Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Marylander Kitty Knight 1775-1855 - Eastern Shore Heroine in War of 1812

In June of 1812 the United States declared war on Britain who, using their ongoing conflict with Napoleon as an excuse, had been capturing American merchant ships, stealing their cargo and pressing their crew into service. Just after Christmas that year the British retaliated, declaring a state of blockade on the Delaware River and the Chesapeake Bay.

By April 1813, Lewes had been bombarded from the Delaware and British Rear Admiral George Cockburn had begun raiding towns along the Chesapeake starting in Norfolk, and working his way up the Eastern Shore to Havre de Grace. His strategy was to weaken any defenses here that might come to the defense of raids happening on the Western Shore at the same time, which later resulted in the burning of Washington D.C.

When Admiral Cockburn got to the Sassafras River most the region was in such a state of fear they could not effectively fight back against the invading force. Imagine living there on the shore at that time and hearing that British forces were surrounding and attacking the peninsula. Many people packed u p their valuables and headed to the Delmarva interior to hide and wait out the invasion. But Kitty Knight was not most people.

Catherine Knight, who was known as Kitty, was born in 1775 to a prominent Cecil County family. For several generations both sides of her family had held positions of authority and prominence in the region. Her father John Leach Knight was a justice of the peace, and her uncle Dr. William Matthews served in the Maryland General Assembly and the US House of representatives. She was reputed to be a great beauty. She once visited Philadelphia and attended a ball and danced with (by then former) President George Washington and many of the other congressmen and dignitaries in attendance. She was escorted by the father and grandfather (respectively) of Presidents William Harrison and Benjamin Harrison. She was the belle of the ball and several other events of that social season in Philadelphia.

By 1813 Kitty would have been 38 and because she was unmarried, she would have been considered a spinster. She was however, in her words "single by choice" and because she came from a wealthy family she was able to live comfortably in a lovely brick home she rented on a hill in Georgetown, Maryland. But her quiet life was disrupted on May 6, 1813 when British forces attacked and burned Fredericktown and Georgetown on either side of the Sassafras River. She watched in horror as troops setting fire to the town made their way up the hill to her house.

Kitty somewhere found the courage to confront Admiral Cockburn who was himself leading the raid. In an article published in 1908 by the Maryland Historical Society her nephew William M. Knight quoted Kitty's own description of the incident.  "The British," she said, "after landing, commenced to burn all the lower part of the town, which was largely frame. There were, however, two brick buildings on top of the hill, in the town, which had not, as yet, been fired. In one of them was an old lady, sick and almost destitute, and to that building the Admiral and his sailors and marines proceeded at a rapid gait. I followed them; but before I got to the top of the hill they had set fire to the house in which this old lady lay. I immediately called the attention of the Admiral to the fact that they were about to burn up a human being, and that a woman, and I pleaded with him to make his men put the fire out. This I finally succeeded in doing, when they immediately went next door, not over forty feet distant, and fired the second of the brick houses. I told the commanding officer that as the wind was blowing toward the other house this old lady would be burned up anyhow, when, apparently affected by my appeal, he called his men off, but left the fire burning, saying, 'Come on, boys.' As they went out of the door, one of them struck his axe through the panel of the door."

That second house was Kitty's home. She is said to have put that fire out herself with a broom. She eventually bought that house in 1836. The gash in the door remained for many years as a badge of courage under fire. The two brick houses and a church were the only buildings in the town left unscathed by the raid. Local legend has it that a traveler from Kent County was touring in England twenty-five years later where he met Admiral Cockburn's aide. The aide hearing that Miss Knight was still living requested that his "sincere compliments" be sent to her. Kitty was known throughout the community not only for this story but because of her beauty and intelligence. Though she had almost no formal education she was known for to quote extensively and accurately from literature and history books.

