Yesterday, I went on a field trip with the New York Shiplore and Model Club to Stonington and Mystic, Connecticut. (Thanks to Lee Gruzen, Norman Brouwer and Linda Zatkowski for making the arrangements.) Our first stop was Stonington, Connecticut, a small village on the extreme eastern coast of the state. In the center of the village, two 18 pound cannon are on display in the fittingly named Cannon Square. On their tampions, blocking the ends of the cannon’s muzzles, is the date 1814, when the two cannons, manned by local militia, almost miraculously drove off a British force of four Royal Navy ships under the command of Captain Sir Thomas Hardy, Nelson’s flag captain on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. The battle may not have been of any great strategic importance, but was one of a series of American victories in the last days of the War of 1812.
The British flotilla of the 74 gun HMS Ramillies, the 38 gun frigate HMS Pactolus, the 18 gun brig HMS Dispatch, and bomb ship HMS Terror arrived off Stonington on August 9, 1814. Captain Hardy was under orders to burn the village. He sent a note ashore giving an hour ” for the removal of the unoffending inhabitants.” The residents of Stonington were not ready to leave. They replied to Hardy, “We shall defend the place to the last extremity; should it be destroyed, we shall perish in its ruins.”
These were not the first British ships that the residents of Stonington had faced. In 1775, Captain Sir James Wallace of the HMS Rose had attempted to seize a herd of cattle located just outside the village for the provisioning of British troops. The herd had been moved from Block Island to Stonington to try to avoid being seized by the British. British marines tried to land in Stonington but were driven off by local militia. HMS Rose bombarded the village without doing significant damage until Captain Wallace gave up and sailed away.
Despite being faced by a much larger and more determined force, the residents of Stonington were not about to give up their village in 1814. They pulled out two 18 pound and one 4 pound cannon from storage in a local shed. The cannon were left over from the Revolutionary War. The militia began returning fire, once the British bombardment got under way. The British lobbed 130-pound incendiary shells from the 10 and 13-inch mortars on HMS Terror and round shot from the guns on HMS Ramillies, HMS Pactolus, and HMS Dispatch. Congreve rockets were also fired from the ships’ barges.
Despite being seriously outgunned, the Stonington militia did significant damage to HMS Dispatch, the one British ship the came within range of their two 18 pounders. One of the gunners, Jeremiah Holmes, had been pressed by the Royal Navy for three years before he managed to escape. While in the Royal Navy, he became an expert gunner and now used his skills against his former masters. During the bombardment, HMS Pactolus grounded off Sandy Point and had to unload round shot in order to float free. The shot was later salvaged by local residents and sold for scrap.
On the morning of August 13, the British ships up anchored and sailed away. The had failed to burn the town, one of their ships was damaged, the American guns were still firing and ever larger groups of militia kept arriving on shore to oppose a landing.
Amazingly, through the three-day cannon battle, no one in the American militia was killed. The village of roughly 120 houses and buildings had been bombarded by an estimated fifty to sixty tons of bombs and shot. Nevertheless, only 8 to 10 buildings were seriously damaged. A volunteer fire brigade prevented fires set by the incendiary shells from spreading.
There is no record of the number of British sailors and marines killed. The figures vary from two to over twenty on the brig HMS Dispatch. The brig attempted several landings, sending marines toward shore in the ship’s boats, but were driven back by grapeshot and musket fire. One boat full of marines was reportedly torn in half by round shot and grape.
The failure of over 100 ships’ guns against the two cannon at Stonington would be repeated in the British defeat at the Battle of Baltimore only a month later, when five British bomb ships, including HMS Terror, fired an estimated 1,500 to 1,800 bombs without doing serious damage to Fort McHenry.
After the British failure to burn Stonington, the American poet, Philip Freneau, penned “The Battle of Stonington, on the Seaboard of Connecticut” which became very popular in America. It reads 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.
Now safely moor’d, their work begun,
They thought to make the Yankees run,
And have a mighty deal of fun
In stealing sheep at Stonington.
The bombardiers with bomb and ball
Soon made a farmer’s barrack fall,
And did a cow-house badly 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 dashed away and pray what then?
This was not taking Stonington.
But some assert, on certain grounds,
(Beside the damage and the wounds),
It cost the king ten thousand pounds
To have a dash at Stonington.
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