Often called the “forgotten war,” the War of 1812 is also considered the second war for independence. While the American Revolution granted independence, the War of 1812 secured America’s commercial independence and helped propel the nation’s westward expansion.
As much as the war was about the impressment of American sailors and the harassment of American shipping by the British, the war should equally be remembered for solidifying U.S. claims to what was then referred to as the Northwest Territory.
Frequently, the War of 1812 is associated with sites along the Great Lakes and the northeast. However, the Mid-Atlantic region was an important theater of the war and the Delmarva peninsula was at the epicenter of events along the Atlantic coast.
With access to Washington, D.C. and Baltimore at the southern end of peninsula and access to Philadelphia in Lewes, this region saw a tremendous amount of naval activity and troop movement during the conflict. With Philadelphia as the most populous and most economically important city in the country, the Delaware River and Bay was a critical asset the British sought desperately to control.
Vital economic activity in Philadelphia and the new DuPont powder mills on the Brandywine River near Wilmington only added to the Delaware’s strategic importance. With its commanding strategic position at the mouth of the Delaware Bay inside Cape Henlopen, Lewes was destined to play an important role in the defense of the river and bay.
In March 1813, nearly a year after Congress declared war, a small flotilla of British naval ships sailed from the Chesapeake to the mouth of Delaware Bay, hoping to cut off access to the Delaware River ports and choke the American economy to a point where surrender might occur.
Arriving off Cape Henlopen, the British would find a small battery at the foot of Pilottown Road, west of what was then called Lewistown – near the present day campus of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment. The battery had seen duty during the Revolution and another hastily constructed fort at the center of town constructed of “rough logs and brush, filled in with earth, sand, and gravel, each having… a log watch house” ran along the south side of what was then known as Lewes Creek. It's the site of War of 1812 Park.
While British forces were at anchor, a small party was sent ashore to seek fresh provisions for the ships. Their efforts were rebuked by the volunteer and state militia that had begun to assemble at Lewes as well as federal troops whose presence at Lewes was a welcome sight for the local population.
After several other thwarted attempts, the British commander, Commodore John P. Beresford, sent a letter to the first magistrate in Lewes demanding provisions or face destruction of the town.
This letter ultimately ended up in the hands of Gov. David Haslet who had made his way from Dover to Lewes on news of the escalating situation. Haslet’s lengthy reply concluded, “a compliance [with Beresford’s request] would be an immediate violation of the laws of my country and eternal stigma on the nation of which I am citizen; a compliance therefore cannot be acceded to.”
This line of communication stayed open for a several more days with Beresford becoming increasingly agitated at the ornery Americans in Lewes.
According to published reports on April 5 in the defense of Lewes were: “286 men; 418 muskets; 8000 cartridges; 25 bags of grape shot; 15 kegs of powder; 2270 flints; 41, 12-pound balls; 88, 9-pound balls; 167, 6-pound balls; 216, 4-pound balls; 434 kegs of lead; two 18-pounders, one mounted; two 9-pounders, badly mounted; four, 6-pounders, badly mounted; three 4-pounders, mounted.”
The state legislature passed emergency legislation in a special session to appropriate $2,000 for the defense of the town even as the British fired upon it.
Finally, on April 6, Beresford lost his patience and an initial firing of 32-pounders rained down on Lewes. During a lull in the bombardment, Beresford sent a letter to Lewes received by Col. Samuel Boyer Davis. He was a Lewes native whose father died aboard a British prison ship during the American Revolution, and who, upon hearing about the British ships off Cape Henlopen, returned to defend his hometown.
Ultimately, damage was done to both sides during the bombardment which lasted about 22 hours over the course of April 6 and 7, 1813. Cannonballs and rockets lit up the sky; many missed their marks, several, however, did not and damage can still be seen today at the famous Cannonball House where a cracked foundation bears testimony to those dramatic events.
One account mentions that one bomb shell fell in the town, but failed to explode; rockets passed over the town, likewise the shots of the Belvidere, and fell some distance beyond. The damage suffered in the destruction of property was estimated to be $2,000.
Despite being short supplied, the American forces at Lewes were able to gather enemy cannonballs and effectively reply fire at the British squadron, causing at least one gunboat to catch fire and retreat to the Jersey Cape. The rockets fired at Lewes those days were the Congreve rocket – the first use of that device in war – and would provide the “rockets’ red glare” that so-inspired Francis Scott Key the following year in Baltimore. The episode at Lewes was national news, appearing in newspapers all over the country.
Following the bombardment, the fort stood and defended Lewes and lower Delaware Bay for the next two years until news of Jackson’s victory at New Orleans reached Lewes on March 15, 1815.
While the British navy did advance a little farther up Delaware Bay, George Read Jr.’s account that “the affair at Lewes will increase their caution” proved correct. Ultimately, the forts were abandoned and dismantled but the memory of April 1813 would linger; many 19th century travelers who visited Lewes remarked how old timers would sit on their porches and retell how tiny Lewes had withstood the mighty British navy.
A dispatch from Cape Island to the Baltimore Patriot April 7, 1813 read:
“This morning a very steady smoke was seen in the direction of Lewistown, supposed to be occasioned by throwing rockets into that place. Our brave citizens being short of cannon balls, the enemy was so
accommodating as to fire 800 on shore, which on picking up and finding they suited the caliber
of our cannon remarkably well, the loan was immediately repaid with interest.”
A spectator described the scene from above the town with an open view:
“About five hundred shots were fired. Houses were injured, chimneys cut almost in two, the corner posts, plates, and studs cut off in several houses. The foremast of a schooner was cut away, and another received a shot in her hull. Of two particular rockets thrown, one fell on a lot, another in a marsh. A fire was directed at the breastwork, where more than thirty men were stationed. Shot struck the battery and broke the pine logs.”
Compiled from information supplied by Lewes Historical Society and an account written by Brig. General Kennard Wiggins Jr.
Lewes celebrates 200th anniversary of bombardment
Saturday, April 6
• 12:30 - 2:30 p.m. – The Guns of Fort McHenry at Cape Henlopen State Park, 15099 Cape Henlopen Drive, Lewes. Free and open to the public. State park fees apply.
• 12:30 - 5 p.m. –- War of 1812 presentations at St. Peter’s Church Hall, 211 Mulberry St., Lewes. Free and open to the public.
• All weekend through Labor Day- A traveling exhibit from the Naval History and Heritage Command, “War of 1812: A Nation Forged by War” will be at the Ellegood House at The Lewes Historical Society Complex at 110 Shipcarpenter St., Lewes.
Sunday, April 7
• 10 a.m. - 3 p.m. – Fort McHenry’s Musket Drill and Fife & Drum Corps at The Lewes Historical Society Complex, 110 Shipcarpenter St., Lewes. Free and open to the public.
• 4 p.m. – Rededication and commemoration of the War of 1812 at the 1812 Memorial Park on Front Street, Lewes. Free and open to the public.
• 5:30 p.m. – War of 1812 commemoration dinner at the Lewes Yacht Club. Reservations required by phoning 645-7670.
Full details can be found at HistoricLewes.org or by phoning 302-645-7670.