The Battle of Stonington

You are waking up and thinking only three days until the Grouse shooting opens, but 9th August is a significant anniversary and guest blogger, Edward (Ned) York returns to inform us of something not routinely on the History syllabus this side of the pond.  

Nelson’s Hardy and the Battle of Stonington

It is our ritual that each night the last words from my dear English wife’s lips are “Kiss me, Hardy.”

“Kiss me, Hardy” has become such a catchphrase since October 21, 1805 that to this day it is still known to every school child in Britain. Yet few can recount Hardy’s exploits beyond that of answering Lord Nelson’s plaintive request—so fraught with drama, heartbreak and mystery—and of his service as Nelson’s flag captain at the Battle of Trafalgar, or the earlier Battle of the Nile (1798). Even fewer know about Commodore Hardy’s bold and daring feats aboard the HMS Ramillies during the American War of 1812. And, it seems that only the Yankees now remember the Battle of Stonington (August 9 to August 12, 1814) in which Hardy’s fleet bombarded the stubborn New England townspeople who bravely withstood the onslaught of his ships’ cannons.

I grew up on the Connecticut coast in the Borough of Stonington which is steeped in the celebratory history of the conflict with the British. When I was courting my wife and introducing her to my life in America, I took great pleasure in showing her the cannons that were used to ward off the British in the battle and which now rest on prominent display in one of the town’s squares.

While historians continue to argue about the events leading up to the War of 1812, the most probable casus belli was the hurt pride and self-respect of the nascent country. What tipped American public opinion against the British was the matter of impressment (press gangs). When Britain went to war with the French in 1805, thousands of British seamen bolted royal ships and made their way to American vessels. The British, desperate to find crews to man her fleet, refused to recognize the naturalization of her former citizens, claiming that a British citizen remained a British subject until he died, and therefore, owed service to his king and country in times of war. The need for manpower became more acute as the Napoleonic Wars with France raged on. As a result, British naval officers began boarding U.S. vessels to gang press both American born and British naturalized Americans.

The United States declared war on the British on June 18, 1812. Commodore Hardy, then serving in nearby Canada, was assigned the responsibility of securing and blockading the two entrances to New York City—the first gateway was at the mouth of the harbor which opened to the south of the city and the second access, to the east, was from Long Island Sound.

As the war escalated, a new and terrible weapon was introduced: a very primitive form of torpedo. Some scholars believe that Hardy ordered the attack on the tiny seaport of Stonington because he suspected the townspeople were behind numerous attempts to torpedo his ships off the end of Long Island.

In the summer of 1814 a squadron of Royal Navy ships anchored off Stonington and declared its intention of destroying the town. Over the next four days the British barraged the civilian population with some fifty tons of explosives. Although limited in their armament to only two 18-pound cannons, the Yankees inflicted far more damage than the four ships under Hardy’s command did to the Americans—21 British men were killed and more than 50 wounded. In addition, the damage to Hardy’s ships and landing barges was severe. On the 12th of August, Hardy withdrew his forces. Reports of the Battle of Stonington in newspapers throughout the nation proved to be a resounding inspiration to the young country.

Roughly 20,000 on all sides died fighting the War of 1812 compared with over 3.5 million in the Napoleonic Wars. But the brevity with which the war has been treated in history has allowed a persistent myth to grow about British ignorance of it. In the 19th century, historian William Kingsford commented, “The events of the War of 1812 have not been forgotten in England for they have never been known there.” In the last century, another historian remarked that the War of 1812 is “an episode in history that makes everybody happy, because everybody interprets it differently…the English are happiest of all, because they don’t even know it happened.”

One thought on “The Battle of Stonington”

  1. A well-argued essay. I was persuaded by DeKay’s argument that the attack was a punitive action rather than a hunt for torpedoes. It’s interesting to imagine the English ships instead of the breakwaters that guard Stonington now.

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