The Town that Fooled the British?

Illustration of woman walking down stairs, holding a baby, watching a black cannon ball bounce down in front of them.
A cannonball allegedly crashed through William Merchant’s house and bounced near his wife and daughter, giving the 1805 structure the name “Cannonball House.”

Located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, the town of St. Michaels is known through local lore for “fooling the British” during the War of 1812 by using lanterns to misdirect enemy gunfire high above the town.

August 10, 1813 brought an unpleasant surprise for Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A dozen British war barges were rowing into the Miles River headed for St. Michaels, a boat- building community known for launching at least four successful privateers. In the predawn darkness the British overran an American battery and spiked the cannons after shots had been fired by the defenders alerting the town. With their surprise lost and militia gathering, the British decided to withdraw and let their sloop Conflict fire some rounds, damaging several local homes.

“We were fortunate enough not to have a man hurt, although the grapeshot flew like hail in the town, and their balls passed through a number of houses.”
– Excerpt from a letter from St. Michaels quoted in Baltimore’s Niles’ Weekly Register

On August 26, 1813, the British were probing the defenses of St. Michaels again, this time with twenty-one hundred men in sixty barges. The large force landed about six miles from town and sent three hundred men to attack a nearby militia camp. More troops, sailing up the Miles River, alerted locals that if they stayed in their homes no trouble would come their way. About one and one-half miles from St. Michaels, eighteen hundred attackers collided with five hundred determined Americans supported by cavalry and artillery. The largest Eastern Shore battle of the war lasted only a few volleys as the English quickly withdrew. The relieved citizens of St. Michaels had repelled the invaders twice in a month.

Local Legend

St. Michaels residents proudly retell the story of some quick-thinking townspeople who fooled the British attackers in the early morning of August 10, 1813. As the British approached, the citizens reportedly placed lanterns high in the trees, on ships’ mastheads, and on the roofs of buildings so that the enemy would be fooled into firing over the town.

There are at least two problems with the story. First, it was already light, if overcast, during the cannonading that morning and St. Michaels was clearly visible. Second, when H.M. sloop Conflict fired its cannons at the village, it scored several hits. One round shot reportedly crashed through the roof of shipwright William Merchant's house, rolled across the attic, and bounced in front of Mrs. Merchant carrying her young daughter.

excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake" by Ralph E. Eshelman and Burton K. Kummerow

Last updated: May 19, 2020

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