On June 18th 1812, the 4th President of the United States, James Madison Jr, bowed to pressure from those in Congress who wanted war with Britain and signed the declaration. The calls for war came as a result of a number of skirmishes between British and American ships the former of whom were enforcing a blockade against Napoleonic France and despite the US being officially neutral the British still stopped American ships and even press ganged American sailors in to the King’s service.
While it would last until February 18th 1815, the subsequent conflict is still remembered as the War of 1812. With the majority of British forces committed to fighting Napoleon in mainland Europe, the British had little choice but to initially adopt a defensive strategy against the Americans until they could bolster their numbers with troops from Europe and the enlistment of local native American tribes to carry out a guerrilla-style campaign against American troops.
At sea, the British fleet was under the command of Admiral Sir John Warren who in November appointed the recently promoted Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn (pronounced Co-Burn, Right) as his second-in-command. Cockburn was an experienced officer having seen several actions throughout his career up to that time against the French and Spanish. Cockburn commanded a force of ships that were directed against disrupting US trade and naval/privateer operations along the northeastern US with the two-year old 36-gun fifth rate frigate HMS Maidstone carrying his flag.
On April 23rd 1813, Cockburn’s force captured Spesutie Island located in the Chesapeake Bay in the US state of Maryland. Recognising the fear his fleet had put in the local population he emphasized to them that as long as they did not oppose the British forces using the island as a base then they would be allowed to go about their daily lives. Reporting to Warren on April 29th following a raid on Frenchtown in which five American vessels were destroyed, he outlined his intention to attack any settlement along the American coastline in Chesepeake Bay which hoisted American colours or fired on his force.
A few days later, Cockburn was returning from Frenchtown, sailing to the north of Spesutie Island when he was fired on by US forces based in the town of Havre de Grace. In his report on the subsequent action which was reprinted in the London Gazette, Cockburn admitted that until he observed the gunfire aimed at him from the settlement he had largely disregarded it. Now, he decided that the settlement which was primarily defended by local militia groups should be punished for their resistance however the town was protected by shoal water that was too shallow for the larger of Cockburn’s fleet to sail over.
He therefore anchored his force off nearby Turkey Point on May 2nd 1813 and transferred over 150 Royal Marines to a flotilla of smaller boats that included a number of rocket boats for fire support under the command of Captain John Lawrence of HMS Fantome. Lawrence and his men set off under the cover of darkness to carry out a dawn attack. HMS Dolphin (12-guns) and HMS Highflyer (8-guns), both former American privateers captured by the British and pressed in to service against their previous owners, attempted to sail with the boats to offer support but were only able to make it to six miles of the settlement because of the shallow waters.
As Lawrence and his men made their way towards the town, their presence was detected by the local population who warned the militia at Havre de Grace of the impending attack. The Americans decided to withdraw rather than fight a pitched battle with the British with less than 40 men remaining when Lawrence struck at dawn. The Americans manned a battery of cannons at Concord Point and it was here the main action was fought. Cockburn’s report describes what happened next;
Captain Lawrence, however, having got up with the boats, and having very ably and judiciously placed them during the attack, a warm fire was opened on the place at daylight from our launches and rocket boats, which was smartly returned from the battery for a short time, but the launches constantly closing with it, and their fire rather increasing than decreasing, that from the battery soon began to slacken, and Captain Lawrence observing this, very judiciously directed the landing of the marines on the left, which movement, added to the hot fire they were under, induced the Americans to commence withdrawing from the battery, to take shelter in the town.
Lieutenant G. A. Westphal, who had taken his station in the rocket boat close to the battery, therefore now judging the moment to be favourable, pulled directly up under the work, and landing with his boats crew, got immediate possession of it, turned their own guns on them, and thereby soon obliged them to retreat with their whole force to the furthest extremity of the town, whither (the marines having by this time landed) they were closely pursued, and no longer feeling themselves equal to a manly and open resistance, they commenced a teazing and irritating fire from behind the houses, walls, trees, etc. from which I am sorry to say, my gallant first lieutenant received a shot through his hand whilst leading the pursuing party; he, however, continued to head the advance, with which he soon succeeded in dislodging the whole of the enemy from their lurking places, and driving them from shelter to the neighbouring woods, and whilst performing which service, he had the satisfaction to overtake, and with his remaining hand to make Prisoner,-and bring in a captain of their militia.
The captured American was Second Lieutenant John O’Neill who had put up a spirited defence which at one point included manning a cannon single-handedly until he was injured from the weapon’s recoil. He was captured along with two militia men as they attempted to escape to the nearby woods. During the entire attack there was only one fatality; an unfortunate resident of Havre de Grace who was killed when a British rocket exploded nearby.
Cockburn instructed his men not to pursue the Americans in to the woods. Instead they were to either seize or destroy American weapons that came in to their possession. Lawrence’s forces did however travel three miles north to destroy the ironworks centred around the Principio Furnace which was involved in manufacturing cannons for the American war effort. With Havre de Grace in British hands, the Royal Marines and sailors took to looting and vandalising the town, burning somewhere in the region of 60% of the entire settlement although the local church was spared.
The raid completed and Cockburn’s desire to punish the Americans satisfied, the British force then moved on up the Susquehanna River to attack an American supply depot. The residents returned to their gutted town, horrified at the destruction and accounts of the raid were widely circulated in the American press vilifying Cockburn especially. In response the British position argued that Cockburn and his men had done nothing the Americans had not done themselves in Canada, specifically the burning of York (modern day Toronto) a few days before the raid. Cockburn’s reputation for brutality amongst the Americans would later be solidified when over a year later he played a major role in the burning of Washington on August 24th 1814.