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 were monitoring two British ships that had been spotted off the coast of Salem, Mass. — the Junon and the Tenedos.
The War of 1812 was two years old. Fighting was concentrated in the western territories, while the British attempted to blockade the eastern seaboard of the United States. The blockade had started in the southern states and Chesapeake region. Gradually it spread northward until, in 1814, Britain expanded its naval blockade to New England. The expansion 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, where Old Ironsides narrowly escaped capture thanks to treacherous rocks at the Harbor’s mouth and the efforts of townspeople who towed her into port and drove off the British ships.
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 into the dreary weather to intercept the schooner. The already tense townspeople came to life. The account of the battle is contained in History of the Town of Rye, New Hampshire: From Its Discovery and Settlement to December 31, 1903:
“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, the barge’s crew replying with a volley from small arms, which in turn was promptly answered by the muskets of the men behind the wall.
“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, some of whom 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, but were met on the way by a messenger 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.
“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 were on 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. It was reported at the time that the coxswain of the barge was shot, but it was never definitely learned whether he was killed or not. No one on the American side was harmed, and 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 and approved a sum of 50 cents a night for standing guard. In 1815, payment to the guards was approved — less a deduction to cover the costs of rum provided to the men.