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Notes for Samuel Boyer DAVIS

When the British bombarded Lewes in the War of 1812, they weren’t aiming for the residents. They were targeting the residents’ pockets.
B y P a m G e o r g e
Local history and folklore surrounding the British bombardment of Lewes in April 1813 is frequently sprinkled with a healthy dose of sarcasm. The British with all their power had such little effect on Lewes that “the commodore and all his men, injured a pig and killed a hen,” according to a poem. In another version, “The Commander and all his men/Shot a dog and killed a hen.” In yet another, the British shot a duck and crippled a hen.

Livestock aside, the event was treated with some scorn even shortly after it occurred. Michael Morgan included in his book “Pirates and Patriots: Tales of the Delaware Coast” a report from an unnamed newspaper (likely the Nile’s Register) that reads, “The people of Lewestown are making themselves quite merry for the late bombardment of that place. They enumerate their killed and wounded as follows: one chicken killed, one pig wounded — leg broken. It was a ridiculous affair on the part of the enemy. We have nothing new from this quarter except that Sir John Beresford has captured five oyster boats and, after a severe engagement, caused these whole cargoes to be devoured.”

Despite the bravado, the mention of the British commander’s successful capture of the oyster boats proves that there were indeed damages that went beyond farm animals. The oyster boats represented a livelihood that the British were successfully attacking with raids up and down the Delaware River, and the bombardment added property damages to the equation. Placed into the big picture, the bombardment wasn’t all the stuff of nursery rhymes.

“I think there’s more to it than a dead chicken,” agrees Chuck Fithian, curator of archaeology for Delaware’s Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. The cocksure response to the bombing comes from American political doggerel at the time, he adds. “The American papers are not going to say that the British came here and really kicked our butts.”

The casualties were not the residents. Instead, they were the industries that supported those residents. Although the bombardment was a col- orful event that made for good storytelling, it was, in fact, part of a larger — and effective — effort to wage war on the American economy, one that Lewes in many ways encapsulated.

Economic warfare

By the early 19th century, the Delaware Bay, the Delaware River and their tributaries were major commercial highways to and from New Castle, Wilmington, Camden, Philadelphia and Trenton.

The traffic was particularly heavy after the American Revolution. The United States had earned its independence from Britain’s government, yet it was still heavily dependent on Britain for imports. When the Faithful Steward went down near the Indian River Inlet in 1785, it carried barrels full of coins that the United States needed for currency since it lacked its own mints.

Poised at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, Lewes was a popular stopping point, both to unload and load supplies and to gain the assistance of the commercial pilots, who navigated the ships through treacherous, shoal-laden waters off the Delaware coast. Lewes also had its own busy maritime-oriented industries, including fishing and shipbuilding.

Even before the Revolution, savvy U.S. shipping industrialists were making a boatload on the import-export business, and they were determined to protect their interests. Consider that the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, completed in 1767, was funded and owned by a group of wealthy Philadelphian merchants, who wanted to make access to their city safe. The lighthouse also acted as a road marker, pointing the way toward industry.

The shipping magnates paid well, and it was common for British sailors to join the U.S. operations. The British, in turn, took to boarding American ships at will to look for the turncoats, which gave them the opportunity to “impress” Americans into the British service, which meant forcing the sailors against their will. After all, back then Americans were easily mistaken for British, or so the British claimed.

In the early 19th century, the Napoleonic Wars between Britain and France spilled into American shipping, giving both European countries the opportunity to seize an enemy ship as a “prize,” even if that ship was not in the military. The practice forced merchant ships to gather together in convoys for a safety-in-numbers approach. In 1807, Congress enacted the Embargo Act, which closed U.S. ports to international trade. In 1809, Congress opted to only punish France and England with the Nonintercourse Act. That act also backfired. Trade ground to a halt, forcing the act’s repeal in 1810.

The problems persisted, and on June 18, 1812, President James Madison declared war on Britain due to that country’s continual interference with trade.

Known broadly as the War of 1812, even though it lasted until early 1815, the war has also been dubbed America’s Second War for Independence, as well as the Forgotten War, because so few Americans know much about it.

Chuck Fithian, however, is not one of them.

Bottled up tight

“The War of 1812 has interested me for a long time,” says Fithian, who’s been researching on his own Delaware’s involvement during that war. “I like the uniforms and the culture of the period. The events are interesting.”

The British, he says, knew the Chesapeake and Delaware bays were major economic arteries. “If you shut that down, people start feeling the tension on their wallet, and they put pressure on the government to end all this silliness.” The British were not interested in taking the land; they wanted to disrupt commerce, he maintains. It’s a fact that is often misunderstood and overlooked.

This was not the first time the British had sought to disrupt the economy. During the Revolutionary War, British ships blockaded the Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake Bay. The HMS Roebuck, a man-of-war, terrorized the area, hovering around the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, hunting blockade-runners and giving chase to American ships.

Local residents were defiant. Between 50 and 100 patriots manned stations between the lighthouse and the mouth of Lewestown Creek (today called the Lewes and Rehoboth Canal) to pester the British sailors who tried to fish off the local shore, writes Donald Shomette in “Shipwrecks, Sea Raiders, and Maritime Disasters along the Delmarva Coast 1632-2004.”

When the Roebuck’s foraging party wanted to buy cattle from the keeper of the Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, the keeper reportedly drove his herd into the woods and retorted that he would give the British “bullets instead of beef.” In response, the British burned the keeper’s quarters and the lighthouse’s wooden staircase, forcing the keeper to follow his herd into the woods. (Some accounts say the keeper made up the story to cover up for knocking over a lamp.)

