Connecticut, like the rest of New England, did not support the decision of the United States government to declare war on Great Britain in 1812, believing it would severely harm maritime trade. Although the state legislature did approve some expenditures for arms and ammunition, Connecticut's militia were forbidden to leave the state, and only a relatively small number, around 3,000 men, saw active duty during the conflict. Another 160 men, and 156 officers, served in the Regular Army.
However, the war quickly became reality for southeastern Connecticut when Commodore Stephen Decatur arrived in New London harbor, December 4, 1812, on the frigate USS United States, followed by the recently captured prize, the Macedonian. Decatur was welcomed as a hero, and departed for New York as soon as some repairs had been made.
A few months later, in April 1813, shoreline residents witnessed the arrival of a British fleet under the command of Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy on the 74-gun flagship HMS Ramillies, along with Sir Hugh Pigot on the 38-gun HMS Orpheus. The British blockade of the Middle Atlantic states was now extended to Long Island Sound.
Hardy treated those impacted by the blockade with courtesy and respect, allowing fishing vessels and coastal trade to continue undisturbed. Provisions were paid for rather than seized, and communications were generally amiable. In History of New London, Connecticut (H. D. Utley, New London, 1895, p.631), Frances Manwaring Caulkins relates the following example of Hardy's humanity:
June 9th, a party landed at Black Hall, and amused themselves awhile on the shore; then visited Mrs. Griswold, asked for some refreshments, behaved with civility, and soon retired. While the fleet lay upon the coast, it was ascertained that a young American, named John Carpenter, was an impressed seaman, on board the Ramillies, where he had served five years. He belonged to Norwich, and contrived to let his friends know of his situation. His father went off to the vessel with a flag, and the proper testimonials, in order to obtain, if possible, his release. Commodore Hardy expressed his sympathy, and the proper formalities having passed, he discharged the man.
By this time, coastal towns, worried about possible enemy incursions, were organizing militia units. East Lyme did not exist as a separate town until 1838; the eastern section, along the Niantic River was part of the newly formed town of Waterford, and the remainder of the town was part of Lyme. Waterford men served in units organized at New London, and those men from what would become Niantic served predominantly under either Lt. Colonel Asa Comstock, or Lt. Col. William Moore. These units would be busy through the summer of 1813, then again in August 1814, as neighboring towns were threatened.
Decatur returned from New York with a small squadron in late May, and anchored off the Connecticut side of Fishers Island. The Ramillies was anchored on the opposite side of the island, as Commodore Hardy prepared for a prisoner exchange set to take place at New London. The United States, the Macedonian, and the Sloop of War USS Hornet attempted to sail out of Long Island Sound on June 1. They were prepared to do battle with the Ramillies, but, spotting the Orpheus, the 74-gun HMS Valiant, and the 48-gun HMS Acasta heading toward them from Montauk, quickly headed for safety in New London harbor.
The British anchored off Gull Island, trapping the American boats in the Thames River for the next twenty-one months. Traveling upriver, Decatur established a defense at Allyn's Mountain (which the men called Dragon Hill). Residents of New London, recalling the damage done to the city during the American Revolution, feared an enemy attack. Women and children evacuated the community, taking their valuables with them, while militia units were called up to patrol the shoreline. Although no attack was launched, the community remained in a state of alarm, ready to act at the sound of a signal gun from the fort. Rumors of spies and suspicious behaviors were rampant.
The United States Congress decided to encourage private citizens to get involved in the war effort. In March 1813, they passed legislation encouraging the development of weapons and tactics designed to disrupt the blockade. John Scudder, Jr., a New York businessman, soon rose to the challenge. He outfitted a schooner named Eagle with kegs of gunpowder, sulfur, turpentine, and two flintlock firing devices, which were attached to two barrels of flour on deck. If either barrel were to be moved, the entire vessel would be detonated. The boat was filled with a standard load of provisions, then sailed toward the mouth of the Sound. It arrived off Millstone Point on June 25, 1813, and dropped anchor. The crew headed for shore as a British boarding party approached, then fired on the boat. The boarding party, to save themselves and the schooner, cut the anchor line and sailed back toward safety. The Americans had planned on this, assuming that Hardy would tie the prize to the Ramillies. Instead, he ordered the Eagle tied to another recently captured vessel. That afternoon, one of the flour barrels was moved, causing a massive explosion that destroyed both the Eagle and the boat it was tied to, killing a second lieutenant and ten British sailors in the process.
Several days after the explosion, a Norwich man, using a submarine based on the Turtle, designed by David Bushnell during the American Revolution, sought to destroy the Ramillies by attaching an explosive device to its hull. Despite three successful passes beneath the warship, he was unable to affix the device to the hull. Several attempts were also made to damage the fleet with floating mines.
