Mrs. Stewart’s Situation


And as you engaged that Mrs. Stewart the wife of the British vice consul late resident at New London, with her family, shall be permitted to embark on board this Ship tomorrow morning, I am induced to wave the attempt of the total destruction of your town.

Captain Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy to the magistrates of Stonington, August 10, 1814


Who was the woman who so influenced the Battle of Stonington?

Elizabeth Coles Stewart was born in England about 1778. Her father, John Coles, a British merchant of mixed success, took his family to America after the Revolutionary War. They were living in Boston when he decided to move on to New London in 1794. He purchased the large, old Winthrop mansion north of town next to the town millpond and quickly became one of New London’s prominent merchants and social trendsetters. The family hosted memorably elaborate dinner parties, and Elizabeth grew up in the American version of English society.1

Probably through his West Indies trading connections, John Coles made contact with James Stewart, a personable Scotch/Irish merchant on the British island of Grenada. The connection was sealed in the marriage of the 34-year-old Stewart to Elizabeth Coles at New London in 1798. Stewart moved to New London and established his “Compting house” on Main Street. With his connections on Grenada and shares in a sugar plantation in Surinam, Stewart appeared to be thriving as a resident alien in America. Elizabeth managed their growing family: four girls and two boys by 1812.2

But her father’s life was coming apart. John Coles and his wife reportedly separated, and in 1807 he defaulted on nearly $20,000 to New York merchants. The embargo closed New London’s accustomed trade for 14 months, further damaging his business. When Boston merchants foreclosed on Coles’s New London property in 1810, Stewart stepped in to buy it, establishing himself as his father-in-law’s successor in New London. Now—although her father was disgraced—Elizabeth Stewart had one of the grandest homes in New London, complete with “a mahogany book case with a collection of choice books upon various subjects,” fine tableware and tea sets, “elegant engravings” on the walls, and most remarkably, “an English made organ containing six stops, well ton’d and suitable for a church.” The house remained an outpost of English civilization and good taste.3

In 1811, probably through the efforts of Thomas Barclay, the British consul general to the United States, who lived in New York, Stewart was appointed the British vice consul at New London. His duties included attending to the needs of British captains or seamen who entered the port of New London, helping British travelers, representing the interests of British merchants in their local dealings, and assisting New London merchants wishing to trade with British possessions. In 1812 he had a supply of trading licenses to issue or sell, which permitted passage to Spain or Portugal for the provisioning of British forces fighting Napoleon there, or to the neutral Swedish port of St. Bartholomew in the West Indies. St. Barth became a regular trading partner of New London after war was declared, and Stewart profited by selling licenses and acting as commission agent for the New London end of the trade—which perhaps included providing supplies for Royal Navy ships patrolling offshore. After Captain Stephen Decatur and his impromptu squadron arrived in New London at the beginning of June 1813, Decatur informed Secretary of the Navy Jones that Stewart “appears to have great influence here, he has it in his power, & it is said uses it, to do much injury.—I am informed by many persons entitled to credit, that Mr. Stewart has been in the practice of loading (through his agents) Neutral vessels with stock cleared out for St. Bart’s but discharged their cargoes alongside the enemies ships.” Stewart then had $30,000 tied up in the business of several Swedish vessels in port. While hoping to get clearance for their departure, he knew they represented the end of his income as a British merchant and consul in wartime America. Desperate to expand his income and extend his duties in New London he asked Barclay, “Do you know the Swedish Consul General would he give one an appointment for this port or could the business be managed without knowing the Language or would the Spanish Minister appoint for his nation.”4

A few months earlier, through Thomas Barclay, Stewart had been able to parlay his consular position into the role of agent for British prisoners of war who were brought to New London. The first arrivals were Captain John Carden and the crew of HMS Macedonian. The Stewarts took Carden into their home and housed the crew in their hay barn for a month. But Stewart was not good at accounting for his expenses or obtaining receipts for reimbursement, and he complained the fee he received “will not pay for the wine drank at the agents house.” At the same time, with the British squadron right offshore, his frequent communication with Captain Sir Thomas Hardy over matters of British prisoners made him appear all too close to the blockaders, if not an outright conspirator in British plans against New London. 5

By May 1813, Congress had voted to give British resident aliens in coastal communities six months to leave the country. Otherwise, they would be sent 40 miles inland to live under parole so they could not aid the British forces alongshore.

