War of 1812 bicentennial: Chesapeake Campaign
May 20, 2013
War became up close and personal in 1813 for areas close to present-day Aberdeen Proving Ground. United States logistical and naval sites became targets of the first British Chesapeake Bay Campaign during the War of 1812. Unfortunately civilians of the young United States suffered collateral damage at the hands of the British forces.
After his arrival in North America in mid-January 1813, British Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn began what today could be called a search and destroy operation to disrupt commercial and military shipping. Reaching the upper part of the Chesapeake Bay in the latter part of April with 15 warships, he occupied Pooles Island, chasing off approximately 100 fishing families. Next, he occupied Spesutie Island, where he moored his flagship HMS Marborough. Pushing further north to the Elk River with two brigs and four schooners, Cockburn attacked Frenchtown (near present day Elkton) on April 29. Brushing aside a six-gun battery, 150 Royal Marines destroyed large quantities of flour, military supplies and five small ships. Forays against Elkton on the same day by British barges and a landing party were repulsed by Forts Defiance and Hollingsworth respectively.
Returning from Frenchtown, British warships were fired upon from a battery located at Havre de Grace. The British first sailed to Spesutie Island to re-organize and then returned to assess the situation at Havre de Grace. The 2,000 militiamen at Havre de Grace had prepared for a British incursion by constructing small gun batteries at Potato Hill (one 9-pounder and two 6-pounder guns) and Concord Point (two 9-pounder guns).
The British attacked early on the morning of May 3, 1813. Small boats with Royal Marines landed with naval fire support against an unorganized defense. One US militiaman, named Webster, was one of the few people killed by a British Congreve rocket during the War of 1812. The British captured the US guns and turned them on the militia. Another militiaman, named John O'Neill, bravely held his position, manning a gun by himself. He fell back into Havre de Grace to continue fighting. He was eventually captured, taken on board a British ship and later released after his daughter pleaded for mercy with Admiral Cockburn. The majority of the militia retreated from Havre de Grace, pursued by the British. The town was ransacked and approximately 40 private structures burned. During the attack, other Royal Marines rowed up the Susquehanna River to Bell's Ferry and burned a warehouse.
The British returned to their boats and rowed approximately three to four miles northeast to the Principio Foundry (Cecil Furnace). The foundry was one of three cannon foundries in the US, with machinery for boring and finishing guns from solid castings, supplying guns to the US Navy and privateers. The British destroyed a five-gun battery defending the foundry, captured and disabled approximately 40 gun barrels and destroyed the foundry.
At dawn on May 6, the British raiders rowed on the Sassafras River towards Georgetown and Fredericktown. Although 400 militia guarded the towns, Royal Marines, again with naval fire support, pushed through. Warehouses full of military supplies and four ships were destroyed. Unfortunately, private homes were again burned.
On May 7, the British flotilla sailed south towards Annapolis. Tactically, the operation was a success, destroying supplies, cannon and ships, while defeating all defending forces in the area. However, the house-burning incidents at Havre de Grace, Fredericktown and Georgetown caused resentment toward the British. Citizens previously indifferent, now began to oppose the British.