More than two centuries ago, the livelihood of the Town of Essex and its residents was dealt a huge blow when the British burned nearly 30 ships in the harbor and surrounding areas. The event and its effects on the area are commemorated on Saturday, May 13 from 1 to 4 p.m. with the Burning of the Ships, which has been co-hosted by the Connecticut River Museum (CRM) and the Sailing Masters of 1812.
“It’s a community experience that the museum and the Sailing Masters do to celebrate Essex history and provide a fun opportunity for education,” said Jennifer White-Dobbs, director of education at the CRM. “People find it fascinating that a particularly dramatic event like that happened right where they’re standing.”
The History Behind Burning of the Ships Day
While the British raid on Essex is not noted in many history books, White-Dobbs stressed its importance to local history. During the War of 1812, private merchant vessels signed contracts to become part of the Connecticut Privateer Fleet (CPF), which allowed them to arm their boats and engage with British ships. Any ships that were beaten were brought to the nearest Connecticut port where the ship and its belongings were auctioned off and the CPF captain and crew that brought in the boat received a portion.
“This was a potentially lucrative side job for Connecticut merchants, whose regular trading and merchant business had been seriously disrupted by the War of 1812,” said White-Dobbs. “They did it to make a statement and make some money. They were very successful as they were excellent sailors and they knew coastal waters very well.”
The CPF proved to be successful in its mission, disrupting the efforts of the British Navy along the coast. In response in April 1814, after learning that Essex Harbor was a significant site for the CPF vessels, a company of British Royal Marines sailed up the river on long boats. The townspeople of Essex met the soldiers at the riverfront and, knowing they were “outmanned and outgunned,” according to Dobbs-White, there was no way to engage with the soldiers.
The British then proceeded to burn all of the ships moored in the harbor and being built around town. They commandeered two ships, but ran them aground in attempting to navigate the shallow waters near Knot Island. They set them ablaze, as well.
The American forces attempted to set up canons to attack the British on their way down the river. Two British soldiers were killed and several were injured, but as the long boats waited until nightfall, many of them were able to sneak past.
“This really destroyed the privateer fleet in this part of Connecticut. It was a huge loss of ships and a huge loss of investment and it hit the region very, very hard,” said White-Dobbs. “This was a huge event that impacted a vast number of lives and the local economy.”
Burning of the Ships Day 2017
Because of the local historical significance of the event, Essex’s Sailing Masters of 1812 began hosting a parade to commemorate the event. The group leads the parade down Main Street from Essex Town Hall beginning at 2 p.m. Essex’s Fife and Drum Corps also performs throughout the parade.
The parade ends at the CRM where the British landed more than 200 years ago. At the museum, the story will be retold and there will be several speeches. There are also several activities and programs planned throughout the afternoon. The events on the grounds of the museum are free, but standard museum admission applies for entrance to the CRM.
The Free Men of the Sea, a group of historic re-enactors, will set up an encampment on the lawn with demonstrations and explaining what it was like to live during the time of the War of 1812 as well as the tools and skills needed to be a ship builder.
“Visitors can take a step back in history during the course of the day,” said Dobbs-White. “Even though it’s not a glorious victory on the part of Essex, it’s part of history and it’s a memory that needs to be maintained and remembered. It’s a local story and reminds us you don’t have to go to those big locations like Gettysburg to learn about the people of the past and events that shaped communities and people’s lives.”
Each year the event draws hundreds of people to enjoy the parade and learn about the local history. Visitors can also enjoy other activities in downtown Essex as the Essex Garden Club May Market is from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Town Park and the downtown shops and restaurants are open.
“You can get plants in the morning and history in the afternoon—there are a lot of things happening in Essex Village all day,” said White-Dobbs. “All the shops and restaurants will be open so come and enjoy everything that the village has to offer.”