Essex Village Recognized as War of 1812 Battle Site

Through the efforts of the Connecticut River Museum, the state's Historic Preservation Council has designated portions of Essex Village as the "British Raid on Essex Battle Site District." This official designation on the State Register of Historic Places is the culmination of intense research and community coordination, led by museum officials over the past year, to gain recognition for the little-known but quite significant British raid that took place during the War of 1812.

On April 7, 1814, 136 Royal marines and sailors rowed up the Connecticut River under cover of night and landed at the foot of Main Street, where the museum now stands, to burn privateers and other vessels at the docks and in the harbor. A total of 27 ships were destroyed, making this battle the largest single loss of American shipping during the war, and in fact, the largest loss in American shipping until Pearl Harbor.

The district designation, which includes the grounds of the Connecticut River Museum, the Griswold Inn, and 22 other historic properties along Main Street, Pratt Street, Parker Lane, and Meigs Lane, is particularly timely as the nation launches its two-year bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812. It cements the raid into the official history of the War of 1812 and is a stepping stone on the way to federal battle site recognition by the National Parks Service.

"The designation helps fill a missing page in the maritime history of our state and our country," said Connecticut River Museum Executive Director Jerry Roberts. "Essex had been left out of the official narrative and the raid was dismissed as a minor event, when actually it was big news back then, with over 70 newspapers covering it. When the British burned Washington a few months later, it eclipsed the attack and it slipped into obscurity."

For the past several years, the museum has given voice to the story of the raid in its permanent exhibit and at its annual Burning of the Ships Day event, being held this year on Saturday, May 12. The museum has also served as the conduit for newfound artifacts and archeological discoveries relating to the raid, including an 1804 pattern British Naval boarding cutlass found in the river off Hayden Point in Essex Harbor. It is the type of sword that would have been carried by British sailors during the raid.

In June 2011, the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection brought in to the museum what has now been identified as a pre-1820 ship's knee, a large wooden L-bracket used to fasten deck beams to the ribs of wooden ships. Based on its age, the river location where it was found, and the presence of faint charring, it is possible that the knee is from one of the two American privateers that the British attempted to take down river after the raid. The attempt was unsuccessful, so the British burned the two vessels after running them aground in shallow waters. A second piece of wood was found in the same location, leading museum officials to believe there is more to be discovered. These join the museum's already significant collection of burned ship's timbers, canon and musket balls, and other artifacts associated with the raid.

According to State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, not only is the newly designated War of 1812 historic district significant for above-ground historic remnants of the battle, but "the Essex waterfront holds a significant archaeological potential that can yield important information and artifacts associated with the battle. We look forward to this multi-year research project that will bring long-overdue recognition to this significant event in our national history."

Roberts added, "We're proud to set the record straight and be able to tell the story of the intense American efforts to save the ships and prevent the British escape. There is far more to this story than anyone had imagined. We are continuing our research and are now planning new archeology in the town and in the river as we work with the National Parks Service Battlefield Protection Program to get national recognition within the year. It's all very exciting."

The Connecticut River Museum is a private, non-profit organization dedicated to the study, preservation, and celebration of the cultural and natural heritage of the Connecticut River and its valley. It is located in a national register 1879 steamboat warehouse at 67 Main Street. More information can be found at www.ctrivermuseum.org or by calling 860-767-8269.

Information courtesy of Susan Daniels/Connecticut River Museum

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