Hardy responded to these attempts by ordering the crew to run a cable under the hull every two hours, checking for foreign objects, and by moving his boat to Gardiner's Bay, on the far side of Orient Point. It was fairly common practice for the crew to go ashore on the various islands in the Sound, and for Hardy himself to visit John Gardiner on his island. Joshua Penny, resident of nearby East Hampton, Long Island proposed to Decatur a plan to kidnap Hardy on such a visit. In late July, Penny landed on Gardiner's Island, accompanied by four small boats crewed by Decatur's men, and awaited the arrival of Hardy. As it happened, the pinnace that arrived that night was from the Orpheus, rather than the Ramillies, and contained seven men and one boy. Penny decided to capture the men anyway, accepted their signed paroles, and released them, before heading back to East Hampton. Not long after this incident, Penny met with Decatur and Thomas Welling of New York to discuss a new plan. Welling wanted to load whaleboats with explosives, to be used as floating mines. He proposed that, because of his expert knowledge of Gardiner's Bay, Penny act as pilot. A Sag Harbor ship captain who overheard a discussion of the plans passed the word to Hardy. Hardy responded by sending a warning to Sag Harbor officials, as well as Decatur, that every house along the shore of Long Island would be destroyed if this plot were to proceed.
The federal government had assumed control of the military in the spring, and Major-General Henry Burbeck assumed command of the New London district in late June. By order of the Secretary of War, the state militia on duty in the area, numbering approximately 1000 men, were dismissed from duty on July 12, leaving the community completely undefended. At the same time, the British blockade was being augmented and intensified. Seven ships now blocked the mouth of the Sound, and the sound of their firing exercises kept shoreline residents on edge. Burbeck responded by asking the state to supply a temporary force. The governor then authorized Brigadier-General Williams to raise a body of militia as needed.
Caulkins writes of this period (p. 634):
The blockade was henceforth of the most rigorous character. The enemy resolved to leave nothing afloat. The Sound was alive with petty warfare. Every creek, bay and river were searched, and nothing in the form of boat, sloop or smack suffered to live. Yankee enterprise prolonged the task of the invaders, and obliged them to destroy by inches, and to multiply and repeat the blows, before they could ruin all traffic, and clear the coast of sails and oars. Sometimes a sloop or schooner would be chased ashore by the enemy, and the inhabitants would collect to defend it...(One) shore skirmish took place November 28th west of the light-house, New London. The sloop Roxana was chased aground by three British barges, and in half an hour a throng of people assembled to the rescue. The enemy set fire to the sloop and retreated, but the Americans determined to extinguish the flames, and were only kept from accomplishing their purpose by a heavy cannonade from the ships.
During this period, the Beckwith family, who owned a shipyard at Keeney Cove on the eastern shore of the NIantic River, became concerned that their boats might be damaged or seized. With the help of neighbors, the boats were brought farther up into the cove. Saplings were then cut and placed upright in the water, arranged across the mouth of the cove in an attempt to disguise its existence. Fortunately, no British ship came up the river, so the yard remained intact. However, one fishing smack became so imbedded in the mud that it had to be abandoned.
In September 1813, fourteen men succeeded in escaping the Acasta aboard a patrol boat. Rowing across the sound, they made landfall in Stonington, were they were warmly received, and had breakfast at York's Tavern. After selling the escape vessel, the men headed for New London and quickly became a part of the community.
On December 12, 1813, Decatur attempted to escape the blockade, but was unsuccessful. He believed he had been betrayed by blue signal lights from both shores, and made no further attempt to escape. The boats remained in Gale's Ferry for the rest of the war, although Decatur, and many of the men, left by land to return to the war. In May 1814 Decatur took command of the USS President.
In April 1814, an invading party of British marines and sailors rowed up the Connecticut River, landing at the bottom of Main Street in Essex at 4:00 a.m. There they destroyed 28 vessels, with an estimated value of $200,000,and seized not only the town's supplies of rope, but, reportedly, $100,000 worth of rum. A company of militia were dispatched from New London, but proved unnecessary.
By August 1814, Hardy was under orders from Admiral Cochrane to destroy the towns along the New England coast. The Ramillies arrived off the shore of Stonington on August 9, joined by the 44-gun HMS Pactolus, the bombship HMS Terror, the 22-gun brig HMS Dispatch, and several smaller craft. Anchored two miles off shore, Hardy sent a warning to the selectman:"Not wishing to destroy the unoffending inhabitants residing in the town of Stonington, one hour is granted them from the receipt of this to remove out of the town." Persuaded that Hardy intended to destroy the borough, the selectmen responded:"We shall defend the place to the last extremity; should it be destroyed, we will perish in its ruins!" The borough was quickly emptied of women, children, and all those too infirm to fight, and the British began shelling the village. General Cushing, the United States commander of the district, believed the attack was a feint to cover a real attack on Fort Griswold, which would make Decatur’s squadron vulnerable to seizure. Working with Williams, he dispersed the militia to Stonington, to the head of the Mystic River (in case the enemy landed there), to Fort Trumbull, and to a point on the Thames above the squadron. The bombardment continued through 4:00 p.m. on August 12th, when the British withdrew. Not one resident of Stonington had been killed in the assault, although there were injuries. Forty buildings were damaged, and a few destroyed.
Peace was declared on February 21, 1815, and New London celebrated by lighting up the city. A "peace ball" was held in the newly rebuilt courthouse (which replaced the one burned in the Revolution), and the British officers were welcomed as guests.