A warship of the Royal Navy once bombarded the town of Lewes in Sussex County in the US State of Delaware.
It happened in 1813 at a time when Britain and her colony Canada were at war with America.
The attack on Lewes was one of a series of naval and military actions along America’s eastern seaboard, the best known of which led to a raid on Washington that saw the British burn down the White House. In return the Americans dished us out a drubbing at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 when neither side knew that a peace treaty ending the war had been signed in Europe the previous December!
Before I recount the story behind the naval attack on Lewes let’s first look at the history of Sussex County, Delaware. The town that would later become Lewes was originally founded by Dutch settlers in 1631 and was named Swan Valley (Zwaanendael). Unfortunately the 32 inhabitants were all killed the following year after upsetting the local Indian tribe.
Dutch interest in the area was only rekindled when English colonists in nearby Maryland looked set to move in. In 1663 a group of Mennonites, a Protestant sect, established a new settlement. They too were unlucky for the British soon came out on top in a colonial power struggle and in1664 they turned up to raze the village to the ground so that “not even a nail was left there”.
Another settlement populated by British colonists gradually grew up around an area that the Dutch called Hoernkills. Late in 1673 the Dutch returned to reclaim what they saw as their land and began building houses again. As a consequence English militia from Maryland sallied forth and expelled the Dutch, burning down their homesteads for good measure. In 1680, King Charles II authorized his brother, the Duke of York, to establish a new order in the locale. A log courthouse was built and the settlement was re-named New Deale. A Church of England congregation was established and a Presbyterian church was built in 1682.
That same year saw the Delaware colonies awarded to William Penn by King Charles II as payment of a family debt. Penn had several connections to Sussex. As a Quaker he was a frequent visitor to the “Blue Idol” Quaker Meeting House at Coolham near Horsham. More significantly, he married a Sussex lass, Gulielma Springett, who hailed from the village of Ringmer.
From these links it shouldn’t be a surprise that when Penn arrived in the New World in 1682, he renamed Deale County as Sussex County and the New Deale settlement became Lewes. He also gave the name Seaford to another village. However, it’s a bit of a puzzle as to why Lewes in Sussex County is a town on the Atlantic coast while nearby Seaford is some seven miles inland!
Present-day Lewes proudly proclaims itself as "The First Town in The First State", reflecting Delaware’s very early declaration of independence from Britain in June 1776.
My wife Barbara and myself have toured Delaware and of course simply had to visit Lewes. It’s a pleasant town with a canal connecting it to the sea and has a ferry link to New Jersey. Although the population is only around 3,000 it enjoys city status. In the Lewes Museum we saw a map of the English Lewes but apart from sharing the same civic seal the two towns have little in common: Delaware has no heights to even remotely rival the South Downs. Lewes is pristinely clean and tidy and last year won the “America in Bloom” title in the small town category.
Colonial Lewes was a port of call for pirates and it is said that one of these was Captain James Kidd. Folklore has it that when he set sail again, his ship was lighter by 17 tons of gold that he had buried in the local sand dunes.
Let’s now return to the occasion when the Royal Navy attacked Lewes on 5th April 1813. The ship in question was HMS Poictiers, so-named after an English victory in France. The bombardment lasted 72 hours but was almost entirely ineffectual with the only casualties being chickens, a dog and some pigs. Several waterfront homes still bear battle scars and one, “Cannon Ball House”, boasts a six-pound projectile imbedded in the brick foundations.
HMS Poictiers was later much more successful in a naval action off the Delaware coast. The US ship Wasp had seized half a dozen British merchantmen and captured HMS Frolic, their sloop escort. HMS Poictiers happened on the scene and opened fire on the Wasp. She soon surrendered and along with HMS Frolic was then escorted to British-held Bermuda.
Before the American Civil War, Lewes was a stop on the Underground Railway, a route for fugitive slaves escaping the southern states. Delaware was largely set against slavery but not entirely. Lewes contained a number of safe houses for runaways that were identified by the residents placing a single candle in a high window.
In more recent wartime America’s eastern seaboard became infested with German U-Boats preying on merchant shipping. Local legend recounts how when the German submarines ran low on rations, they would sometimes surface just off the coast and then send their best English-speaking sailors in a dingy to paddle to shore. During 1942 and 1943, small grocery stores in and around Lewes, Delaware, reported selling eggs and loaves of bread to very polite blond men in dark suits!