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Chaptico's Encounter in the War of 1812

Story by Jackie Zilliox

After America gained its freedom from England in 1776, the small town of Chaptico enjoyed a quiet of 35 years until 1810.

Nationally, young America was doing well in exports and business was good internationally. That is until France began to seize all neutral ships that stopped at English ports. Then England adopted a policy to seize all neutral ships that did not stop over at their ports before going on to the continent. When England began pressing U.S. naval personnel into their service, Congress declared war in 1812.

The bulk of the U.S. Army had been sent to Canada to defend our border from the English, leaving the local militia and a few military units to deal with any incursions. There was barely a U.S. Navy; no funding had been appropriated in our newly formed government. What naval vessels we had were positioned in key ports, which left the waters of Southern Maryland and Virginia wide open for enemy attack.

In February 1813, a squadron of Royal Naval warships under Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn sailed into the Chesapeake Bay and set up a blockade. Southern Maryland was about to deal with a battle-hardened army that defeated Napoleon escorted by a superior navy that was aimed at destroying trade and shipping from Baltimore and the surrounding area.

The English Navy's target was not only privateer and merchant ships, but their goal was to halt commerce wherever possible-namely, by destroying all trade storehouses. Tobacco, the cash crop of the day, was the largest prize.

Rear Admiral Cockburn had two views on how to treat the Americans. One view sought revenge on citizens who had once been English loyalists but had stood with revolutionaries and those who had been given grants when they came to America. Their names and properties, still known to British intelligence, were sought out. But they weren't the only ones targeted.

In the summer of 1814 Midshipman Frederick Chamier, who served on the British ship Menelaus, wrote in his journal, "If by any stretch of argument we could establish the owner of a house, cottage, hut, etc., to be a militia-man, that house would be burnt, because we found arms therein; that is to say, we found a duck gun, or a file. It so happens, that in America every man must belong to the militia; and, consequently, every man's house was food for a bonfire.…"

The other side of Rear Admiral Cockburn's view was to grant mercy to all who acted "friendly." He paid a fourth of the fair market value to the owners of livestock that he took, which was very fair in his opinion.

It became common for the British to frequently raid farms and towns along the shores and help themselves to cooking utensils, sewing needles or whatever they needed. Slaves were freed, and sometimes their owners would be arrested and indicted for treason to the crown. The freeing of slaves was also part of England's objective in causing economic disruption. It was a devastating blow to the plantation economy that was felt for years.

When the English arrived at the little town of Chaptico in St. Mary's County on July 30, 1814, news had preceded them about the extensive damage done to the neighboring town of Leonardtown on July 19, 1814.

An excerpt from an article in the Chronicles of St. Mary's published on August 14, 1814, reported: "In this little village [Chaptico] they got about 30 hogs heads of tobacco and no other plunder, the inhabitants having moved all their property out of their grasp. Yet here they made a most furious attack on every window, door, and pane of glass in the village, not one was left in the whole….They picked their stolen geese in the church, dashed the pipes of the church organ on the pavement, opened a family vault in the churchyard, broke open the coffins, and stirred the bones about with their hands in search of hidden treasure. All this havoc not a man was in arms within 15 miles of them, and they worked until 10 o'clock at night, before they got the tobacco on board their vessels. Owing to the shallowness of the creek [Chaptico Bay] that leads up to Chaptico warehouse, they rolled more than half the tobacco one mile."

General Stuart wasn't the only one to deal Chaptico a non-supportive blow. Pleas for assistance were made to Washington, but President Madison's reply was that "he could not afford to protect every Southern Marylander's turnip patch." To add further insult, the president ordered the 36th infantry under Colonel Henry Carberry removed from St. Mary's County.

Brigadier General Philip Stuart, who commanded the Maryland State Militia in Charles and St. Mary's counties, was ordered to keep his forces in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Calvert counties. One concern with allowing them to remain in St. Mary's County was British forces could cut them off while on the peninsula. Additionally, Maryland's militia was vital to defend the larger port towns of Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis.

Immediately following the attack on Chaptico, Reverend Joseph Jackson described it as such: "Everything we have belonging on earth is at the disposal of the enemy. Our government does for us what was to be expected, precisely nothing."

The damage to Chaptico's Christ Church was extensive. The British used the church for a stable and the horses did much damage to the tile floor and interior. The tomb of the Key family, relatives of Francis Scott Key who later wrote the Star Spangled Banner, was also desecrated. Ironically, the church was part of the King and Queen Parish of the Church of England. In essence, they destroyed one of their own.

The following year, a petition seeking a lottery to pay for repairs to the church was granted and raised $258. A donation of two stoves by a Baltimore citizen named Mr. Heath was sent in 1815 with a note reading: "For the injuries your church sustained by the British and others."

Chaptico, established in 1683, was one of four ports of entry in St. Mary's County prior to the English invasion of 1813.The town never fully recovered. "Chaptico," an Indian word meaning, "it is a big broad river," is on Chaptico Bay, which empties into the Wicomico River. There were 12 resident Indian tribes, one being the Chaptico Indians.

By 1666, the Maryland General Assembly sought and gained alliance with all 12 of the Indian tribes. The new colony offered protection to our Indian allies, however, they were required to live by the laws of the community. After a few years of struggling with their new yoke of lawful citizenship, the younger men of the Chaptico Indians became dissatisfied with their second-rate citizenship and competition for food and livelihood. Illness brought by the Europeans, warring Indian factions, and a large exodus to the hills of Northern Virginia contributed to the diminished Indian population.

After the Revolutionary War, Chaptico was one of two St. Mary's County towns that experienced retail growth. In 1792, Chaptico had one of the first post offices in the county. By 1800 it was one of three polling places for the county and by about 1810 a stagecoach route was established from Ridge to Charles County. Up to the 1820s, the town of Chaptico had two stores, two granaries, a tavern, three stables, a blacksmith shop, three houses, and Christ Church, built in 1736. Shipping continued until the early part of the 20th century.

Eventually, port towns such as Chaptico silted in and died out, and towns such as Charlotte Hall became St. Mary's County's economic growth points. Today, Chaptico is probably most well known for Christ Episcopal Church (37501 Zach Fowler Rd.), which was damaged during the War of 1812 and in which several members of the Francis Scott Key family are buried. The church is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the town remains a quaint community of families and small businesses.

This site contains select articles from our hardcopy magazine from the past ten plus years.
As such, some of the information in this particular article may no longer be current.

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