A Battle of Defiance

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Great Britain even though Britain had far more ships, cannon, sailors, and soldiers than America. At that time Britain and France were locked in prolonged and deadly combat in the Napoleonic wars, with each of those countries blockading American shipments to the other country. As a result, American trade was suffering greatly. In addition, the British had been impressing American sailors into the British navy as a means to maintain its forces. It is estimated that up to 10,000 Americans were forced to serve some time in the British Navy, including the hero of the Battle of Stonington, Jeremiah Holmes. The war lasted into 1815.

On the evening of August 9, 1814, a powerful British naval squadron under the command of Captain Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy began bombarding the settlement at Stonington Point. Hardy’s squadron consisted of the Pactolus, 38 guns, the Dispatch, a 22-gun brig, and the mortar-arms bombship Terror. On August 10th, the squadron was increased with the arrival of Hardy’s flagship Ramillies, 74 guns, and the brig Nimrod. Stonington had a total of 3 cannon – two 18 pounders and one 6 pounder. Although August 10th was a turning point in favor of Stonington’s defenders, British bombardment continued intermittently through August 12th, when the British left having been unsuccessful in their attempts to land ashore. The British departure was an occasion for celebration by Stonington and its neighbors and has been celebrated in August nearly every year since 1815.

Some facts about the Battle of Stonington:

  • The British possessed 160 cannons and had approximately 1,275 men
  • Of the 100-120 buildings in the Borough at the time, 40 were damaged
  • It was estimated at the time that total damage to property was valued at $3,500
  • Of the Borough’s 750 inhabitants, three died during the attack of natural causes; no-one was killed by the British
  • One horse and two other farm animals were killed
  • One man was blinded during the attack and one died several months later from an infected wound
  • A total of 21 Brits were killed; 50 wounded
  • Approximately 50 tons of metal were hurled into the Borough by the British

Niles Weekly Register published the poem “The Battle of Stonington” – September 1814:

“The Ramillies gave up the fray

And with her comrades sneaked away

Such was the valor of the day

Of the British tars at Stonington.”

Yet how was it that Stonington suffered such minimal losses?

James Tertius de Kay, in the first chapter of his book The Battle of Stonington*, also wonders:

It is tempting to shrug off the battle as an irrelevance, just a case of King George’s men bumping into furniture. After all, such inexplicable encounters happen all the time in combat and are the common currency of war. Yet questions remain.

For instance, what prompted the attack? It was totally unexpected and completely unprovoked. There was no sound military reason for it. From the outset, the attack was clearly defined as a punitive action designed to destroy civilian property. The British commander, Captain Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy, said afterward that he believed Stonington manufactured torpedoes, but he never produced a scintilla of evidence to back up his claim, which was in fact untrue.

Just as puzzling as the British attack was the American response to it. What made the Yankees so preposterously brave? What could have possessed the villagers to think they had the means to fight back against such odds? Why such foolhardy courage?

Most puzzling of all is the ineffective nature of the attack. Why was there so little damage to the village? Five powerful vessels participated in the action, manned by veteran crews and commanded by some of the best naval officers in the world, a total of roughly 1500 men against perhaps twenty civilians. How could the British possibly lose?

What do YOU think?

*c1990 Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland

The 1814 Battle of Stonington is Being Rediscovered in 2019 with a Battlefield Protection Program Grant from the National Park Service

In 2018, with a grant from the National Park Service’s Battlefield Protection Program, the Stonington Historical Society will be creating new GIS maps of the battlefield and conducting archaeological research, both on land and underwater, in hopes of discovering artifacts from the Battle. Our findings will be integrated in a new Battle of Stonington Exhibit at the Old Lighthouse Museum.

Significant Events
  • June 18, 1812 – the United States declared war on Great Britain
  • August 9, 1814 – the bombardment of Stonington began
  • August 13, 1814 – British Warships depart Stonington
Historical Footnote

Thomas Barrett Powers, British Midshipman, perished in the Battle of Stonington and is buried in the Stonington Cemetery.