Footnotes and Cannonballs
Less than 30 years after gaining independence from the British Empire, the still fledgling United States found itself in conflict with its former rulers once again. The British interfered with trade, sovereignty, and the territorial expansion of the United States, pushing President James Madison to bring a list of grievances to Congress on June 1, 1812. Within two weeks, the United States was at war.
Far from the frontlines of the War of 1812, the Cape and Islands still endured conflick along the shores
At the time, the War of 1812 was especially unpopular. Though it gathered great support from southern and western states (Tennessee and Kentucky were the westernmost states at the time), the war was almost unanimously opposed in New England, and the war declaration narrowly passed the House and Senate. Compared to the riots in Baltimore and the burning of Washington, D.C., Cape Cod largely remained out of the line of fire. But 100 years after the conflict began, our region’s role merits a place in history.
Born in “Tonset” (East Orleans) around 1758, Isaac Snow served in two of the United States’ major wars. As a young man, Snow served as a privateersman out of Boston during the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1776, when he was captured by the British. Snow miraculously escaped the British prison ship he was held on that was just off Lisbon, Portugal, and walked to France where he worked a passage home with French troops bound for the U.S. Back at sea in 1780, the British captured Snow once again and this time imprisoned him in Plymouth, England. After two years he was repatriated and returned home to Orleans.
At home, Snow led the South Parish Eastham Revolutionary War veterans in naming the newly incorporated town of Orleans. Snow and the veterans, it is said, believed the new town should bear a French name to honor France’s support of the U.S. during the Revolutionary War.
When the United States and Britain found themselves at war again in 1812, it was Snow who trained and instructed a local militia. When the British attempted to land in Rock Harbor in December of 1814, Snow’s men repelled them.
Snow found work as a shoemaker and cobbler in East Orleans until he was able to retire on his Revolutionary War Veterans Pension. He also served as builder and part owner of the East Orleans Grist Mill from 1800–1811 and continued as a miller until 1828.
When Isaac Snow passed away on March 12, 1855, he was the last surviving Revolutionary War Veteran in Barnstable County and Orleans’ oldest citizen.
A Region Divided
As the war against Napoleon came to a close in Europe in 1814, the British Empire focused its attention and resources on the United States. That same year, at the height of its strength, the British blockade covered all of the ports along Cape Cod Bay. Embargoes from the Jefferson and Madison administrations prohibited trade with the British, causing tension in many Cape Cod communities.
Like the rest of the country, residents of the Cape and Islands found themselves divided in support for the war. Citizens from Yarmouth, Dennis, and Provincetown sent letters to President Jefferson asking him to repeal these embargoes, while Sandwich, Falmouth, Barnstable, and Orleans adopted the trade restrictions wholeheartedly. Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard also proposed a repeal; Nantucket even struck a deal with Great Britain in 1814, in which they declared neutrality in the war and relinquished all support for the United States.
Some Cape Codders were so much in favor of the war effort that they traveled elsewhere to engage the British. Joshua Crosby of Orleans left home at 13 in 1792 for a life on the open ocean and enlisted as a gun captain aboard the mighty USS Constitution in July of 1812. Just weeks after Crosby enlisted the Constitution set course for Nova Scotia to disrupt British commerce. On August 19, the Constitution came across the formidable British Frigate Guerriere. The U.S. Navy was in need of a major victory to revive wilting morale and engaged the enemy ship. Crosby and his crew maintained their fire on the Guerriere’s masts, and after several debilitating shots, the Guerriere surrendered.
Falmouth Under Fire
British invaders raided harbors throughout the Cape and Islands, terrorized its communities, destroyed property, and stole crops and livestock. Falmouth and other towns on the Cape defied the British advances—but defiance didn’t provide protection from the British Navy.
Sent to patrol the waters of southern New England in the fall of 1813, the HMS Nimrod struck fear in those who knew its name. The Nimrod made its base at Tarpaulin Cove on Naushon Island, home to a well-known inn. Legend has it that the innkeeper, Mr. Slocum, overheard the Nimrod’s crew discussing plans to launch an attack on Falmouth in order to capture two brass cannons. The town was alerted and prepared for the attack.
