Essex - When Jerry Roberts, a maritime historian with a penchant for storytelling, became executive director of the Connecticut River Museum in 2006, two tales in particular intrigued him.
One was inventor David Bushnell and his Turtle, the Revolutionary War-era submarine that's now the subject of an interactive exhibit at the museum. The other was "Losers' Day," the tongue-in-cheek term for what's more majestically known as the "Burning of the Ships," the War of 1812 event this town's been commemorating, if not fully understanding, for decades.
"Why would a town have a parade every year to acknowledge the most embarrassing day in its history?" Roberts said. "Most people you'd ask in the street couldn't have told you what it was about. In 30 years, the museum hadn't done an exhibit on it."
Worse, Roberts was to learn, the U.S. Navy's plans to celebrate the War of 1812's bicentennial included no mention of Essex's role in the conflict.
"I said, 'How can Essex not be recognized?'" Roberts recalled. "It was the largest loss of U.S. shipping of the whole war. Along with (the Battle of) Stonington, it was one of the biggest events of the war in Connecticut."
But Essex wasn't on a list of historic battle sites compiled by the National Parks Service, which got its information from state historic preservation officers.
"Connecticut's officer nominated Stonington but not Essex," Roberts said. "The officer said we just weren't on their radar. … Basically, we didn't have a book. Stonington had a book - and a monument."
A museum research team headed by Roberts has made considerable progress in addressing Essex's light treatment in much of the official record. The team's efforts culminated this spring in the state Historic Preservation Council's vote to list the British Raid on Essex Battle Site District on the State Register of Historic Places.
The British attacks on both Essex and Stonington during the War of 1812 are being noted in connection with OpSail 2012 Connecticut, the tall ships festival scheduled to take place next month in New London.
Still, for Roberts and his team, the research into the raid on Essex on April 7-8, 1814, continues. With a little less than two years left before the 200th anniversary of the event itself, the team has some gaps to fill, some documents to hunt down, a mystery or two to solve.
"If I were a sane person, the listing on the state register would be enough," Roberts joked. "People could keep researching this for years."
The 20-page pamphlet
Chronicled in scores of newspaper articles of the period, the British raid on Essex, which at the time was known as Pettipaug, caused far more than a stir.
Early on, legend began to form, the articles spiced with accounts of treachery and, in some cases, cowardice on the town's part. What was never in dispute is that a British force that had rowed six miles up the Connecticut River laid waste to a merchant fleet docked at Pettipaug before escaping nearly unscathed. The whole operation took 24 hours.
Such details as the number of ships destroyed, the British forces involved and the strength of the resistance they encountered varied — until, for the most part, the Essex Historical Society's 1981 publication of "The British Raid on Essex," a 20-page pamphlet that grew out of a chance meeting the year before between two retired naval officers.
Retired Navy Cmdr. Albert Dock of Essex encountered Rear Adm. Hugh Francis Pullen of the Royal Canadian Navy at a meeting in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Pullen told Dock he had copies of official dispatches related to the Essex raid.
Remarkably, Roberts said, Pullen also told Dock that one of Pullen's forebears participated in the raid.
Among the dispatches was the report of Capt. Richard Coote, who commanded the British forces. The day after the raid, Coote wrote his senior officer that "the Service has been accomplished in a more effectual way than my most sanguine hopes could have led me to expect."
Coote's report and other documents referred to by Dock pinned down many of the raid's details, according to Roberts.
The museum-approved account of the raid describes a force of 136 British sailors and marines who rowed up the river in well-armed "barges" or rowboats dispatched from four warships anchored near the mouth of the river. Arriving in Pettipaug at about 3:30 a.m. on April 8, the British overwhelmed what little resistance they met on shore, set fire to 25 ships and withdrew with two others they soon torched as well.
Coote outmaneuvered local militiamen who fired on the rowboats from both sides of the river, at one point dropping anchor to await darkness and slipping past the guns at Saybrook fort to safety. Two British marines were killed when fire from shore struck one of the rowboats.
Dock's research, as presented in the pamphlet, which was written by retired Navy Capt. Russell Anderson, also shed light on the reported treachery surrounding the raid. Had an American spy helped guide the raiding party up the river? Had the British spared a local traitor's sloop in exchange for his help in escaping downstream?
The suspected traitor, Jeremiah Glover, proclaimed his innocence at the time, swearing in an affidavit that he refused to help the British, who took him prisoner. Glover said he had just been transferred to a rowboat from a schooner the British had captured when "a shot from a field piece on the shore killed two men on board the boat which I was in, one man wounded in the head by a musket ball."
Roberts and the other members of the research team - Amy Trout, the museum's curator; David Naumec, a military historian, researcher and consultant to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center; and Rosalie Spire, a researcher based in England - believe in Glover's innocence.
The team found British documents whose accounts of the raid jibe with Glover's, Trout said. "It's no proof he was innocent, but it's damn close," she said, calling the discovery one of the research project's "Aha!" moments.
The team is hopeful it may yet be able to identify the individual believed to have led the British up the river, an "American volunteer" whom British admiralty reports say was paid $2,000, a huge sum at the time.
In his 1990 book, "The Battle of Stonington: Torpedoes, Submarines, and Rockets in the War of 1812," Stonington author James Tertius deKay, who devoted three paragraphs to the attack on Pettipaug, wrote that the spy was an American held captive by the British. Dubbed "Torpedo Jack," the captive was suspected of involvement weeks earlier in an unsuccessful torpedo attack on HMS La Hogue, which was anchored off New London.
With Torpedo Jack's help, deKay wrote, the British rowed up the Connecticut, passing an unmanned Saybrook fort. The British commander, Coote, "offered to spare the town and its wharves if the militia would not interfere with his planned destruction of the shipping," an offer "the citizens of Pettipaug eagerly accepted …"
Dispelling the portrait of Pettipaug/Essex residents as losers may be among the research team's proudest achievements.
"Historically, I think we've laid it to rest," Trout said. "Letting it fade from history was pretty hard to do, given the politics of the time. People blamed Essex on British sympathizers. … It (the characterization) crushed their spirit for a long time."