ESSEX — Red-coated British Royal Marines will storm ashore — again — on Saturday to mark the 200th anniversary of a little-known, but devastating attack on Essex late in the War of 1812.
It may not match the original raid on April 8, 1814, in which 136 British marines rowed up the river from Saybrook to Essex, then called Pettipaug, and set 27 ships ablaze. The surprise attack has been called the most costly American naval loss before Pearl Harbor.
Still, Jerry Roberts, a historian and one of the organizers of the Bicentennial of the British Raid on Essex, promises a fine show. He said two rowboats carrying the British re-enactors are expected to disembark during the early afternoon from the town landing, fire off their muskets and then seize the town — almost like 200 years ago.
“It’s not easy to find War of 1812 re-enactors,” Roberts said. “You’ve got Revolutionary War guys all over the place. But we managed to get a good group. I don’t want to give too much away, but it should be exciting.”
The symbolic invasion is part of a daylong commemoration of the British raid on Essex, which also includes the stirring “Burning of the Ships,” parade, with the Essex Sailing Masters fife and drum corps leading other corps down Main Street to the harbor. The parade steps off at 2 p.m. in front of Essex Town Hall.
There’s also a tea and tour of the Essex Historical Society’s Pratt House, a candlelight supper at the Griswold Inn, and a fancy dress ball at town hall, in which visitors are encouraged (though not required) to appear in the fashionable Regency styles of the day.
“This is very much a communitywide celebration and we are honored to take part in it,” said Christopher Dobbs, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum. “Everyone has been working on this for a long time; we just hope the weather cooperates.”
Dobbs said the museum will also have re-enactors on the lawn of its Samuel Lay House, next door, along with tours of sites associated with the British raid aboard the excursion boat RiverQuest.
Roberts, former executive director of the Connecticut River Museum, has for years been fascinated by the story of the British raid. He said the event was one of the great untold stories of the war. Essex, meanwhile, annually marks the British attack and the “burning of the fleet” with a parade, which many call “Loser’s Day,” because the town seemed to capitulate so quickly.
But Roberts and a team of researchers, including University of Connecticut archeologist Kevin McBride, found evidence that the battle was not as one-sided as previously thought, and that local militia engaged fleeing British troops in skirmishes along the river from Essex to Saybrook.
The research is expected to lead to federal recognition of battlefield sites along the lower river by the National Parks Service.
Roberts has written a book on the subject, “The British Raid on Essex: The Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812,” which was recently published by Wesleyan University Press.
“There are a number of reasons why this battle was forgotten,” Roberts said. “It occurred right before the Battle of Stonington, which seemed to be a victory for us. Washington was burned, and then came the Battle of New Orleans and the war was over. But the raid was certainly a big deal for the British.”
For more information about events and times, go to battlesiteessex.org, or call the Connecticut River Museum at, 860-767-8269.