Remembering Northville’s role in little remembered battle

It’s the fall of 1814. The British have recently torched the U.S. Capitol Building. Francis Scott Key has just written the words that will become “The Star Spangled Banner.” And over in Northville, a militia of local farmers have joined U.S. naval fighters for a three-day skirmish with the British.

At Hallock State Park Preserve on Saturday, local historian Richard Wines discussed this bit of national history that took place on the shores of the North Fork. After a 30-minute discussion, he led a group of guests north along the preserve’s sandy trails to cliffs overlooking the Long Island Sound.

Although paths to the exact spot where Mr. Wines believes the farmers and soldiers dug in were unusable, he escorted the group to a similar vantage point to envision the perspective of the patriots as they watched British troops row towards their home soil.

“Can you imagine how safe you’d feel up here?” Mr. Wines asked his audience, noting the trees and shrubs that provide ample cover. “There’s natural protection here, and when you think about it, these cannonballs don’t go the speed of a current shot … They had time to duck.”

Mr. Wines’ Saturday presentation marked the first of Hallockville’s new “Walking History Tour” series, which will include three more lectures this spring and summer, each followed by a brief walk to a nearby site relevant to the subject. This first event quickly sold out, and several tickets have already been sold for the next three, according to Roberta Shoten, the executive director of Hallockville Museum Farm.

“I think people have a genuine interest in the history of the place where they live,” she said.

One audience member Saturday, Bill Meyer, a historian for the Baiting Hollow Congregational Church, called the lecture and walking tour “fantastic.”

“I like getting as close to history as I can,” Mr. Meyer said.

The story of the three day battle on the shores of Northville begins in Connecticut, from where a sloop named the Suzan departed on a course to Long Island carrying “valuable cargo.” British forces captured the vessel, and another American sloop which spotted the takeover set course for Connecticut. When word reached New Haven, Captain Frederick Lee, along with approximately 40 Navy volunteers, boarded the Eagle, a ship in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, and set sail on a rescue mission to recover the Suzan.

“He had a pretty good chance,” Mr. Wines said of the Eagle’s captain. “Except just by chance, there was a British warship in sight.”

This warship, the Dispatch, deployed row boats loaded with soldiers, cannons and ammunition to capture the Eagle, which, with the help of a high tide, sailed beyond the sandbar onto the Northville shore near the boundary line that divided what would later become George Hallock’s property from that of the Hudson family. The volunteers on board unloaded four cannons and ammunition and prepared for battle atop the nearly 90-foot high cliffs.

As Red coats Rowed towards the shore, the militia of farmers was quickly assembled.

“One of the people who went out was Herman Hallock, this little 10-year-old,” Mr. Wines said. “He went out on horseback, Paul Revere-style, up and down Sound Avenue here alerting all the farmers.” 

On the first day of battle, Wines explained, the soldiers and farmers successfully fended off the British from the high ground. On the second day, after the Red Coats retreated, an emboldened Captain Lee patched up the Eagle and anchored it beyond the sandbar. Day three marked the return of the British, and things went south quickly for the outmanned and outgunned Americans. The British cut the Eagle’s anchor lines and towed it back to Plum Island, which was under their control during the war.

The New Haven volunteers and other participants apparently took great liberties in embellishing details of the skirmish, including the remarkable sharp-shooting of the Americans, who likely could not have hit a British rowboat from atop a cliff with a musket. Mr. Vines said he spent a year-and-a-half sifting through fiction and corroborating facts. He believes the journey a story takes through historical accounts is often as interesting — or even more so — than the event itself.

But this work, which took Mr. Wines to England to sort through the ships’ log books, is worth it.

“It’s always good to know the history of everywhere,” Mr. Wines said after wrapping up the tour. “This event is a way to connect to the war and culture and international affairs through something that took place over 200 years ago right here in Hallockville.”

Despite the tall tales of local heroics, the blue waters of the Sound did not run red with British blood as some accounts claimed. According to a log book from the Narcissus, a British warship which backed up the Dispatch on the third day of the standoff, one British sailor was wounded. Mr. Wines said there was only a single fatality on either side of the fight: a calf that caught in the crossfire.

As for the captured American ships, Mr. Wines said the British refitted the Eagle with a new mast and sent it up to Canada. The local historian said its fate remains unclear.

And what became of the Suzan, the sloop that begot this less than legendary battle of land and sea?

“The owners of the Suzan go to Plum Island and they buy they’re ship back,” Mr. Wines said. “That was standard warfare then.”

For information on upcoming walking tours, visit

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of Hallock State Park. A photo caption also misidentified Richard Wines.