Published June 28. 2012 4:00AM Updated June 28. 2012 4:57PM
The last thing New London needed in 1812 was another war.
Three decades after the city was burned by Benedict Arnold during the Revolution, it was a primitive backwater of low, wooden buildings and 3,000 people, many of them plagued by debt. Slowly rebuilding from its destruction, New London was hopeful the new industry of whaling would bring better days.
But when a new war with the British broke out, maritime commerce came to a halt, and residents assumed they again would be attacked.
Those fears were fueled early on when Connecticut Gov. Roger Griswold, reflecting New England's antiwar mood, refused a federal request for militia companies, even though some of them would have manned Forts Griswold and Trumbull. For a while, the city was defenseless.
But the war did not reach New London for nearly a year. When it did, it was brought not by the enemy, but by an American hero.
Commodore Stephen Decatur had become the idol of the nation for his exploits during the wars with the Barbary pirates of North Africa. Early in the War of 1812, he captured a British frigate, HMS Macedonian. He brought his prize into New London briefly in December 1812, having no idea he soon would be back for a much longer stay.
The next spring, Decatur set out from New York with his three-ship squadron. Near the eastern end of Long Island Sound, they encountered British warships and retreated into the nearest harbor, New London.
The British had managed to trap what amounted to a sizable chunk of the tiny U.S. Navy and quickly established a blockade. Remembering Arnold's raid, many fled the city in panic. Decatur, meanwhile, moved his ships upriver to Gales Ferry and awaited a chance to escape.
Capt. Thomas Hardy, the British commander, had no plans to attack and was inclined to be lenient in his enforcement of the blockade. That quickly changed after a sloop captured by the British, the Eagle, blew up off Millstone Point, killing 11 British sailors, almost the only local casualties of the war.
The Eagle, packed with explosives, was the work of a private war effort from New York, unaffiliated with either Decatur or New Londoners. But its chief result was to tighten the blockade so that no boat went unchallenged.
The problem of militia to man the city's forts had been resolved, but when the region came under federal military control, the militiamen, who answered only to the state, were dismissed. Again the city was defenseless. The same day, the blockade ships conducted firing exercises off the harbor, prompting fresh terror that New London was about to be invaded.
Traitor's identity a mystery still
Over the next few months, as the blockaders fought petty warfare against every boat in the vicinity, Decatur bided his time. In December 1813, he moved his ships south from Gales Ferry and on a moonless night prepared to sneak out of the harbor.
Suddenly, blue lights appeared on both sides of the Thames River and Decatur, fearing his escape attempt had been signaled to the British, scuttled the plan.
When the incident was reported in the press as the work of traitors, it caused a national uproar. Some were outraged by the supposed treason, others thought Decatur's men had made the story up to justify their inaction, and still others accused the Connecticut Gazette, the New London paper that broke the news, of smearing the patriotism of Americans.
Decatur made two more attempts to flee under cover of darkness and both times was foiled by the same blue lights. Still unknown was whether they were the work of spies, traitors or others.
The mystery was never solved, but the Rev. Edward W. Bacon, writing almost 70 years later, produced a suspect: a certain Capt. Center of Newport, who was arrested on undisclosed charges shortly after the lights appeared. A week later, according to the Gazette, he was freed for lack of evidence, "and has since found his way on board the British ships."
Early in 1814, a frustrated Decatur challenged Hardy to settle the stalemate with a duel of ships between two of his vessels and two of the blockaders. Hardy was intrigued, but both men ultimately decided against it.
A final chance for escape presented itself soon after when a Stonington sea captain, Jeremiah Holmes, approached Decatur with a scheme to torpedo one of the British ships, allowing the Americans to flee in the confusion. The torpedo would be supplied by a New Yorker who had plotted the Eagle explosion the previous year.
The unwieldy, 30-foot device was designed to float into its target on the tide, but when it lodged under the HMS La Hogue off Eastern Point and blew up, the blast produced nothing but a geyser of water that drenched a few startled sailors on deck.
His situation hopeless, Decatur again retreated upriver, dismantled two of his ships and left by land for New York. There, he took another command and was almost immediately captured by the British. The third ship in New London later slipped past the blockade.
When news of the war's end reached New London in February 1815, city officials planned a "peace ball" at the courthouse on Huntington Street, to which both British and American officers were invited.
Arriving in town just in time to attend, courtesy of his former captors, was none other than Stephen Decatur.