Burning of Ships part of traveling exhibit at Connecticut River Museum

Courtesy Connecticut River Museum “Constitution meets Guerriere,” by Robert C. Sticker.
Courtesy Connecticut River Museum “39 Pound Defender,” by Michael Killelea.


ESSEX >> Lovers of marine art should be pleased by this traveling maritime art show, “1812 Star Spangled Nation: Commemorating the Bicentennial of the War of 1812,” that is unveiling some artwork not seen by the public before.



The Connecticut River Museum, located at the foot of Main Street in Essex, is hosting the art exhibit.



The exhibition features 25 maritime paintings by 16 maritime artists, all members of the American Society of Marine Artists, which shows the arenas of military action that unfolded during this war which was largely fought on the water. According to Jennifer White-Dobbs of the museum, the exhibit comprises three theaters of war: the oceans, the Great Lakes and the bays, estuaries, sounds and rivers of the Eastern United States.



The paintings include oils and watercolors, and depict scenes of famous engagements as well as lesser known vessels and locales. While many of the works of art present traditional views of the great Navy vessels on the high seas or in action, others feature more personal views of men, giving the war a human face.



Viewing the paintings cold stir up patriotism. Six of the paintings on display feature the American warship, the U.S. Frigate Constitution. The Frigate Constitution is pictured in separate paintings that include: Sailing into the night, escaping from a British squadron, battling the Britain’s H.M Frigate Guerriere, and challenging Britain’s H.M. Frigate Java at close range.



Featured as well in the exhibition are two close-up views of the murderous gun decks of U.S. ships. In another painting, the Britain’s bombship H.M. Volcano is shown bombarding America’s Fort McHenry.



Of particular interest is a painting of a group of rowboats filled with British soldiers, who are preparing to row up the Connecticut River to attack the town of Essex, which at the time was called Pettipaug. In all, there were 136 British sailor and marines, who rowed the 6 miles up the river against the tide to attack the town.



While rowing up the river, the British passed an unmanned fort in Old Saybroook, which demonstrated the lack of preparedness to British attack of the Americans. The overwhelming British force arrived in Essex shortly after 3 a.m. on April 8, 1814, and they were met with only a trace of defensive America gunfire.



The Americans were forced to retreat, while the British methodically burned or captured 27 American ships in Essex. It was the largest single loss of American ships in the entire War of 1812.



It was a captured American named Ezekiel Jackson who guided the British on their raid, and for this deed, Jackson received a substantial sum of money from the British and freedom from his captors.



The British burning of the ships was a major loss for the American forces. However, later that same year that the ships were burned, the British and the Americans ended the War of 1812 with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814.



In addition to the exhibition of maritime paintings of the War of 1812, the Connecticut River Museum is featuring public discussions about the war. Also, a video of the paintings in the exhibition is available, courtesy of the American Society of Marine Artists.



Should Essex residents celebrate the British burning of American ships on April 8, 1814? According to Amy Trout, the curator of the Connecticut River Museum, not too long ago, residents referred to the burning of the ships in Essex as “losers’ day.” And not a bright spot in history for the town.



The attack has been called the “Pearl Harbor” of the War of 1812.



However, another less negative view of the burning of the ships has now emerged. The burning of the ships is treated simply as an historical event. It is not to be forgotten, but not something to be ashamed of either.



In fact, Essex’s splendid fifth and drum corps, “The Sailing Masters of 1812,” perform with pride. And, the Essex site was named the state’s first official battle site of the War of 1812.



The show runs through June at the Connecticut River Museum at the foot of Main Street in Essex.


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