During the War of 1812, the British blockade of Long Island Sound choked off legitimate merchant activity all along the Connecticut coast. In anger and desperation more than a few ship owners converted their vessels into privateers to raid the British merchant ships which now monopolized the trade.
The town of Pettipauge (now Essex) became a hub for these privateers. Settled in 1648, it was a bustling river port with shipyards, chandleries, blacksmith shops, warehouses, and a 900-foot-long ropewalk. It also lay six miles up the Connecticut River, securely protected by the massive sand bars at its mouth which prevented large naval ships from navigating upriver.
By the spring of 1814, the British had enough of the Pettipauge privateers.
On the night of April 7, 1814, Richard Coote, captain of HMS Borer, set out in six heavily armed large rowboats with 136 Royal Marines and headed up the Connecticut River. They first attacked the fort at Old Saybrook to avoid being trapped on the way out. Finding it unmanned and without guns, they proceeded upriver.
When they arrived at Pettipauge at 3:30 in the morning, they found that the town had been alarmed and the militia on alert, but the town’s defenders were poorly armed with only one four pound gun. The militia on the beach soon withered under a heavy barrage from the marines on the river. No one had expected this sort of thing so far inland.
The Royal Marines swiftly secured the village and proceeded up Main Street to Bushnell’s Tavern. There, Lieutenant Lloyd of the Marines read a proclamation from Captain Coote announcing their intent to destroy shipping, but that no harm would befall the local residents unless they resisted. In that case, he announced, the torch would be put to the entire town.
While the marines held the town, the seamen set about burning all of the vessels that lay at anchor, alongside the wharves, and under construction on the stocks, and looted canvas and cordage from the waterfront warehouses as well as a substantial quantity of rum.
When dawn arrived the British discovered more vessels in North Cove and sent crews to burn them as well. By 10:00 a.m. they had put the torch to six ships, four brigs, six schooners, nine sloops, and several smaller craft. It was now broad daylight and they were six miles deep in American territory.
The British set out with their row boats and two captured privateers, the brig Young Anaconda and the schooner Eagle, filled with the rum, sails, and cordage. On the way downstream, the captured brig went aground on a sand bar. A little further downriver, Coote anchored his boats and captured schooner and decided to hunker down until nightfall.
By this time American militiamen were approaching the west bank of the river with cannon, and government forces from New London were appearing on the east bank. By late afternoon hundreds of American militiamen from nearby towns, and Marines from New London, had reached the riverbanks. At 7:00 p.m., the British set fire to the remaining privateer and attempted to slip quietly downstream until, off Old Lyme, their escaping row boats were illuminated by bonfires on the shore.
Picket boats in the river carried torches to reveal the escaping enemy. As they ran the gauntlet, the British came under intense cannon and musket fire from both sides of the river. Despite the effort to stop them the British boats reached their warships anchored off Saybrook by 10:00 p.m..
According to official report to the Admiralty, the British set fire to 27 vessels totaling 5,000 tons, including at least six privateers capable of mounting 130 guns. The raid was the largest single attack on American shipping during the war. The maritime loss to Essex was staggering.
Four months later the British would burn Washington, D.C..