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
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
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
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
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
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.