Summer 1813: Mysterious “blue lights” appear on the Connecticut coast

Both the so-called Blue Light episode and Hartford Convention took place in Connecticut, leading many Republicans to declare its citizens as among the most treacherous during the War of 1812.

“The blackest treason.”

Newspaper clipping describing
The pro-Republican paper Niles Weekly Register published an accusation by Stephen Decatur accusing “disloyal” Federalists in New London, Connecticut of using “blue-lights” to warn British offshore of American blockade runners.

Niles Register 5 (January 1, 1814), 299.

After hauling the defeated and captured British ship Macedonian back across the Atlantic, Stephen Decatur arrived triumphantly at Newport, Rhode Island on December 4, 1812. After making repairs at New York, Decatur’s ships sailed up the East River on May 18, 1813, in the hope of making their way back across the Atlantic to intercept even more British convoys. But on  June 1, after finding himself surrounded by British ships, Decatur instead made his way up the Thames River at New London, Connecticut. New London was a Federalist stronghold, a region whose citizens found the impact of President Madison’s war on their coastal trade increasingly obnoxious. It was dangerous territory for Decatur: four British blockaders hovered outside the port, eager to recapture their lost Macedonian.

On December 12, 1813, Decatur made a nighttime plan to break out into the open sea. But as he was about to begin his attempt, Decatur received word that the British ships had been alerted by the signals of blue lights from shore. Convinced that the lights were clandestine indicators intended to betray his plans, Decatur abandoned his efforts and turned back upriver. The opportunity to escape was lost. Decatur’s ships would remain in the harbor for the rest of the war.

A week later, Decatur wrote a letter to the Naval Office, charging that New London’s anti-war Federalists had conspired to help the British capture his ships. Decatur’s accusations later found their way into the Republican press.

No one ever established who flashed the blue lights from shore—or even if there had been any blue lights.  But the episode was used to depict New Londoners as “blue-light Federalists,” those who not only opposed the war but who actively negotiated with the British during wartime. Along with the Hartford Convention, the “blue-light Federalist” charge contributed to Connecticut’s image as the most “disloyal” state during the War of 1812. And it added to the rapid demise of the Federalist Party’s political leverage following the War of 1812, a position of power the party would never regain.

Last updated: May 24, 2016