- 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 fact, General Ross was determined to head back to the fleet right away. The explosion at Grcenleaf’s Point had wiped out some of his best men; the storm had torn his organi/ation to shreds. Now there were reports of American reinforcements coming on, twelve thousand men massed for a great counterattack. His pickets said they could even sec weapons glittering on the heights above the Potomac. As for himself, he had already accomplished more than he ever hoped. More than he dreamed. Why stretch his luck?
As evening approached, staff officers quietly alerted the various unit commanders to be ready to fall back after dark. Secrecy was all-important. Not a word to the men or the people of the town. Where the sudden bustle of activity required some explanation, the inhabitants were fed vague, misleading rumors: there were hints of a move on Annapolis, on Georgetown.
The forty-four badly injured at Greenleaf’s Point couldn’t be moved, and nothing was more upsetting to General Ross. Dr. Ewell assured Ross that Americans were a humane people —“of the same origin as yourself” and that he personally would look after the men left behind.
At dusk the campfires blazed brightly on Capitol Hill and at the larger encampment on the edge of the city. Occasional figures, silhouetted or caught in the flickering light, hovered about doing ordinary chores. It was, of course, the oldest of ruses de guerre . While a handful of men played out a charade, the great mass of the army stole away in the night. Falling in at 8 P.M. , the 3rd Brigade led the way, then the 2nd, then the ist, silently marching out Maryland Avenue, the exact way they had entered twenty-four hours ago.
For five days, town by town, they retraced their steps to the fleet. Not a shot was fired at them all the way; not a bridge destroyed nor a tree chopped down to check their progress. They had seen few enemy troops on the way in; they saw none on the way out.
In a few incredible days the British force had marched fifty miles into the enemy’s country, captured his capital, burned the public buildings, and gotten back safely to their ships.
Among the retiring British troops, there were a Jew stragglers who stayed behind in the Maryland countryside to loot. A group of Americans, largely led by Dr. William Beanes, the elderly patriarch of Upper Marlboro whose house had served as Ross ‘s headquarters on his way to Washington, captured and jailed some oj these stragglers. One man escaped and brought word to the fleet. General Ross, furious at what he considered a breach of faith on his former host’s part, sent back a force to arrest Beanes and his police party. The other Americans were soon released, but Beanes was thrown in the brig of the flagship Tonnant.
No one knew what the British planned to do next. Alexandria rushed to surrender to Captain Gordon when his squadron, still sailing up the Potomac toward Washington, came into sight. Americans were shamed, angry, and bitter as the news of the burning of the capital spread. Every city in the area feared that its turn was next.
Meanwhile, the British, regrouping their forces andwaiting for Gordon to return, mere making plans. Hatred of Baltimore, that “nest of pirates, ” was strong, and Cockburn wanted to attack that city immediately. Cochrane and Ross, however, were more cautious. They finally decided to regroup, rest the force at Rhode Island, and return to Baltimore in October. Knowing none of this, the cities along the seaboard continued their frantic preparations.
Boasting a population of over forty-five thousand, Baltimore was the third-biggest city in the Union—a target of obvious importance. Its bulging warehouses and crowded waterfront invited the closest attention of the prize-conscious British leaders. Its record of harassing the enemy was unparalleled—over five hundred British ships captured or sent to the bottom by Baltimore privateers.
And it had a reputation to go with its record. No city had done more to fan the war fever. In one anti-Federalist riot a crowd even killed a distinguished Revolutionary leader and maimed the venerated Richard Henry Lee, seemingly just because they wanted peace. “Mobtown” was the gentlest epithet applied by the British press.
Yet at the moment, brawling, bellicose Baltimore was anything but warlike. As the shattered remnants of Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury’s and Colonel Joseph Sterett’s militia tumbled in from Bladensburg, a wave of defeatism swept the city. “You may be sure this is the most awful moment of my life,” one of the stunned inhabitants, David Winchester, wrote a relative in Tennessee. “Not because, if the place is defended, I shall put my life at hazard in common with my fellow citizens, but because I am positively sure we shall not succeed.”
Few even contemplated a defense. “I think the only way to save the town and state will be to capitulate,” wrote Private Henry Fulford, back home from his harrowing day at Bladensburg. “We shall have to receive the British without opposition and make the best terms we can,” echoed a local shipowner in a letter to New York. He added that he had to close now; he was off to scuttle his own vessel in the harbor.