Essex — One of the least-known maritime disasters in U.S. history came to life Saturday afternoon during the annual Burning of the Ships celebration at which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said a few words, history aficionados wore period costumes and more than a dozen fife and drum corps marched a mile in 70-degree weather.
"Any town that would celebrate the worst day in its history is a town with a lot of confidence," First Selectman Norman Needleman said.
Malloy, the first sitting governor to attend the annual Burning of the Ships Parade, told 300 onlookers congregating at the foot of Main Street that the War of 1812 proved key to cementing America's once-fragile union.
The Revolution, he said, may have forged a nation, thanks partly to Connecticut's role churning out needed materials as the "provision state." But the War of 1812 may have saved it, he said, bringing the nation together in its opposition to British imperialism.
And it was the destruction or capture of 27 U.S. ships in Essex Harbor during a nighttime raid in April 1814 — the largest American maritime loss until Pearl Harbor more than a century later — that helped galvanize opposition to the British. Some of the ships were owned by privateers, who preyed upon British shipping off America's coast.
"It's not what battles you lose," Malloy reminded the crowd. "It's if you win the war. And we did. Twice."
Malloy's speech in front of the Connecticut River Museum overlooking the historic battle site came just a few weeks after the state Historic Preservation Council designated parts of Essex Village as the "British Raid on Essex Battle Site District." The area includes the Griswold Inn and nearly two dozen historic homes, some of which reputedly still have bullet holes as remnants of the raid.
Officials from the Connecticut River Museum, whose property overlooks the harbor that housed the doomed vessels and who fought for the state designation, are now hoping the area receives national recognition as a historic battle site.
"The governor being here, I'm hoping, goes a long way toward highlighting the importance of the history of Connecticut," said Donna Kirk of East Hampton, a member of Free Men of the Sea, a Connecticut organization that provided a historic display of items ranging from tea cups to military gear.
The next three years are being celebrated as part of the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, which was highlighted by the British burning of Washington, D.C., just five months after the Essex disaster.
The Burning of the Ships Parade has been celebrated by Essex for nearly half a century. Sponsored by the Sailing Masters of 1812, the parade featured 14 fife and drum corps this year. Other events included a community rowing competition, an exhibit at the museum, period re-enactors and the annual Regency Ball.
Alan Preliasco of Marlborough, Mass., and Britt Goodman of Southbury were among a group of people dressed in costume enjoying the muster of fife and drum corps, several of which trace their lineage back to the 1800s.
"This town is just so awesome," Preliasco said.