Published April 05. 2014 4:00AM
Old Lyme - Next week, scenes along the Connecticut River will harken back to two centuries ago when a British raid on Essex burned more than two dozen ships during the War of 1812.
In an event Tuesday evening featuring bonfires and storytellers, the Old Lyme Historical Society will commemorate the raid's bicentennial. Similar "Light Up the Night" events in Essex and Old Saybrook will also recount the British attack and local communities' attempts to thwart the British retreat.
During the War of 1812, the British had blockaded Long Island Sound, blocking in several naval ships in the Thames River and interfering with other boats along the coast. In retaliation, a local militia attempted to raid a British ship, said Brenda Milkofsky of the Connecticut River Museum.
The attempted plunder provoked a British retaliation. In the early morning hours of April 8, 1814, the British attacked and burned up 27 vessels in Essex, then called Pettipaug, and a shipbuilding center thought to possess privateers, Milkofsky said.
By nightfall, the British began to make their escape with plundered loot. During the event, local residents and militia used bonfires to be able to see the retreating boats, according to a news release from the Old Lyme Historical Society.
Residents on both sides of the Connecticut River heard the British escaping and fired, said Mark Lander, co-chairman of the Old Lyme Historical Society. While the Americans hit two British sailors, the British successfully escaped and joined other ships on Long Island Sound, he said.
The event had also set off a chain of local coordination: a courier traveled to Lyme, which then also encompassed Old Lyme, to warn the town about the British, said Lander. A courier in Lyme traveled an hour and a half to New London, where U.S. Commodore Stephen Decatur of a U.S. Navy squadron then sent sailors to Lyme to try to stop the British, he said. The sailors reached Lyme but were unable to thwart the British.
Ships in Lyme, which rested at a place called Higgins Wharf now in Old Lyme, remained "untouched by the raid," said Lander. But the raid, the largest maritime loss in U.S. history up to Pearl Harbor, "brought home the war" to the region, Lander said.
"I think it made people aware that they were perhaps not as invulnerable as they thought," said Lander.
Lander said he hopes the event will instill an appreciation of local history and the role the local towns played in the War of 1812.
In Old Lyme, "Light up the Night" will take place at 7:30 p.m. at the dinghy dock near the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection's marine headquarters on Ferry Road. Historical commemorations are also slated Tuesday evening for Gardiner's Landing in Old Saybrook and by the Connecticut River Museum in Essex.
"Light Up the Night," which will take place rain or shine, is sponsored by the Connecticut River Museum, as well as the Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Essex historical societies.
More information and a listing of related events are available at www.ctrivermuseum.org or www.battlesiteessex.org.