There were several important battles during the War of 1812, but here’s a story you likely haven’t heard: On the night of Sept. 8, 1814 – less than a month after the burning of Washington, D.C. – the British launched a sneak attack upon the tiny fishing village of Sandy Bay. Lacking muskets and cannon, the brave townsfolk are said to have hurled rocks at the enemy using their stockings as slings.
I discovered this curious incident while on a recent trip to Rockport, Massachusetts (which, prior to 1840, was called Sandy Bay). This picturesque town features Bearskin Neck, a long, narrow strip of land jutting into the Atlantic Ocean from which generations of fishermen earned a living. During the War of 1812, Bearskin Neck was home to the Old Stone Fort and barracks, erected to provide protection from the British warships that would patrol the coast and prevent townsfolk from fishing in the bay.
The old fort no longer exists, however a historic plaque at Bearskin Neck’s rocky tip commemorates the Sept. 8 1814 attack and includes a cryptic reference to how the town defended itself.
Talk about Yankee ingenuity! Imagine taking on the fearsome British Royal Navy – David and Goliath-style – with nothing but chunks of granite and the socks off your feet.
Trouble is, the stockings incident is impossible to verify, according to Anita Sanchez, educator and author of the novel The Invasion of Sandy Bay.
The historic plaque’s mysterious reference inspired Sanchez, who grew up on Cape Ann, to write her novel. “I was fascinated by the stockings incident,” Sanchez explains. “I loved the idea of the ingenious townsfolk… Sadly, I’ve spent many, many hours researching this and I can find no reference at all to the stockings.”
The invasion was a beloved part of town history during the 19th century and was often referred to in commemorative speeches (sans any reference to stockings). While Sanchez considers the invasion to be among the strangest in American history, the memory of it faded after 1900. In fact, very few Rockport residents had heard of the event until Sanchez published her book in 2008.
While Sanchez included a fictionalized version of the incident in her book, The Invasion of Sandy Bay contains many factual details about the British invasion. Turns out, it was more a comedy of errors than a brilliant military strategy.
On the night of Sept. 8, 1814, the redcoats decided to invade Sandy Bay. Two barges were dispatched: One landed ashore and the British captured American sea fencibles who’d been caught sleeping on the job. The second barge fired a cannonball at the town, but the force of the discharge was so strong that the barge began to sink. The nine crew members struggled ashore and were immediately taken prisoner by the townspeople.
Although the Sandy Bay townsfolk favoured a prisoner exchange, the leader of the local American militia refused. So, they secretly approached the British commander and not only negotiated the exchange, but convinced him to turn a blind eye whenever townsfolk needed to fish the bay.
While researching the book, Sanchez discovered a journal entry by Ebenezer Pool who was an eyewitness to the invasion. She also read many interviews conducted during the 1800s with some of the event participants. There’s no mention of stockings. And while it’s true that the British threw the town’s only two cannons into the bay, “it’s highly unlikely that the entire town ran out of ammunition, as the [historic] sign claims,” Sanchez says. “They certainly had muskets.”
But no knitted weaponry.
Sanchez still wonders why the historical plaque – likely erected in the 1960s – makes a special point of describing the stockings defence. “There must be something behind it,” Sanchez says. “It could well have happened, and perhaps someone remembered and passed the story on verbally. But I doubt that many of the townsfolk were doing it, or it would have been recorded.”
Still, Sanchez says she fell love with the Sandy Bay folk when she learned that instead of letting their enemies drown, “they pulled them out of the water and treated them well. I also enjoy the story of the British captain who kept his word about never bothering Sandy Bay fishermen again.”
The Invasion of Sandy Bay is available at Amazon.com.
Anita Sanchez blogs about nature and unloved plants in odd places, at Unmowed.com.