British Fortunes, North America 1814

Rear-Admiral George Cockburn (1772-1853) The burning of Washington forms the background to this portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn. At background right is the burning of the US Treasury Building and the Capitol Building

On assuming the North American command, Admiral Cochrane had wasted no time declaring his intention to wage a more uncompromising brand of warfare than his predecessor had pursued. Cochrane had arrived in Bermuda on March 6, 1814, but Admiral Sir John Warren, C-in-C Royal Navy, Northern American Hemisphere, had brusquely rebuffed Cochrane’s proposal that he take charge at once; perhaps still thinking of the prize money that was due him as long as he retained the position of commander in chief, Warren icily informed his successor that he “must decline entering into any discussion” of an early transfer and would “strictly conform to the Orders of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, as to the delivering over to you the Command of His Majesty’s Ships upon this Station … and therefore am to inform you that I shall not be prepared to place you in the Command thereof until April 1.”

So Cochrane bided his time but was clearly chafing to get into the fight. The day after taking charge, he issued a proclamation opening a new front in the reinvigorated campaign he was preparing to launch along the Chesapeake with the return of summer, and the expected arrival of considerable reinforcements in men and ships.

WHEREAS it has been represented to me, that many Persons now resident in the UNITED STATES, have expressed a desire to withdraw therefrom,…

This is therefore to Give Notice,

That all those who may be disposed to emigrate from the UNITED STATES will, with their Families, be received on board of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels of War, or at the Military Posts that may be established, upon or near the Coast of the UNITED STATES, when they will have their choice of either entering into His Majesty’s Sea or Land Forces, or of being sent as FREE Settlers to the British Possessions in North America or the West Indies, where they will meet with all due encouragement.

The notice nowhere specifically mentioned “slaves,” but it did not need to: everyone knew who it was aimed at. Cochrane had a thousand copies printed up and sent them to Cockburn, who had returned to Lynnhaven Bay a few weeks earlier to begin reconnoitering and prepare a base of operations for the summer campaign. Cochrane optimistically thought he might be getting as many as fifteen thousand troops from France plus several regiments from England and Ireland. In the meantime, Cockburn established a base at Tangier Island, located almost in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, to receive runaway slaves and begin training them for the several companies of “Colonial Marines” he planned to organize. Cochrane also sent him £2,000 for “contingent expenses”: both to buy information and to try to kidnap “Persons of Political Interest” connected to the Republican party, to be held as hostages.

While awaiting the promised reinforcements, Cockburn began looking for likely targets he could raid with the 1,500 or so men he currently had available. “You are at perfect liberty as soon as you can muster a Sufficient force, to act with the utmost Hostility against the shores of the United States,” Cochrane had instructed him, pointing to American actions as justification for harsh retaliation:

Their Government authorizes & directs a most destructive War to be carried on against our Commerce & we have no means of retaliating but on shore, where they must be made to feel in their Property, what our Merchants do in having their Ships destroyed at Sea; & taught to know that they are at the mercy of an invading foe.… Their Sea Port Towns laid in Ashes & the Country wasted will be some sort of a retaliation for their savage Conduct in Canada.

Cochrane specifically suggested that he choose targets that would best facilitate the exodus of more slaves: “Let the Landings you may make be more for the protection of the desertion of the Black Population than with a view to any other advantage, the force you have is too Small to accomplish an object of magnitude—the great point to be attained is the cordial Support of the Black population with them properly armed & backed with 20,000 British Troops, Mr. Maddison will be hurled from his Throne.”

Hundreds of slaves flocked to Tangier through the spring and summer of 1814. Although they had had time to receive only a few weeks’ training in firearms, Cockburn reported they fought extremely well in several small skirmishes. Unlike the regular troops, there was scarcely any worry of them deserting; they knew the country well; and the fear that armed black men had already induced among the Virginia and Maryland militia units had significant shock value in itself: “They expect Blacky will have no mercy on them and they know that he understands bush fighting and the locality of the Woods as well as themselves.” In one well-publicized incident that sent tremors through slaveholders along the Chesapeake, an escaped slave led a British force to his former master’s home, and while the troops looted the plantation, the ex-slave, armed with a pistol and sword, sat up through the night verbally tormenting his former master. At dawn the troops withdrew, taking the rest of the plantation’s slaves with them.

