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1813 invasion of Havre de Grace re-created for weekend visitors

People fled in panic when British troops invaded Havre de Grace 200 years ago, as rockets rained down on the city and soldiers and Marines stormed through the streets, ransacking and burning homes, businesses and houses of worship.

In 2013, however, throngs of people lined the downtown streets, cameras in hand, and followed a small contingent of re-enactors – some in blue uniforms and others in red – from their landing zone at Concord Point, up Market Street, through the main shopping district at Rochambeau Plaza and eventually to a U.S. militia encampment on the grounds of the Susquehanna Museum at the Lock House.

"It's okay honey; they're just playing," one mother in the crowd told her child as the British regulars exchanged musket fire with fellow re-enactors dressed as American militiamen, wearing green and blue uniforms.

The re-enactors were participating in a recreation of the May 3, 1813 battle between British troops and American defenders of Havre de Grace.

The mock battle took place Saturday, part of a weekend of festivities in Havre de Grace to commemorate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and Havre de Grace's role in it.

Re-enactors dressed as British redcoats marched up Market Street, muskets in hand, and shouted to spectators to clear the streets. Their cry was echoed by law enforcement officers and EMTs on bicycles and vehicles, who shadowed the troops as they marched through the city.

Volunteers in bright red T-shirts also exhorted spectators to remain on the sidewalk, as many attempted to go into the street to grab pictures of the troops from the front.

A documentary film crew even followed every move of the crowd and the re-enactors.

A number of other re-enactors in civilian garb of the period could also be seen mingling with the crowd of spectators.

The re-enactment of the invasion included a raid by British troops on the Old Ordinary, a small former tavern house, which currently hosts a local real estate office.

The British march stopped at the grounds of the Lock House, on the banks of the Susquehanna River.

There, re-enactors of all stripes spoke with visitors.

Chris Lieberman, a student at Loyola Blakefield High School in Baltimore County, portrayed an American drafted militiaman Saturday. This is year is his second participating in historical re-enactments.

"It never stops being fun," he said of his experience Saturday, which included firing a small cannon and muskets. "It's nonstop, it's just a blast."

The crowd also heard from Vince Vaise, chief historic interpreter at Fort McHenry in Baltimore. The British Chesapeake Campaign of 1813 and 1814, during which troops sacked and burned communities throughout the Chesapeake Bay region, including Washington, D.C., was stopped at Fort McHenry.

"In a sense, the War of 1812 gave Americans confidence," Vaise said, speaking with the modern-day Route 40 Thomas J. Hatem Memorial Bridge at his back.

Vaise explained that the War of 1812 essentially ended in a tie between the British and the Americans.

While much of the United States was in ruins at the end of the war, the Americans were able to keep the British invaders from taking over, and the sight of the U.S. flag flying over Ft. McHenry – as well as Havre de Grace after the invasion – gave the young nation the confidence it needed to complete feats such as a canal system, the Transcontinental Railroad, and being the first nation to put a man on the moon.

"We took a big bully on, and yeah we may have gotten a black eye and a bloody nose, but we taught that bully a lesson," Vaise told the crowd.

Vaise said the war gave one the feeling "you could do anything if you were an American."

The streets of Havre de Grace were filled with visitors Saturday, who took in not only the re-enactment of the battle, but two tall ships docked along the city's waterfront – the Pride of Baltimore II and the Sultana – the 32nd Annual Decoy and Wildlife Art Festival at Havre de Grace Middle School and an evening ceremony at the Concord Lighthouse grounds.

The ceremony included a performance by The Columbia Orchestra and a fireworks show over the Susquehanna River.

Downtown merchants threw their doors open to visitors Saturday.

Spectators could also see Harford County students portray residents of Havre de Grace circa 1813.

Drama students performed monologues as people from the period.

One student, Laurel Yau, a junior at C. Milton Wright High School in Bel Air, performed a monologue as Matilda O'Neill, the daughter of Havre de Grace defender John O'Neill.

John O'Neill, an Irish immigrant, was a local merchant and an officer in the militia at the time of the invasion, according to a copy of an article published in The Artilleryman Magazine in 2002 and provided by Yau.

He is famous for single-handedly manning a battery at Concord Point in an unsuccessful attempt to hold of the British troops.

He was later captured and brought on board a British ship in the river. Locals expected he would be executed, but Matilda, according to legend, rowed out to the ship and convinced Admiral George Cockburn to free him.

Yau-as-Matilda told onlookers Cockburn was so impressed with her courage, he presented her with his snuffbox.

Kevin Connelly, of Bloomfield, Conn., who The Aegis caught up with at the annual Havre de Decoy festival early Saturday evening, had watched the British invasion earlier in the day. The decoy festival was also held over the weekend.

"It's historically interesting, and you think, also of the people who lived here, all of a sudden seeing the British landing, burning houses, stealing things – looting basically — and then moving through the city," Connelly said.

"How does an Afghan village feel when the Taliban comes there, or we [the U.S.] come there?" Connelly continued. "People are typically frightened by armed strangers."

Although organizers had expected as many as 10,000 visitors on Saturday, the actual number came in at between 5,000 and 6,000, according to county emergency operations officials who monitored the weekend events for security purposes.

Harford County government spokesman Bob Thomas said that the sheriff's office, city police department, county executive's office, fire and EMS officials and emergency services had staff on duty throughout Saturday at the county's emergency operations center and well as in Havre de Grace. There were no incidents reported, he said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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