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War Of 1812

British Troops Burning the Library of Congress in 1814

The rumbling of war sounded. To a feverish pitch to create a sense of steady forward movement, the byproduct of conflict raging between Britain and America. Battles already had erupted in Detroit, Buffalo, Niagara, far-flung places. In Canada and as near as 50 miles east of Washington. And as rumor of Napoleons collapse in Europe floated across the Atlantic, the rumbling grew louder - the prospect of an influx of British troops after Napaleon's fall-loomed increasingly large. With British troops free to fight on the North American continent, the threat of attack, perhaps even on Washington, rose like a specter. President James Madison sensed British troops would be transported to the Chesapeake Bay, Washington their likely target. He called his Cabinet to a meeting at the President's House at noon on July 1, 1814. Urgency, of the variety experienced when a city is besieged, permeated the air.

According to Anthony Pitch, author of The Burning of Washington, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, British commander in chief of the North American station, had expressed in a letter to the government that the fledgling nation's capital could be "either destroyed or laid under contribution." Rear Admiral George Cockburn, an ardent subordinate who had fashioned his reputation by scorching and plundering settlements along the Chesapeake Bay, was receptive to the plan since the fall of a capital was "always so great a blow to the government of a country" An attack, if executed successfully, would be a debilitating strike whose outcome would resonate with symbolic significance.

Several American cities-including Baltimore, Annapolis, and Philadelphia-also made suitable targets. But Cockburn considered Washington, because it was not as well defended as the others, the rebellious new nation's Achilles heel. A British attack on Washington would partly avenge Americans' assault the year before on York, the capital of Upper Canada. American forces had set aflame the legislative and judicial buildings and pillaged the public library and private property. Britain's policy of impressment, encroachment on America's maritime rights, and the perception that Britain agitated Indians to prod them into war against America motivated the attack on York.

Just emerging from the glory of the Revolution, America faced a second war for independence. The war would be a formidable undertaking for America, especially because Madison appointed George Campbell secretary of the Treasury. When Campbell took office, the nation's finances were in serious disarray. The task was made more difficult by Congress' failure to recharter the first Bank of the United States in 1811 and its failure to finance the War of 1812. It fell to Campbell to try to persuade Americans to buy government bonds, but northern bankers would not do so. By the account of the U.S. Treasury Department's history "He [Campbell] was forced to meet the lenders' terms and sold government bonds at exorbitant interest rates."

Origins of The War of 1812

  • America's Naval History In The Pacific
  • Orders in Council (1807)
  • Embargo Act of 1807
  • Non-Intercourse Act
  • Macon's Bill Number 2
  • Tecumseh's War
  • Henry letters
  • War Hawks
  • Rule of 1756
  • Monroe-Pinkney Treaty
  • Little Belt Affair

The looming threat of war filled Americans with dread, resulting in haphazard defenses and a hasty abandonment of the capital. As British troops began to advance, the inexperienced Gen. William Winder-by most accounts nothing more than a political appointee-and his troops were all that stood between the enemy and the capital. In the face of imminent attack, the serene town of Bladensburg, Md., was quiet as the armies gathered in growing anticipation of battle.

Once the Battle of Bladensburg got underway on Aug. 24, 1814, the British introduced the use of rockets, a lethal new weapon developed over the preceding decade by English artillery officer and inventor William Congreve, whose development was an advance over earlier black-powder rockets. Congreve's new weapon could be fired from land or ship, and the British launched them to rip through American ranks. Hundreds of men fled the battlefield, and Winder, recognizing a rout in the making, tried in vain to rally his troops and curb the flight. The psychological shock of British rockets flying through the exposed ranks was too much for many of the companies under Gen. Tobias Stansbury, who commanded the 11th Brigade of Maryland Militia from Baltimore. Two of his three infantry regiments were led by Lt. Cols. Jonathan Shutz and John Ragan. The men in Ragan and Shutz's regiments were militia members for the most part and probably had little training.

After assessing the position of Shutz and Ragan's men, Winder found only 80 of 1,300-plus troops had stood their ground. The fearful others had fled in chaos. In his account of events, Pitch describes how, amid the confusion, a second line of defense, comprising approximately 800 men, never fired on the British. Instead, they whirled around and joined the mass departure. Winder signaled retreat.

After the British defeated the ineffectual Americans, British Gen. Robert Ross and Cockburn marched on to Washington. "You may thank old Madison for this," Cockburn said to citizens he encountered en route. "It is he who has got you into this scrape." The relatively easy victory at Bladensburg emboldened the British, and their offensive took on a momentum of its own.