Cockburn reported after one early raid by his black marines, “They have induced me to alter the bad opinion I had of the whole of their Race & I now really believe these we are training, will neither shew want of Zeal or Courage when employed by us in attacking their old Masters.” In late May 1814 the Colonial Marines had displayed notable courage during an attack on a militia battery at Pungoteague, near Tangier Island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore: one of the black soldiers was shot and died instantly, but, Cockburn said, “it did not daunt or check the others in the least but on the contrary animated them to seek revenge.”

Cochrane’s plans for revenge were on a grander scale, however. In July 1814 he wrote Lord Melville laying out options for the destruction of one of “the principal Towns of America,” Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Annapolis, Richmond, and Norfolk among them. He issued sterner and sterner public directives to his commanders to “destroy & lay waste such Towns and Districts upon the Coast as you may find assailable.” While doing so, he added, they should “take every opportunity of explaining to the people” that they would have to look to their own government for compensation, since the British actions were merely “retributory justice” for the “wanton & unjustifiable outrages on the unoffending Inhabitants” of Upper Canada. Yet Cochrane vacillated for weeks over where the brunt of the British sword should fall. He still had received no official word on how many troops would arrive or when. Croker had warily distanced himself from any responsibility for the direction of the land campaign, telling Cochrane, “Their Lordships entrust to your judgment the choice of the objects on which you may employ this Force,” and advising only that he not advance too far inland as to risk having his line of retreat cut, and to give preference to “crippling the Enemy’s naval Force” should such an opportunity present itself.

Only in mid-July did the first even semi-official word reach Cochrane in Bermuda about the size of the army. After months of buildup in British newspapers, which had been reporting that a vast invasion force was assembling, it must have scarcely seemed believable that only a few thousand troops in the end were on the way. But the news was confirmed the last week of July when two convoys arrived in Bermuda carrying four thousand British infantry. They and a few hundred marines would be all the force available.

Cochrane still hesitated, even toying with the idea of abandoning a campaign on the Chesapeake altogether given the approach of the “sickly season.” He considered instead striking New Hampshire to destroy the ship of the line under construction at Portsmouth, or perhaps Rhode Island. But Cockburn was strongly urging an attack on Washington, and a letter from him that arrived in Bermuda on July 25 aboard a schooner bearing dispatches finally persuaded the commander in chief. On August 1 Cochrane sailed for the Chesapeake with his invasion force: Washington it would be.

On August 18, 1814, a huge British flotilla entered the Patuxent River: four ships of the line, seven frigates, seven transports, and several brigs or schooners. The next day the British force of 4,500 men, led by Major General Robert Ross, a veteran of the Peninsula campaign, accompanied by Admiral Cockburn, landed at Benedict, Maryland. It was thirty-five miles from Washington on a good road, and as one of Cockburn’s captains had predicted a few weeks earlier, the troops met virtually no opposition for the first twenty miles. “Jonathan is so confounded,” Captain Joseph Nourse had written Cockburn, “that he does not know when or where to look for us, and I do believe it would require little force to burn Washington.” He added: “I hope soon to put the first torch to it myself.”

Despite weeks of warning, the defense of the capital city was in utter disarray. Another one of the many inexperienced political generals who were the bane of the United States army was in charge: Brigadier General William Winder put on an air of being knowledgeable about military matters but in fact his major qualification for office was being the nephew of the Federalist governor of Maryland, whose cooperation President James Madison desperately needed. Winder had spent weeks conducting a personal reconnaissance of the approaches to Washington while scarcely more than a few hundred state militia answered a summons Madison had issued on July 1 for 100,000 troops to defend the city. For much of the summer the flotilla of rowed barges that Joshua Barney had organized had kept up a harassing campaign against British naval forces in the lower Patuxent, to the point that it had become a major thorn in Cockburn’s side. But on August 20 Secretary of the Navy William Jones sent an urgent order to Barney to fall back, destroy his boats, and dispatch his 400 flotillamen for the defense of Washington. As the British troops marched toward Upper Marlboro on August 22, they heard the booms in the distance of Barney’s flotilla boats blowing up. Barney’s men arrived at the navy yard in southeast Washington soon afterward.

