SIGN: War of 1812
The War of 1812 sign is located at Lafayette St. and Concord St.
Information from the Maryland Historical Society was used in this report.
On June 18, 1812, a mere thirty years after America won independence from England, we declared war on them.
We had several reasons, but chief among them was because England failed to recognize the sovereignty of our new nation and interfered in our dealings abroad as well as on our shores.
The British decided to search American ships for deserters from their Navy and in the process they press-ganged American seamen into their service because they were running low on volunteers to fight in the Napoleonic War against France.
Also, England took offense that we were trading with France, and the British were seizing American ships. We cut trade ties with England and effectively hit them where they lived.
Thus, the War of 1812, or the Second Revolutionary War, had begun.
By this time, Havre de Grace had grown from being a stagecoach stop between Philadelphia and Baltimore to have had fifty or so log and frame houses, with a few taverns and inns, in addition to warehouses and wharves.
In March, 1813, British Admiral Sir George Cockburn’s fleet blockaded the Chesapeake Bay from Norfolk to Havre de Grace. And on May 2, 15 barges of British soldiers under Lt. Philip Westphal attacked Havre de Grace.
They fired cannons and Congreve rockets from their ships before they invaded the town on foot, looting and then destroying what they couldn’t carry. And, they set fire to the town as they went. (This was the second time the town had been burned by the British; the first time was in 1777 during the Revolutionary War.)
According to an eyewitness account from a lady visiting from Philadelphia, who wrote in a letter to her brother, “The Admiral himself was present at this work of destruction and gave order for it to his officers.” She also wrote, “Such wanton destruction and barbarity among civilized people I have never heard of.”
On the morning of May 3, John O’Neill was the only man to try to defend the town after the other militiamen fled.
From where the Concord Point lighthouse now stands, O’Neill single-handedly fired a cannon at the British ships until the recoil caused the cannon to run over his thigh. He then went into town and, along with a "Mr. Barnes," fired muskets at the ships.
After going to “the common,” O’Neill recruited others to join the fight before being captured by enemy troops.
After O’Neill had been taken to the frigate Maidstone, his daughter, Matilda, rowed out to beg Cockburn to not kill her father. Amazingly, her request was granted. In addition, the Admiral was so moved that he gave her his gold snuff box.
In the aftermath of the siege, only three or four houses stood, one being lucky enough to have had minimal damage due to the efforts of Mrs. Goldsborough in her attempt to intervene with Cockburn. Though he agreed to spare the house, when she returned from the meeting she found it to be in flames. The fire was extinguished and the Pinkney house stood.
When Concord Point Lighthouse was constructed in 1827, O’Neill was appointed by President John Quincy Adams as keeper in recognition for his brave efforts. He retained that position until his death and four generations of his family followed suit, until 1919.
Nothing about Havre de Grace and the War of 1812 can be written without at least mentioning native son Commodore John Rodgers, born in 1771 at, “Sion Hill.”
Among his numerous accomplishments in the United States Navy was his thwarting of the British plans to attack Baltimore in Sept. 1813. Rodgers sunk vessels and effectively obstructed entry to the channel.
However, the following September, the British did attack Baltimore and “The Defense of Ft. McHenry” was written by a lawyer named Francis Scott Key.
Later, the poem was ironically set to the tune of a popular British drinking song and became, “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It wasn’t recognized as the official National Anthem until 1931.
By the Spring of 1815, the War of 1812 was over, ending in what amounted to a stalemate. However, America’s independence was now respected around the world.
And, Havre de Grace rebuilt itself, thriving and growing to become the city it is today.