John O'Neil, The Hero of Havre De Grace and the War of 1812

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.
Remember that!'
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!"
Rose remembered."

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.


"On the night of the 2d of May there was perfect quiet in Havre de Grace. The inhabitants went to sleep more peacefully than they had done for a month. They were suddenly awakened at dawn by the din of arms. It was a beautiful serene morning; "not a cloud in the sky nor a ripple on the water," said the venerable Mr. Howtell, of Havre de Grace, to me, in the autumn of 1861, as we stood upon the site of the "Potato Battery." He was there at the time, and participated in the scenes. Fifteen to twenty barges, filled with British troops, were discovered approaching Concord Point, on which the light-house now stands. The guns on higher Point Comfort, manned by a few lingering militia, opened upon them, and these were returned by grapeshot from the enemy’s vessels. The drums in the village beat to arms. The affrighted inhabitants, half dressed, rushed to the streets, the non-combatants flying in terror to places of safety. The confusion was cruel. It was increased by a flight of hissing rockets, which set houses in flames. These were followed by more destructive bomb-shells; and while the panic and the fire were raging in the town, the enemy landed.
A strong party debarked in the cove by the present lighthouse, captured the small battery there, and pressed forward to seize the larger one. All but eight or ten of the militia had fled from the village; and John O’Neil, a brave Irishman, and Philip Albert, alone remained at the battery. Albert was hurt, and O’Neil attempted to manage the heaviest gun alone. He loaded and discharged it, when, by its recoil, his thigh was injured, and he was disabled. They both hurried toward the town, and used their muskets until compelled to fly toward the open common, near the Episcopal Church, pursued by a British horseman. There O’Neil was captured, but Albert escaped. The brave Irishman was carried on board the frigate Maidstone, and in the course of a few days was set at liberty.
The guns of the captured battery were turned upon the town, and added to the destruction. A greater portion of the enemy (almost four hundred in number) went up to the site of the present railway ferry landing, and debarked there. They rushed up to the open common, separated into squads, and commenced plundering and destroying systematically, officers and men entering into the business with equal alacrity. Finally, when at least one half of the village had been destroyed, Cockburn, the instigator of the crime, went on shore, and was met on the common by several ladies who had taken refuge in an elegant brick house, some distance from the village, known as the Pringle mansion. They entreated him to spare the remainder of the village, and especially the roof that sheltered them. He yielded with reluctance, and at length gave an order for a stay of the plundering.

                                                      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.

                                                      EPISCOPAL CHURCH.
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 with many stories, this one has been told and retold many times. You can search the web and find many different variations of the story. In one, all the prisoners of war are hung, except the Hero, John O'Neil, who is treated with respect and released for his brave deeds. In yet another variation, John is being held prisoner aboard the British ship and is scheduled for execution. His 15 year old daughter rows out to the ship, boards her and requests an audience with the admiral. She begs for the life of her father. Touched by her stirring request, John is released and the daughter given a sword and some trinkets for her bravery.

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