Without warning, Connecticut Marshal Robert Fairchild ordered Stewart to leave New London at the end of June. Stewart refused. Merchant Elisha Dennison and “9/10ths of the inhabitants,” according to Stewart, petitioned Secretary of State James Monroe to permit Stewart to remain. Nevertheless, Fairchild had him forcibly removed to Stafford Springs, on the Massachusetts border, on July 1. Prone to believe in conspiracies against him, Stewart told Barclay: “I believe some false & Malicious information has been sent respecting my loading some Swedish vessels lately for Mr. Dickey & some houses in the West Indies, & some people at New London wishing the Commission themselves prevailed upon Decatur & other people to make the application to the Government to send me out of the way in addition to this[,] Parties beginning to run high & as a certain party [Federalist] were intimate with me, altho I never meddled with politics[,] that also operated,—I conceive it my duty while I remain in this country to see and strickly conform to the Laws and in no way shew any wish to oppose the Government.”6


This watercolor is titled View of New London from the Home of James Stewart, British Consul at New London, dedicated to Mrs. Stewart by a poor shipwrecked Swiss sailor, 1815. It appears to show Elizabeth Coles Stewart and two of her sons on the formal lawn, with part of New London’s commercial waterfront in the distance. The Stewarts’ home had been built at the head of Winthrop Cove, next to the New London Mill, by John S. Winthrop in 1754 and was purchased by Elizabeth Stewart’s father in 1794. A bit of old English formality in New London, the house served as the British vice consulate from 1811 to 1832—except when the Stewarts were the center of controversy during the war. The house was razed for the Winthrop School in 1892 and is now a vacant lot next to the Old Town Mill. (Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 1944.69)


With a child on the way, Elizabeth remained in New London when her husband was banished. The authorities permitted Stewart to return for a few weeks to be with Elizabeth when she gave birth to a son in September. Stewart later claimed that he was soon turned over to the British and headed for Halifax aboard HMS Atalante, which was wrecked off Halifax early in November. Stewart and all on board were saved, and at Halifax he “tendered his services” to Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, commander in chief of the North American Station. Stewart traveled with Warren to Bermuda and talked his way into a position as victualer supplying provisions to the Royal Navy, though he did not have the resources to operate such a business. However, he believed he had the connections to supply an equally vital resource that was in short supply in Bermuda—hard cash—no doubt at benefit to himself. One aspect of the plan was to use his connections in the New London area to funnel money out, possibly aboard boats that would come out to the blockaders. Admiral Warren informed Captain Talbot of HMS Victorious about the plan in February, but a copy of his letter was captured, so Connecticut authorities were alert to this scheme.7

A second part of the plan was to syphon money by setting up shop aboard a vessel anchored in Gardiner’s Bay, at the eastern end of Long Island. Smugglers were welcome to pay cash for scarce goods and take the risk of carrying them ashore. This was exactly the kind of scheme Stewart knew how to organize, and he engaged Thomas Barclay’s son to manage the sales vessel. The operation seems to have begun in early August 1814, when the British squadron returned to local waters with Stewart on board. And apparently it worked. In the fall, a Stonington firm was discovered to have smuggled in $20,000 worth of goods from Stewart and Barclay’s trading vessel.8

Some have speculated that Elizabeth Stewart acted as a secret agent for the British during her husband’s absence. Long after the war, Captain Hardy and others endorsed the Stewarts’ claim for a pension, noting the “very important and correct information of the enemy’s movements” she provided. It is possible her home served as a stop for British agents who reportedly passed through New London, though there is no evidence that she managed an espionage ring or that New London authorities suspected her. A difficult pregnancy and the care of her infant son kept her busy at home during much of the time. However, she was known to have influence with the British officers, and on at least one occasion a loyal American took advantage of that. When two Mystic brothers were picked up by HMS Maidstone, “I procured their release, at the earnest entreaties of their mother, living at Mystic,” Elizabeth Stewart wrote.9

