The Burning of Georgetown
On the banks of the Eastern Shore’s Sassafras River lie the twin villages of Fredericktown and Georgetown – the former on the north bank in Cecil County and the latter on the south bank in Kent County. The tranquility of these charming villages was upset by fire and fear when British forces made one of their raids on the Eastern Shore during the war of 1812.
During crucial periods such as war, individuals of great courage and leadership often come forth when the occasion demands. Such a person during the War of 1812 was the heroine, Catharine Knight. Better known as Kitty Knight, this brave woman became well-known all over the Eastern Shore for her display of courage in the face of the British sailors and marines.
Kitty Knight was the daughter of John Leach Knight and Catherine Matthews Knight who lived for some time at Knight’s Island before moving to Georgetown in Kent County. Her father was a prominent and active citizen of the area, and her mother’s twin brother, Dr. William Matthews, had served in the General Assembly of Maryland and was also a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1797 to 1799. Miss Knight, who became a celebrity in her own right, was born about 1775.
When the approach of British forces was rumored (Miss Knight was then about 38 years old) in the Sassafras River area, and for that matter all over the Eastern Shore, worry and excitement prodded men into collecting guns and arms in hopes of repelling an invasion. The old men, women and children remained at home to guard personal property, but with the arrival of troops, many of these inhabitants fled to the interior seeking safety for themselves and hiding places for their valuables.
After the British forces landed, after taking fire from militia units on both sides of the river, they proceeded to burn Fredericktown and the lower part of Georgetown, coming finally to two brick houses atop the hill overlooking the river. In one of these lived an old woman, destitute and ill to the extent that she was unable to flee. The torch had already been applied to her home when Kitty Knight arrived at the scene to plead with Rear-Admiral Sir George Cockburn to put out the flames to avoid burning the old woman alive. Although he complied with her wishes the soldiers then ignited the neighboring house which was only a few feet away. Miss Kitty again pleaded with them not to burn the house, as it would surely ignite the old woman’s home.
According to one version, she twice stamped out the flames, and the young officer in charge finally gave the command to leave the house standing. But as the soldiers trooped out of the house, one struck his axe through a panel of the front door, leaving a mark which was pointed out to visitors for years to come. Kitty Knight later purchased this house, which probably accounts for the story that one of the houses she saved was her own.
Frederick G. Usilton, in his History of Kent County, wrote that 25 years after this event, a gentleman from Kent County was touring in England when he met Cockburn’s aide. Learning that Miss Knight was still living, the aide requested that his “sincere compliments” be sent to her.
In the twin towns, the sum total of property destroyed has been recorded as $35,625.88¼. About the only buildings in Georgetown which were not totally or partially destroyed by this invasion were the two brick houses on the hill and the church. A local newspaper of Nov. 22, 1855, in an article referring to Miss Knight’s recent death, printed that “by her heroism at the burning of Georgetown … she saved several families from being made homeless and friendless by the fire and sword …her appeal so moved the commodore that ordered the troops to their barges and left unburned a church and several houses now standing there as monuments to her memory for this noble and hazardous act …”
In 1899, a steamboat which for many years operated upon the Sassafras River and in the Chesapeake Bay, was rebuilt and named the KITTY KNIGHT, the owners doing so to honor her role in the defense of Georgetown.
Kitty Knight, the Eastern Shore’s own heroine of the War of 1812 died in 1855. She is buried in the Knight’s family plot in the graveyard of St. Francis Xavier Church, near Warwick in Cecil County.
The Battle of Caulk’s Field
Up until late summer in 1814, the British were winning the war in the Chesapeake Bay region. Blackened timbers and cracked foundation stones were all that remained of several waterfront villages and plantations. Washington was in ashes and Baltimore would soon be under attack. The Chesapeake was as firmly in British control as the king’s bathtub.
The turning point for American fortunes on the Chesapeake Bay was the battle of Caulk’s Field in Kent County. In one summer night, the British would lose more than a dozen men, a British peer and their firm grasp on Maryland’s bay country. American militia finally stood against disciplined British troops – and won.
Can what happened here be called a battle? It certainly was just that to the 350 or so troops who fought at this place on August 31, 1814. Fifteen British seamen and marines were killed and 27 men were wounded. The British commander, Captain Sir Peter Parker, a dashing aristocrat and well-loved officer who was just 28 years old, was mortally wounded. The Americans had just three men wounded.
After raiding up and down the Chesapeake Bay in 1813, the British turned deadly serious about the war in the summer of 1814. On August 24th, British troops put Washington to the torch. The White House and Capitol building went up in flames. Baltimore would be the next target.
