The Blue Lights


After five months in the Thames River, Captains Stephen Decatur, Jacob Jones, and James Biddle brought their ships partway downriver at the end of October 1813, aiming to make a run to sea. But the United States grounded and damaged her rudder, so Decatur’s escape plans were delayed. Hearing that an admiral and two fireships, which could destroy anchored vessels, were expected to join the British squadron, Decatur ordered the vessels to anchor off New London’s Market Wharf on December 3, with the British squadron anchored six miles south. On the blustery night of Sunday, December 12, he planned to slip out of the harbor and run past the anchored British ships to the open sea. But rumors of his departure had spread, and unidentified parties perhaps schemed to warn the British squadron. As the ships prepared to raise their anchors and run, lookouts on the Hornet and the boat guard of the Macedonian noticed blue lights shining on Groton Heights and down toward New London Light. Looking to sea, they saw signal lights on one of the British ships. Fearing the British were ready for him, Decatur postponed the ships’ departure.1


This 1814 view of New London from Manwaring Hill looks out toward three British warships anchored near Fishers Island. The New London courthouse is in the foreground, with Fort Trumbull to its right and New London Lighthouse on the point beyond. While in the harbor off Fort Trumbull, officers from USS MACEDONIAN and HORNET believed they saw blue-light signals being displayed from the heights beyond Fort Trumbull and the heights across the river in Groton, below Fort Griswold. New London County Historical Society


Although many questioned the blue lights, suggesting they were signal lights on patrolling barges rather than signals communicated from shore, Decatur stood by the report of his officers and men. With it’s loyalty impugned, the community had an uncomfortable feeling that there were “traitorous wretches” among them. “While we ever will be proud of maintaining the patriotism of our own state, yet we are not so far converts to the French doctrine of ‘the perfectibility of human nature,’ as to assert that Connecticut is pure, and therefore that no foreign spy or domestic traitor can be harbored in her bosom,” wrote Samuel Green of the Connecticut Gazette.2

When blue lights blazed again at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 9, and militia and naval officers saw them answered by all the British ships, it seemed clear that the British had agents ashore, who would warn them if Decatur made a move. After negotiating a possible ship-to-ship duel to win release from the Thames, then backing out, Decatur moved his vessels back up the river to Gales Ferry on January 27.3

Some continued to maintain that the lights were only imagined by jumpy officers. Others have imagined that Elizabeth Stewart, wife of the former British consul James Stewart, coordinated the signaling, but Decatur did not express suspicion of the Stewarts. Connecticut Marshal Robert Fairchild suspected the surveyor of the port―an officer of the federal customs service―and another “patriotic” resident, who had ingratiated themselves with Decatur, of being secret agents for the British. A Captain Center of Newport was detained for questioning, and an unfounded rumor of the seizure of a female spy circulated through town. The Connecticut Gazette lamented those “who are so polluted by the love of money, and so dead to every patriotic feeling, as to be in the habit of furnishing the enemy with beef, poultry, butter, &c.,” implying there were many possible suspects who consorted with the British. To spread the blame the paper remarked, “boats have been seen to pass from the Connecticut river, not circuitously, but in a direct course to the enemy’s ships lying off this harbor.”4


Map detail from the Doolittle blockade map.

Thanks to America’s lively press, word of potential treason in Connecticut spread rapidly across the nation. To defend Connecticut’s honor, Federalist Representative Lyman Law, a New London native, proposed that Congress hold an inquiry. Representative Jonathan O. Mosely of East Haddam, also a Federalist, endorsed the resolution. Surprisingly enough, Congressional Republican Democrats decided that the House of Representatives was not “a court of inquiry or judicature for criminal offenses” and defeated the resolution. The Massachusetts Federalist Columbian Centinal concluded, “thus the majority, by a side blow, have got rid of an inquiry, which they well know would have proved the charges so flippantly made against the citizens of Connecticut, to have originated either in the most accommodating infatuation, or the most wanton fabrications.”5

 In retrospect, Dr. Samuel H.P. Lee of New London remarked that blue lights were often seen along shore during the blockade, and in the dark it was very difficult to determine if they emanated from land or sea. He also claimed that, in his experience, British officers and seamen in disguise often lurked in New London and traveled through Connecticut and even to New York, acting as secret agents for the blockaders. Lee believed the British were so well informed of Decatur’s moves that blue-light signals were unnecessary. Looking back on the war, and offended by the accusations of Federalist disloyalty, Lee and ex-militiaman Samuel Goodrich dismissed Decatur’s blue-lights claim.6

The blue lights brought to light the hidden divisions of loyalty, Yankee opportunism, and principled opposition to the war that characterized New London and Connecticut. And more broadly, the blue lights became a semantic symbol of disloyalty, “blue-light Federalist” becoming the ultimate insult during the last year of the war.7

By Andrew W. German
Mystic, CT


1. Connecticut Gazette, October 27, November 3, December 1, 8, 15, 22, 1813, January 12, 1814.

2. Connecticut Gazette, January 12, 1814.

3. Connecticut Gazette, January 12, February 2, 1814.

4. Fairchild to James Madison, January 3, 1814, James Madison Papers, Box 2, folder 4, New York Public Library; Connecticut Gazette, January 12, 1814; the perpetrators of the blue lights were never identified.

5. James H. Ellis, A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812 (New York: Algora Publishing, 2009), 155-56; see also Annals of Congress, 13th Congress, 2nd Session, 1123-27, and Columbian Centinal, February 2, 1814.

6. 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.

7. Divisions within New London are made clear by editor Samuel Green’s remark: “Some petulant scribblers of this place, continue through the Boston prints to trouble the public and disturb good neighborhood, with their whim-whams about the blue lights. These writers are another sect of “New-Lights,” fancying themselves gifted with an intuitive kind of wisdom, which enables them to come directly at truth without the deductions of reason,” Connecticut Gazette, January 26, 1814.