ESSEX >> As six British boats retreated down the Connecticut River in darkness and near silence on April 8, 1814, civilians and militia on both sides of the river lit up the night with bonfires, trying to spot the British sailors and marines and prevent their escape. Earlier in the day, the British had attacked Essex, then called Pettipaug, burning 27 vessels in what has been described as the largest single maritime loss of the War of 1812.
“As the British attempted to escape downriver, they actually hid out until darkness, and then they made their escape,” explained Brenda Milkofsky, a Connecticut River Museum board member and a member of the British Raid on Essex Bicentennial Committee. The river was so swift that “they almost didn’t need to row,” making it difficult for the 500 or so civilians and militia on the river banks to hear the British as they passed by.
The British were fired upon at Ayers Point, located between Saybrook and Essex, and at Fort Fenwick, Milkofsky said. But, even with support from cannon fire, the British made it back to their warships in Long Island Sound with only two casualties and two wounded men.
Two hundred years later — to the day — the museum, in cooperation with the Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, and Essex historical societies, recently marked the events of April 8, 1814, with Light Up the Night.
It’s the first in a series of celebrations, “as Essex takes its place in history and is formally recognized as a battle site in the War of 1812,” said Alison Brinkmann, marketing and communication chair for the Essex Historical Society.
Other events associated with the celebration include:
April 17: The Naval War of 1812 Illustrated Program, part four at CRM, 5:30 p.m. Part 3 in the series. Free for CRM members; $7 per session for others.
April 26 is Night at the Lay House 1814 Tavern: An evening of music, tavern games, drinks and tastes reminiscent of the era of 1814.
May 10 is Burning of the Ships Day: The annual celebration of the British Raid will feature the Sailing Masters of 1812 Parade and muster, a reenactment of events along with historic activities at the Connecticut River Museum. The Sailing Masters will host their annual Regency Ball and The Griswold Inn will hold an 1812 Pub Night concert.
The event included bonfires and on-site storytellers at Gardiner’s Landing in Old Saybrook, the Old Lyme dinghy dock along the Connecticut River, and the water-side green at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.
Bonfires are believed to have been set 200 years ago at or near those locations in Old Saybrook and Old Lyme, said Milkofsky. “We don’t know where the other ones were. There would have been more.”
Jerry Roberts, official historian and special project coordinator of the Bicentennial Committee, said event organizers are striving “to raise public awareness of this dramatic chapter in our local, state, and national histories and foster a stronger sense of community through this shared heritage experience.” Roberts is the former director of the Connecticut River Museum.
“‘Light Up the Night’ is held to make people aware of an event of 200 years ago that is little known, even in this area,” said Mark Lander, co-chair of the Old Lyme Historical Society. “The burning of the ships at Essex was the largest maritime loss in one place of the War of 1812. Many folks don’t know of the events of that war, which took place in this area.”
The British had made their way up the Connecticut River past an unoccupied Fort Fenwick in Saybrook to launch the attack in Essex. Lander said that “word got out, via couriers, of what had happened in Essex. Military forces arrived in Lyme (as Old Lyme was called then) from the east and attempted to prevent the British from escaping. Fires were lit on both river banks to silhouette their boats, but gunfire from both banks was unable to inflict any damage on the British boats. Cannon on the Lyme side were placed at Higgins Wharf, somewhat upstream from where the present-day bonfire is being held, as well as on heights closer to today’s site.”
Across the river, cannon “were placed at old Fort Fenwick, but they failed to stop the British from returning to the safety of the Sound,” said Tedd Levy, an Old Saybrook Historical Society trustee.
“The commemoration of the 200th anniversary of this dramatic raid on Essex, which was then part of Saybrook, is a significant event in U.S. history and certainly for the lower Connecticut River,” Levy said. “The ‘Light Up the Night’ remembrance is an especially notable way to mark this occasion, since it represents the action taken by residents as they tried to prevent the British from escaping down the river to the safety of Long Island Sound. It’s an authentic activity that will be exciting and educational.”
For information about the British Raid on Essex Bicentennial, see battlesiteessex.org.