History, History Column

War of 1812

In the early 1800s the United States became inextricably involved in European affairs. Customs duties funded the federal government; trading policies shaped local economies and the ongoing commercial war between Britain and Napoleon’s France cost neutral American merchants unnecessarily. Great Britain controlled the high seas.

In 1807 the British 52-gun frigate H.M.S. Leopold fired on the American 39-gun frigate U.S.S. Chesapeake three plus miles off Virginia’s shore. Four sailors were forcibly removed from the Chesapeake and impressed. Economic battles, President Jefferson’s Embargo Act followed. Ports closed, New Englanders protested, sectional politics intensified, the Act failed and impressment continued.

War hawks dominated America’s foreign policy. US Senators Henry Clay (KY), Felix Mundy (TN) and John C. Calhoun (SC) were among them. They favored war with Great Britain. “Such a course,” war hawks argued, “was necessary to prevent British trade policies from further damaging the American economy.” War Hawks also believed the British were behind the on-going Indian attacks along the western frontier.

The maritime dilemma was often debated and on June 18, 1812 President James Madison signed America’s declaration of war. Virginia Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke opposed Mr. Madison’s War with Great Britain. On May 29, 1812, he resolved that “under existing circumstances it [was] inexpedient to resort to war.” Randolph’s House colleagues disagreed.

“[War] was not declared on the part of the United States until it was made on them, in reality though not in name,” President Madison said in his March 4, 1813 Second Inaugural Address. “On the issue of the war are staked our national sovereignty on the high seas and the security of an important class of citizens, whose occupations give the proper value to those of every other class.”

America split politically. Marylanders aligned with Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party attacked Federalist publisher A.C. Hanson’s Baltimore newspaper office. Washington was a dreary capital; Baltimore and Alexandria trading titans.

The British attacked New York [Hudson River], New Orleans [Mississippi River], and the Chesapeake Bay [Potomac and Patuxent Rivers]. In 1812 the British blockaded the Bay, established a military base on Tangier Island, and ransacked waterfront towns. Eastern Virginia and Southern Maryland were under constant attack.

British warships, under the command of Captain Robert Barrie, carried out numerous raids along the southwestern shores of Maryland. In 1813 a St. Mary’s County farmer wrote:

“Once more we are thrown on the tempestuous waves of predatory war…The most terrible evil, however, is the destruction of negroes…[Many] have joined the [British] fleet. If the war continues a year longer, all our men property will be entirely ruined. Why, in the name of God, have we no part of the Maryland Regiments sent from Washington to save us from destruction….” Hollywood, Maryland’s Sotterley Plantation—Maryland’s oldest standing plantation house—suffered similar losses of labor and on June 7 the historic Plantation offers an informative War-related lecture, The Choice—Risking Your Life for Freedom.

Madison’s direction of the war effort was a disaster. The President relied on Revolutionary War retirees whose martial skills had faded. Secretary of War John Armstrong, in particular, failed St. Mary’s County. When President Madison asked Secretary Armstrong to call up the militia Armstrong replied, “It cannot be expected that I can defend every man’s turnip patch.”

Congress, in January 1814, increased the US army from 11,000 to 62,773 men. America divided into nine military districts but still land operations were unsuccessful. Napoleon’s overthrow, his April exile to Elba permitted Britain’s war veterans to regroup and fight anew.

Armstrong refused to believe the British would assail the city of Washington. Yet, on August 19, 1814, 4,000 British soldiers—including Maj. General Robert Ross—landed in Benedict, Maryland. The purpose: To raid Washington in retaliation for Toronto’s 1813 capture, also Alexandria, D.C.

“I consider the Patuxent Town of Benedict to offer us advantages…beyond any other Spot within the United States,” Rear Admiral George Cockburn wrote. “I therefore most firmly believe that within forty-eight hours after Arrival…the City of Washington might be possessed without Difficulty or Opposition of any kind.”

“In August 1814, the enemy had got so near, there could be no doubt of their intentions,” Madison White House slave Paul Jennings explained. “Great alarm existed, and some feeble preparations for defense were made.”

Commodore Joshua Barney’s U.S. Chesapeake flotilla, his “mosquito fleet,” twice battled on Maryland’s St. Leonard Creek. Ordered to destroy his gun boats, Barney and his shoeless crew then trooped upstream, “his men placed in battery, at Bladensburg, where they fought splendidly. A large part of his men were tall, strapping negroes [non-defectors] mixed with white sailors and marines.” Artifacts from the scuttled flotilla are displayed in Solomons reopened Calvert Marine Museum.

Americans outnumbered the British at Bladensburg. Soldier strength included Winder’s Army, Bladensburg’s Army, Baltimore troops, 700 Flotilla men and an Annapolis Regiment. “I think cowardice, I saw [and] there was not one Virginia Soldier in the Battle,” James W. Wallace reported.

On August 24, 1814 “the British reached Bladensburg and the fight began,” Jennings continued. “That very morning General Armstrong assured Mrs. Madison there was no danger. The President, with General Armstrong, General Winder, Colonel Monroe [Secretary of State], Richard Rust [Attorney General], Mr. Graham, Tench Ringgold, and Mr. Duvall rode…to Bladensburg to see how things looked….” Commissary General of Prisoners John Mason, fourth son of George Mason IV, joined them.

“While waiting” Jennings said, “James Smith, a free colored man who had accompanied Mr. Madison to Bladensburg, galloped up to the [White] House…and cried, ‘Clear out, clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!’”

“All then was confusion,” Jennings recalled. “Mrs. Madison ordered her carriage, and passing through the [White House] dining room, caught up what silver she could crowd into her old-fashioned reticule, and then jumped into the chariot with Daniel Carroll [of Dumbarton House, then Belle Vue], who took charge of [her].”

