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Elk Landing and the War of 1812

After a year of conflict, in the spring of 1813, the United States and Great Britain were engaged in what would be known as the War of 1812.  The majority of the conflict was to the north, in the Canadian Theatre.  However the number of Americans involved in this region outnumbered the British.  The ensuing strategy was to divert American attention to the Chesapeake Bay and relieve pressure in Canada.  That spring, the British, led by Admiral Sir John Warren, initiated a blockade of the Chesapeake Bay.


Warren wanted to impede the local economy.  His naval blockade captured American merchant ships.   However, his second in command, Rear Admiral George Cockburn was tasked with organizing raids on the shores of the Chesapeake.   These raids were meant to destroy military supplies, ships and commerce, create political upheaval, and thus dimimish support for the war.  [2,3]


Cockburn (pronounced ‘Co-Burn’) earned the reputation as being aggressive.  His raids in the Upper Bay included Frenchtown, Havre de Grace, and Elkton.  He destroyed the Principio Foundry which he described as “one of the most valuable works of the kind in America; the destruction of it, therefore, at this moment, will I trust prove of much national importance” [4].  Cockburn planned and executed the attack and burning of Washington. Newspapers in America labeled him as a savage and war monger [5].


 Following their success in Washington, Admiral Cockburn, along with General Robert Ross in August of 1814 struck at the center of America’s ship building, and third largest city – Baltimore.


Although large warships formed the armada of the attacking British, it was smaller craft that acted as auxiliary warships.  Every frigate, brig and schooner, i.e. ships of the line, carried small barges, 25 to 32 feet long, equipped with sails and oars.  The shallow waters of the Bay restricted maneuverability of larger vessels with deep drafts, but the smaller craft afforded the raiding parties high mobility. [3]


  Described by those who saw them, these smaller boats had decks extending only a short distance from either side, leaving an opening in the middle which extended nearly from bow to stern, so that the oarsmen could stand on the bottom of the boat when rowing. Most of them had a small cannon or two on board of them, which were called swivel guns.  These guns were mounted in such a manner that they could be turned around and fired in any direction. [6]


Citizens of the upper Bay were aware of the blockade in the lower Bay and the British approach north.  In April 1813, Admiral Cockburn had arrived in the northern Chesapeake Bay, near Spesutie Island, Turkey Point and the Elk River.

Lookouts were posted at the summit of Bull’s Mountain, a 300-foot high hill on the Elk Neck peninsula, southeast of Elkton – with a view of both the Elk River to the east, and Havre de Grace on the Susquehanna flats to the west.  Judge Thomas Sample, a young man living at Elk Landing at the time, explains in an 1872 letter to the Cecil Whig: [link] “…from thence was a chain of videttes leading down through Elkton to Bull’s Mountain, at the head of the Chesapeake, and by that means constant watch was kept over the movements of the British fleet in our bay.”

Local defenses in Cecil County were built on the Elk River’s upper reaches, consisting of earthen forts at Frenchtown, Elk Landing, and Fowler’s Shore and

chains stretched across the waterway.  Fort Defiance, opposite Fowler’s Shore, was the largest one protecting the river.   Fort Hollingsworth, at Elk Landing, was built a few yards southeast of the still standing old stone house.  It was an earth work or redoubt mounted with a few pieces of small cannon. [1]

A firsthand account of the cannon and barrier set across Elk Creek at Fort Hollingsworth is described once again by Judge Sample in a letter dated in 1880.

Preparations were made in the Town of Elkton for the British attack. The money and records of the Elkton Bank were hauled to safety.  Many families removed their valuables to the country.  Farmers drove their livestock to the forests and several mills carted away their most important machinery.  To aid the Cecil

County Seat, Lancaster, PA, sent two companies of soldiers to Elkton.  A young man by the name of James Buchanan was an officer in one of these companies. [1] Forty-four years later, he would become the 15th President of the United States.

Raiding parties of British sailors and marines were led by a young and capable Lt. George Augustus Westphal of the British Navy.  His conduct earned praise from Admiral Cockburn who described it as “exemplary and gallant”. [4] A long career would see him serve in over 100 battles, become governor general of India and knighted on his return to England. Later in his career, he would be promoted to Admiral. [7]

On April 29th, 1813, the British reached Frenchtown, about a mile south of Elk Landing.  Defenders at the small log cabin fort could not thwart the attacker’s advance.  The town, which consisted of a few dwellings, a tavern, stables, two warehouses along with two moored vessels were burned.  Frenchtown ceased to exist.

The British next tried to assail Elkton, but were repulsed at Fort Defiance.  They then landed at White Hall, owned by Frisby Henderson.  He was disobliging in requests to show them the route to Elkton.  Legend has it that the British then engaged Hetty Boulden, a young enslaved woman to show them the way to Elkton.  Instead, she took them to Cedar Point, across from Fort Hollingsworth.  


The defenses at Fort Hollingworth, consisted of militia, commanded by Captain Henry Bennett, and six cannons.  Five six-pounders and one twelve-pounder [1, 8].  Fort Hollingsworth’s citizen-soldiers opened fire.  No American or British lives were lost however.  Preparation and skillful misdirection proved the day, and the British retreated.  Elkton had been spared the wrath of the marauding British and the fate of other towns along the shores of the Chesapeake Bay.