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Back Story: Defending Havre de Grace from British attack

On this morning 200 years ago, a plucky Irish immigrant, John O'Neill, matched wits with British Adm. Sir George Cockburn, a veteran sea dog in command of a fleet of 19 vessels that sailed into Havre de Grace during the War of 1812.

O'Neill was born in Ireland in 1768 and immigrated to America in 1786. After serving under Gen. Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee, helping to put an end to the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania in 1794, he settled in Havre de Grace, then a small Upper Chesapeake Bay village with about 60 wooden houses. There he opened a nail factory.

During the spring of 1813, the British fleet was operating in the Chesapeake and had attacked Poplar, Tilghman and other islands.

A British deserter informed the militia in Havre de Grace on May 1 that the English were on their way and planned to attack the town — but his warning was ignored.

Two days later, as residents of Havre de Grace were slowly stirring in the early dawn, the sound of an intense bombardment near Concord Point drove them from their beds.

It wasn't long before the village that sits at the junction of the bay and the Susquehanna River was ablaze.

O'Neill, who was a lieutenant in the town militia, was on duty at a breastwork called "Potato Battery" that was made up of three cannons.

Terrified by the intensity of the attack, O'Neill's forces — who totaled nearly 50 men and were mainly elderly — soon deserted him, fleeing into the relative safety of nearby woods.

O'Neill described the attack in a letter he wrote a week later:

"The grape-shot flew thick about me. I loaded the gun myself without anyone to serve the vent, which you know is very dangerous, and fired her, when she recoiled and rolled over my thigh.

"I retreated down to town and joined Mr. Barnes of the nail manufactory with a musket and fired on the barges while we had ammunition, and then retreated to the common, where I kept waving my hat to the militia, who had run away, to come to our assistance. But they proved cowardly and would not come back," he wrote.

"At the same time an English officer on horseback, followed by the marines, rode up and took me with two muskets in my hand. I was carried on board the Maidstone frigate where I remained until released."

The bombardment ended in 15 minutes as a British force of 400 landed and swept into Havre de Grace, plundering and setting fire to what their cannons had not destroyed, leaving only one building untouched.

"The ruins of Havre de Grace shall stand as a monument to British cruelty. … The villain deed has roused the honest indignation of every man — no one pretends to justify or excuse it," observed Baltimore-based Niles' Register. "It has knit the people into a common bond for vengeance on the incendiaries."

When word reached shore that O'Neill was to be executed, his 15-year-old daughter, Matilda, rowed out to the Maidstone to plead for her father's life.

When she showed Cockburn her father's commission in the militia, which demonstrated that he was not a civilian, the admiral ordered his release, which took place May 10.

It was said that the admiral was so taken with the courage and beauty of Matilda O'Neill that he presented her his gold-mounted tortoiseshell snuff box.

O'Neill's heroic stand did not go unnoticed, and he was hailed as a hero beyond Maryland. The citizens of Philadelphia presented the defender of Havre de Grace with a handsome sword.

In 1829, when a lighthouse was erected on Concord Point, O'Neill was given the honor of being its first keeper, with successive family members fulfilling that role until 1920, when it was converted to automatic operation.

O'Neill died in 1838 and was buried on a hill above the town he so valiantly fought to save.

Beginning Friday, the city will observe the bicentennial of the attack on Havre de Grace with a re-enactment of the battle and numerous other events during a three-day celebration. Information is available at the city of Havre de Grace tourism website:

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