By Emily J. Weitz; Photography by Michael Heller
On July 11, 1813, five barges arrived in Sag Harbor carrying British troops. It was the middle of the War of 1812, and this brand new country was still fighting for its place in the world. The British had launched a series of attacks across Long Island, burning villages to the ground and taking what provisions they could find to support their massive war ships in the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean. Presumably, they thought Sag Harbor would be a good port to invade. They were wrong.
According to the official report, written by General Abraham Rose, the British troops that arrived in the port of Sag Harbor were met with “a reception so warm and spirited from our militia that they abandoned the operation and retreated.”
It was a proud moment in Sag Harbor history, and local resident and Village Dockmaster David Thommen wants to honor it by dedicating a plaque and raising a flag at the location of the old fort on High Street, exactly 200 years after the fact.
“We had a fort up here on the hill,” says Thommen, “made of stone and clay and timber. It had a wall above it with cut-out holes for cannons, and it had a 9-pound cannon and an 18-pound cannon. The British came in around 2 a.m. with 5 barges and 100 men.”
There were two men on the wharf that night: Henry Green and John Gann were the sentinels.
“They ran from the wharf, sounding the alarm, which was a volley of shots,” Thommen describes from his research. “All the people in the village were armed and ready to go.”
At this time, the war was in full swing and Sag Harbor was prepared. Most of the women and children were in Connecticut or other safer havens.
“The fort [in Sag Harbor] was like the national guard,” says Thommen. “It was commanded by the fourth regiment of the New York Artillery under the command of Major John Jermain. There were 3,000 men assigned to various forts on Long Island, and the soldiers would bounce around.”
They knew Sag Harbor would be particularly appealing to the British troops because of its sheltered, deepwater port. The British had already landed in other local areas. They had come to Montauk, for example, and taken cattle from the ranches. They would offer to pay for the cattle, but if the people refused, the British would take it by force. They needed supplies.
The real reason they were here in the area was to block the trade between New York and the rest of the world, and they had five massive man o war vessels out in the Atlantic to serve that purpose. But the people on the ships had a continuous need for provisions from the mainland. And that’s why the British needed places like Sag Harbor.
“The British military was the most powerful military force in the world,” says Thommen, “and we were a fledgling little country. This boggles me. They had ships out there with 750 men on them and 74 cannons on the ships… But they needed supplies. They needed food and fresh water. So they would come into these villages, and take what they needed.”
When the British troops arrived at the wharf, American soldiers were commanded to hold their fire. They waited until the troops had unloaded their weapons, and then they opened fire. The British abandoned most of their weapons and fled back to the barges. After that, the American forces bolstered their troops in Sag Harbor, preparing for a larger attack that never came.
“The British figured that the US military would have flooded the place with soldiers,” says Thommen, “which they did.”
It was Sag Harbor’s moment of heroism in the War of 1812.
“With the 200th anniversary of this battle,” says Thommen, “I thought we should have a dedication to the site. I have a bronze plaque that will be unveiled at the dedication, and the flag that will fly will be the same stars and stripes that flew over Fort McHenry when Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner.”
The flag is a modern flag with the design of the time: 15 stars and 15 stripes.
Thommen’s family has been on High Street for five generations, and he grew up playing and climbing on the fort. But he never remembers a flag flying there. On Memorial Day, the American Legion has always come to set a wreath at the fort, but that’s been the extent of it.
This Thursday at 2 p.m., exactly 200 years after the battle, local dignitaries and others interested in this ceremony will be present as the site on High Street is dedicated, the plaque unveiled, and the flag raised. And that flag will continue to fly year-round, with Thommen overseeing it, as a reminder of the brave defense of this port, long, long ago.