Washington Burning

Cochrane Charles Turner
Alexander Cochrane. He would later be criticized by Wellington and others for his handling of the war. Photo Credit: Charles Turner

While hesitation and a naval loss had stalled the British out in the north, other parts of their attack would achieve notorious success. Showing up his boss Governor Prevost, the Lieutenant Governor of Novia Scotia John Sherbrooke launched out in August with a small fleet of ships and a little under 3,000 men and headed south. By September Sherbrooke had conquered the eastern coast of Maine, losing just two men in the process at the “Battle” of Hampden. For eight inexplicable months, Maine became the short lived British colony of New Ireland.[1] However, the conquest was overshadowed by the smoke arising from Maryland.

The middle prong of the British forces had been aimed straight at the Chesapeake, under the overall command of Admiral Alexander Cochrane. Handling day to day operations was an army under the command of General Robert Ross and a navy under Vice Admiral George Cockburn, and unlike the latter’s name, both were deadly serious veterans of the Napoleonic Wars.

Landing easily at Benedict, Maryland in late August 1814, Ross’ forces had a choice between two prime targets. On the one hand there was Baltimore, a major shipping port, and a major Federalist stronghold. Attacking that would only increase the outcry among the political minority for a brokered end to the war. On the other was Washington, D.C, the fledgling capital of the new Republic. Though there was some debate, the British decided that Washington would be first on the chopping block.

Frantically the surrounding states threw a militia force together to parry the invaders, but the Americans were quickly learning there was a world of difference between hardened professionals and militia forces. At the battle of Bladensburg on August 24th, Ross’ 4,000 troops defeated advanced through a hail of cannon fire in a stifling summer heat and routed the American army with relative ease. Watching himself from a nearby hill, President Madison saw which way the wind was blowing and hightailed it out of his own capital along with the rest of the government.

Robert Ross
Robert Ross, seen here in one of history’s most fabulous military hats. During the burning he and his officers had dinner with a private house, specially selected so he could watch the public buildings burn from the windows. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

Ross and Cockburn now fell into a serious disagreement. Cockburn, apparently far keener on burning sensations, wanted to incinerate the capital as payback for Newark and York.[2] Ross was less enthusiastic, but knew he didn’t have the men to occupy the city. Finally, the two agreed that the army would only burn the public buildings and any military stores they couldn’t reload onto the fleet. On the same day as Bladensburg, Washington D.C. burned.

Ross made at least a vague effort to warn the inhabitants of Washington about what was coming to them, only to have his horse shot out from under him by a sniper in a house window. The British vanguard immediately responded, and the engine of destruction quickly acquired its own momentum from there. Even so, the burning took on a chaotic but paradoxically restrained quality. Troops looted and fired whatever caught their eye in the municipal or military buildings, but spared the private buildings for the most part. British soldier George Robert Gleig paints a vivid picture as his unit moved approached a city lit in flames:

“… the blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs informed [the British], as they proceeded, of what was going forward. You can conceive nothing finer than the sight which met them as they drew near to the town. The sky was brilliantly illuminated by the different conflagrations, and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face.

…Of the Senate house, the President’s palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins. “ [3]

Cockburn John James Halls
Cockburn in his official portrait, with Washington (cock)burning in the backdrop. Photo Credit: John James Halls

As with many acts of destruction, there were also plenty of darkly comic moments found amidst the ashes. Cockburn himself made a fiery beeline for a Washington newspaper called the National Intelligencer, “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.”.[4] Gleig also relates the story of what happened when his unit entered the White House:

“…When the detachment sent out to destroy Mr. Madison’s house entered his dining parlor, they found a dinner table spread and covers laid for forty guests. Several kinds of wine, in handsome cut glass decanters…all the other requisites for an elegant and substantial repast were exactly in a state which indicated that they had been lately and precipitately abandoned.

You will readily imagine that these preparations were beheld by a party of hungry soldiers with no indifferent eye. An elegant dinner, even though considerably overdressed, was a luxury to which few of them, at least for some time back, had been accustomed, and which, after the dangers and fatigues of the day, appeared peculiarly inviting. They sat down to it, therefore, not indeed in the most orderly manner, but with countenances which would not have disgraced a party of aldermen at a civic feast, and, having satisfied their appetites with fewer complaints than would have probably escaped their rival gourmands, and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them. “[5]

It was an act of almost primal fury that kicked the legs out from under U.S morale. Former chickenhawks like Henry Clay would write laments for the incinerated capital, and there was a sense that the nation’s heart had been ripped out. While the destruction was condemned by papers on both sides of the Atlantic, the shock it elicited had the desired impact. Federalists in the north began to clamor for a convention to discuss their grievances, and muttered darkly about a possible separate peace, or even secession. President Madison also responded by calling for conscription in September, further infuriating the anti-war Federalists. If the war continued like this, there was a better than decent chance the United States could split apart at the seams.

Unfortunately for Ross, he wouldn’t live long enough to celebrate. Marching on Baltimore, he arrived to find the city far better prepared and now defended by an extensive line of trenches. Outnumbered two to one by the defenders, Ross supposedly growled, “I will dine in Baltimore tonight or in hell!” Riding on his white horse and in his bright red coat, it didn’t take long for an American rifle to make the choice for Ross, and another talented British officer bit the dust with a bullet in his chest. After Ross’ death at the Battle of North Point, the British tried to push on, but the heart had gone out of the British assault. Stalling out against the inner defenses of Baltimore, the British fell back under fire from roughly a hundred cannons.

Fort McHenry Bombardment
Fort McHenry under fire. Note the lob shots and lack of response from the fort. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The naval assault on the city was a similar non-starter on September 13, 1814. Cochrane wasn’t really in the mood to launch a full assault on the harbor, and he opted to do what damage he could outside of the range of Baltimore’s defensive guns. After flinging more than 1,800 shells and rockets at Fort McHenry, Admiral Cochrane was frustrated to see a large hand sewn flag swinging from its pole defiantly the following morning. In a war devoid of real success against the British, a defiant fort would become a symbol Americans still sing of today.[6] For all the promise a concerted British assault had started with, they quickly found themselves stomping onto the same rakes the Americans had found in previous years. As talks in Ghent dragged on, all eyes finally turned to the southern front as the last theater of the war.

[1] The name originated from another brief takeover of Maine by the British in 1779. That had last four years before the British had sullenly handed it back to the colonies. Fortunately for Mainers, the British held on to their new colony a lot less fiercely than its namesake.

[2] Prevost had actually written to Cochrane requesting something along these lines. Cockburn agreed with the sentiment, wanting to hand the Americans “a good drubbing”.

[3] Gleig, G.R. (1826). A history of the Campaigns of the British at Washington and New Orleans.

[4] Fredriksen, John C. (2001). America’s military adversaries: from colonial times to the present. Local story has it that while he was stopped from burning the building down by pleas from the neighboring homeowners, he insisted that all of the letter “C” types in their printing press be destroyed to stop the paper from besmirching his name again. The author, of course, has no idea what could possibly be humorous about the name “Cockburn”.

[5] Gleig. 1826.

[6] Incidentally, one of the rocket ships, HMS Erebus, would go on to notoriety as one of the two ships lost in the Canadian Arctic on the ill-fated Franklin expedition. A story for another time.


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