I was first made aware of the illustrious hero, John O'Neail, in the
book, Confederate Spy: Rose O'Neale Greenhow", by Nash K. Burger.On pages
5-6 Mr. Burger writes:
""The O'Neales had been among the earliest of the settlers in Lord Baltimore's colony, establishing themselves in the south near the old town of Port Tobacco. There they had prospered and grown numerous, and branches of the family turned up in other parts of the colony, especially northward along the Potomac. By the time of the American Revolution, there were O'Neales all the way up to Allegheny County in the Blue Ridge.
The O'Neales were especially numerous and prosperous in the rolling countryside above the old river port of Georgetown, and in Washington, where the nation's capital was established following the revolution. In this Potomac country the O'Neales intermarried with prominent families of Maryland and Virginia, and in time could claim as a distant relative President George Washington himself.
In her girlhood, during the winter months, Rose would sit before the fire and listen to the tales her grandmother told of the prowess of the O'Neales in Ireland long ago, in the American Revolution, in the winning of independence, and in the more recent war of 1812.
'The O'Neales are descended from Neale, the great Irish warrior of olden times', the old lady would say proudly. 'In the Revolution the O'Neales fought to make Maryland free. You see the coat of arms there on the wall, Rose. You see the motto: Semper Paratus Patriae Servire -- Always Ready to Serve the Country.
Maryland has been our country a long time now.
Grandmother O'Neale always ended her remarks with the admonition, "Remember!"
Rose liked best the story of John O'Neill (O'Neale, O'Neal, O'Neil-the spelling of the name was uncertain in those days) who, in 1813, from the shores of Havre de Grace on Chesapeake Bay, defied a British fleet with a few militiamen and three small cannons. When the others fled John fought on alone. He was taken prisoner and was almost hanged; but his courage so impressed his captors that he was released.
"The O'Neales," said Rose's grandmother, "have never feared man, beast, or devil. Remember that!"
I thought this an interesting story and looked around our family tree
to see if we had a John O'Neale who would be a likely candidate. Finding
nothing I went elsewhere. As luck would have it, I hit paydirt in the book,
A PICTORIAL FIELD-BOOK OF THE WAR OF 1812. BY BENSON J. LOSSING, 1869.
As it turns out John was not one of our O'Neale's, but he was an O'Neil nonetheless and his story is worth sharing. So, without further ado, here is the story of John O'Neil, the hero of Havre De Grace and the War of 1812.
PREDATORY WARFARE OF THE BRITISH ON THE COAST.
THE PRINGLE HOUSE.
Meanwhile a large detachment of the enemy went up the Susquehanna about six miles, to the head of tide-water, and there destroyed the extensive iron-works and cannon foundery belonging to Colonel Hughes. A number of vessels that had escaped from the Bay and were anchored there were saved from the flames by being sunk. At a point below, Stump’s large warehouse was burnt.
Finally, when all possible mischief had been achieved along the river bank – when farm-houses had been plundered and burnt a long distance on the Baltimore road – when, after the lapse of four hours, forty of the sixty houses in the village had been destroyed, and nearly all the remainder of the edifices, except the Episcopal Church, 13 were more or less injured, the marauders assembled in their vessels in the stream, and at sunset sailed out into the Bay to pay a similar visit to villages on the Sassafras River. 14 Havre de Grace was at least sixty thousand dollars poorer when they left than when they came twelve hours before.
It was a sunny but blustery day [November 22, 1861.] when I visited Havre de Grace and the scenes around it, made memorable by its woes. I arrived in the evening by railway from Baltimore, where I had spent three days in visiting the battle-ground at North Point and other interesting places hereafter to be described. The town was full of soldiers, many being stationed there to guard the ferry and public property from the violence of the sympathizers with the rebels in Maryland. The only hotel in the place was entirely filled with lodgers, and private houses were in like condition.
The prospect for a night’s repose was unpromising. For myself, a settee or an easy-chair might have sufficed; but I had a traveling companion (a young woman and near relative) who required better accommodations. The obliging proprietor of the hotel, after much effort, succeeded in placing us in the unoccupied furnished house of his son-in-law, where we passed a dreary night, the windows of my room clattering continually at the bidding of the gusty wind. Early the next morning I went out in search of celebrities, and, after sketching the old residence of Commodore Rodgers, printed on page 182, I fortunately fell in with Mr. Howtell, already mentioned, who became my cicerone. Under his direction I was enabled to find every place sought after.