Winder at last made a decision to organize a stand at Bladensburg, just northeast of Washington, with the Eastern Branch forming a natural barrier ahead of him. He placed the defenders in three lines, but the disposition was all wrong; even a Maryland militia lieutenant saw at a glance that the troops were far too scattered. On the morning of August 24, Barney received orders from Winder to deploy his flotillamen to defend the bridge in Washington across the Eastern Branch and blow it up if the British attempted to cross there; but Jones and Madison soon arrived at the scene, and as Jones noted, it was a ridiculous misallocation of force: the task of blowing up the bridge “could as well be done by half a dozen men, as by five hundred.” Madison personally ordered Barney’s force to head for Bladensburg and join the defense there. Barney’s flotillamen, plus 120 marines from the Washington barracks, took off “in a trot,” hauling three 12-pounder and two 18-pounder naval guns that Jones had earlier ordered mounted on carriages as part of the preparations to defend the yard.

Arriving at Bladensburg, they were placed in the third line, but the position Winder had chosen was too far back to effectively support the second line. Secretary of State Monroe, who chose that unfortunate moment to play general, having first volunteered his services as a cavalry scout and galloping about the countryside, showed up at Bladensburg just in time to make matters worse by repositioning the second line, on his own orders, so that it was incapable of supporting the first. Some seven thousand militia had arrived at last, but most had been marching without rest or food.

At 1:00 p.m. on August 24 the first British troops appeared on the other side of the river, and by 4:00 p.m. the battle was over and the British were marching on to Washington and the American forces were in headlong flight. Only Barney’s men had held their line, pouring a murderous fire of grape and canister into the oncoming redcoats until the British were already completely in their rear. Barney was shot in the thigh and was pouring blood. His horse was killed. Cockburn, learning who the wounded man was, personally came up to him and spoke a few polite words and ordered a British surgeon to tend to his wounds at once.

When word had arrived of the British invasion force entering the Patuxent, William Jones had ordered Rodgers and Porter from New York to head south to assist in the defense of Baltimore and Washington, but events followed far too swiftly. At the Washington Navy Yard, the chief clerk, Mordecai Booth, had spent days frantically scouring the city trying to commandeer wagons to remove the gunpowder from the yard, but there were hardly any to be found amid the mass exodus of government officers and citizens fleeing with public records and personal belongings. On the evening of the twenty-fourth Booth had been stricken by the sight of the thousands of American troops in full retreat past the yard: “Oh! my Country—And I blush Sir! to tell you—I saw the Commons Covered with the fugitive Soldiery of our Army—running, hobbling, Creaping & appearently panick struck.” With all of the navy yard’s seamen, marines, and even mechanics and laborers pressed into service in Winder’s army, the yard was defenseless. Jones solemnly approved the commandant’s order to set fire to the naval stores—and, with even greater pain, the newly completed sloop of war Argus and the nearly completed frigate Columbia. Shops, timber, casks of provisions, small arms, cordage, paint, tar all went up in the flames. The total loss was more than a half million dollars.

Jones found his family in northwest Washington, then joined Madison across the Potomac in Virginia, where he had fled with other government officials. Cockburn, arriving on the streets of the city not long after, conspicuous astride a white horse with his sunburned face and rusty gold-laced hat, made joking inquiries of the townspeople about President Madison’s whereabouts and personally supervised troops pulling down the building that housed the offices of the National Intelligencer newspaper, telling them to “destroy all the C’s so they can’t abuse my name.” Cockburn then led a detachment into the White House, picked up a few souvenirs, and set the building ablaze. Other troops burned the war and navy department offices, the Treasury, and the Capitol before the British forces withdrew the way they had come and reembarked on their ships to return down the Patuxent to the Chesapeake Bay.

Another squadron of British ships had meanwhile ascended the Potomac, and Jones, who had returned to Washington on August 27 with the rest of the cabinet in the wake of the British departure, was furious when he saw the abject terms of surrender the town of Alexandria had agreed to. Offering no resistance, town officials had meekly acceded to a huge demand for tribute, including all the produce and merchandise in the town. Rodgers, Porter, and Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had now arrived in Washington, and Jones ordered them to attack the British naval force as it sailed back down the Potomac; with fire ships and artillery erected on the heights, they succeeded in delaying, though not stopping, the British force’s escape.

Jones was sending out a constant stream of orders to the naval detachments in the region, receiving and answering two or three express dispatches in the middle of each night. Eleanor had gone on to Baltimore, and on the way she passed through Bladensburg and was deeply affected by the scene of the battleground. On September 1 she wrote her husband of her safe arrival and her continuing fears for his safety—and for his honor, as the backlash of public opinion turned on the administration over the humiliation of the British attack.

My Dear Husband,

We have separated under such distressing circumstances that I know not what evil awaits me—Now I can indulge a hope of being soon relieved from the most awful apprehensions of your safety.

