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Introduction to Havre de Grace in the War of 1812: Fire on the Chesapeake

By Heidi Glatfelter, 2013. Excerpted from Havre de Grace in the War of 1812: Fire on the Chesapeake

Havre de Grace is known today for its beautiful waterfront setting, quaint historic area, charming bed and breakfasts, hand-crafted decoys, and bustling restaurants, museums, and shops. Havre de Grace was designated as a town in 1785, but the area’s storied history is documented as far back as 1607, only a few months after the English settled their first colony at Jamestown.


However, it wasn’t until the fateful morning of May 3, 1813 that the town ensured its inclusion in the history books. The sun hadn’t even risen when the British came ashore to ravage and burn the city as part of their Chesapeake campaign during the War of 1812. Many of the things that make Havre de Grace a tourist destination today made it a target for the British 200 years ago.


But Havre de Grace rose from the ashes and rebuilt. Today, it boasts an eclectic collection of historic buildings; although most date from the mid- to late-nineteenth century, thanks to the British burning of the eighteenth century structures. Also remaining are the stories of the day the British attacked, in the form of first person accounts. They tell of the atrocities perpetrated on Havre de Grace’s civilians, and the heroes who rose to the town’s defense.


As the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 approached, the townspeople of Havre de Grace sought a way to remember those who had lived in this town on May 3, 1813, and rebuilt it to the thriving waterside village it is today. Led by Marsha Jacksteit and the late Brenda Guldenzopf, the six museums in town partnered with the Visitor’s Center and the City of Havre de Grace government to obtain two grants: One from the National Park Service and one from the Maryland Heritage Areas Authority.


These grants funded community history research exhibits, wayside signage, educational materials, and a  scale model of 1813 Havre de Grace. I was fortunate enough to be hired as the project manager for the grant implementation, which resulted in my becoming thoroughly engrossed in the story of that fateful day in 1813.


The exhibits and other materials being created by the grant committee will go far to educate the public on the attack on Havre de Grace. However, by the nature of their medium, exhibit panels can only contain about two hundred words and will only be on display for a year or two. I felt this compelling story should also be documented in book form in order to preserve the extensive research work the committee has done on the project and to stimulate further research on questions that remain unanswered from the day the British came ashore in Havre de Grace.


Another of my goals as I wrote this book was to weave together the three surviving first-person accounts of the attack. I was able to glean much information from each work individually, but it was only when I started to combine them that the story of 1813 Havre de Grace – its citizens, its buildings, its tradespeople, its governments – came to life. Newspaper articles, letters and research from other historians helped to round things out.


As the anniversary of the War of 1812 in Maryland marches on, it is important to recognize not just the high-profile success of the Battle of Baltimore but also the citizens of small towns who experienced the terrorizing force of the British navy. In most written accounts of the War of 1812, the attack on Havre de Grace merits only a paragraph if it is mentioned at all. In order to fully appreciate what the townspeople of Havre de Grace experienced on May 3, 1813, an entire book is required. We will begin about 400 years ago.

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