Residents of war-ravaged countries around the world live in constant fear that on any given day the ongoing violence might make its way to their own front door.
During the War of 1812, residents of North Shore coastal communities understood that fear. Throughout the course of the conflict, British frigates were a constant presence in local waters, partly because the region was a potential source of needed firewood, fresh water and livestock. Also omnipresent was the fear that the enemy would try to rescue their men who had been captured by local vessels and were being held on prison ships in Salem.
After the British captured a number of communities in Maine in the summer of 1814, many frightened residents of North Shore coastal towns began moving inland. On Sept. 5, the Rev. William Bentley of Salem's First Church noted in his diary that the rumor of an impending attack on Salem had caused many more townspeople to flee. On Sept. 12, Bentley wrote that Salemites were "tumbling (over) one another" to find lodging in safer interior communities like North Andover and Danvers. "One farmer in Hamilton said he had three families in his house," noted the minister.
In the week between Bentley's two September entries, the commander of the British frigate Nymph had sent two armed barges into Sandy Bay, now Rockport. The crew of one of the barges landed on Bearskin Neck and captured the small contingent of Sea Fencibles guarding the fort at the end of the neck.
A local resident had spotted the other British barge, and had begun ringing a nearby church bell to rouse his neighbors.
The attackers managed to sink their own barge while trying to silence the bell, and many of the crew were captured.
Eventually, despite orders to ship the captured British sailors to Salem, a prisoner exchange was worked out between the two sides.
By the time this episode took place, locals had been living with the specter of war for more than two years. In fact, two frightening encounters between British and American warships had taken place in sight of residents in the Salem-Marblehead area.
On June 1, 1813, the American frigate Chesapeake encountered the 38-gun British frigate Shannon just off the coast of Marblehead. At approximately 6 p.m., after a few hours of tactical maneuvering, the two vessels began firing at each other. Within 12 minutes, the two vessels stood yardarm to yardarm as though the crew of one of the ships was preparing to board the other.
Then, as thousands of spectators watched from Leggs Hill and along the shore, the Chesapeake exploded. Both vessels were enveloped in smoke, and by the time it cleared, the British had boarded and taken control of the American vessel.
Despite the exhortations of the dying Captain Lawrence, his crew surrendered the Chesapeake after 146 of their brethren had been killed or wounded. The victorious British then took the American vessel to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The bodies of Capt. Lawrence and his mate Ludlow were later retrieved by Salem's George Crowninshield Jr. and brought back to Salem. After a public funeral service held on Aug. 22, they were temporarily buried in the Crowninshield tomb in the Howard Street cemetery.
The following April, the pride of the American naval fleet, the USS Constitution, was chased into the waters just outside Marblehead harbor by two British cruisers. An alarm was sounded in local communities, and soon cannon and ammunition were speeding toward Marblehead from their storage depot on Salem Neck.
This encounter would end better for the Americans than the one involving the Chesapeake.
Thanks to a crew member who was familiar with the local waters, Constitution was able to navigate the tricky entrance to Marblehead Harbor and drop anchor under the safety of the cannon at Fort Sewall. The following day, it was moved into the safer confines of Salem Harbor.
Still, the local populace had plenty of reason to be nervous. On June 14, British barges had burned an American vessel in Beverly waters in full view of those on land. Morale sunk even further the following month when word reached Salem that the frigate Essex had been captured with tremendous loss of life the previous winter in Chile.
Built in 1798-99 on Winter Island with Essex County money and materials, the 46-gun frigate had been a devastating force during the course of the war. Under Cmdr. David Porter, the Essex crew had captured or destroyed most of the British whaling ships operating in the area of South America.
An infuriated British government had dispatched a pair of warships to the region for the sole purpose of destroying or capturing the nuisance Essex. In March, they caught up with the disabled American frigate in Valipariso and, after a brief but terrible gunfight, had forced its surrender.
Mercifully, things were going quite a bit better for our forces at sea in general. Thanks in no small part to privateers from Salem and other North Shore communities, the Americans would ultimately prevail in the conflict, and life in the region could return to normalcy.
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Jim McAllister of Salem is once again a regular contributor to these pages.