Cohasset and the War of 1812
Louis F. Eaton, Jr.
Reproduced, with permission, from Treasury of Cohasset History, ed. J. M. Dormitzer (Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp. 61-64.
You probably know that the War of 1812 was exceedingly unpopular in New England and was economically disastrous for Cohasset. After the British blockade of American ports took effect in 1813, the total catch from Cohasset's fishing fleet was 451 barrels, which was only one-tenth of the annual amount in the years preceding the war. By the spring of 1814 a British frigate was "harrying the shores of Massachusetts Bay," burning fishing vessels when they were captured. The coast of Maine, which was then a part of Massachusetts, was similarly raided. According to Bigelow, the Cohasset fishing fleet was unable to stir from harbor, and twenty-seven vessels were taken up into the Gulf and scuttled and sunk to prevent them from being burned by the enemy. Several Cape Cod towns paid ransoms to escape destruction of their property: Wellfleet $2,000, Brewster $4,000, and Eastham $1,200, according to Bigelow. Cohasset fishermen's loss in the summer of 1814 was total, and in addition the little packet they sailed to Boston was taken by the British.
In early June 1814 Scituate Harbor was raided by a landing party of British marines sent in from two warships off shore, described by Bigelow as a “flotilla of barges,” and they burned the shipping found in the harbor. (A barge was a long, narrow boat usually rigged for ten oars and normally carried on the deck of larger men-of-war.) The vessels involved were apparently a seventy-four-gun ship-of-the-line, the Bulwark, and a frigate. Between them, they probably carried about 150 marines.
A messenger brought word of this to Cohasset’s Peter Lothrop, captain of the town militia, early in the morning of June 16. “He leaped from his bed and without hat or coat, mounting a horse without a saddle, rode through our village and roused the slumbering inhabitants.” His local militia, numbering about 130, were ordered to “repair immediately, armed and equipped, to the Cohasset Meeting House to await further orders.” They were advised that the British were only awaiting a favorable tide to come into Cohasset Harbor.
Bigelow had the benefit of having the diary of Thomas Stoddard (1787-1854), a portion of which appears in the Narrative History, pages 345 to 349, telling of his participation in the affair. Excerpts from his account follow:
At noon of that day, we all assembled at the meeting house at one o’clock, all enrolled men composing one company of militia numbering about 130: Peter Lothrop, Captain; John Beale, First Lieutenant; every man well equipped with ball, cartridge, and provision. We were marched to Hominy Point, where we found a trench dug about two feet deep, the dirt thrown fronting the water. Into this we were marched and ordered to remain ready for action: a miserable defense, truly. Here we all remained until after sunset . . . About ten o’clock . . . men in a boat came for a sloop from Plymouth, which the enemy had driven into Cohasset, having obtained permission of the Commodore to take her to Plymouth. They reported the force intended to attack Cohasset at 400 men in eleven barges, with ten pieces of artillery.
During the afternoon and evening of this day, there arrived at the head of the harbor two companies from Weymouth, one company of artillery from Hanover, one company of artillery from Randolph, and the Hingham Rifle Company, which with the Cohasset company would number about 600 effective men, all under the command of Colonel Webb of Weymouth. The out-of-town companies were quartered in the best possible manner as circumstances would admit. At dawn of the following day, the cannon awakened those who might be fortunate enough to get some sleep, however few their number might be. The drums beat the reveille, a hasty breakfast was prepared, and at six a.m. the whole camp was in marching order for review and inspection. This day was the Sabbath: no church bell rang. This day companies of artillery, infantry, and riflemen were constantly coming in from the neighboring towns. The hills and high rocks around were covered with anxious spectators, both male and female. The inhabitants were busily employed cooking for the soldiers and packing up their valuables in readiness in case the enemy should land to destroy the town, which he had threatened in case of resistance.
At nine a.m. upwards of 1,200 men were stationed at different points of defense near the Cove. It was now high water. The enemy in eleven barges and a sloop tender hove in sight off the Glades. When they had a position so as to look into the Cove, they lay on their oars for observation. They dispatched the tender to the westward to reconnoiter the shore; several officers landed at the Glades from a barge, also to reconnoiter. All was now perfect stillness and anxiety. The officers of each company were encouraging men to fight manfully, and in case they should desert in time of action, they were told they would be immediately shot down. The American flag was displayed from various posts where the troops were stationed. At eleven a.m. a signal was made from the Bulwark for the barges to return to the ships. The attack was withdrawn in consequence of their observing such a superior force to oppose them.
The troops remained at their posts through the day, expecting the barges to return the next high water. A strong guard was posted at different points. A strong boom had been placed across from Hominy Point to Bassing Beach and every preparation for defense was complete. The town presented the appearance of a military camp. Several bands of music were occasionally playing, relieved by the drum and fife. The plain around the meeting-house was occupied as the grand parade.
On the morning of the twentieth, the ships weighed anchor and stood to the eastward. All the troops, excepting one Hingham and one Weymouth company, returned to their respective homes.
Stoddard's diary describes his continued six weeks of guard duty at the Cove, quartered in the store of Elisha Doane, Esq., on his wharf. He further tells of a draft from Captain Lothrop's company of ten men to join a force of about a thousand militia and two companies of U.S. troops at Fort Independence in Hull; in all 1,200 men in the fall. "Winter closed the campaign at Cohasset; the company of drafted men were disbanded." As Bigelow notes, "The owners [of the twenty-seven fishing vessels] felt fortunate with their escape from depredations when they knew what other towns had lost."
The great good news of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812, which was signed on Christmas Day, 1814, reached Cohasset in the middle of January 1815 and was greeted with enormous jubilation. However, "the rigors of winter prevented that activity and stir of business which would have otherwise occurred on the reception of the joyful news.” But on February 22, “the anniversary of the birthday of the immortal Washington" was combined with the celebration of the return of peace, and inhabitants throughout the land observed a day of public rejoicing. That spring "our dismantled vessels were again fitted out for their voyages, as many as possible, and their industry commenced the steady increase which lasted for many years. Cohasset was never so dangerously near to the furies of war as it was on June 17, 1814, when the British frigates lay off our harbor and eleven barges of British soldiers attempted to destroy our town."
From Louis F. Eaton, Jr., article in the Cohasset Mariner, May 23, 2002. Reprinted with permission of the author. For more information on Cohasset and the War of 1812, see Bigelow, Narrative History, pp. 335-355.