- Historic Sites
Humiliation and Triumph
The year was 1814, and within three weeks our “young and not always wise” nation suffered acute shame and astonishing victory
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Caught in the crossfire of the Napoleonic conflict, America declared war on Great Britain in 1812 for what seemed to the government to be ample reason. The young Republic’s trade had been stifled, her seamen impressed, her ships seized by the Royal Navy. Western settlers feared British intrigue among the Indians. Canada, in contrast, loomed as an ever more inviting target for land-hungry “war hawks. ”
For two years the war sputtered along, mostly on the Canadian front, usually a bloody stalemate. Then, in the spring of 1814, came a dramatic development. Napoleon collapsed, freeing thousands of “Wellington’s Invincibles” for service elsewhere and allowing London for the first time to turn its full attention on the brash upstart across the Atlantic.
Good Britons relished the prospect. They felt they had been fighting for freedom—everybody’s freedom—only to be knifed in the back by their own ungrateful progeny. Now it was time to “chastise Jonathan. ”
Heavy reinforcements were soon on their way to Canada. At the same time, a separate expedition headed across the Atlantic to strike directly at America’s eastern seaboard. This consisted of some four thousand crack Peninsular veterans led by Major General Robert Ross and under the overall command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, Commander in Chief of the North American Station. Cochrane planned to use the force, together with his Royal Marines and ships, first in operations along the Atlantic coast, later m an attack on New Orleans. Strategic considerations came first, of course, but prize money was never very far from the Admiral’s mind.
On August 16 the expedition swept through the Virginia Capes, up the Chesapeake Bay, and joined the squadron of Rear Admiral George Cockburn, a jaunty sea dog who knew the area well. Cockburn urged that they land at Benedict, a small Maryland town on the Patuxent River, attack Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla, which had been trapped forty miles upstream, and then, if all went well, strike a blow at Washington itself. At the same time Captain James Gordon would lead a small squadron up the Potomac to divert the Americans and cover the main force if anything went wrong.
Cochrane agreed, and on August ig the troops began landing at Benedict. On the twentieth they headed up the river, accompanied by the boats of the fleet. On the twenty-second they forced Barney to scuttle his flotilla. On the twenty-third they swung west for Bladensburg, just northeast of the District of Columbia line.
Meanwhile, the little new city of Washington desperately tried to organize some sort of resistance. There had been warnings all summer; a special military district had been set up under Brigadier General William H. Winder; and thousands of troops had been earmarked for the defense of the capital—but all this was misleading. Actually the troops were mostly raw militia, the requisitions largely just paper, the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, unbelievably complacent, and General Winder a hopeless incompetent. The sixty-three-year-old President, James Madison, had a brilliant mind but was far from a gifted war leader, and sometimes it seemed that the only person with real spirit was his indomitable wife Dolley.
No real resistance had yet developed when Washington learned on the morning of August 24 that the British were approaching Bladensburg, virtually at the gates of the city. The President, the Cabinet, General Winder, the District militia, Barney ‘s stranded flotilla men—some three thousand men altogether—raced to the little town. Here they joined another three thousand Maryland militia already on the scene. The combined force was still being deployed when the British appeared.
It was all over in a couple of hours. Sweeping forward, General Ross’s little army scattered one militia detachment after another. Only Barney’s men put up a good resistance, but in the end they, too, were overwhelmed, with the Commodore wounded and a prisoner. Washington lay open for the taking. … —W.L.
From a third-floor window in his handsome house on Capitol Hill, Dr. James Ewell studied the horizon, searching for some clue to the course of battle at Bladensburg. Occasionally he could see a puff of smoke, or hear the distant rumble of guns, but that was all. It was impossible to guess what was going on.
Gradually the smoke and rumble died away, and for a while there was just silence. Then for the first time the doctor noticed a cloud of dust over the outskirts of the city—a cloud that grew steadily thicker and nearer. Soon soldiers began running by at first in twos and threes, then in swarms. At one point Ewell caught a glimpse of Secretary of War John Armstrong himself, almost lost in the mob. A horseman rode by, shouting warnings of rape. The doctor’s daughters began screaming, and Mrs. Ewell sobbed over and over, “What shall we do? What shall we do?”
On the other side of the city Superintendent of Patents William Thornton and his wife also scanned the horizon from their house on F Street. They knew the troops were engaged, but they lived farther away than the Ewells and could hear nothing. At last they saw a man riding hard up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the President’s House-clearly a messenger bringing news of some sort.