On the night of Aug. 22,1814, Madison received a note from Secretary of State James Monroe: "The enemy are advancing six miles on the road to the Wood Yard and our troops are retiring. Our troops were on the march to meet them, but too small a body to engage. General Winder proposes to retire until he can collect them in a body. The enemy are in full march for Washington ..."

As Cockburn and company pushed forward, an eerie stillness fell over the capital. Madison's wife Dolley sat down to write to her sister: "Since sunrise, I have been turning my spy glass in every direction and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discern the approach of my dear husband and his friends; but, alas, I can descry only groups of military wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms or of spirit to fight for their own fireside!" Soon after, a wagon was filled with some of the Madisons' belongings. Dolley Madison also assured the safety of artist Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of George Washington.

In the wake of Bladensburg-and following orders from Navy Secretary William Jones-Navy Yard commandant Commodore Thomas Tingey set fire to the Navy Yard, a tract of land along Ninth and M Streets Southeast. The Navy Yard could not be allowed to be captured. The blaze reduced the facility-where the American navy's warships were built-to ashes and prevented the capture of stores and ammunition. It also devoured the 44-gun frigate Columbia.

In the meantime, Madison slipped out of town to safety. Initially, he and Dolley fled to Virginia. Then, along with his entourage of Cabinet members and congressmen, they turned north again, crossing the Potomac River. In time, they arrived at Brookeville, a Quaker crossroads in Maryland where Caleb and Henrietta Bentley lived. The Madisons were friends of the couple, whose home would serve as the seat of the federal government for a day. The night of Aug. 26, 1814, the president sent and received dispatches.

The British had already set fire to the Capitol, engulfing both the House and Senate wings. Cockburn and Ross proceeded down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the President's House. Pitch explains, "Some of the weary contingent led the way wielding long poles topped with flammable balls the size of large plates." Once Cockburn's men entered the executive mansion, they plucked the choicest souvenirs for themselves and gathered furniture for kindling. According to one eyewitness account, the President's House was consumed by fire and smoke. Pitch writes, "The spectators stood in awful silence, the city was light and heavens reddened with blaze!" The British forces rolled on to the Treasury Building, situated east of the President's House, and then torched both the War Department and the Bank of the Metropolis. By the end of the spree, they had burned just about every public building in Washington-save the Patent Office.

It was a crushing blow to a symbol of American government and independence. The attack also set loose a swell of accusation, further undermining the relationship between Madison and Secretary of War John Armstrong. The contention arose because American troops were weak and disorganized - as demonstrated at Bladensburg - and were so because of the failings of American leadership. Even if Madison himself had demonstrated accountability, he showed a willingness to tolerate ineffective subordinates whose inability to devise an effective defense of the capital resulted in its downfall. In a memorandum filed after his final interview with Armstrong, Madison described the anger voiced by the capital city's displaced and dispossessed residents and directed at both himself and the head of the War Department. He eventually suggested that Armstrong "retire from the scene, by setting out immediately on a visit to his family in the state of N. York." Although Armstrong denied any culpability for the destruction of the capital, he agreed to resign.

The attack on Washington served as a defining event in America's coming of age. Once Madison learned the British had left Washington, he directed his Cabinet to return to the capital. He returned on Aug. 27 and gathered the Cabinet two days later to devise new defense measures. In James Madison: A Biography in His Own Words, Merrill D. Peterson writes: "On Sept. 1 he denounced Britain's act of 'barbarism' and exhorted the people to unite to expel the invaders." In his proclamation, Madison concluded, "On an occasion which appeals so forcibly to the proud feelings and patriotic devotion of the American people, none will forget what they owe to themselves, what they owe to their country and the high destinies which await it, what to the glory acquired by their fathers in establishing the independence which is now to be maintained by their sons with the augmented strength and resources with which time and Heaven had blessed them." The cry roused the Americans, and the seeds of a national awakening were sown.

The destruction of Washington stirred a swell of patriotic indignation. Recognizing the need to thwart the British, Americans committed the personnel, weaponry, and funds for national defense. Banks made loans to the military until Washington could deliver the necessary funds.

Perhaps the British underestimated the rising tide of patriotism and miscalculated strategic advantages from which their adversary could benefit at Baltimore. Their invasion produced a backlash of unity and determination among Americans. In the wake of humiliation and destruction, Americans demonstrated a capacity to unite and prevail, testament to the resilience of a young nation.

After the burning of Washington, the United States, still a relative newcomer, stood on the outset of a new age of sovereign maturity and looked forward to a period of national growth and a more prominent place in international affairs. In the estimation of Americans, the burning of their capital was a brazen atrocity, and their response began to shape the United States' place in the world.

Joseph Hoff. Patriotic Fire. The History Channel Magazine. March / April 2009.


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