British Attack on Potapaug:  Was There a 'Turncoat' Among Us?

From Essex Events, Spring 1997
    "It is an unusual event when a parade is held to commemorate a defeat or loss, but such is the case locally.  In May, The Sailing Masters of 1812 lead a parade that, in effect, celebrates a rather disastrous defeat at the hands of the British Navy.  It might be helpful to give a short history of what happened during that momentous event and how it affected the local population.
    "In the early morning of April 8, 1814, at approximately 4 a.m., five English oared boats carrying a total of 136 sailors and marines, plus an American guide, landed at the foot of what is now Main Street.
    "They were from British ships that were anchored at the mouth of the Connecticut River.  These people quickly commandeered the town, and in a very efficient manner destroyed (by burning) the fleet of ships throughout the harbor.  Many of these vessels were in the process of being built, and included the famous "Black Prince," a schooner outfitted by Captain Richard Hayden as an 18 gun Privateer.  As a matter of fact, there were four other ships of the same definition "on the stock," all the more reason for the British interest.  In less than six hours, the sailors had completed their task, destroying 26 ships with a value of close to $200,000.  It is obvious they knew exactly where to go, for destruction was rampant not only among the immediate river shoreline, but in North and Falls River Coves as well.
    "They were guided by the American "turncoat."  For example, the famous 400 ton ship "Osage" was under construction at the Samuel Williams Shipyard on the north bank of Falls River Cove, where it was finally burned, after desperate attempts by the locals to save it by launching.
    "At the conclusion of their work, around 11 a.m., the British force left Potapaug (name of Essex prior to it being called Essex Borough in 1820), taking the two ships they did not burn with them, the "Black Prince" and a schooner named "Eagle."  Subsequent attacks upon the British by the Lyme and Killingworth militia forced them to also burn these two ships and they then beat a hasty retreat to their home ships.  Two sailors were killed, and one wounded, by the American force.

    *****There Was no Local Resistance*****

    "Certain questions have risen about this event, which for some unknown reason has been largely ignored by history books.  It was, after all, the greatest financial loss suffered by the American side during the War of 1812.  Why was there no real resistance by the Potapaug Militia, either during the initial attack, or during the British retreat?  The head of this force lived in a home on the lefthand side of Main Street, close to the shore which is the site of the current Spooner homestead.
    "There is strong suspicion that he agreed not to oppose the raiding force, in return for their promise not to harm homes or residents.  Recently uncovered minutes of the local Masonic Lodge add greatly to this speculation for George Jewett, the Militia commander, was also Master of the Lodge.  Captain Richard Coote, the person in command of the British, who had apparently spared the ships of one Judea Pratt of New City Street, due to Masonic influence, could undoubtedly have "cut a similar deal" with fellow Freemason Jewett.

    *****Identity of the "Turncoat"*****

    "The other big question centers on the identity of the American "Spy" or "Turncoat" who guided the British.  Jeremiah Glover, who lived on South Main Street (current Essex Village at South Cove rest home), had his boat spared from British destruction and actually was with the attackers as they retreated down the river.  He was ultimately deposited on Fishers Island.
    "Was he the guilty party?  There is no definite proof, and he was essentially exonerated by local officials, but the suspicion remains, as do suspicions concerning the whole affair.  The Essex people were strangely quiet about the attack which remains one of the momentous military events in the history of our state.
    "In any case, a stinging defeat was suffered by our side on that early April day.  Perhaps the whole story will someday be revealed.  A fine pamphlet by Russell Anderson and Albert Dock, entitled The British Raid On Essex, published in 1981 by the Essex Historical Society, gives a great view of this attack, especially from a British standpoint.  Many of the facts in this article came from that source."

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