At the onset of the War of 1812, the British again moved to blockade the river and bay, and by March 1813, they had effectively sealed off the entrance. “Nothing was moving,” Fithian says. “It was causing a lot of pressure and a significant amount of inflation.”

John P. Beresford was the British commander of the Poictiers, the Belvidere and some smaller vessels sailing around the Delaware Bay, looking for prey. But blockading, pillaging and chasing American sail was thirsty work. Like their Revolutionary War predecessors, the British sailors needed replenishments, and so they went calling on Lewes.

Refusal in the face of fire

On March 16, 1813, Beresford sent a letter to Lewes officials demanding 20 live bullocks with a proportionate amount of vegetables and hay, which he would pay for at Philadelphia prices. If they refused, he would “be under the necessity of destroying your town.” He had the good manners to sign that he was their obedient servant.

Knowing Lewes’s importance to the region, the local militia had already manned the town’s two earthwork fortifications with cannons. The effort was under the command of Col. Samuel Boyer Davis, son of John Samuel Davis and Elizabeth Boyer and the great grandson of Rev. Samuel Davis, the first preacher at the Lewes Presbyterian Church. Davis’s father, John, died during the Revolutionary War aboard a British prison ship in New York Harbor.

Clearly, Davis had no love for the British. When the war broke out, Davis returned to his hometown from New Orleans, where he’d amassed wealth under unknown circumstances, according to an article by Judith Atkins Roberts in the November 2001 Journal of the Lewes Historical Society. Davis and his family lived in the Fisher mansion on Pilottown Road during the war.

Between the date of the British demand and the actual bombardment, the townspeople had time to prepare for battle. Sussex residents came to the rescue. “There was a lot of militia in the town,” Fithian says. “The population swelled enormously.”

Davis wrote that he’d sent the women and children out of town, debunking the myth that women with cornstalks walked back and forth to make it look like they were militia with rifles up in the air. “Did he get everybody?” Fithian says of the women. “Probably not. But Sammy Boyer Davis was a regular U.S. Army officer. He was not going to be marching with cornstalks.”

The authorities refused to provide the supplies to the British. As promised, the ships assumed their bombardment positions. The bombing commenced on April 6 and lasted for 22 hours. For the first time, the British used the Congreve rocket, designed by Sir William Congreve in 1804. “It was an important technological development,” Fithian says. The rocket was used to illuminate as well as destroy, and its firework-like display would later help inspire Francis Scott Key’s “Star Spangled Banner.”

Fithian says those 22 hours represented a “hot engagement,” which counters the flip reference to hens and pigs. Some incoming cannonballs weighed as much as 32 pounds a piece. Davis’s letter to Gov. Joseph Haslet indicates that posts were blown off houses and chimneys were knocked down like bowling pins. One shot slammed into the door of Caleb Rodney’s store. Virginia Cullen wrote in the book “History of Lewes, Delaware: Birthplace of the First State” that residents picked up cannonballs from the attack and preserved them. With as many as 600 to 800 projectiles raining down on the town, there must have been plenty to choose from. Morgan writes that some cannonballs were gathered up and used against the British.

Did anyone actually die? “I don’t know,” Fithian says. “The event seems bloodless, but economically, it was not.”

The British ships, which incurred damages from return fire, withdrew on April 7. A letter from George Read to his father notes that the “British have drawn off and the Belvidere is outside the Capes; the Poictiers retains her original position.” He writes that he witnessed heavy firing on the New Jersey side of the bay, and concluded from the smoke that a vessel had been burned.

The letter also bemoans the lack of funds from the federal government for Delaware’s defense. Arms and equipment were provided, but no money. “If the General Government do not take the War on our coast off our shoulders our Treasury will be ruined by two months more of it,” Read says. The war waged on

Why did the British leave Lewes? Perhaps the need for provisions was too pressing. Or maybe they realized they were wasting firepower trying to reach the town, which benefited from the marsh, trees and swampland that helped hide it from the harbor.

The residents of Lewes may have won their battle, but the blockade continued until 1815, when the war ended. Small craft were still plundered and burned, and livelihoods were destroyed. It was not until several years after the war ended that the economy would show signs of improvement.

The war on the major fronts — the Atlantic, the coastal areas, the Great Lakes region and the Gulf of America — was a game of give and take, with only temporary success for any one party. Britain’s main focus was France, not the United States. No doubt the economy and the need to resume transatlantic trade helped spur the Treaty of Ghent on Dec. 24, 1814. (Not knowing about the peace negotiations, the British and Americans fought the Battle of New Orleans and the Battle of Fort Bowyer in early 1815.)

The bombardment earned little Lewes a feisty reputation that extended to its war hero, Samuel Boyer Davis. In 1837, Davis generated a scandal when he married his second wife. He was 72; she was 21. Davis died in 1854 after falling down the stairs in his Wilmington home. Roberts writes that there was a thunderstorm that day, and someone suggested that the storm was caused by Sam Davis arguing with St. Peter at the Pearly Gates. He is buried in the second lot of Brandywine Cemetery because he didn’t want to be buried “where the caretaker’s wife would throw out her slops.”

The war also gave Lewes two popular tourist attractions, the Cannonball House and the War of 1812 Park. Both salute the town’s courage in the face of the bombardment. Here, at least, the Forgotten War will always be remembered. •

A frequent contributor to Delaware Beach Life, Pam George often writes on local maritime history, and she recently completed her first book, “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,”

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