Essex’s untold story from War of 1812 comes to life with bicentennial activities

Fires lit up the night sky when the British landed in Essex. Above, a Soldwell painting of a ship in Essex harbor.


ESSEX >> Until now, the British raid on Essex during the War of 1812 didn’t receive much more than a footnote in the history books. But local residents are doing their part to make sure the town stakes its claim in history.



Two hundred years ago, in darkness and with the help of an American traitor, 136 British sailors and marines rowed up the Connecticut River and attacked Essex, then-known as Pettipaug. The British burned 27 vessels before retreating virtually unscathed in what has been described as “the largest single maritime loss of the War of 1812.” Yet, as recently as 2009, even the U.S. Navy, which participated in the battle, did not include Essex on its list of battle sites from the war, said Jerry Roberts, official historian and special project coordinator of the British Raid on Essex Bicentennial Committee.



“It was a brief but dynamic moment in our nation’s maritime history, yet this story has been virtually left out of the history books — the forgotten battle of the forgotten war,” he said.



“It was a major tragedy and loss for the Americans. People are often quick to forget their losses and remember the good times,” said Chris Dobbs, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.



“It was a pretty major maritime calamity. As Americans, we didn’t rejoice and write it into our history books.”



Other major losses during the War of 1812, such as the Battle of Stonington, the burning of Washington, and the Battle of New Orleans, overshadowed the raid on the small town of Essex, Dobbs and Roberts said.



For nearly 50 years, the Sailing Masters of 1812, an Essex-based fife and drum corps, has sponsored the Commemoration Day Parade, also known as the Burning of the Ships Parade, but there was little information beyond “hearsay and folklore to rely on” about the battle itself, Roberts said. In fact, he said some people in town jokingly call it the “Losers Day Parade,” because the Americans decisively lost the battle and so little was known about the raid.



“A lot of people think the British arrived, and we threw down our guns and ran,” but that’s not what happened, said Roberts. Describing the raid as “one of the few great American untold stories,” he said there is documented evidence that the Americans put up a valiant fight — with 500 militia from Lyme (as Old Lyme was called at the time), Saybrook, Killingworth, and New London fighting the British from both sides of the river. Yet, “all of that sort of got left out of the history books.”



However, with the release of Roberts’ new book, “The British Raid on Essex: The Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812” (Wesleyan University Press) and numerous commemorative activities planned for May 10 in conjunction with the 46th annual Burning of the Ships Parade, local residents are hoping that the forgotten battle will be long remembered.



The book “is one of the first major scholarly pieces on the subject, so I think it will be shedding much more light on this event — locally and nationally,” said Dobbs.



When asked to describe his book, Roberts said, “I call it the story of two battles.” First, it chronicles and documents the events of April 7 and 8, 1814. Second, it tells the story of a “longer battle to force state and federal recognition” of Essex as an official battle site during the War of 1812.



In 2012, Essex was honored as the state’s first official War of 1812 battle site, and the Bicentennial Committee hopes to announce the impending federal designation of the site during commemoration activities on May 10.



The activities include a reenactment of the battle — with professional re-enactors from Maryland presenting a historically accurate portrayal of British officers, soldiers, and marines attacking and patrolling Essex, as well as a group of Connecticut re-enactors, Free Men of the Sea, acting as the local militia as they attempt to defend the town.



Narrated boating excursions explaining the raid, historic walking tours, special exhibits, period dining and musical events, and an 1814 Commemoration Ball round out the day’s activities. “It should be fun, and it’s a great way to commemorate what happened here 200 years ago,” said Dobbs.



For more information, visit or or call the Connecticut River Museum at 860-767-8269.

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