… A view of the ground where the Battle was fought, and the Graves of the fallen Men, The cannon near which Come Barney lost his horse and where they buried it excited the most painful sensations, particularly on seeing the foot of one above the earth. Passing the hospitals in Bladensburgh we saw the wounded, Americans, and British, and preparations to bury an English soldier just expired—On the Road we met our heroes of the Navy with their crews, the Marines, Cavalry, and 800 regulars …

May the Almighty guard you

in the hour of danger prays

your Affte Wife

Eleanor Jones

Admiral Cochrane wrote Melville full of high spirits over “the brilliant success” of the raid on the enemy capital, though he expressed concern that General Ross did not fully share his view that Baltimore, as “the most democratic town … ought to be laid in Ashes” next. Ross, he feared, was inclined to be too lenient on the Americans: “When he is better acquainted with the American Character he will possibly see as I do that like Spaniels they must be treated with great severity before you ever make them tractable.”

The American navy’s delaying action on the Potomac bought some valuable days to prepare the defenses of Baltimore, where all signs pointed the British would indeed strike next. Here the American forces acquitted themselves far better, making amends for the debacle at Bladensburg by inflicting heavy British casualties even as they fell back behind the city’s prepared defensive works in the attack that began September 12. During the initial assault an American sharpshooter killed Ross: after that the British gave no quarter to any American snipers. But the attack failed, as did the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor by mortars and Congreve rockets on the night of September 13–14, an event witnessed by Francis Scott Key and immortalized in the words he began to set down the following morning in a poem titled “Defence of Fort McHenry,” subsequently published under the title of its most memorable phrase: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” William Jones sent Eleanor, two weeks later, a copy of the “beautiful little effusion written by Mr F. Key a respectable young lawyer of talents residing in Georgetown … He is a Federalist but with such Federalists I can have but a common feeling.”

The British forces again withdrew to the Chesapeake, their next target a matter of intense speculation and anxiety. In the midst of everything else Jones was working “from day dawn to midnight” on a proposal for a reorganization of the Navy Department to leave to his successor and trying to wrap up his personal affairs in Washington. He had told only four congressmen of his final decision to leave office by December 1, but “people however begin ‘to smell a mouse’ as my home is given up,” he wrote Eleanor. “May God preserve all things right at least till after the 1st of December,” Jones continued. “Though all is well and my reputation high I feel as if I was standing upon gun powder with a slow match near it. Public expectation is so extravagant, opinion so capricious, and prejudice and ignorance so predominant, that millions would not tempt me to stay one year longer.… Though I am labouring to smooth the way for my successor I commiserate him with all my heart whoever he may be I predict his ruin if the war continues.”

Admiral Cochrane afterward tried to claim that the attack on Baltimore had been intended all along only as a “demonstration” and then blamed Ross, who was no longer around to defend himself, for having persuaded him against his better judgment to approve the failed operation.

There was a lot of blame-shifting going on among the British leadership over the direction the war was taking. The new American sloops of war Peacock and Wasp had been on a rampage through the North Atlantic since setting out in the spring, leaving British merchants sputtering with outrage they directed almost entirely against their own government. On July 8, 1814, the Wasp arrived at the French port of L’Orient, having burned or scuttled seven prizes from the Irish coast to the mouth of the English Channel; the American ship had also destroyed the British navy brig Reindeer in a brief but furious action on June 28 that left the British captain’s clerk the only surviving officer available to give the surrender to the American boarders that came swarming over her bloody decks nineteen minutes after the shooting began.

After refitting in L’Orient—over the indignant protests of the British government and the undisguised pleasure of the local French populace—the Wasp took seven more prizes while defeating another Royal Navy brig, the Avon, on September 1, before disappearing forever under unknown circumstances after last being seen near the Cape Verde Islands on October 9.

While the Wasp was refitting, the Peacock arrived to maraud through British home waters in July and August, taking fourteen prizes along the coasts of Ireland and the Shetlands. The summer of 1814 also brought a number of larger and more daring American privateers into British home waters; the largest of them were ship-rigged vessels almost as well armed and well manned as sloops of war like the American navy’s Wasp and Peacock, and they too set to plundering with an impunity that astonished the British merchants. The Chasseur of Baltimore carried sixteen long twelve-pounders and a crew of one hundred and haunted the English Channel for months, taking at least fifteen prizes while eluding the frigates and brigs sent after her.


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