‘The Town That Fooled The British’ In The War of 1812, Prepares For Bicentennial

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By: Tara Boyle // August 6, 2012

St. Michaels is known as "the town that fooled the British" for its role in the War of 1812.
St. Michaels is known as “the town that fooled the British” for its role in the War of 1812.

It’s been 200 years since the start of the War of 1812 — a conflict that pitted the United States against the British Empire it had fought just a few decades earlier in the Revolutionary War.

As the nation prepares to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, it’s not much of an exaggeration to say this war is often overshadowed by other conflicts in our nation’s history.

However, for a place like St. Michaels, Md., which calls itself “the town that fooled the British,” the War of 1812 is deeply embedded in its history.

The town’s slogan is a reference to the Battle of St. Michaels, which took place on August 10, 1813, according to Betty Seymour, a board member of the St. Michaels Museum. At the time, St. Michaels was a thriving shipbuilding town and a tempting target for the British.

When locals sensed that an attack from the British was inevitable, they came up with a clever idea to trick the red-coated Marines heading their way, according to town lore.

“It’s thought that they hung the lanterns in the trees to make it believe that we were on a hill,” she said.

The thinking was that if the British believed St. Michaels was on a hill, they’d aim their guns up high, and miss the town. That theory was tested almost immediately.

The British rowed their boats along the Miles River, on a “dark and stormy night,” according to Kate Fones, curator of the St. Michaels Museum. The British appeared at Parrot’s Point at about 4:00 a.m., where the Americans had two cannons waiting for them.

As 300 red-coated British marines marched on shore, the Americans took aim, under the direction of William Dodson who commanded the militiamen.

The Americans “were able to get maybe two shots. And then they grabbed their flag and ran back to town,” says Fones,

After the Americans disappeared into the mist, the British got back in their boats, and trained their cannon on St. Michaels. But they were not successful, according to Seymour.

“The British never hit anything. They shot over the town…the reason that happened was because there were lights in the trees to make them think we were high up on a bluff,” Seymour says.

Seymour and other locals say they may never know all the details of what happened the night of August 10, 1813. Some people say there’s little evidence to support the story about local residents hanging lanterns in the trees to fool the British.

Locals will have a chance to revisit this history over the course of the next year, as St. Michaels hosts public lectures, a ball, and other events to get residents and tourists ready for the August 2013 bicentennial.

“They can imagine what it would have been like to see the barges and the big ships coming up to the shore, and the soldiers on it,” says Marie Martin, former president of the board of the St. Michaels’ Museum, who is hoping for high attendance. “It makes it more personal.”

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