Bicentennial of British raid remembered

Embers fly from a bonfire as volunteers with the Old Lyme Historical Society commemorate the bi-centennial of the British raid on Connecticut River shipping in the War of 1812 with the "Light Up the Night" event at the waterfront on Ferry Road in Old Lyme on April 8.   TIM COOK/THE DAY
Embers fly from a bonfire as volunteers with the Old Lyme Historical Society commemorate the bi-centennial of the British raid on Connecticut River shipping in the War of 1812 with the "Light Up the Night" event at the waterfront on Ferry Road in Old Lyme on April 8. TIM COOK/THE DAY

As night fell on April 8, 1814, by Higgins Wharf in Lyme, an effort was underway. Lit by the glow of bonfires, local residents and militia peered out onto the Connecticut River to glimpse the shadow of British ships retreating.

On the other side of the valley, more citizens awaited and then fired when they spotted the escaping ships. The locals had just suffered a defeat that morning at Essex, then called Pettipaug, where the British had burned up 27 vessels two years into the War of 1812.

Last week, residents remembered the bicentennial of the British raid at Essex. Old Saybrook, Essex and Old Lyme held "Light Up the Night" re-enactments along the river.

"The shipping in the whole harbor has been destroyed," announced a lantern-bearing messenger to the crowd of more than 75 attendees last week, after drums sounded on the dinghy dock on Ferry Road in Old Lyme, near the wharf which was part of Lyme at the time of the raid.

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.

During the war, the British had been blockading Long Island Sound and running ships aground along the shoreline. U.S. Commodore Stephen Decatur's three naval ships remained bottled up in The Thames River. 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 owned by merchants up and down the valley" 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. "Ships, rigs, schooners, scoots: all of them brought up to Essex for safety - or so we thought."

As day turned to night on April 8, 1814, residents and local militia lit bonfires to detect the retreating British towing two privateers down river 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.

"Let us count ourselves fortunate here in Lyme," the narrator told the crowd, that the ships in town remained unscathed by the raid that destroyed more than two dozen ships in Essex.

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.

K.DRELICH@THEDAY.COM

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