Published June 28. 2012 4:00AM
It would not seem to require embellishment.
Indeed, the bare facts of the British raid on Essex in 1814 are cinematic enough. A pre-dawn sneak attack. Ships ablaze. Scrambled militias. A daring escape.
And yet the story of the raid, which up until Pearl Harbor occasioned the greatest single loss of U.S. shipping in history, has been dogged by myth and misinformation, not to mention such prickly questions as, Was it an inside job?
"This is a story that time kind of forgot," Jerry Roberts, executive director of the Connecticut River Museum, said. "What's been repeated has often been wrong."
Roberts and a team of museum researchers believe they have succeeded in nailing down much of the story, a prelude to winning recognition for Essex Village as a War of 1812 battle site on the State Register of Historic Places.
The story begins on the night of April 7, 1814, when 136 British sailors and marines climbed out of four warships anchored near the mouth of the Connecticut River, boarded six, well-armed "barges," or huge rowboats, and began making their way up the river to Essex, then known as Pettipaug. Their target: a fleet of U.S. merchant ships and "privateers," privately financed warships built, or being built, to capture British vessels and their cargoes.
For the British, Roberts said, it was better to sink the privateers at their moorings than to engage them individually at sea.
"We felt safe," he said, referring to Pettipaug's residents. "No one expected the War of 1812 to come up this far."
To its surprise, the raiding party, commanded by Capt. Richard Coote, encountered no resistance from the fort at Saybrook, which was unmanned and unarmed. Unimpeded, the party reached Pettipaug around 3:30 a.m. on April 8. In little more than six hours, it would take its leave, having torched 25 ships and captured two others it hoped to take with it down the river.
The story long endured that townspeople cut a deal with Coote, giving him free rein to destroy the fleet in exchange for a promise to spare the town. Perhaps it was a secret handshake between Coote and a fellow Freemason. Either way, the town's annual celebration of the Burning of the Ships Day is known by some as Losers' Day Parade.
Far from being cowards, Roberts said, the townspeople more likely realized they were hopelessly outgunned.
"The British were like Navy SEALS," he says. "They knew what they were doing; they'd been doing it for hundreds of years. … Townspeople had no concept of a raid coming. We might have had six men awake at that hour patrolling the docks (where the Connecticut River Museum is now located).
"It's pitch black and they heard something going on in the harbor so they fired cannon and muskets. The British came back with massive firepower."
In a fashion, the town did resist, according to Roberts. It sent for help in New London and neighboring towns and tried to hide some ships and extinguish those that had been set on fire.
A traitor, a spy?
Mission accomplished, the British withdrew, the two captured ships — one a brig, the other a schooner — in tow. When the brig ran aground a mile south of town, crews transferred its cargo to the schooner and torched the brig. With local militiamen firing muskets from shore, Coote decided to wait until dark before continuing down the river.
While anchored, the British captain spurned a demand that he surrender. At sunset, he had the schooner's cargo transferred to the rowboats and burned it. Oars muffled, the boats headed for home, drawing fire from the growing forces on both shores. Two British marines were killed.
Roberts said the British stopped rowing at some point and let the spring current take them past the now-manned fort and out the mouth of the river to the waiting warships. It had taken them 24 hours to wipe out the Pettipaug fleet.
Another facet of the story that long endured is that the British were helped by a local traitor who guided them on their escape. Suspicion centered on Jeremiah Glover, a merchant who supposedly offered his services to the British in a bid to save his sloop from destruction. Taken prisoner, he was released on Fishers Island.
Roberts said his team's research has all but exonerated Glover, who proclaimed his innocence at the time and continued to live in Essex until his death.
On the other hand, primary documents - the team has examined Coote's account of the raid and other admiralty reports - refer to "an American volunteer" whom the British rewarded for providing critical information that helped them travel up the river. Documents indicate the American was paid $1,000 after the raid and another $1,000 weeks later, a veritable king's ransom at the time.
"Amazingly, no one has ever identified the spy," Roberts said.