200 years later: Re-living the Battle of the Ice Mound

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Special to the Dorchester Banner/ Ralph Eshelman
Reenactors march to the field of battle in the reenactment of the Battle of the Ice Mound, the last skirmish in the War of 1812, held last Saturday on Taylors Island.

TAYLORS ISLAND — The smoke of musket fire hung in the air while the ice in Slaughter Creek trapped a British boat, a tender from a larger ship, the Dauntless. The sailors in the tender had been sent to raid the farms and villages along the creeks and inlets of the Eastern Shore for food supplies and farm stock. They had overnighted near James Island and when they awoke, the 20 people aboard the tender, British sailors, Royal Marines and two African-American slaves seeking freedom with the British, found themselves ice-bound close to shore.

The ice that held the British captive was a blessing for the Maryland militia of 20 watermen and farmers, who had spotted the stalled boat. Behind a miraculous mound created by the forces of wind and tide, the Americans found fort-like protection as they fired their muskets steadily, finally forcing the surrender of the British.

When the British crew came ashore, they were marched to local jails while their leader, Lt. Matthew Phibbs, went to the jail in Easton.

That happened on Taylors Island on Feb. 7, 1815, the last battle of the War of 1812 on the Chesapeake. It ended in victory for the Americans; and on Feb. 7, 2015, exactly 200 years later, the Battle of the Ice Mound was again fought at Taylors Island. It too was a triumph.

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Special to the Dorchester Banner/ Ralph Eshelman
Riflemen unleash a volley at a floating foe at the Battle of the Ice Mound reenactment on Taylors Island.

The Bicentennial event, the brainchild of Judy Slaughter and a committee of volunteers, drew hundreds of spectators to Taylors Island. The real battle reportedly took two hours, but Saturday’s skirmish was less than 10 minutes. Just like 200 years ago, no soldiers were harmed in the battle. An amazing aspect of this celebration is that every name of the American soldiers in the battle is recorded in Congressional records and each one was represented by individual re-enactors. The historic mini-militia of the Ice Mound included many well-known family names in Dorchester County, like Stewart, Travers, Geoghegan, Tolley, and Hooper, but the group also included one unnamed black man. That’s how he went down in history, but in the re-enactment he was Antoine Watts, a re-enactor from Philadelphia.

The number of participants in the battle was small so each individual could be represented in the battle scene, from British Royal Marines to American sheep farmers. Their roles were played by re-enactors, many of whom are serious history buffs.

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Special to the Dorchester Banner/ Ralph Eshelman
The battle was centered around a British tender that was stuck in the ice, represented by a crew of cold reenactors here.

One spectator, Craig Meekins of Preston, came to experience the battle, and he found it very different from the bloodier Civil War re-enactments in which he participates. He saw his first re-enactment when he was 12 and it propelled him right into taking part. He says, “I love history, and this is a wonderful way to understand it, to feel what the soldiers who fought in the battles endured and to share their hardships.”

Women also take part in re-enactments as wives or camp followers. At Taylors Island, the women in costume were simply civilians of the time.

The battle on Saturday was preceded by three solemn stops at churchyards. Old Trinity Church in Church Creek, Bethlehem Brick Church and Grace Church on Hoopers Neck Road on Taylors Island are the three where the militia members were buried. The churchyards hold a lot of history. The Maryland Militia Honor Guard, led by the Fife and Drum Corps, paid tribute in a ceremony where wreaths marked the graves of the men in the battle followed by a three volley salute from black powder muskets. The clergy spoke and led prayers.

The biggest irony of the Battle of the Ice Mound is that the Treaty of Ghent, an end to the war, was signed on Christmas Eve in Ghent, Belgium. The war had been over for a month and a half when this battle took place. But with no internet, no phone system — even the telegraph and Morse code had not been invented — word did not get back to the American continent. So the famous Battle of New Orleans, with horrendous numbers of casualties, and the lesser-known Battle of the Ice Mound, were both fought by two countries at peace.

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Special to the Dorchester Banner/ Ralph Eshelman
The participants credited with the victory in the battle included “one unnamed black man, but now we all have names, including Antoine Watts (center), a re-enactor from Philadelphia.

 

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