When she passed away in 1855 she left everything she owned to her brother's children, with the Georgetown home going to her nephew William. She requested that on her tombstone her name be written "Miss Catherine Knight." And so it was with an inscription which reads:
A maiden fair, with courage bold
with spirit pure and high,
displayed her flag of truce, and all
for poor humanity.
The house is now joined with a hallway to her elderly neighbor's house. One side is the Kitty Knight Inn which is still in operation today. The other side is a tavern named for Admiral Cockburn; which seems a little odd to me but I suppose helps to perpetuate the heroic tale of Miss Kitty Knight who beat back British fires with her broom.

Another Article from The Salisbury Times (now called The Delmarva Times), Salisbury, Maryland - December 1, 1958 from the Delmarva Heritage Series, by Dr. William H. Wroten, Jr.

On the banks of the Eastern Shore's Sassafras River lie the twin villages of Fredericktown and Georgetown - the former on the north bank in Cecil County and the latter on the south bank in Kent County. The tranquility of these charming villages was upset by fire and when British forces made one of their invasions of the Eastern Shore during the war of 1812.

During crucial periods such as war, individuals of great courage and leadership often come forth when the occasion demands. Such a person during the War of 1812 was the heroine, Catherine Knight. Better known as Kitty Knight, this brave woman was to become well-known all over the Eastern Shore for her display of courage in the face of the British army.

Kitty Knight was the daughter of John Leach Knight and Catherine Matthews Knight, who lived for sometime at Knight's Island before moving to Georgetown in Kent County. The father was a prominent and active citizen of the area, and her mother's twin brother, Dr. William Matthews, had served in the General Assembly of Maryland and was also a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1797 to 1799. Miss Knight, who became a celebrity in her own right, was born about 1775.

When the approach of British forces was rumored (Miss Knight was then about 38 years old) in the Sassafras River area, and for that matter all over the Eastern Shore, worry and excitement prodded men into collecting guns and arms in hopes of repelling an invasion. The old men, women and children remained at home to guard personal items, but with the arrival of troops, many of these inhabitants fled to the interior seeking safety for themselves, and hiding places for their valuables.

After the British forces landed, they proceeded to burn Fredericktown and the lower part of Georgetown, coming finally to two brick houses atop a hill overlooking the river. In one of these lived an old woman, destitute and ill to the extent that she was unable to flee. The torch had already been applied to her home, when Kitty Knight arrived at the scene to plead with Admiral Cockburn to put out the flames to avoid burning the old woman alive. Although he complied with her wishes the soldiers then fired the neighboring house which was only a few feet away. Miss Kitty again pleaded with them not to burn the house, as it would surely ignite the old woman's home.

According to one version, she twice stamped out the flames, and the young officer in charge finally gave the command to leave the house standing. But as the soldiers trooped out of the house, one struck his axe through a panel of the front door, leaving a mark which was pointed out to visitors for years to come. Kitty Knight later purchased this house, which probably accounts for the story that one of the houses she saved was her own.

Frederick G. Usilton, in his History of Kent County, wrote that 25 years after this event, a gentleman from Kent County was touring in England when he met Admiral Cockburn's aide. Learning that Miss Knight was still living, the aide requested that his "sincere compliments" be sent to her.

In the twin towns, the sum total of property destroyed has been recorded as $35,625.88¼. About the only buildings in Georgetown which were not totally or partially destroyed by this invasion were the two brick houses on the hill and the church. A local newspaper of Nov. 22, 1855, in an article referring to Miss Knight's recent death, printed that "by her heroism at the burning of Georgetown ... she saved several families from being made homeless and friendless by the fire and sword ...her appeal so moved the commodore that ordered the troops to their barges and left unburned a church and several houses now standing there as monuments to her memory for this noble and hazardous act ..."

In 1899, a steamboat which for many years operated upon the Sassafras River and in the Chesapeake Bay, was rebuilt and named the KITTY KNIGHT, the owners doing so to honor her role in the defense of Georgetown.

Kitty Knight, the Eastern Shore's own heroine of the War of 1812 died in 1855. She is buried in the Knight's family plot in the graveyard of St. Francis Xavier Church, Warwick, Cecil County.