Falmouth resident Captain John Crocker described the events in a letter to the New England Palladium, published on February 1, 1814. The Nimrod anchored off Falmouth around 10 a.m. and sent men ashore to make their demands, including the surrender of the town’s cannons and a sloop at the wharf. If these demands weren’t met, the town would be bombarded at noon the same day. As a militia was assembled to help the town’s sick, women, and children get to safety, the British began cannonading the town, a shelling that continued into the night. By the time the Nimrod left to join a ship in Tarpaulin Cove, she had fired 300 cannonballs on Falmouth. Houses, outbuildings, and saltworks all sustained damage, but no life was lost.
Remnants of the attack can still be seen in Falmouth. The Nimrod, a restaurant located on Dillingham Avenue, was a private residence that came under fire during the attack. The hole where a cannonball came crashing through can still be seen today in the men’s room.
The Cape Fights Back
What the United States lacked in sheer power it made up for with some of the world’s most accomplished seamen. The HMS Endymion had minor success capturing a handful of American privateers during the war, but suffered a great loss on October 11, 1814. While in pursuit of Prince de Neufchatel, a notoriously fast U.S. privateer that had caused problems for Britain before, the Endymion suffered almost 100 casualties. Captain Henry Hope of the Endymion sent several boats to the Prince de Neufchatel under the cover of night. The Prince’s captain, John Ordronaux, was aware of the attack and called all hands immediately. Under assault from five sides, the men used their limited resources to repel the attackers.
During the war, the British often practiced extortion: Towns needed to pay a certain amount of money by a certain date or face an attack. In September 1814, Captain Richard Raggett of the HMS Spencer demanded $2,000 from Wellfleet, $1,200 from Eastham, and $4,000 from Brewster. Each town paid rather than suffer the consequences. Similar demands were made to Falmouth, Sandwich, Barnstable, and Orleans, all of which refused to pay, arousing the British to maintain surveillance on the towns. And in December 1814, things escalated in Orleans.
A frequent intimidation tactic deployed by the British was to ransom small towns in return for their safety. This was especially frequent on Cape Cod where the British has easy access to ports. This note from Captain Richard Raggett of the HMS Spencer to the people of Orleans demands $1,000 for the guaranteed safety of the town’s saltworks.
The Battle of Rock Harbor
The HMS Newcastle and her captain, Lord George Stuart, were part of a British Royal Navy squadron demanding payment from towns in exchange for letting them be. When the ship ran aground off Wellfleet, the men threw rigging and spars overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship. The tide carried these supplies toward the Orleans shore, where residents used axes to destroy the tackle and rigging, making them useless if the British attempted a recovery.
On December 19, after Captain Stuart learned what the residents had done, he ordered his men to take revenge by setting fire to American vessels in Rock Harbor and destroying the salt works. Though the Newcastle was too large to enter Rock Harbor, the vessel sent several barges full of troops ashore.
With no standing army in the area and no support from Boston, many Cape Cod towns had established militias that were ready to fight at a moment’s notice. Revolutionary War veteran and Orleans resident Isaac Snow took it upon himself to train a militia in Orleans. When the British attacked the town in December of 1814, the military were prepared to defend their home thanks in part to Snow’s training.
The militia intercepted Captain Stuart’s plans before too much damage had been done and fired back at the British. Taking cover behind rocks, trees, and whatever else they could use as protection, the militia was able to fatally wound a British marine and injure several others before the Newcastle left the scene.
Just five days later, on Christmas Eve of 1814, British and American representatives signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending what we know as the War of 1812. Although the battles on Cape Cod are just footnotes to the war, these struggles comprise a memorable chapter of local history, written with strokes of defiance.
Orleans historian Bonnie Snow and author William Quinn were consulted in the writing of this story.