The British invasion plan included diversionary attacks against the Eastern Shore on the opposite side of the bay to prevent the militia there from coming to the aid of Baltimore. The man sent to harass the upper bay was Captain Sir Peter Parker.
Parker was a well-connected rising star in the Royal Navy. His wife was related to Lord Byron, the famed poet. He held the hereditary title of baronet, marking him as a member of the British ruling class.
Parker’s ship, the frigate HMS Menelaus, was accompanied by several smaller vessels. No American ship had any hope of standing up to Menelaus. For Chesapeake Bay residents, the massive warship was the 19th-century equivalent of Darth Vader’s Death Star. The ship was a floating fortress from which the British launched their raids. By late August, Menelaus was anchored off Fairlee Creek with its guns trained on a waterfront plantation owned by a family named Waller.
Fairlee Creek is a sleepy, tea-colored waterway edged with woods, fields and 18th-century plantation homes. Parker found easy pickings among these rich plantations. British raiding parties carried off wine, ham and chickens, salted fish and smoked oysters. The raiders burned whatever they could not take with them, including storage barns and the genteel old houses.
By the time the local militia saw smoke rising on the horizon, the British raiders had already returned to their frigate. These hit-and-run tactics proved as frustrating to the militia as they were successful for the British raiders.
Finally, on August 30, the tables turned in favor of the Kent County militia. Col. Philip Reed was camped with half his regiment three miles inland on a field surrounded by woods. It was a typical muggy August night, when even darkness did not bring much relief from the heat and humidity.
After so much abuse at the hands of the British raiders, Reed was probably frustrated and spoiling for a fight. He had with him 174 men of the 21st Regiment of the Maryland Militia – mostly townspeople and farmers, certainly not disciplined troops like those of the British. Since the beginning of the war, there had been several alarms about British raiders, but so far the militia had never met the enemy in force.
At age 54, Reed was an experienced leader. He had fought in the Revolutionary War and served as a United States senator. That night he would prove he was both capable and lucky.
Aboard the Menelaus, Sir Peter was busy writing a prophetic note to his wife in England.
August 30th 1814
My Darling Marianne:
I am just going on desperate service and entirely depend upon valor and example for its successful issue. If anything befalls me I have made a sort of will. My country will be good to you and our adored children. God Almighty bless and protect you all. Adieu, most beloved Marianne, adieu!
P.S. I am in high health and spirits
From the Menelaus, boats launched in the moonlight and carried as many as 170 British troops ashore. It was supposed to be a surprise attack, but the raiders soon stumbled across American pickets, who fired on the British. “Everybody heard those shots,” said a local historian. “The game was up.”
The American militia rushed to meet the raiders. Both sides stumbled toward each other across the dark woods and fields. The British were guided by a slave they had liberated from a local plantation. The slave led them toward the American camp, which was five miles from the landing site. Meanwhile, the Americans were heading for the area where they had heard the pickets’ shots.
The Americans would have been cut off from their camp and artillery by the British force if it had not been for two visiting militia members who went scouting on their own and saw the raiders on a back road. The scouts hurried to alert their comrades and the Americans returned just in time to take up positions in the cornfield near their camp.
As the first group of British marines finished climbing over the felled trees, they were ambushed by the Americans. Most of the British who died in the battle fell at that spot.
Reed immediately returned to the first ridge as the British formed a line and charged up the hill toward the militia’s cannons. American muskets and artillery cut the British to pieces, killing and wounding several men, included a midshipman killed at the forefront of the attack.
Captain Sir Peter Parker was among the mortally wounded.
Suffering 30 percent casualties, their gallant young captain dead, and in peril at any moment of being overrun by American militia, the British made their way back to Menelaus. They carried Parker on their shoulders, stopping periodically so a new detail of men could take on the weight. In this way they crossed the five miles of unfamiliar territory at night in the sweltering heat. At one point, they were attacked by American militia cavalry. Fortunately for the British, the militia ran off as the British marines returned fire. Upon reaching the waterfront, the British had trouble finding the landing boats they had hidden there. They finally returned to Menelaus around 4 a.m., battered and exhausted.
In his official report of the battle, Reed wrote: “You will be surprised, Sir, when I inform you that in an engagement of so long continuance, in an open field, when the moon shone brilliantly on the rising ground occupied by our troops, while the shade of the neighboring woods under the protection of which the enemy fought gave us but an indistinct view of anything but the flash of his guns, that under the disparity of numbers against us, and the advantage of regular discipline on the side of the enemy we had not one man killed, and only one sergeant, one corporal and one private wounded, and those slightly.”
Please follow this link to The Historical Society of Kent County, Maryland for more historical information regarding the Battle of Caulks Field and the Burning of Georgetown.
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