they would fail.
Just as the Nimble was heading toward Baltimore on Sept. 12, the British fleet did likewise in 1814, forming in battle array to pound Fort McHenry into submission. There were ten ships: four rigged so huge mortars could hurl explosive projectiles in a high arc and down inside the fort’s perimeter. One of these ships, in an irony only now apparent, was named Terror. “Baltimore,” the British proclaimed, “is a doomed town.”
Ashore, Major General Ross led his troops against the U.S. militia. Britain held the field but at the loss of 350 men, including Ross. The American militia retreated, with a loss of 200 men.
Meanwhile, at 5 a.m., Sept. 13, the fleet began a relentless bombardment of Fort McHenry that continued for 26 hours. Fort McHenry shelled back to repel them.
Under a flag of truce, two other Americans, Col. John Skinner, and a young lawyer from Frederick were detained in temporary custody aboard a British vessel just outside the line of fire. They had come to negotiate the repatriation for Maryland physician Dr. Beanes, who had been captured earlier.
Sleepless and in consternation, they watched the bombardment. At dawn the next day, their fears were allayed as they saw the U.S. flag still flying over Fort McHenry.
The younger man wrote a verse on the back of a letter in his pocket to celebrate this occasion, which was later printed as a handbill and distributed in Baltimore.
By chance, the verses could be sung to an English drinking song “Anacreon in Heaven.” In 1931, this popular tune, “The Star Spangled Banner” was designated our national anthem. The young man, of course, was Francis Scott Key.
Both the British army and fleet withdrew that Sept. 14, and in 1815, Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812.
It is necessary to point out, that in our wars with England, the officers and gentlemen held to a minimum the abuses by their troops. There was a gentlemanly element to combat then, and it proceeded at a slower pace and on a scale different from that possible in modern war.
People died and suffered terribly, but rarely have noncombatants suffered such senseless carnage as that which was experienced this September.
Nimble returned to her quiet moorings on St. Leonard Creek, where only the most distant echoes of 19th century combat can be imagined.
I am chastened by this experience, unharmed but deeply saddened and concerned about the safety and security of my beloved Chesapeake, my beloved country.