I was in a little town on the eastern shore of Maryland called St. Michaels a few summers ago. It’s a summer resort, much like here, overlaid on a classic old English colonial town dating back to the 1600s. There’s a busy harbor with boats. A shallow beach. It reminded me much of Sag Harbor, although there was never whaling out of St. Michaels.
One of the things that amused me about the town concerned their reverence of a battle held there during the War of 1812. It was their only battle. It didn’t go well. But in the end, they did drive the British off. The town motto is “The Town that Fooled the British,” and it celebrates the townspeople going into hiding in the woods and a thing with lanterns that resulted in the British fleet firing cannonballs into the trees instead of the town, and it did appear to be a rather shameful thing to be so proud of, but they were.
Here in Sag Harbor, of course, we have a much more heroic battle to be proud of. It took place during the second year of the Revolutionary War and it’s just such a classic. It involved 170 brave Long Island patriots, forced to flee Long Island after the British won the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn, and they were now under the command of Colonel Return Jonathan Meigs, who in the middle of the night of May 24, 1777 rowed with his men across Noyack Bay and surprised some British redcoats asleep on Long Wharf. After a gunfight, the rebels routed the British, burned their boats docked there, their warehouse filled with ammunition and stores, took 90 redcoats prisoner and led them back to Connecticut the way they came.
Here in Sag Harbor, we have our own slogan, “Meigs’ Raid,” to let visitors know of this brave battle. And on occasion, the town has hosted the Huntington Militia, which re-enacts Meigs’ Raid complete with patriots, redcoats, cannons and muskets all firing blanks and scaring all the dogs in town.
Certainly in the scheme of things, our battle here in Sag Harbor is far more patriotic and military than what happened in St. Michaels. There, the British hoped to invade by sea, bringing soldiers ashore. As it happened, the townspeople were tipped off six hours ahead of time. They extinguished all lights in their houses in town and tiptoed off into the woods to the south to safety. At the same time, they brought their fishing boats to a small wharf to the north of town. There, they hoisted 20 lanterns up to the tops of the masts, and a further 20 to the tops of the trees in the woods behind the shore. They wanted to make the British think the town was up there in the North, set back from the shore. They wanted the British to fire their cannonballs over the heads of the ships and into the trees. And that’s exactly what happened.
Also what happened was that on the Town Wharf, a General Benson set up a defensive force consisting of a cannon and the Talbot County Militia, but when the British began firing, they all fled, except for the General. He fired off one shot, and then also fled. After that, the British didn’t know what to do, so they withdrew their ships. Battle over. What a bunch of bozos.
About a month ago, I came upon the journal of an 18 year old Sag Harbor man who participated in Meigs’ Raid. I didn’t come upon the journal itself, actually—that journal is in the Smithsonian—but I did come upon it online where the Smithsonian posted it. (www.americanrevolution.org). I wrote about it back in June in this newspaper and even suggested the town erect a statue of this brave young man, Christopher Vail. A local boy working as a rope maker’s apprentice when the war broke out, he’d enlisted and participated in half a dozen other actions besides Meigs’ Raid.
What he writes in the journal follows the commonly known script until the raiding party gets to Sag Harbor.
Christopher Vail, in New Haven, volunteers for this action by joining the militia of William Wines of Saybrook and then getting assigned to Colonel Meigs. They row down the river and out into Long Island Sound and in about 10 hours cross the Sound to bring their rowboats up onto the shore at Bailey’s Beach in Southold around 11 p.m. The North Fork peninsula is very narrow here. The boats are carried across the spit of land then re-launched into Peconic Bay. Four hours later, the boats are pulled up onto the sand at Long Beach four miles to the west of downtown Sag Harbor. And from there, the men leave the boats and march quietly into town, breaking up into three groups to surround the British encampment on the wharf, and commenced to surround Long Wharf. What they find there is not pretty. I will paraphrase from the diary, elaborating in places where Vail’s notes are sketchy and in need of explanation.
“The information we were given was that the British force numbered about 40 and were at Long Wharf and 70 at their earthwork fort on Meeting House Hill, with 12 coasting vessels protected by an armed schooner with 12 guns. The soldiers had been there for a month, harassing the local citizenry and forcing them to give them foodstuffs and clothing and other things the main British force might need. On the night of our arrival, they had just completed the 30 days and had got the job done. They were in a celebratory mood. All the coasting boats were loaded up. First thing in the morning, they’d be heading out.
“Just before we got there, they had all gotten drunk with rum, had engaged in a sham fight where some of them played the part of ‘rebels’ while others were ‘redcoats’ and they plugged their muskets with wooden flints so nothing would go off. Then, happy and exhausted, they simply fell asleep where they lay down half in and out of their uniforms.
“One of their number had been sent off before the party started to arrange things in Southampton for the following day. After the coastal vessels all loaded up with the stuff left Long Wharf for the fleet offshore early in the morning, they intended to march west, reaching Southampton by midday where they would need to have a good dinner and a place to stay for the night. Morning never came. Before morning, they got us.”
Here is the exact wording used by Christopher Vail to describe the “battle” that followed.
“We proceeded down (Main Street) to their quarters where we completely succeeded in capturing the whole force except that one man. We burnt all the coasting vessels which was all loaded and laid alongside the wharf and a store that was 60 feet long that stood on the wharf. It so happened that they had completed all their business at this place and the afternoon before they had received a months pay and had a sham fight and damned the Yankies and wished them to come over for there never was a better time….They remained went to drinking &c, and all got pretty well boozey. When we arrived, we took ninety nine Tories. Some had nothing but his shirt on, some a pair of trowsers others perhaps 1 stocking and one shoe and in fact they were carried off in their situation to New Haven and none escaped except the armed brig which was anchored off and the men spoken of above. The whole of the time our troops was there the brig was firing broadsides in every direction. We returned back to New Haven in about 60 hours with our gentry where they were all deposited in the town gaol.”
So that was it. On their return to Connecticut, Christopher Vail was discharged from that militia and then went to New London where he signed up to be on the crew of the Continental Schooner Miflin, whose captain was John Kerr. And so, he was, along with this crew, off to sea, to harass British shipping as best they could, but that’s a whole other story.
St. Charles fooled the British?
Sag Harbor rounded up a bunch of drunks. It was a sloppy business, but it sure beat out hiding in the woods or running for cover.
Here’s a slogan. “They Caught the British with Their Pants Down.”