On the moonless night of Dec. 18, 1813, a pair of mysterious blue lights at the mouth of the Thames River thwarted Stephen Decatur’s attempt to sneak through a British blockade.
A British squadron had chased Decatur’s three warships up the river from Long Island Sound in June, a year after the War of 1812 broke out. For six months, Decatur and his men remained stuck five miles upriver, unable to do more than nurse a hearty distaste for New London.
So when Decatur saw those blue lights, he immediately understood them as signals to warn the British of his attempted escape.
War of 1812
New England as a whole objected to the War of 1812, which brought hard times to the region. Banks failed, poorhouses overflowed and unemployment approached 50 percent of the workforce. New London faced the additional menace of a British invasion because of Decatur’s presence on the Thames River.
No one ever found out whether a British spy or an American traitor lit the mysterious blue lights. But the publicity surrounding the affair tarnished New England’s dominant political party, the Federalists, who implacably opposed the War of 1812.
Decatur vs. New London
U.S. Navy Commodore Stephen Decatur in 1813 was fresh off a military triumph. In 1812, his frigate United States captured the HMS Macedonian off the Canary Islands. Decatur had the ship repaired and refitted, and hauled his prize back to New York for wartime duty on the American side.
In June, a British squadron spotted Decatur’s three warships in Long Island Sound off Montauk Point. Decatur, with no room to maneuver, ordered his ships to flee up the Thames River. Two Revolutionary-era forts could protect the river from either side: Fort Trumbull in New London and Fort Griswold in Groton.
But New London, a hotbed of Federalism, resented both the war and Decatur. New Londoners treated Decatur not as a hero, but with “scathing remarks implying cowardice, duplicity, and other invectives.”
The New Londoners exasperated Decatur. He tried to order Connecticut’s militia commander, Jorah Isham, to reinforce the old forts. Isham refused. Then when a U.S. Army general arrived to oversee New London’s defense, Isham disbanded the militia.
Decatur ended up building his own fort upriver and thoroughly disliking New Londoners.
So on the night of December 18, the tide was right and so was the moon. Stephen Decatur planned to slip through the British blockaders. In total darkness, several guard boats cautiously guided his warships out of New London Harbor.
Just then a lookout whispered to an officer that he saw one of the blue lights burning near Fort Trumbull. Another of the blue lights burned near Fort Griswold on the Groton side of the river.
Decatur, furious, turned back. His warships never escaped. In April 1814, his men dismantled the vessels and Decatur returned to New York by land.
A Gross Libel
But days after the blue lights incident, he told his story to the editor of the New London Gazette and to the Navy Secretary. He believed treasonous New London Federalists had burned the blue lights to foil his escape.
The Gazette condemned the “traitorous wretches who dare thus to give the enemy over those great and gallant men.” The Gazette asked who had lit “these wicked lights, these torches of treason.”
Indignant, New Londoners responded. They said the blue lights probably came from innocent fishermen or British spies. Maybe Decatur even made them up to excuse his failure to run the blockade.
The town’s Federalist congressman, Lyman Law, demanded an inquiry to clear up the matter. Federalist newspapers in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut excoriated the Gazette for its “foul misrepresentation” and its “gross libel on the People of that patriotic state.”
Nonetheless, the incident tainted the Federalist Party – the party of Washington, Adams and Hamilton. “Blue light Federalist” stuck as an insult until 1833.
Blue Lights and a Convention
A year after the mysterious blue lights infuriated Stephen Decatur, New England Federalists met secretly in Hartford. They wanted to air their grievances with the war and with the Democratic-Republic administration of James Madison.
The so-called Hartford Convention included some Federalists who probably wanted New England to secede from the United States. The convention, however, didn’t recommend secession. The Federalists’ enemies promoted the fiction that it had.
The convention in Hartford and the blue lights in New London consequently gave Connecticut a reputation for disloyalty.
The Federalist Party fared even worse. Shortly after the Hartford Convention ended, so did the War of 1812. The Federalists fell from public favor, except in New England, and never regained power.
This story about the blue lights of New London was updated in 2023.
Image: Map of New London (cropped) By DigbyDalton – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30432617.