Fairfielders remember the forgotten war of independence
Published 4:31 pm, Thursday, August 30, 2012
Few scholastic textbooks on U.S. history focus much attention on the War of 1812, although many historians consider it the real fight for American independence, even more critical than the Revolutionary War, according to Betty Oderwald, president of the Connecticut State Society, U.S. Daughters of 1812.
Oderwald, a Fairfield resident, said Sunday that even the Fairfield school system devotes little instructional time to the War of 1812, despite the town's role in the conflict, which celebrates its bicentennial this year. Oderwald stood in front of a powder house behind Tomlinson Middle School at 200 Unquowa Road, telling an assembled group of about two dozen people that few people are aware of its existence, let alone its significance during the war, which once again pitted the Americans against the British.
"They were coming at us tooth and nail," Oderwald said.
As the war heated up in the summer of 1814 and Connecticut suffered numerous raids from the British fleet, acrimonious letters were exchanged between Jeremiah Sturges and Connecticut's governor about ammunition that was directed to Bridgeport and Danbury, but not to Fairfield.
Then, on Oct. 17, 1814, a special town meeting took place at which citizens voted in favor of building a powder house, a munitions shed, at the expense of the town, and two months later Levi Jennings donated a portion of his farmland for that purpose. The powder house was built in 1814 on a hill about one mile from the shore and half way between Fort Union in what was then the Black Rock section of Fairfield, and Fort Defense, which was at the Lower Wharf at the Mill River entrance, now known as Southport Harbor.
The powder house still stands as a reminder of what early Fairfield residents did to defend the town, and it is the only remaining powder house that was built in Connecticut for the War of 1812, Oderwald said.
"It is not just a town treasure. It's a state treasure," she said, adding that she's grateful that the structure was refurbished by the Daughters of the American Revolution. Its stones were repointed and its roof and door replaced. "I think we all should take pride in that," she said.
Oderwald also said that there are at least 100 Fairfielders who fought in the War of 1812 and are buried in four of the town's cemeteries -- East, Beach Road, Greenfield Hill and West. She believes there are more, but only 100 are documented to date.
The group then moved from the powder house to Town Hall Green in front of the old Town Hall, where Oderwald told them the green was a training ground for the militia.
She also talked about the peace treaty that ended the war and the celebration on the green on Feb. 25, 1815. It was a "snowy and blustery day," according to the journal of a local resident, but "they decided to have a whopping big celebration," Oderwald said. Celebrants played music, danced and ate roasted ox by the light of a pyramid of barrels filled with tar, she said.
Those who attended Sunday's event were fascinated to learn about the powder house, the local forts and the efforts to preserve America's liberty on the home front.
"It's interesting how they had this secret small place to know how to attack the British," said Amy Cabanillas, 11, of Fairfield, about the powder house.
Bob and Eileen Cahill, of Fairfield, said they came to the event because they are interested in Fairfield history and "this was a chance to further educate ourselves," Bob Cahill said. "I never heard about the powder house, never knew it existed, and our kids went to that school (Tomlinson)," Eileen Cahill added.
Dale and Jerry Demner are new to Fairfield, having moved here from New York in May 2011. Jerry Demner said they attend many events "to learn as much as possible about the community, the town and the history of the area."
Adam Federman, his wife Mary Luvera and their daughter Rio Federman, 4, were caught up in the logistics of Fairfield's fight against the British. Adam Federman remarked on the location of the powder house and its distance from the shore, out of range of cannon fire from British ships in Long Island Sound.
Luvera was struck by Oderwald's information about local residents digging up, cleaning and pressing into service munitions from the Revolutionary War. "I would have thought that the technology would have changed but they repurposed it," she said.
The program was sponsored by four historical groups -- the Fairfield Museum and History Center, U.S. Daughters of 1812, the Eunice Dennie Burr Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution, and the Black Rock Community Council.
Meg Barone is a freelance writer.