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On the Eastern Shore, re-enactors mark little-known battle of War of 1812

During the last of battle on the Chesapeake Bay of the War of 1812, a ship, and its cannon, was captured with the help of a mound of ice. Two hundred years later, the glorious victory for Maryland is reenacted. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)

TAYLORS ISLAND — Musket fire broke out across Slaughter Creek on Saturday as 20 Maryland militiamen took aim at a British raiding party just offshore — the Battle of the Ice Mound was on once again.

On a relatively mild Saturday — as on that frigid Feb. 7, 1815 — the Maryland men prevailed.

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Two centuries ago, the British never had a chance in their icebound boat with limited ammunition. One wounded, none killed, fewer than 20 British taken prisoner — so ended the last battle of the War of 1812 to be fought in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Nine days later, the U.S. Senate ratified the Treaty of Ghent, ending the War of 1812 two years and eight months after it began. Parliament had ratified the treaty Dec. 30, but the British said hostilities would continue until both sides formally endorsed the pact.

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"This is part of the star-spangled story, and today is our day," Vince Vaise of the National Park Service told hundreds gathered at the Taylors Island volunteer fire station before the shooting began. "It's a strong part of our national culture, our Maryland culture, our local culture, and it deserves to be remembered."

Organizers believed it was the first re-enactment of the battle.

In the guise of Pvt. Joseph Stewart of the Militia of Dorchester County, John Wyman, a 44-year-old former high school social studies teacher and now stay-at-home dad from Elkton, rallied his men to attack the British raiders.

By the winter of 1815, many British raiding parties had landed on the Eastern Shore to steal livestock, provisions and slaves. One historian wrote that the British made off with about 4,000 slaves during the course of the war, most of whom went voluntarily as a way to freedom.

"We can go get 'em," shouted Wyman, imagining what Stewart might have said that morning as he took the initiative to launch the attack. "We can get barely in range and put some fire on them."

Stewart led the men across the Little Choptank River, about three miles north of where the re-enactment took place. They stepped from one floating ice mass to the next until they found an ice mound that provided cover about 100 yards from the British, whose boat was stuck in the ice. The British had been dispatched from the heavily armed schooner HMS Dauntless.

On Saturday, Wyman marched his men across a grassy field to the water's edge between the Island Grille restaurant and the fire station. They made for an "ice mound" that volunteers had fashioned from wooden two-by-fours, cardboard and foam packing materials donated by a local furniture company. Painted snow white, it stood more than 30 feet across and about 10 feet high at the tallest of three jagged peaks.

The men stood behind and opened fire, each squeezing off about 10 shots from the 10-pound muskets. The British re-enactors in three small rowboats — they couldn't get a boat as large as the tender the British actually used — returned a few rounds. It was over in about seven minutes.

The actual exchange took two hours before the British, most of whom had taken cover below decks, waved the white flag. Stewart's account indicates that 17 were taken prisoner. Also aboard were two slaves, a man and a woman.

It wasn't the Battle of Baltimore; there was no rockets' red glare. But that hardly seemed to matter for the few hundred people who gathered to watch the action unfold.

"I loved it," said Charles Kuehne, 67, of Cambridge. "It's just great, with history. That's why I bring him out," he said, pointing to his 5-year-old grandson, Russell Charles Phillips.

Lisa Neild, a member of the Grace Foundation of Taylors Island, one of several groups that helped organize the event, said the Battle of the Ice Mound is unsung even in the area. Dorchester County schools don't teach it, she said, and very little is made of the monument near the re-enactment site, where a small cannon seized from the British tender is displayed.

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By all accounts it was never fired on Feb. 7, 1815. In that closing skirmish of the Chesapeake campaign, the British went with hardly a fight.

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