This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. The war was notable for Connecticut in that the state was a reluctant participant; in fact, when President Madison called upon Governor Griswold of Connecticut to federalize the state's militia, he flatly refused to do so.
The war was clearly the most unpopular war for Connecticut residents in the state's history, as it wreaked havoc upon its manufacturing economy by disrupting trade with Europe, especially with England. It was a notable war for Connecticut also in that two of its communities, Essex and Stonington, came under direct attack from a foreign power — a rarity in American history.
The raid conducted by British Marines at Pettipaug Point — now called Essex — occurred in April of 1814 and resulted in the destruction of 28 American naval ships, more than were lost in the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941. Four months later, the more famous British bombardment of Stonington occurred in August of 1814 — 198 years ago this past week; however, it was not the first time that the British had attacked Stonington in the month of August.
The first British attack on Stonington had occurred on Aug. 30,1775, by the frigate HMS Rose. Commanded by 44-year-old Sir James Wallace, the Rose was larger than any American naval ship and boasted 20 guns. It mainly patrolled Narragansett Bay early in the war, successfully suppressing the smuggling that had made Newport wealthy. So angered by the attacks by HMS Rose were the people of Rhode Island that they declared their state's independence from England on May 4, 1776, exactly two full months before the Declaration of Independence severed ties with the British!
Later in the war, the Rose sailed west into Long Island Sound and participated in the successful British attack on New York City. The ship later sailed up the Hudson to parts of New York state. Its brief attack on Stonington was almost like a drive-by shooting on its way toward New York. It was not a sustained bombardment, and it did not result in much damage.
The second bombardment of Stonington in the month of August occurred in 1814 and was a sustained attack. Four British warships under the command of Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy anchored offshore of Stonington and began a prolonged bombardment from Aug. 9-12. The damage to Stonington was heavy but only one citizen, an elderly woman who was already deathly sick, perished. Stonington, defended with only two guns, inflicted much more damage on the British; in fact, accurate shooting killed and wounded several British sailors and ultimately forced the English ships under "Kiss Me Hardy" to withdraw.
Philip Freneau, the "poet of the American Revolution" and close personal friend of President Madison, was inspired by the defense of Stonington to write a poem. It is entitled "The Battle of Stonington." Freneau wrote (in part):
"Four gallant ships from England came
Freighted deep with fire and flame,
And other things we need not name,
To have a dash at Stonington...
The ships advancing different ways,
The Britons soon began to blaze,
And put th' old women in amaze,
Who feared the loss of Stonington...
The bombardiers with bomb and ball
Soon made a farmer's barrack fall,
And did a cow-house sadly maul
That stood a mile from Stonington.
They kill'd a goose, they kill'd a hen,
Three hogs they wounded in a pen--
They dash'd away,--and pray what then?
_This_ was not taking Stonington."
Almost exactly a month later, a more famous bombardment of a city occurred when British warships began their bombardment of Baltimore and Ft. McHenry on September 13, 1814. Congreve rockets, also used at the bombardment of Stonington, were emitting their memorable "red glare" in Baltimore.
A young lawyer from Washington named Francis Scott Key , who was there to negotiate the release of a prisoner, observed the bombardment and was so moved when he saw the stars and stripes still flying on the morning of the 14th that, like Freneau, he penned a poem. It was entitled "The Defence of Ft. McHenry." That poem, when set to the music of a song entitled "To Anacreon In Heaven," later was renamed and in 1931 became our national anthem: "The Star Spangled Banner."