THE GLORIOUS TENTH: Stonington's Own Holiday
By James Boylan
(From Historical Footnotes, August 1999)
This August marks the 185th anniversary of the Battle of Stonington, the encounter during the War of 1812 when a substantial British naval squadron attacked a small coastal village, employing more than 160 cannon and firing more than fifty tons of shells, rockets, missiles, and cannonballs against only three cannons in a makeshift fort. On August 12, 1814, having failed to do whatever it was they intended to do, the British withdrew. In The Battle of Stonington: Torpedoes, Submarines and Rockets in the War of 1812, James Tertius de Kay finds much about the encounter puzzling--that a distinguished British naval officer launched such an attack in the first place, that Stonington resisted so nervily, that so little damage was done, and so little blood shed. Still, the story of the battle was trumpeted about the nation, one of the few instances of heroism in a war largely lacking either victories or heroes.
For its own part, Stonington declared victory. It has always unreservedly regarded the battle as a well-earned and glorious triumph, a miracle created by pluck and luck and worthy of commemoration. Yet it has never been an occasion for gloating, but an interval of instruction and thanksgiving. From the first anniversary, August 10, the second day of the battle, has served as the centerpiece of Stonington's own unique holiday, often celebrated with greater fervor than Independence Day itself.
The first celebration took place on August 10, 1815, a year after the battle, the first year of peace. Stonington's battle flag, the huge, shot-torn banner of sixteen stars and sixteen stripes, was raised at the 1814 fort, shown on old maps as a curved rampart facing to the south and west. A procession marched to the Congregational church, listened to an address by the Rev. Ira Hart, and returned to the fort, where a prayer closed the day. On the evening of August 11, there was a "grand anniversary ball, the assembly being both numerous and brilliant." There was also a visit from the father of Midshipman Thomas Powers of the Royal Navy, who was killed a few days before the battle and buried with honors in Stonington.
The tenth anniversary observance, in 1824, was even more ambitious. After the ceremonies and the oration, dinner was served at Major Paul Babcock's newly opened hotel on what later became Cannon Square. There were toasts. Stonington's famed seafarer, Captain Edmund Fanning, toasted "The Grasshopper Fort," a nickname for the battery. Samuel Copp toasted "American Eighteen-pounders"--the cannon that had defended the village. The toasts went on and on, covering the gamut of patriotic sentiments.
A year later, church bells and the firing of one of the 18-pounders announced the day. Hundreds of spectators poured ashore from a chartered steamboat. There was a procession to church, a march to the battery and, finally, dinner at the hotel, with each toast followed by a volley from the cannon. These observances set in place the custom that August 10 was to be a day of feasting and solemnity.
If a speaker of years later is to be believed, Stonington almost lost the chief artifacts of the battle the next year. In 1826, the federal government evidently tried to haul away the 18-pounders (already thirty-three years old at the time of the battle) for scrap. They had been dragged to the dock when the people of the Borough realized what was happening, arrived in a swarm, took hold of the drag ropes, hauled them back, and saved them for posterity.
After the Civil War, new styles of observance appeared. Stonington having turned prohibitionist, it celebrated in 1872 with no toasts. David Frost, a preacher who had persuaded all but two lonely souls in the Borough to sign the pledge, led the parade. Still, there was food, served on the third floor of John F. Trumbull's factory, next to the old battery.
The celebration in the national centennial year, 1876, was more expansive. It featured a hundred-gun salute, bands, militia, and carriages containing "the Goddess of Liberty with thirteen young Ladies, representing the original thirteen States." There was an address in the Congregational church yard and a poem on the battle, neither the first nor the last, by the Reverend Doctor Albert Gallatin Palmer. Then all adjourned to the sail loft on Water Street to eat. The Stonington Mirror was agog: "Indeed, in the wisdom of its conception, in the perfectness of its execution, in the wealth and variety of regalia, drapery and festoonings, in its well arranged march, in the military bearing of its marshals and officers and in the discipline so thoroughly enforced so generously and promptly accorded, in the abundant provisions of the tables and last thought not least in the intellectual grade of speech and poem and hymn, we do not see how any improvement could have been made."
