BOOK REVIEW – The British Raid on Essex: The Forgotten Battle of the War of 1812

Roberts_Jerry_British Raid on EssexBy Jerry Roberts, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT (2014)

Reviewed by David Curtis Skaggs, Ph.D, COL USAR (Ret.)

On the night of April 7, 1814, Cmdr. Richard Coote and a party of 136 Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines began a raid over the bar at the mouth of the Connecticut River and rowed up six miles to the village of Pettipaug (in 1820 the town renamed itself “Essex”).  Museum executive Jerry Roberts has compiled an interesting narrative of this incident discussing the myths and realities surrounding it in detail.

Arguing that the British raid on Essex was “the forgotten battle” in s “forgotten war,” Roberts exaggerates the uniqueness of this “battle” (there was little fighting) when numerous engagements, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay and from Maine to Georgia, are equally “forgotten” and bloodier.  Nonetheless, the Pettipaug raid constitutes an interesting chapter in the blockade of Connecticut’s shoreline, beginning after Capt. Stephen Decatur’s squadron was chased into New London, Connecticut, on June 1, 1813

One has to admire the audacity and sangfroid with which Commander Coote executed to set fire to twenty-seven American ships and stocks in Pettipaug harbor.  It was the largest single loss of American vessels in the War of 1812.  As Roberts notes, the economic impact of the raid on Pettipaug was disastrous to the local economy.  Only eight of the twenty-seven vessels destroyed were either armed or presented a threat as privateers.  Why destroy the others?  Some may have been used to lay “torpedoes” (mines) against blockading British vessels in Long Island Sound. This does not appear to have been Coote’s primary objective.

Roberts does not explore the broader British political raiding objective of discouraging the American public from continuing the war.  As a strategy, it failed in the Chesapeake and seems to have done the same in the anti-war state of Connecticut. This was demonstrated by the resistance to the raid on Stonington a few months later.  The absence of local resistance at Pettipaug embarrassed many in the state. It nonetheless saved the town because the British refrained from destroying private property not considered militarily useful when local militia did not engage their forces.

Coote’s resoluteness and coolness during the return to sea is particularly interesting, meriting the accolades of anyone who admires daring leaders and successful military exploits.  The depth of detail and analysis exhibited by Roberts is admirable.  The book’s principal limitation is its narrowness of focus.  But he has succeeded in his principal objective to relate the circumstances behind Essex’s annual celebration of the event, which was too often called by the locals “losers’ day.”  Wesleyan University Press merits considerable praise for the lavish, often colored, illustrations.  The maps are extraordinary.

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David Curtis Skaggs is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel who is currently a professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University.

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