On August 7, Admiral Henry Hotham sent a flag of truce in to New London requesting that Elizabeth Stewart and her children be sent out to the blockaders. General Thomas Cushing, the army commander at New London, forwarded the request to authorities in Washington. This bureaucratic delay made Elizabeth Stewart a bargaining chip during the attack on Stonington three days later, although the Stonington magistrates had no possibility of delivering her to Captain Hardy. The Madison administration did grant approval for her to leave, and on August 25 she and her children rejoined James after an eight-month separation. They settled in the Jerome house on Plum Island, where Stewart could supervise his operations, though he usually slept on shipboard to avoid kidnapping by American private armed boats.10

On September 21, Elizabeth persuaded James to stay ashore as he had suffered from exposure when his vessel stranded on Block Island two nights earlier. At midnight, persistent pounding on the door alarmed everyone in the Jerome house. Peeking out, the Stewarts saw six men. Frantically, Elizabeth hid her husband under a bed, with pillows and a chair to conceal him, then put their children in the bed. When Mr. Jerome opened the door, John Washington—a former British sailor who served as the boarding master and spokesman for Captain Burrows’s private armed boat Yankee of Mystic—asked if any British officers were in the house. Recognizing Mrs. Stewart, he asked for her husband. She and Jerome tried to convince him that Stewart was on board HMS Maidstone. As the Yankee crew searched the house, Mrs. Stewart kept them from one room, “saying that there was nothing in it but her children, and that they were afraid.” The crew barged in, and whenever they neared the bed, “around which the children were placed, the women and children would cry out.” Their dramatics gave Stewart away. After they hauled him out, he argued, “it will be of no use, to take me, I know your government, they won’t detain me more than a week or two, and then they will let me go, and it will be an expense.” He then offered them $100 to leave him, and Mrs. Stewart gave them what gold she had. Washington conferred with Captain Burrows at the boat, and returned to report that they could not take the money. “Mrs. Stewart said she would not take it [back] unless you will agree to leave Mr. Stewart.” Washington vaguely agreed, “to pacify her,” and she thanked him. “He then turned round and put his hand on Mr. Stewart’s shoulder and told him to put on his cloaths and go with us, at which time Mrs. Stewart fainted.”11

Always looking for the right price, Stewart raised his offer to $500 for his freedom, but Burrows refused. During the long night row back to Mystic, Stewart became his usual chatty self, expecting a brief confinement. But the authorities sent him on board the USS United States, laid up in the Thames River below Norwich, where he was completely out of touch with any of his profit-making schemes. When Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane heard of Stewart’s capture, he threatened to seize every American he could and send them to England, and to resume attacks on the New England coast. After Stewart was paroled and lodged with his father-in-law, Cochrane relented. Still on Plum Island, Mrs. Stewart read the Connecticut Gazette report of her husband’s capture and offered the last word: “I sincerely regret the American government are not fully possessed of all the particulars relating to this transaction; and which I have good reason to believe, they are not.”12

After hostilities ended, the Stewarts returned to their New London home and apparently entertained Admiral Hotham when he visited New London at the beginning of March 1815. James resumed his position as British vice consul at a rate of £300 a year, and the Stewarts again played a popular role in town. In 1825 their daughter Isabella married the young whaling merchant (and future mayor) Noyes Billings, a match that brought her the prosperity and influence her parents and grandparents had aspired to. When the New London vice-consular position was abolished in 1832, James and Elizabeth Stewart sold their mansion to Billings and returned to the land of their birth to live on his half-pay pension and seek support from their government.13

So who was Elizabeth Coles Stewart? She was an Englishwoman who spent most of her life in America. She was the devoted daughter and wife of convivial, flawed men. She was also a busy mother who aspired to the trappings of British society. And even while a victim of war, the elusive Mrs. Stewart found her own ways to fight back.

By Andrew W. German
Mystic, CT



1. R.B. Wall, “New Londoners Recall When Mill Wheel Turned Daily,” New London Day, in R.B. Wall Scrapbooks, 539; “Aunt Liddy’s Diary,” New London Day, January 9, 1911, R.B. Wall Scrapbooks, 599, New London County Historical Society; Coles may be the John Coles of London, formerly of New York, who was listed as bankrupt in the London Magazine, 1783, 279.

