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Bizarre History of Cape May -- Cape May County saw its share of action in War of 1812

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The War of 1812, more accurately described as the war of 1812, 1813, 1814 and 1815, was referred to by at least one chronicler as the war that few people at the time understood why it happened in the first place.

Today, as the 200th anniversary of the war is marked, little attention is being given to that occasion in the media or elsewhere. If the Korean War is called “The Forgotten War” then The War of 1812 certainly deserves to be referred to as “The Lost War,” despite all the history it has made.

It was in June of that year that James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, became the nation’s first president to sign a declaration of war, a war that was to last from June 18 of 1812 to Feb. 18 of 1815.

When war broke out, the then-named Cape Island was sprouting its wings as a seashore place to visit for one’s health as well as for general vacation relaxation. Better times were still to come, but for the present the resort to be renamed Cape May more than a half century later was doing very well, thank you.

Then came the news of the war and with the ocean on one side, the bay at the pointed end and the wide river on the other side there came fears that the cape would be drawn into war with the British Empire once more.

A major catalyst for the war was the impressment of American sailors onto British ships. That’s a fancy way of saying the British boarded American ships and captured their sailors for service with not so jolly old England. Unhappy too, not the least for self serving reasons, were Americans about the way the British treated the Indians on the western frontier, policies the United States contended delayed its western expansion and settlement.

So the war went on, not without opposition from within Cape Island from its two Trenton representatives, Joseph Falkinburg and Robert M. Holmes, later to become the county tax collector. Falkinburg claimed the war would bring economic disaster to the area. It did not. To the contrary, communities enjoyed fairly good financial times.

But there were military concerns within the territory of the cape, some coming to life during the first two years of the war when British landing parties came ashore and took cattle and fresh water to satisfy their hunger and thirsts. They are also reported to have seized several residents including two women, and to have set fire to some vessels.

The locals set up their defenses, some of them innovative. The Board of Freeholders authorized the strategic placement of two antiquated Revolutionary War cannons, but first they had to be mounted on carriages and Holmes, the anti-war activist and the county’s official money man, refused to come up with the money.

In March of 1813, the grim reality of the war set in when the freeholders appropriated $300 for the purchase of acquired equipment, gunpowder and large buckshot. Dr. John Dickinson, a Revolutionary War colonel and then the county tax collector, was ordered to distribute the war equipment and materials to the local militia.

Another $150, originally designated for causeway construction, was transferred in the county budget several months later for the purchase of cannon balls, gunpowder and materials for the making of cartridges.

Things grew especially worrisome when the British fleet showed up at the mouth of the Delaware River in 1813 and took command of the waterways. One farmer-carpenter, William Douglass, a well known surname until this day in Cape May-Lower Township history, showed his ingenuity by painting huge logs to make them look like cannons. Then he placed them in what is now the Goshen Creek area in an attempt to deter any possible invasion.

Abigail Hughes, whose last name also is perennially famous in this county’s history, seems to have followed the footsteps of a legendary Revolution War heroine whose name has gone down in history as Molly Pitcher but who is believed to have been Mary Ludwig Hays McCauly, or a composite of all women in those early days who performed acts of war-time courage.

Among Pitcher’s deeds, one that is most prominently mentioned in New Jersey is her carrying water under fire to wounded soldiers in the Battle of Monmouth and then taking over a cannon when her husband (named Hays in one version) was shot down. During the battle, a British cannon ball is said to have been shot between her legs and to have torn off the bottom of her skirt.

“Well, it could have been worse,” she said philosophically as she continued to load the cannon.

Abigail Hughes’ story may have been even more courageous in the War of 1812. When the grandmother witnessed barges of Englishmen heading for the Cape May County shore to loot the land, she quickly placed herself in front of a cannon and implored the militia to hold fire.

“You shall not fire,” she shouted as she spread her arms in front of the artillery. “We may not be disturbed if we don’t, but we will surely suffer their vengeance if we do.”

Her strategy apparently worked. The intended invaders sailed downstream and landed at Town Bank instead.

In other places the local farmers were hiding their cattle and sheep in the swamps and woods from the British who were coming ashore to steal them. It was believed that the enemy had also discovered Lake Lily in the area of today’s Cape May Point as a source of potable water, so the Americans are said to have dug a channel from the bay to the lake so there would be an intrusion of salt water not suitable for drinking.

Named adjutant of the local and sometimes unruly forces was Joshua Townsend, a future freeholder, who with Furman Leaming led the militia in fighting the British parties as they tried to land at Town Bank, Edmunds Landing at Fishing Creek, Pierce’s Point and Dyer’s Creek. More than a dozen English invaders were said to be killed at Town Bank.

The war presented one of the big ironies of American history. One of the United States’ goals was to take Canada from the British Empire. In fact, it tried several invasions of the northland. Today the United Kingdom is probably the best ally of America and every summer Canadians “invade” Cape May County to enjoy the land and ocean that the British once coveted.

Although the three combatant nations all claimed victory, historians say the war of two years and eight months ended in a stalemate. Canada marks its anniversary with some ceremonies each year, but it usually passes uneventfully in the United States and the United Kingdom, upstaged in America by the more historic Revolutionary and Civil Wars which preceded and followed it and in United Kingdom by the much larger and concurrent Napoleonic War.

For those who want to search and find local history of that war, an appropriate site is the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church Cemetery on Seashore road in Lower Township. Among those from that era who are buried there are the heroine Abigail Hughes on the north side of the church near the front door and Abijah Reeves who served in the War of 1812 and the Revolutionary War and whose family name also continues here today.


(Some of the information for this article was researched at the Cape May County Library in Court House, in the records of the Cold Spring Presbyterian Church Cemetery and in the book, “Cape May County, New Jersey,” by Jeffery M. Dorwart.)

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