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Old Lyme - As a bonfire glowed by the Connecticut River on Tuesday, residents commemorated a night 200 years ago when citizens lined the shores to thwart the British retreat after a raid on Essex.
"The shipping in the whole harbor has been destroyed," announced a lantern-bearing messenger to the crowd, after drums sounded on the town's dinghy dock.
Attendees at the commemoration were told to listen to the "muffled sounds of oars" and strain their eyes for the silhouettes of the British ships slipping into the night. The sounds of firing canons and muskets filled the night.
Tuesday marked the bicentennial of a British attack two years into the War of 1812 that burned 27 ships at the ship-building center of Pettipaug, the historic name for Essex. Old Saybrook, Essex and Old Lyme were commemorating the event Tuesday in "Light Up the Night" re-enactments along the river.
During the war, the British had been blockading Long Island Sound and running ships aground along the shoreline. The British then attacked Essex in the early-morning hours of April 8, allegedly in retaliation for an attempted raid on a ship by local Americans.
The raid had a devastating effect on the ships in the harbor, and residents Tuesday learned that "vessels large and small" were destroyed.
"You can hardly name a shipping family in the valley that has not suffered great loss," said the event's narrator, Mark Lander, the co-chairman of the Old Lyme Historical Society.
As day turned to night on April 8, 1814, residents and local militia lit bonfires to detect the retreating British after the shipbuilding loss. To thwart the British, American citizens began firing at the retreating British along the Connecticut River. The British were able to escape successfully, though two sailors were wounded.
Town resident Matt LaConti brought his two daughters Ada, 7, and Celia, 9, to the event to be a part of local history and learn about the events that took place years ago.
"I like them to learn about history," he said, "and we have a lot of it here."
The Connecticut River Museum in Essex sponsored the event, along with the Old Lyme, Essex and Old Saybrook historical societies. Additional events marking the bicentennial are planned in the area.