Published June 28. 2012 4:00AM Updated June 28. 2012 4:58PM
Two old cannons, hidden away in a shed, defended the village in an 1814 British attack
Stonington - For the past 198 years, the Battle of Stonington never has been far from the minds of borough residents.
The two large cannons used to repel British Navy forces during four days in August 1814 sit in Cannon Square, their muzzles pointed south toward Stonington Point. Several of the British shells that tore through village homes and set them ablaze now sit atop small granite pedestals in front of a home on Main Street and in front of the Stonington Free Library.
Artifacts from the battle, such as British cannonballs that lodged in the walls of homes and the muster roll of defenders, are displayed in the Old Lighthouse Museum. The most prized artifact of them all, the 16-stars-and-stripes flag that the defenders flew during the battle, is kept in a climate-controlled room at the Stonington Historical Society after being displayed for years in the bank next to Cannon Square.
Those who stroll along the public walkway at the southern end of Stonington Commons may see a bronze plaque affixed to the side of the former mill complex that marks the spot of the small fort used in the battle. A granite monument at Stonington Point marks the spot where villagers moved a cannon to fire 18-pound balls on the four British ships.
While the battle was not strategically important, from an emotional and psychological standpoint it was vital, according to local author James Tertius deKay, author of "The Battle of Stonington: Torpedoes, Submarines and Rockets in the War of 1812."
"America at the time was having trouble with the war. Things were not going well," he said. "But suddenly this tiny little town of Stonington was victorious and sent the British Navy away with its tail between its legs. For a couple or three weeks, Stonington was the biggest news in America."
What makes the story even bigger is that this small group of defenders repelled a force led by famed Capt. Thomas Hardy, who was Adm. Horatio Nelson's flag captain at all of his great naval victories.
DeKay said that Hardy and the British had made a mistake in underestimating the tenacity of the people of Stonington.
In 1775, just before the start of the Revolutionary War, the British ship HMS Rose attacked Stonington in search of food. Residents refused to let crew members land. They pulled out two cannons and fired on the Rose, forcing it to leave. The residents then celebrated the anniversary of the event over the coming years.
"Stonington was very proud of the fact they fought off the British in 1775. And when the British came back in 1814 to do the same thing, they wouldn't allow it either," deKay said.
The British did not know that the residents still had those two cannons hidden away in a shed near what is now the Stonington Free Library. If needed, they could be pulled by horse or oxen down to the small fort, which actually was a 4-foot-high semi-circle that protected the men firing the cannon.
"You'd probably pass by it without noticing it, but it did protect the harbor," deKay said.
Those cannons, as well as a smaller one, eventually would inflict a great deal of damage on the British ships.
Also working in the defenders' favor was Jeremiah Holmes, who had been forced into service by the Royal Navy for three years before he escaped. While with the British, he became an expert cannoneer.
"So now he was given the chance to attack the very Navy that had pressed him into service, and he was delighted by it," deKay said.
Hardy had been given orders to attack communities along the East Coast as a way to turn the Americans' attention back home from Canada, which the British feared the Americans would take. For various reasons, Hardy ruled out other nearby towns such as New London, Mystic, Saybrook and Sag Harbor, N.Y., and so by default, as deKay writes in his book, Stonington became the target.
Stonington decides to fight
On Aug. 9, 1814, at about 3 p.m., four British ships came into view from Fishers Island Sound, stopping off Stonington Point. By 5 p.m. Hardy had sent a written message, which was exchanged between two rowboats offshore, that residents had one hour to leave as he did not want to "destroy the unoffending inhabitants residing in the Town of Stonington."
When the message was read to the crowd onshore, the residents agreed they would fight, and the British rowboat carried the message back to Hardy.
At 8 p.m., the bomb ship Terror began firing 130-pound incendiary shells on the village. It also fired rockets and cannonballs, the latter of which tore through wooden structures. Over the next three days, the Americans fired the two cannons and did much damage to the brig Dispatch, which was about a quarter mile offshore. Another of the ships, the frigate Pactolus, got stuck in shallow water off Sandy Point and had to unload cannonballs and shot in order to float free. Residents later salvaged the items and sold them in New York City.
The largest of the warships, the 74-gun Ramillies, remained two miles offshore, out of range of the American cannons, deKay said.
The two sides intermittently fired back and forth with periods of heavy bombardment by the British.
Two British sailors were killed and many more were wounded. One defender died several weeks later from complications from an injury he suffered in the battle.
At one point, the cannons were moved from the fort to Stonington Point, where they could fire at British Marines trying to land on the east side of the borough.
The shells from the Terror, which spewed a trail of fire and sparks as they arced over the borough, started fires that were extinguished quickly by fire crews. While about half the 120 structures in the borough were hit, only about 15 sustained serious damage. None was destroyed.
On the morning of Aug. 13, the British ships headed off into Fishers Island Sound.
"The British definitely bit off more than they could chew," deKay said.
He described Hardy as a classy commander who did not want to leave a legacy of having destroyed a tiny American town and its group of brave defenders.
"That's why he was looking for a way out without being embarrassed," deKay said, adding that because of Hardy's stellar reputation, none of his superiors questioned him about the Stonington incident.
In 1840, the U.S. government decided to take the two cannons away. The town was up in arms and refused to relinquish them.
"They wouldn't allow it, just like they wouldn't allow the British to push them around," deKay said.