Matilda O’Neill

Illustration of a girl with brown hair looking concerned
Matilda O'Neill has been credited with helping to secure her father's release from the British. credit: (c) Gerry Embleton

During the War of 1812, 15-year-old Matilda O'Neill reportedly helped to secure the release of her father John O'Neill when he was taken as a prisoner of war by the British.

On the morning of May 3, 1813, British forces attacked the town of Havre de Grace, MD. One man, John O’Neill, remained at the town’s earthen gun battery and singlehandedly loaded and fired a cannon at the approaching British troops. He was later captured in town while trying to rally his fellow militiamen to return to the battery and defend it. The British troops then pillaged and burned Havre de Grace, destroying nearly three-quarters of the town.

John O’Neill was taken by the British as a prisoner of war aboard H.M. frigate MAIDSTONE. His prospects looked bleak, but a plea, remembered in local lore, won his freedom. It appears that Matilda gained access to a town flag-of-truce delegation that rowed out to the British ship seeking a parole for their American captives.

Whatever transpired, John O’Neill was paroled after only three days of captivity. The story goes that Matilda so impressed Admiral Cockburn that he not only released her father but also gave her a gold-mounted, tortoise shell box. That box, with its story of family loyalty and love, is now one of the War of 1812 treasures preserved at the Maryland Center for History and Culture.

[Text from "In Full Glory Reflected" and used with permission from the authors.]

Last updated: July 5, 2024

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