The 1883 observance was notable for being one of the last in which a substantial number of those who had seen the battle of 1814 were in the procession. The most notable figure, Captain Jeremiah Holmes, had died in 1872. Henry Denison, 90 years old, was listed as the sole participant present; six others were listed as eyewitnesses. Seven participants were said to be still living. The man said to be the last survivor, Captain Thomas Davison, died in 1894 at the age of 93, which meant that he would have served at the age of 13.
After the turn of the century, Stonington began to look toward the grandest celebration of all, the battle centennial of 1914. Planning began in 1912, and in 1913 the Borough hired a pageant specialist, Virginia Tanner, Radcliffe '05, to assemble the main event. The celebration was spread over three days: Firemen's Day (Saturday), when five destroyers from the U.S. Navy arrived; Religious and Historic Day (Sunday), and Patriotic and Pageant Day (Monday). Sunday featured church services and a long program of addresses, readings, and song before a huge crowd assembled in Wadawanuck Park.
Monday was climactic. At noon a plaque provide by the Daughters of the War of 1812 was dedicated at the Atwood Company office building next to the site of the old fort; it was unveiled by Rosamond Spencer Holmes, great-great-granddaughter of Captain Holmes. (This is the plaque that was stolen by parties unknown in the mid-1990s.) After the inevitable dinner at the Congregational church parlors, the pageant parade, with 1,400 participants, got under way, with floats and marchers representing every epoch of Stonington history. According to the souvenir book published afterward, the parade "was generally hailed as a personal triumph for the resource and versatile director." Not content with directing, Virginia Tanner danced a sinuous solo in the dance program at Wequetequock Casino that evening.
The Monday crowd was estimated at 15-20,000, and the Stonington Mirror noted with satisfaction that the police had shooed away or locked up a number of notable crooks before they could ply their trade.
Undeniably, the 1914 observance was the peak, the climax. Nothing that came after could match it. In 1934, a U.S. Navy destroyer paid a call and there was a banquet at Stonington Manor, a band concert, and fireworks. A year later, a big August 10 parade coincided with the Connecticut Tercentenary. Similarly, the observance of Stoningon's Tricentennial in 1949 was timed to coincide with the battle anniversary. The annual village fair, started three years later, was also placed on the Saturday nearest the anniversary, but usually included no ceremonies relating to the battle. The last full-fledged observance came in 1964, on the 150th anniversary. It had a tree planting in Wadawanuck Square, a tour of houses and gardens, a horse show, a memorial service at Stonington Point, and fireworks on Sandy Point. But no banquet.
The publication of de Kay's history in 1990 revived interest. Not only did the work provide a broader understanding of the circumstances and the significance of the battle, but it gave the Stonington community a renewed sense that their town had been, for at least a moment, a focal point of national history. One symptom of renewed interest was the creation in 1997 of a musical, "The Battle of Stonington," based on the de Kay book, created by faculty members and presented by students at Stonington's Pine Point School.
But for the most part, observances since 1914 have been in an erratic decline. Twenty-three years ago, the local historian Henry R. Palmer, Jr., [Historical Footnotes, August 1976] said that "the parades gradually dwindled to no more than a display of the Borough fire engines driving without bands or other fanfare silently around the Borough streets, and finally, to no parades or celebrations at all." Competing observances appeared. The two-day Blessing of the Fleet offers the feasting and dancing once associated with the battle anniversary, and a re-invigorated July 4 observance has taken over the patriotic fervor.
Perhaps this is not all bad. One speaker at the 1914 observance, Judge Gilbert Collins, proposed that a hundred years of celebrating the battle was enough--that thereafter an anniversary of peace be observed. And possibly that is what Stonington, by indirection and default, has done.