In 1814, the War of 1812 came to the New Hampshire coast in the form of the Battle of Rye. In April of that year, nervous New Englanders monitored two British ships spotted off the coast of Salem, Mass. — the RMS Junon and the RMS Tenedos.
Fighting in the two-year-old war then concentrated in the western territories. At the same time, the British tried to blockade the eastern seaboard of the United States. The naval blockade had started in the southern states and Chesapeake region. Then gradually it spread northward until, in 1814, it reached New England. The blockade made it touch-and-go for New England schooners plying the waters.
In April, the Junon and Tenedos had pursued the USS Constitution into Marblehead Harbor. There, Old Ironsides narrowly escaped capture thanks to treacherous rocks at the Harbor’s mouth and the efforts of townspeople. They towed her into port and drove off the British ships.
The Battle of Rye
On May 29, the two British ships reappeared anchored off Rye, N.H., giving the Gunboat Shoals their name. The following day, a small schooner came through Rye Harbor. One of the British Men of War launched a barge to intercept the schooner. The already tense townspeople then came to life.
The History of the Town of Rye, New Hampshire: From Its Discovery and Settlement to December 31, 1903, includes an account of the battle.
“The Rye men were stationed behind a stone wall on Little Neck, and one of them named (Samuel) Mowe, a resident of the Neck, hailed the barge as it entered the harbor,” wrote the author, Langdon Brown Parsons.
The barge’s crew replied with a volley from small arms. The men behind the wall promptly answered with their muskets.
“The bell on the meeting house rang out the alarm, and rumors of the landing of the enemy struck terror to the hearts of many of the people,” Parsons wrote. Some of them hastily packed up the most valuable of their goods in readiness for flight into the interior.
“Word was sent to Portsmouth of the supposed invasion, and a company under command of Capt. Joshua W. Peirce started from there for Rye harbor,” Parsons continued. But a messenger met them on the way with word that the enemy had been driven off, and thereupon turned back.
“One of the cannon stationed at the meeting house was started for the harbor at the first alarm, but the horses became balky and the cannon did not arrive in time to be of any service, the fight throughout being wholly with small arms on both sides,” Parsons wrote.
“Dr. John W. Parsons, with his instruments, bandages, scraped lint, etc., started from his residence at the Center on horseback; his son, Thomas J. Parsons, and the latter’s cousin, Isaac D. Parsons, made a straight run for the harbor on foot, and did not stop running until they reached the salt marsh, where they halted to watch the popping of the muskets from the barge, which was in plain sight.
Hundreds of people watched from the Neck, including some from Portsmouth.
“The Rye men behind the wall were under command of Gen. Thomas Goss, and some of them worked so briskly as to fire away the whole sixteen or eighteen rounds that had been supplied them by the town.
A report at the time said the Rye men had shot the coxswain of the barge. but no one found out whether he died or not from the wound. No one on the American side was harmed, according to the narrative.
Finally, wrote Parsons, “the coasting schooner later made her escape in the darkness to Portsmouth harbor.”
Later that year, Town Meeting voted to raise a committee for the defense of the harbor. It approved a sum of 50 cents a night for standing guard. In 1815, the town approved payment to the guards — less a deduction to cover the costs of rum provided to the men.
This story updated in 2022.