The Battle of Elk Landing Revisited

Fort drawingLast April, the Historic Elk Landing Foundation observed and celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Elk Landing when British Marines advanced on Elk Landing in an attempt to take the fort by force. Thanks to the efforts of a local slave woman, Hettie Boulden, and the Cecil Militia manning the fort, the British were unsuccessful. However, this event did not happen in a vacuum. History, like nature, abhors a vacuum! As noted in his report on the discovery of Fort Hollingsworth in August of 2012, archeologist, James Gibb wrote that the British were essentially looking for revenge.
“(United States) land forces burned a number of Canadian towns, including the provincial capital of York (now Toronto), in many cases leaving the civilian inhabitants to survive the Canadian winter with little shelter or food.

Witness these secret orders from Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, to Colonel Sir Thomas Beckwith of the British Army dated 20 March 1813:

It having been judged expedient to effect a diversion of the Coasts of the United states of America, in favor of Upper and Lower Canada, which the American Government have declared it to be their intention to wrest from His Majesty in the course of the ensuing Campaign, Sir J. B. Warren will receive instructions to direct a Squadron to proceed with the troops named in the Margin [of this letter], towards the places on the Coast, where it may appear to him most advisable that a descent should be made.

The number and description of the Force placed under your Command, as well as the object of the Expedition itself, will point out to you that you are not to look to permanent possession of any place, but to the reëmbarking of the Force as soon as the immediate object of each particular attack shall have been accomplished.

As the object of the Expedition is to harass the Enemy by different attacks, you will avoid the risk of general action, unless it should become necessary to secure your retreat (Bathurst 1813, reproduced in Dudley 1992: 325).”

This is essentially what happened at Elk Landing. However, the local militia’s response caused a “general action” which the British did not want and thus resulted in their withdrawal.

Less celebrated, let alone observed, was a second battle at Elk Landing in July of 1814. Probably pushed into obscurity by another skirmish in Baltimore later that year involving Fort McHenry and the writing of a poem that just happened to become our National Anthem!

Gibb writes that prior to this second attack there was more correspondence between British naval officers. This time, the motivation for more attacks on American municipalities had changed as the British continued to look for strategic advantage.

“This is not to say that British strategy had devolved into revenge. It had not, as appears from a letter of Vice Admiral Cochrane of the Atlantic Squadron to Canada’s Governor-General Sir George Prevost, dated 11 March 1814:

And I hope to make a very considerable diversion in the Chesapeake Bay, to draw off in part the Enemy’s Efforts against Canada—I hope to be able to Keep the Enemy in a constant alarm so as to prevent their sparing any part of their Military force from the State, South of Delaware, which if I succeed in, I do not believe from the temper of the Eastern states that they will be able to recruit their Army from thence (Cochranne to Prevost, 11 March 1814; reproduced in Crawford 2002: 39-40).”

We’ll review the events of April, 1813 in a few weeks.

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