“About sundown, I walked over to the Georgetown ferry [John Mason’s Analostan Island ferry] and found the President…waiting for a boat,” Jennings penned. “…In a short time several wagons from Bladensburg, drawn by Barney’s artillery horses passed. Then…I heard a tremendous explosion and saw that the public buildings, navy yard, ropewalks, etc. were on fire.”

The navy was America’s strength. Madison’s army however turned tail and ran. The President fled Washington, retreating first to Virginia and then the Brookeville, Maryland home of Quaker Postmaster Caleb Bentley on August 26. Britain’s General Ross was in the throes of earning another family title, Ross-of-Bladensburg.

The First Lady departed separately, dwelling only two hours at Georgetown’s Dumbarton House. “Mrs. Madison slept that night at Mrs. Love’s [Virginia Rokeby Farm], two or three miles over the river,” Jennings concluded. “After leaving…she…went to Mrs. Minor’s a few miles further. She, in a day or two, returned to Washington [and] found Mr. Madison at her brother-in-law’s, Richard Cutts.” The Madisons took refuge in Colonel John B. Tayloe’s house [The Octagon House] “where we lived ‘til the news of peace arrived.”

The White House was in ruin and Alexandria, like Washington, remained defenseless. “In the evening of August 29, 1814, being on horseback, I stopped at General Armstrong’s lodgings [to talk] with him on the state of things in the District, then under apprehensions of an immediate visit from the [occupying] force at Alexandria,” President Madison wrote. Maryland’s Fort Warburton, now Fort Washington earlier self-exploded—U.S. Army Captain S.T. Dyson was court martialed—and Alexandria surrendered.

“No…indecorum was offered the inhabitants—their dwellings were not visited, nor their household property molested,” Alexandria apothecary and Quaker minister Edward Stabler wrote in 1814. “They took flour, tobacco, cotton, groceries and shipping, to an amount it is supposed of less than $200,000.”

“The previous attack on Washington had called away from Alexandria all the military men and military apparatus; so that when [Captain James Gordon’s] English squadron arrived before the town, there was nothing in the power of the remaining citizens but to meet them in the spirit of unresisting negotiation,” Stabler concluded. “By this course, all irritation on both parts was prevented….” Alexandria Mayor Charles Simms’ summation was similar.

Alternatively Fredericksburg’s John Minor, Brig. General of militia and former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, described Alexandria’s occupation as “a disgraceful disaster, a sad Tale.” When he saw “the Enemy going down the Potomac River with their plunder,” Minor called it “the Donations of Alexandria.” The British occupied Alexandria for five days, from August 28 until September 3. “It has often been [written] that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House she cut out from the frame the large [Gilbert Stuart] portrait of [George] Washington and carried it off,” Jennings noted. “This is totally false…[Mrs. Madison] sent it off on a wagon with some large silver urns.”

Martha Parke Custis Peter, Martha Washington’s granddaughter, also “witnessed the conflagration of our poor undefended and devoted city.” She saw, from her parlor window at Tudor Place, “the British burn the Capitol.” “…Is it not probable that the strength and resources of other parts of the Union will be rated very low after the imbecility shewn at the seat of Government under the immediate superintendence of the Executive of the United States?” John Wayles Eppes asked Thomas Jefferson on September 7, 1814.

The British destroyed Washington; then returned to Benedict to again board their ships. Before leaving Benedict, British soldiers set Charles Smith’s Mount Arundel home on fire. Smith tried one last time to eliminate the enemy by offering the soldiers a poisonous whiskey brew.

Baltimore’s Fort McHenry was not an easy September target. The Americans fought vigorously, until the British retired. The victory, Mary Pickersgill’s American flag inspired observer Frances Scott Key to write the Star-Spangled Banner. His words became the national anthem in 1931.

F.S. Key’s second cousin, Eliza Maynadier Key Scott is credited with the restoration of Leonardtown’s stately Tudor Hall. Tudor Hall is home to the St. Mary’s County, Maryland Historical Society. The British raided Leonardtown in 1814 and Eliza, upon meeting Admiral Cockburn, allegedly asked that he torch the town sparingly. Historic Leonardtown celebrates the War of 1812 Raiders & Invaders Weekend June 6-8.

The American Navy won the September battle on Lake Champlain and the news encouraged the British to retreat. On December 24, 1814 the Treaty of Ghent was signed. Andrew Jackson’s ill-timed Battle of New Orleans followed in 1815. The War of 1812 was not an affair covered in glory. A weakness revealed: U.S. coastal defenses. In December 1815 President Madison asked Congress to survey “our maritime frontier.”

During the Third System Fortifications phase, new construction included Chesapeake Virginia’s 1819 Fortress [James] Monroe—U.S. Army engineer Robert E. Lee later assisted—and South Carolina’s 1829 Ft. Sumter, “a new fort on a shoal in Charleston Harbor.” Maryland’s Fort Washington, a replacement structure, spanned the Second and Third Systems.

St. Leonard, Maryland’s Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum commemorates the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 with a special tour, 1812 Remembered. On June 21 the 560-acre park & museum hosts The 1812 Fair and Re-enactment, a two-day special event which includes living history.

Scholars now study the war’s effect on culture and patriotism. Also analyze Madison’s decision not to restrict civil liberties during wartime. With patience, America’s untried federal system survived politics and military indecision.

The War’s popular stories are two: Dolley Madison’s 1814 removal of George Washington’s White House portrait and Andrew Jackson’s military skill as demonstrated during the January 1815 Battle of New Orleans. From whence comes the expression “Don’t give up the ship?” The U.S.S. Chesapeake’s Captain James Lawrence issued the order when his ship was being overtaken by the British in 1807.


Written by: Sarah Becker © 2014
Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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