The Bicentennial of a Great Laundry Caper by Pierce Rafferty

by sg22wpadmin

greatlaundryCaper01As towns along the coast begin to celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812, it’s worth taking note of the various roles, both large and small, that Fishers Island played in that struggle. The island’s primary function was its use as an anchoring and staging area for British naval vessels that were constantly patrolling the Sound, seizing American shipping, and bottling up the American fleet in New London. Enemy ships were anchored off the west end of the island for much of the War. To service their squadron with fresh water, the British dug wells on Fishers Island near West Harbor. They also considered the island a source of vital food and supplies, seizing goods from the island’s farms at least once during the War. Deserting British sailors used Fishers Island as a jumping off place to get to the mainland and, conversely, at least one sympathizer fled to the island to join the enemy. Prisoner exchanges also occurred here, as did the releases of captured civilians. Accounts state that more than twenty British soldiers were buried on Fishers Island following hos-tile engagements with American forces in other locations. However, perhaps most remarkable of all, a recent research discovery revealed that there was another vital service that the island provided the British: laundry service!

While researching the War of 1812 for an F.I. school production held at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum earlier this spring, F.I. school teacher Mary “Ibby” Sawyer and Museum Board Member Sarah Gordon were shown a newspaper clipping from an unidentified newspaper by Ed Baker, head of the New London Historical Society. The clipping, dating from circa the 1920s, recounts a fascinating story that was told by an elderly woman to a D.A.R. member (the author of the account) about a group of New London fishermen who were at their wit’s end after being harassed by the British during the War of 1812. Their fishing boats and cargos had been repeatedly seized as they tried to fish in the waters of the Sound. Being quite familiar with the British routines in the area, the fishermen knew that the British 74-gun ship Ramillies, commanded by Sir Thomas Hardy, unloaded its laundry onto Fishers Island each week at a regular time to be cleaned by farmers’ wives on the island. (The farm house was likely the house now known as the Mansion House.) The article de-scribed the fishermen’s vengeful plan of action:

“The proposition of these oppressed men was to collect all the larger of the fishing boats and some night row over to the island, march boldly up to the farm house and demand the clothes of the enemy. With one accord, they made all necessary arrangements, and under cover of a dark night took the famous row of nine miles. The night favored their project and, the wind being light, they started with stout hearts, leaving, however, a colony of nearly distracted moth-ers and wives to endure the terrible night of anxiety the best they could.

greatlaundryCaper02Grandmother Saved the Stockings

“The marauders found no difficulty in reaching their destination, and leaving one man in charge of each boat, the rest marched boldly to the house and, with the bearing of conquerors in earnest, demanded the possessions of any English which were in the house. It was not lawful to have any trade with the English, so, without any remonstrance, the clothes were produced—linen shirts, sheets, damask napery, all the paraphernalia of a flagship’s dining cabin, and all the clothes belonging to Commodore Hardy and his officers, with one exception.

“Before the immense fireplace was seated the old grandmother, with a bushel basket of stockings which she had just commenced to look over, and as she heard the imperative demand for the surrender of the enemy’s belongings, she rose to the occasion and, unnoticed in the general consternation, she hurried with a basket into the next room, which happened to be the bedroom where the children slept, and, opening the bed, she tumbled the stockings in under the bedclothes; and that basket of stockings was all that was left of the week’s wash of the ship Ramillies.

“Just as the dawn was breaking, the adventurous band were seen slowly rowing up the river with their boats laden with spoils, and, after such a night of anxious watching and sleepless vigil, were hailed with relief and delight. The long hours of the night had been spent by the watchers in frequent journeys to the mouth of the river, dreading to hear the discharge of firearms, well knowing if their fathers and husbands were taken in the act what their fate would be. But all their anxiety was at an end, and with no mishap; so with ready hands they helped the brave men unload their boats and divide the spoils that had so justly fallen to them.

“It is, perhaps, needless to say that they were unmolested; and, furthermore, that when the whole matter came to Commodore Hardy’s ears with the aggravation and persecutions which had preceded it, he wisely remarked that the brave fellows should in the future allowed to come and go upon their lawful business, and that if his orders were transgressed in the slightest manner the offender should be severely punished.

“The fine linen shirts divided among the families were made over into various small garments of every description; and the old lady who related those inci-dents to me was the happy possessor of a pocket handkerchief marked with the name of Thomas Hardy.”

Detail from Map of New London and the Vicinity (1813). Note the British ships off the west end of Fishers Island.

Detail from Map of New London and the Vicinity (1813). Note the British ships off the west end of Fishers Island.

Featured Photo

USCG Eagle passing the Race early morning March 18, 2023 on her return from the Chesapeake Bay . Photo Credit Marlin Bloethe

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