Regardless of how it actually happened – and there have been varying accounts passed down over the ensuing 205 years – the defense of Havre de Grace against the invading British is the stuff of which legends are made.
So, the recent decision by the Havre de Grace Mayor and City Council to designate the first Saturday in May as a city holiday to commemorate the heroic efforts of John O’Neill on May 3, 1813, who can argue with it?
It’s a holiday Mayor William Martin says he hopes goes on in perpetuity and should be a day the citizens of the city take action, the city takes action and helps assist residents who want to recognize the holiday.
“John O’Neill is the foundation of what I believe is Havre de Grace’s character,” Martin said.
O’Neill, an Irish immigrant who settled in Havre de Grace where he opened a nail factory, was one of about 50 men in the town militia, many of them elderly, who assembled near Concord Point to man the three cannons, known as the “Potato Battery,” as a British frigate with a force of 400 men, commanded by Adm. George Cockburn, attacked the town.
According to various historical accounts, the British overwhelmed the battery and many of the men fled, but not O’Neill, who manned his cannon “to the last,” according to a historical marker at the site that commemorates the battle.
The British would sack and burn most of Havre de Grace’s buildings. O’Neill was captured and was going to be executed, but his daughter persuaded Cockburn to spare her father’s life. There’s an excellent account of the battle and O’Neill’s exploit that was written by The Baltimore Sun’s Fred Rasmussen on the 200th anniversary of the invasion.
Sixteen years later, the grateful citizens of Havre de Grace would make O’Neill the first keeper of the newly built Concord Point Lighthouse. During the current century, the O’Neill house has been preserved and a cannon from the Potato Battery has become a monument in Concord Point Park. So, why not honor the man who fired it and stood in defense of his city against the overwhelming odds? Why not, indeed.
“That spirit resounds in all of us,” Martin said. “When we look at all the great things the city does, whether it’s the volunteers, the fastest fire department in the nation or volunteers who open the lighthouse every weekend, we should all observe that man’s actions on that day.”
Having John O’Neill Day declared has been a project of the Havre de Grace Historic Preservation for several years, Chairman Ron Browning told the council.
“It’s important for us to recognize the importance of heroism,” Browning said, calling the new holiday a good way to reinforce “something very, very important to the town’s history.”
“We rebuffed the British. We didn’t do very well at it, but we did spare the town, at least a third of it,” Browning said.
Havre de Grace has certainly had its ups and downs in the 205 years since the British almost destroyed the city. But the spirit of John O’Neill has lived on as a reminder to never give up, regardless of the forces against you. We look forward to marking the first John O’Neill Day next May 4 and many more to follow.