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Old School Film Hack

War of 1812 – The Battle of the Ice Mound… Reloaded

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HMS Blossom, sister to the HMS Dauntless (Credit: Wikipedia)

The HMS Dauntless was one of thirty Cormorant-class sloops-of-war built for the British Royal Navy; she was launched in December 1808 and sailed for Newfoundland, Canada, on April 4, 1814.  The early Cormorant-class ships put to sea originally with sixteen 6-pound long guns, which were replaced on the later ships with a significantly upgraded mix of mostly carronades and a few long guns.  The Dauntless – being the last ship of her class to be constructed – was launched with sixteen 32-pound carronades, eight 18-pound carronades and two 6-pound long guns… quite an arsenal for such a small ship.

Ships like the Dauntless made life quite fearful for the shore towns and watermen of the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812, as the British had quite a number of vessels for raiding purposes and they were more than a match for anything the watermen might try to put up against them.  Most of the time, when the British staged a shore raid, the locals would melt into the surroundings and only come out after the raiders had returned to their vessels – their muskets being no match against the large cannons and carronades of the ships.  Think about having to endure that treatment at the hands of the enemy for three long years, and then imagine how hungry the watermen became for retribution against the raiders that had stolen their farm stock, burned their buildings and vessels, and kidnapped their neighbors.

Not much is recorded about the Dauntless from the time she arrived in Newfoundland to when she finally showed herself along the Maryland coast, but she eventually made her way up the Chesapeake Bay during the winter of 1814-1815.

On February 6, 1815, the Dauntless launched a ship tender lead by Lieutenant Matthew Phibbs, and manned by one midshipman, thirteen crewmen and three Royal Marines – which proceeded to raid the nearby tiny Maryland shore town of Tobacco Stick (present day Madison – see maps below).  It should be noted that the tender was armed with a 12-pound carronade, in addition to the small arms the crew carried with them.

Once Lieutenant Phibbs and his men made their way ashore, they stole seven sheep from a farm, burned several vessels, and captured a black man and woman (a cook by the name of Becca) before beginning their return to the Dauntless.  However, the winter was very cold that year and there was considerable drift ice on the Bay… ice which impeded them to the point where they had to stop for the night in the lee shore of James Island (see map below).

In the early twilight of the following morning, February 7th, Lieutenant Phibbs and his men were alarmed to discover that they were trapped – the ice had built up around them in the night and they were now ice-bound in a solid mass that stretched all the way to shore.  And they were still quite close to shore… oh, yes – very close

The isolated spit of land in the center-right is James Island, the location where the tender became trapped by ice.

Back on land, the local detachment of the 48th Maryland Militia watched the ice-bound party in the gathering light of the early morning and realized their opportunity was at hand to strike back at the hated raiders.  A small band of militia – approximately double the size of the tender’s crew – was lead by Private Joseph Stewart and they quickly made their way out onto the frozen surface, where short clumps of ice had stacked up in the night from the force of the tide.  Once the militia men had closed to within 150 yards of the trapped sailors, they found an extra large mound of ice that was substantial enough to use as protection against the tender’s carronade.  Having gained a good position for attacking, they opened fire on the sailors and quickly felled one of them.  The remainder of the raiding party took cover aboard the tender and returned fire, but they were effectively pinned in place – they couldn’t sail away and they didn’t have enough men or firepower to drive away the militia.

The steady exchange of musket fire between the two groups continued for approximately two hours, when finally the crew of the tender abruptly surrendered to the militia, were taken as prisoners and marched ashore.  Two of the British crew, including Lieutenant Phibbs, were taken to Easton and eventually Baltimore, while the rest were placed under guard by the American militia and confined in a local jail near Madison.

The Dauntless sailed away and left her sailors to their fate.  Locally she had no match on the water, but on land her crew was vastly out-numbered and out-gunned by the angry populace and militia.

Following the Battle of the Ice Mound – as it came to be called – Private Stewart petitioned Congress for prize money, and over a year later he and his men were awarded $1,800 to split among themselves – a small fortune back in those days.

As for the tender – it was dismantled and sold at auction.  The tender’s 12-pound carronade was kept by the local community and named “Becca Phibbs” – after the kidnapped cook, Becca, and the leader of the tender’s crew, Lieutenant Phibbs.  However, their names were corrupted over time and it’s now known as the “Becky Phipps” carronade and was used on occasion to celebrate special events, eventually exploding while being fired to celebrate Woodrow Wilson’s presidential election in 1912.

At some point the carronade was finally recognized as an important piece of War of 1812 history; it was partially repaired, mounted and put on public display in the early 1950s; and nicely refurbished in 1999.  It can be seen today just as one crosses the bridge on Taylors Island Road (see below).

Historical marker on Taylors Island
Historical marker on Taylors Island
The Becky Phipps today
Showing the damage from 1912
Showing the damage from 1912

As for the story I’ve related here, much can be found via Wikipedia and the Internet, but a superior resource for material is to be had in the excellent book published last year by The Johns Hopkins University Press: The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia by Ralph E. Eshelman, Scott S. Sheads and Donald R. Hickey.

One thought on “War of 1812 – The Battle of the Ice Mound… Reloaded

  1. Pingback: War of 1812 – Why It Still Matters | Exploratorius

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