- 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
In the many encounters between victors and vanquished, the one that both sides thought about most often never came to pass. This was, of course, the union between the black man and the English liberator. The white citizens of Washington had long dreaded the possibility of a slave uprising. Sir Alexander Cochrane, for his part, had long relished the idea of “thousands” of blacks flocking to his colors. Now here the British were, right in the American capital, and nobody came.
The answer went deeper than anyone cared to penetrate: the blacks trusted neither side. There were individual exceptions, of course, but the vast majority wanted no part of it. Now that the British were here, the inclination was to hide rather than rejoice.
And so the hours of tension passed while the work of destruction went on. Lieutenant James Scott led a party of seamen to one of the city’s three ropewalks, spread the hemp along the center of the building, poured tar on top, and lit the mixture. The other ropewalks were treated the same way, and in less than half an hour all three were in flames. In a panic the militia on the Virginia side of the Potomac feared a British attack was coming and lit their end of the bridge across the river. Seeing the smoke and commotion and deciding it must mean an American attack, the guard at the British end did the same.
The shimmering August heat grew worse, and great thunderheads were piling up in the northwest when one more British detachment left Capitol Hill around 2 P.M. Consisting of four officers and two hundred men, it marched down Delaware Avenue to Greenleaf’s Point, where the Eastern Branch flowed into the Potomac. The Americans had destroyed the fort there, but the magazine remained, and the detachment had orders to get rid of its 150 barrels of powder.
A deep well on the point seemed ideal for the purpose, and the troops began rolling the barrels to the edge and dropping them in. Unknown to everyone, there was not enough water to cover the powder, and the contents of the barrels (plus some of the barrels themselves) soon rose high above the surface.
No one ever knew just how it happened. Some said a soldier accidentally tossed a lighted brand down the well; some said he did it on purpose as the safest way to extinguish it; some said he threw a cigar; some said nobody threw anything: it was the barrels, tumbling down the shaft, that struck sparks off the stone siding. Whatever the cause, the result was the same an earsplitting explosion that blew well, powder, dirt, buildings, and human beings into a huge, jumbled, mangled mass.
It was worse than any single moment at Bladensburg. Some of the men were blown to pieces, and no one knew exactly how many were killed. Estimates ran from twelve to thirty. The forty-four badly injured were carried back to Capitol Hill, where Ross established a makeshift hospital.
Calm slowly returned to the city, but not the hot, still calm of before. Black clouds to the northwest were rolling closer, muttering with thunder, and flashes of lightning blinked across the sky. It grew steadily darker. A sudden breeze kicked up the dust on Pennsylvania Avenue, and large drops of rain began to fall. Old Washingtonians knew they were in for a really big storm.
But nobody could remember anything like this one—the crashing thunder, the blinding rain, that howling, lashing wind. It plucked Lieutenant Gleig right off his horse. It picked up two British three-pounders as though they were toys. It ripped the roof off the Patent Office, just saved by Dr. Thornton.
Cockburn sat out the storm in the Ewells’ dining room, amiably chatting with the doctor. Suddenly, the front door flew open and in stamped four men with a dripping white flag. Led by the Reverend James Muir, they were a “peace” delegation of three clergymen from Alexandria, Virginia. They had battled their way through the storm to explain that their city was completely defenseless —what surrender terms could they expect? It all seemed so anticipatory. Cockburn asked whether Captain James Gordon’s squadron was in sight yet, coming up the Potomac. No, it turned out, no one was near; they just wanted to know the terms when their time came.
For once in his life the Admiral was nonplussed. He wasn’t used to these people who surrendered without even an enemy in sight. Improvising as best he could, he said that if there was ab- solutely no resistance, their persons and property would be safe, that the British would take but pay for whatever they needed. With that, he ran out of ideas, and the delegation politely bowed themselves out of the room and back into the storm.
Nor was Alexandria the only place attempting to surrender. The people of Georgetown had been trying for two days. During the evening of the twenty-fourth, Mayor John Peter led a delegation of leading citizens in the first attempt to negotiate terms. They apparently never made contact they were on the wrong road but the same group was at it again bright and early on the twenty-fifth. This time they reached Ross and offered to give up the town if only the British would spare their houses.
The General turned out to be a surprisingly good bluller. He let them believe he was interested, but actually he had no intention of going farther west. There were rumors that the American Army had rallied on the heights above Georgetown, and he certainly didn’t want to get trapped.