On the Day When the British Came to Loot Elkton, A Slave Leads the Invaders into an Ambush

Maryland’s War of 1812 history isn’t just about major battles, military commanders, political leaders and the powerful. It is also about a time of great fright on the shores of the Chesapeake for everyday people as enemy soldiers terrorized the region, “firing private property and robbing hen houses.” With the 200th anniversary of this conflict approaching we’re fortunate that many unpublished accounts by regular citizens have been passed down in diaries, letters, and journals. These firsthand, eyewitness tales, while filling in gaps in our understanding of the past, also give us a different vantage point for viewing the trying events of 200 years ago when cries of the British are coming rang out in the middle of the night.  Since the Chesapeake region is getting ready for the Bicentennial, I will periodically share the stories of some of these ordinary people.

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1858 Map of the Upper Elk River

When a British raiding party stormed Frenchtown during the War of 1812 an African-American woman, as brave as any man in the Cecil Militia, exhibited a great deal of gumption as hundreds of Royal Marines plundered the hamlet.  Twenty-year-old Hetty Boulden, the slave who risked her life shielding Elkton, was the property of Frisby Henderson.  She, along with five other servants, lived with the master’s family at White Hall, a fine mansion on the banks of the river just north of the village.  Frenchtown was a place of some importance during this time for it was the transfer point on the great travel and freight route between Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Hetty gave an account of the pillaging of the upper Elk to a reporter from the Cecil Whig when she was 70 years old.  On a morning in April 1813 the lookouts at a small fortification protecting the area shouted “they’re coming, they’re coming” as the Royal Marines rowed into view.  Easily overrunning the small battery on the shoreline, the enemy proceeded to plunder and burn the wharf, fishery, warehouses, goods and vessels lying at anchor.

One company was ordered to advance to Elkton, a distance of about three miles.  Passing up the shoreline they stopped at the door of White Hall, where Mr. Henderson told them that the barges wouldn’t be able to reach the place by way of the creek. So an officer ordered Hetty to show the Royal Marines the way by land. Although she was terribly frightened, the enemy commander assured her that she wouldn’t be hurt. For her assistance in escorting them to the town they intended to loot, the militiary-man said he would give her “more money than she could carry.”

The approaching invaders created a big scare in Elkton.  Roads to the north were filled with women and children carrying bundles of every description while the men rallied to the nation’s defense and Hetty escorted the English through unfamiliar territory.  She could have easily and more safely marched the enemy up the direct road to town but instead she fooled the contingent, taking them to Cedar Point, opposite Fort Hollingsworth.

As they stood at the edge of the Big Elk Creek, directly in front of the garrison protection the county seat, the Cecil Militia poured shot into the enemy.  That was about noon and Hetty recalled that they took no cannon with them, only their muskets. The swearing soldiers, having been caused to blunder into range of local defenses, concluded they had better go back.  But they said they would torch everything.

Built about 1800, the Frenchtown Tavern survived the attack, but was destroyed by fire in the 1960s

Returning to White Hall she heard them threaten to hang Mr. Henderson before his own door for deceiving them.  Several of the barges approached Elkton by another route, going up the river. Militia there also fired upon the British and obstacles in the water halted the advance. The enemy, having neither grape nor canister shot with them, could do no harm so they rowed back down the river, the Americans firing away at them all the time.

Their primary objective achieved, the destruction of the military stores, warehouses, and vessels, they sailed back down the river. It was now the turn for Havre de Grace. Hetty recalled seeing the smoke from the burning town. She lived well into the second half of the 19th century. When the aging African-American granted the interview she was residing with Dr. R. C. Carter of Cherry Hill.

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4 responses to “On the Day When the British Came to Loot Elkton, A Slave Leads the Invaders into an Ambush

  1. Mike,

    Thanks for posting this interesting and informative piece. As you noted, it just goes to show just how rich our local history is and what an important part local events played in our nation’s history. Thank you for digging it out of the archives.

    As I read your account I was reminded of another, not dissimilar account written by Judge Samples, an Elkton native, when he too was elderly. His letters to the Whig from the state of Indiana, also contain much information from a “regular person’s” point of view that we can all relate to. These kinds of stories should be told and retold to whomever has an interest in history. One way of conveying these stories is through character interpretation, something that is done with great success in Dover, Delaware, Port Deposit, Maryland, and Colonial Williamsburg.

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful, some warm summer evening, to gather at Historic Elk Landing near where the real skirmish occurred, and walk, guided by candle light, along the Little Elk Creek and the great Stone House and listen to character interpreters retell these stories? There would be old Judge Samples and Miss Hatty Boulden discussing their ancient memories to young and old alike. I’ll bet you could almost hear the musket and canon fire from 200 years ago. Wouldn’t it be wonderful?

  2. Mike:
    Enjoyed your article on “An African-American Slave Recalls a British Attack on Frenchtown.”
    After the holidays how about you and I getting together – finally!

    Scott Sheads
    Historian, Fort McHenry

  3. Thanks Scott. Let’s definitely do that and I’ll pull together these accounts for you. They’re largely unused so it would be great to get them out into the record more as this celebration comes up.

  4. Mike,
    Wonderful article. At some point Captain T. Marmaduke Wybourn of H.M. Royal Marunes must have realized he really wasn’t on the road any more. That’ll treach not to stop and ask directions!

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