While sketching the landing-place of the British near the light-house (page 671), the keeper of the pharos came to know my business. He was an aged man, and I soon discovered that he was one of the oldest residents of the place, having been a half-grown boy at the time of the British visitation. "Did you know John O’Neil, who behaved so gallantly at the Potato Battery?" I asked. "I ought to," he replied, "for he was my father."
"Can you tell me any thing about the sword presented to him by the authorities of Philadelphia for his bravery on that occasion?" I inquired. "If you will go with me to the house," he replied, "it will speak for itself." When I had finished my sketch of the weather-beaten lighthouse (from which most of the stucco had been abraded) and the cove, with the distant Turkey Point, Spesutia Island, and the Maryland main on the right, I followed Mr. O’Neil to his little cottage near by, and there not only saw and sketched the honorary sword, but from the brave John O’Neil’s own family Bible obtained a few facts concerning his personal history. He was born in Ireland on the 23d of November, 1768, and came to America at the age of eighteen years. He was in the military service under General Harry Lee in quelling the Whisky Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania, and in 1798 entered the naval service against the French. He became an extensive nail-maker at Havre de Grace, sometimes employing as many as twenty men. The destruction of the place ruined his business. When the present light-house was built on Concord Point in 1829 he became its keeper; and on the 26th of January, 1838, he died in the house where his son and successor resides.
JOHN O’NEIL’S SWORD.
The sword had a handsomely-ornamented gilt scabbard, on which was the
following inscription: "PRESENTED TO THE GALLANT JOHN O’NEIL FOR HIS VALOR
AT HAVRE DE GRACE, BY PHILADELPHIA – 1813." In Charles’s caricature just
mentioned, a British officer, who has arrested the bold cannonier and confronts
him, is made to say, "I tell you what, Mr. O’Neil, you are certainly a
brave fellow, but as a prisoner of war must go on board with us." They
did not keep him long, for on the 10th, seven days after his capture, he
wrote to a friend in Baltimore, saying, "I was carried on board the Maidstone
frigate, where I remained until released three days since." His letter
opened with the quaint sentence, "No doubt before this you have heard of
my defeat;" and this was followed by a brief narrative of the affair."
As stated in the text above, the townfolk were so proud of their Hero that he was awarded the post of Lighhouse Keeper when the lighthouse was built. Family legend has it that when John died, his son took over the post and his grandson Harry O'Neil took over after him. Unfortunately, the chain was broken here. In 1920 Harry O'Neil was let go and replaced by an automatic system. Below is some information on the Lighthouse in case you would ever like to visit.
Concord Point Lighthouse
The Concord Point Lighthouse is one of the oldest working lighthouses on the east coast of the United States. Open to the public on weekends during the spring and summer, you can have a panaromic view of the Chesapeake Bay and Susquehanna River.
Historically Corcord Point played an important role in the War of 1812. The British were just off shore at Concord Point and city legend has it that John
O'Neil manned a cannon single handed to hold them off shore. He was taken captive by the Brisith. However his young daughter rowed out to the British
ship and begged for her father release. The British commander was so impressed with her bravery he released her father and gave her his gold snuff box in honor of her bravery.
Needless to say this story has been told many times over the years and has probably been exaggerated many times. But behind the lighthouse the actual
cannon has been restored and has a historical marker.
Corner of Concord Point and Lafayette Streets
All the lightkeepers of Concord Point Lighthouse came from the same family. John O'Neil was a hero in the War of 1812, and subsequently rewarded with the post of lightkeeper. The duties were passed down from one generation to the next until the 1920's, when grandson Harry O'Neil had to surrender the duties to automation. The light originally housed a 5th order Fresnel lens, but now utilizes a fixed green light as a private aid to navigation.
"Confederate Spy: Rose O'Neale Greenhow", by Nash K. Burger
PICTORIAL FIELD-BOOK OF THE WAR OF 1812. BY BENSON J. LOSSING, 1869.