2. New London Vital Records; Stewart to Barclay, July 3, 1813, Box 6, Thomas Barclay Papers, Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, New-York Historical Society (hereafter cited as N-YHS); Wall, “New Londoners Recall When Mill Wheel Turned Daily,” R.B. Wall Scrapbooks, 539, Wall locates Stewart’s New London office on Main Street opposite Richards Street; it is possible Stewart was related to the John Stewart who purchased Grenada properties about 1790 and also owned Surinam plantations,

3. David Ludlow et al. v. John Coles, New London County Court Files, June 1807, Box 272, folder 8, no. 19, Connecticut State Library; Wall, “New Londoners Recall When Mill Wheel Turned Daily,” R.B. Wall Scrapbooks, 539; “Aunt Liddy’s Diary,” R.B. Wall Scrapbooks, 599, suggests that Mrs. Coles tried to drown herself in the millpond after her husband took up with another woman; Connecticut Gazette, September 14, 1814.

4. Guide to the Materials in London Archives for the History of the U.S., 37; W. Freeman Galpin, “American Grain Trade to the Spanish Peninsula,” American Historical Review 28, no. 1 (October 1922): 33; Decatur to Jones, June 18, 1813, William S. Dudley, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1992), 139; Stewart to Barclay, June 23, 28, May 26, 1813, Box 6, Thomas Barclay Papers, N-YHS.

5. Stewart to Barclay, May 19, 21, June 4, 9, 16, 23, 1813, Box 6, Thomas Barclay Papers, N-YHS.

6. Barclay to Transport Board, May 20, 1813, George Lockhart Rives, ed., Selections from the Correspondence of Thomas Barclay (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1894), 331; Stewart to Barclay, July 3, 1813, Box 6, Thomas Barclay Papers, N-YHS; Mason to Monroe, June 26, 1813, Dennison et al. to Monroe, June 29, 1813, Fairchild to Monroe, July 1, 1813, noted in Daniel Preston, A Comprehensive Catalogue of the Correspondence and Papers of James Monroe, vol. 1 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2001).

7. Stewart to Barclay, October 8, 1813, Box 6, Thomas Barclay Papers, N-YHS; they named the child John Carden Stewart, after their houseguest Captain Carden of the Macedonian, New London Vital Records; James Tertius De Kay, The Battle of Stonington (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1990), 124-26 (Stewart also claimed to have been captured by a privateer, but the Atalante story sounds more plausible); Connecticut Gazette, March 23, 1814, a copy of Warren’s February 17 letter was discovered in the boot of the captain of a Spanish vessel taken by the American privateer Viper.

8. Connecticut Gazette, November 16, 1814. Stewart is not specifically named in the brief newspaper report of the sales vessel, but his presence, and the type of business, strongly support the supposition; De Kay, Battle of Stonington, 125-26.

9. De Kay, Battle of Stonington, 83; Dr. S.H.P. Lee of New London remarked on the presence of British officers and sailors in disguise in New London, and also commented there was little need for espionage as the British could easily see the situation from their ships, Samuel Griswold Goodrich, Recollections of a Lifetime, or Men and Things I Have Seen, 2 vols. (New York: Miller, Orton and Mulligan, 1857), 1: 484-86.

9. De Kay, Battle of Stonington, 83; Connecticut Gazette, December 21, 1814.

10. Connecticut Gazette, August 10, 31, 1814; her release was conditional on the end of British efforts to compel her release. Three weeks later the Stewarts’ furniture was advertised at auction, either to pay family expenses or as a vindictive measure in their absence, Connecticut Gazette, September 14, 1814,

11. Connecticut Gazette, September 28, November 16, December 21, 1814. Mrs. Stewart claimed the amount was $200 and Washington did not return the gold. The incident, depositions from the Yankee crew, and Mrs. Stewart’s claim were covered in detail in the paper because of the disagreement over whether Washington had returned the money or not. Washington may have deserted from HMS Acasta in 1813, and Mrs. Stewart knew he was living under an assumed name, Connecticut Gazette, September 22, 1813, December 21, 1814.

12. Connecticut Gazette, August 31, September 14, 1813; De Kay, Battle of Stonington, 193-94.

13. Connecticut Gazette, March 8, 1815; House of Commons Papers, vol. 37, Accounts and Papers: Estimate; Army, Navy, Ordnance &c., Session, 15 November 1837-16 August 1838 (London, 1838), 117; De Kay, Battle of Stonington, 83.