Vicki Miorelli: Call Her Captain
This could be a Final Jeopardy question, and Vickie Miorelli would know the answer:
Q: The biggest United States maritime loss before Pearl Harbor?
A: What is the Burning of the Ships?
On April 7 and 8, 1814, in an engagement that was part of the War of 1812, British raiding party rowed up the Connecticut River and torched some 27 ships anchored off Essex, then known as Pettipaug.
Vickie is the drum major of the Sailing Masters of 1812, the Essex-based fife and drum corps that organizes the annual parade commemorating the Burning of the Ships, this year on Saturday, May 14. The line of march, headed by the Sailing Masters, steps off at 2 p.m. from Essex Town Hall down Main Street to the Connecticut River Museum. The parade also showcases a number of other fife and drum corps, including Stony Creek, Chester, Ancient Mariners Connecticut, the Colonial Navy of Massachusetts, and the Silver Dolphins from Submarine Base in Groton.
“We’re not celebrating the burning; we are keeping the story alive. We are trying to bring a sense of the history of this area,” Vicki says. “The War of 1812 was really our second war of independence, and it’s become a forgotten war. We teach the history to all the members of the [fife and drum] corps.”
She explains the ships burnt in Essex were privateers, privately owned vessels with government authorization, that preyed on both British merchant and Royal Navy vessels.
The Sailing Masters started the parade in 1968; the group itself dates from 1963 and grew from and earlier organization, the Essex Fife and Drum Corps. The uniform the Sailing Masters wear is that of a third officer, or sailing master, during the War of 1812. The sailing master, Vicki explains, was charged with navigating the ship safely through battle.
As drum major or captain of the corps, Vicki’s uniform has extra buttons and epaulettes, gold braid on the hat and tassels on her boots, and, most important, she carries a sword (rather than the mace used by most drum majors) to signal directions to the fifers and drummers marching behind her.
Sometimes a youngster will call out, “Look, a lady with a sword,” she says. “It tickles my heart.”
What does not tickle her heart is when instead of drum major, someone calls her a drum majorette.
“That has happened. I tell them I am not a drum majorette. I am a captain,” she says.
Vicki says she can hardly remember when fife and drum was not part of her life growing up on Maple Street in Chester. Her mother, Joyce Aley, was active in civic affairs and served as town tax collector from 1988 to 2009.
She started out with the Chester Fife and Drum Corps “off and on” when she was eight years old; then when she moved to Westbrook, she joined the Westbrook Drum Corps.
Vicki has been a member of the Sailing Masters for 36 years, first playing the fife, and as drum major for the last nine years. She is named to the position annually by the group’s board.
“It is a complete honor to be out in front,” Vicki says, adding, “It is the corps that makes me look good.”
The corps, Vicki emphasizes, welcomes new members. They do not have to be musicians or even to have played an instrument before. The group gives lessons on both fife and drum.
“People tell me they are not musical, and they couldn’t do it. I tell them we have people who said the same thing and they are now in the corps,” she says. “There is no secret to playing. You can do it if you are 10 years old; you can do it if you are 70 years old,”
For those who want to be a part of the corps without playing, there is also the color guard that marches in front of the musicians.
In addition to the Burning of the Ships parade, the Sailing Masters group participates in local musters in Westbrook and Deep River and has also traveled to events in Maine and Plattsburgh, New York, to commemorate the Battle of Plattsburgh (also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain-1814). In that battle, American troops defeated a British force attempting an invasion from Canada.
“If the British had won, we would all be speaking the Queen’s English and taxing tea,” Vicki says.
When she goes to musters in her small camper, Vicki brings something that is not usually a part of such a vehicle’s furnishings: a small spinning wheel. She is both a spinner and a weaver. She bought her first loom 15 years ago. She now has three along with five spinning wheels and more hand spindles than she wants to count.
She is also an avid amateur photographer.
“It’s something I always wanted to do, ever since I was a child,” she says.
In addition, Vicki has a monthly radio program on iCRVRadio on fife and drum music.
“It’s about the continuity of American martial music,” she says. “Fife and drum music was here before the American Revolution. It’s part of the fabric of American life.”
The Burning of the Ships
The Sailing Masters of 1812 hosts the annual parade commemorating The Burning of the Ships on Saturday, May 14, at 2 p.m. on Main Street, Essex. To inquire about joining the Sailing Masters, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the Sailing Masters of 1812 Facebook page.