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Feb 19, 2013 1:22 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Historic Flag To Rise At Site Of Old Sag Harbor Fort

Feb 20, 2013 10:14 AM

A hunk of granite on Turkey Hill, the highest point in Sag Harbor Village’s historic district, has fading etching on its surface that simply states: “ON THIS SPOT STOOD AN AMERICAN FORT 1812.”

What it does not say is that a British squadron once attacked Sag Harbor, but retreated upon meeting the militia stationed at that old fort—where, a few years later, two American soldiers were killed by cannon fire.

At the time, the fort enjoyed a strategic and magnificent view of Sag Harbor Bay. Today, the view is blocked by houses, and the rock pillar sits on a nondescript grassy rectangle between the lightly traveled Mulford Lane and High Street.

Dave Thommen, a history enthusiast who lives on the hill, has taken it upon himself to ensure that the historic significance of the site shines through.

He would like to raise a flagpole—not too big, not too “cheesy,” but one that is appropriate—there in honor of the militia who were stationed at the fort defending American homes and families. Flying from the pole would be Old Glory sporting 15 stars and 15 stripes, just as it did during the War of 1812, the conflict between the United States and Britain that lasted from 1812 to 1815. He would serve as the flag’s steward—raising it and lowering it when acceptable, according to flag etiquette.

Just last week, the Sag Harbor Village Board gave his request a stamp of approval, but prior to that he approached his neighbors, and they were receptive.

“It’s really not so much the fort and the War of 1812 as it is local history,” the 56-year-old explained on Monday morning at his Rysam Street home, an assortment of historical documents spread out before him. “I used to play on the monument and the fort site, and I used to make believe that I was a soldier in the fort when I was a little kid.”

Mr. Thommen is not only a history buff, he is also the local cannoneer. It is he who, every September at HarborFest, fires John Steinbeck’s little cannon to signal the start of each whaleboat race.

A North Haven native with deep family roots in Sag Harbor, Mr. Thommen has traveled to many fort sites across the nation and noticed that most have flags, but according to his research, a flag has never flown at Sag Harbor’s fort, where, early in the morning on July 11, 1813, the Americans chased out the British, the most powerful navy in the world at the time.

The upcoming 200th anniversary of this little-known victory has helped spark his excitement about his new pet project. His goal is to have a dedication ceremony for the flag as close to that date, July 11, as possible, and to have the dedication itself—if it has to take place at a different time from the ceremonious dedication—held exactly 200 years to the day of the British retreat.

Retired from his job as a dockmaster for Southampton Town as of December 31, 2012, Mr. Thommen brims with excitement about having more time available to continue his research—about which pole would be most suitable, for example, and even to find out where the fort’s cannons eventually ended up.

He is also starting to organize a fund drive, so the village won’t have to pay, and says he is waiting to hear back from the American Legion, but hopes to hold a benefit with hot dogs, burgers and clams around April or May.

The cost of the flag, pole and installation, he estimates, would be about $2,500. A bronze plaque—approximately the size of an open manila folder, with raised letters and about two short paragraphs, a 15-star, 15-stripe flag, and a brief description of the attack on Sag Harbor, and a date of dedication—would up the price to between $3,000 and $5,000.

According to an old roster, the fort—Mr. Thommen’s research has not uncovered an official name for the fort itself—had dozens of soldiers posted there during the War of 1812 and included a cannon that shot 18-pound cannonballs, as well as another that fired 9-pound balls. A document prepared by a former village historian even lists some court martial proceedings from 1814, a grim glimpse into the justice at the time. One soldier who was found guilty of sleeping at his post, for example, was given a penalty of being confined with shackles and chains to one of the cannons for two days. (He was kept in the guardhouse at night).

In another somber note, in 1815, while celebrating the end of the war, two American soldiers on duty at the fort, Nathaniel Baker and John Peirson, died in a cannon accident.

“Chasing the British out, that’s pretty cool,” Mr. Thommen said. “The British were the most powerful military force in the world. And here you’ve got a handful of guys at a little fort in Sag Harbor, and we drove them out, and they never came back.”

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