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The Great Republic by the Master Historians
The Capture and Burning of Washington
by Bancroft, Hubert H.


[The final year of the war was distinguished by a greater invasive energy of the British forces than had previously characterized them. The American territory was entered at three different points, by way of Lake Champlain, of Chesapeake Bay, and of the Mississippi. The Northern movement was conducted by Sir George Prevost, who designed to follow the pathway so often adventured in preceding wars, and to penetrate New York at least as far as Crown Point. Chance favored his design, for the greater part of the garrison of Plattsburg was removed, late in August, to relieve General Brown at Fort Erie. General Macomb was left at Plattsburg with about twenty-five hundred men. To these he added reinforcements of three thousand militia on learning of Prevost's invasion. This was a small force to meet the army of fourteen thousand men with which Prevost advanced along the shores of the lake. There accompanied him four ships and twelve barges, under Captain Downie, with which he designed to master the American fleet on the lake. He did not dare leave this intact to threaten his communications.

The American fleet consisted of ten gunboats and four larger vessels, under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough. These lay in the harbor at Plattsburg, near the fortifications which the Americans had constructed on the small peninsula at that point. Prevost proposed to take the fort by an attack from the rear, while Downie with the fleet should assail the American ships. He had little doubt of victory, not foreseeing how sturdy an antagonist he was destined to find in the youthful commander of the American fleet, or with what courage his attack on the small redoubts at Plattsburg would be repulsed.

On September 11 the British flotilla rounded Cumberland Head, and attacked the ships in the harbor, while simultaneously the troops on shore attempted to cross the Saranac River and assail the fort. Macdonough had drawn up his four vessels in line across the mouth of the harbor, with the gunboats inside and opposite the intervals between the larger vessels. The brunt of the battle was between the English flag-ship Confiance and the Saratoga on the American side. The first broadside from the Confiance struck down forty men on the Saratoga, and eventually every gun of her starboard battery was disabled. But Macdonough had prepared for this, and had laid out kedges by which he now swung his ship round and presented her larboard battery at his antagonist. The Confiance attempted the same manceuvre, but without success, and the raking fire which she received soon compelled her to strike her colors. The fight with the remainder of the fleet was equally successful for the Americans. Most of the galleys drifted out into the lake and escaped, but the other vessels of the fleet were forced to surrender.

The victory on the lake was complete. Meanwhile, Prevost had not succeeded in crossing the Saranac in face of the American fire. On perceiving the loss of his fleet he desisted, recalled his troops, and gave up his project of invading New York. The gallant Macdonough, with a much smaller force in men and guns than his antagonist, had by his skilful dispositions and brave defence won an important victory and completely disconcerted a deep-laid scheme of invasion.

During the same period an attack was made on the capital city of Washington, which resulted disastrously to the Americans, and in a shameful instance of vandalism on the part of the British commanders.

During the summer the whole coast had been kept in a state of alarm by the British fleet, which had been largely reinforced, in consequence of the close of the war in Europe. Several places were taken, and many depredations committed on the coast, the only successful resistance being at Stonington, Connecticut. This town was bombarded for three days, fifty tons of iron in missiles being thrown into it. Yet it was so gallantly defended by about twenty men with two or three old guns that the fleet was finally forced to withdraw, with a loss of seventy men, while the loss of the defenders was only seven men wounded. Farther south the fleet of Admiral Cockburn for more than a year had harassed the coast of the Middle States, sending expeditions to plunder helpless villages or destroy plantations, without excuse or warrant in the laws of war. In August, General Ross, with thirty-five hundred veterans from Wellington's army, arrived in the Chesapeake and landed at Benedict on the Patuxent, forty miles below Washington. He was joined by one thousand marines from Cockburn's squadron. Though there was reason to expect some such movement, no efficient preparation had been made for it. The only immediately available force was about five hundred regulars and two thousand militia, under General Winder. The progress of the invaders might have been easily stayed had the roads been obstructed by fallen tress, but no such steps were taken. Barney's fleet of gunboats was given to the flames, and Winder retreated to Bladensburg, where he drew up his small army in a commanding position, behind the creek at that point, and on hills in the rear. From Lossing's "Field-Book of the War of 1812" we select a description of the succeeding events.]

Such was the disposition of Winder's little army when, at noon, the enemy were seen descending the hills beyond Bladensburg and pressing on towards the bridge. At half-past twelve they were in the town, and came within range of the heavy guns of the first American line. The British commenced hurling rockets at the exposed Americans, and attempted to throw a heavy force across the bridge, but were driven back by their antagonists' cannon and forced to take shelter in the village and behind Lowndes's Hill, in the rear of it. Again, after due preparation, they advanced in double-quick time; and, when the bridge was crowded with them, the artillery of Winder's first and second lines opened upon them with terrible effect, sweeping down a whole company. The concealed riflemen, under Pinkney, also poured deadly volleys into their exposed ranks; but the British, continually reinforced, pushed gallantly forward, some over the bridge, and some fording the stream above it, and fell so heavily upon the first and unsupported line of the Americans that it was compelled to fall back upon the second. A company, whose commander is unnamed in the reports of the battle, were so panicstricken that they fled after the first fire, leaving their guns to fall into the hands of the enemy.

The first British brigade was now over the stream, and, elated by their success, did not wait for the second. They threw away their knapsacks and haversacks, and pushed up the hill to attack the American second line in the face of an annoying fire from Captain Burch's artillery. They weakened their force by stretching out so as to form a front equal to that of their antagonists. It was a blunder which Winder quickly perceived and took advantage of. He was then at the head of Sterett's regiment. With this and some of Stansbury's militia, who behaved gallantly, he not only checked the enemy's advance, but, at the point of the bayonet, pressed their attenuated line so strongly that it fell back to the thickets on the brink of the river, near the bridge, where it maintained its position most obstinately until reinforced by the Second Brigade. Thus strengthened, it again pressed forward, and soon turned the left flank of the Americans, and at the same time sent a flight of hissing rockets over and very near the centre and right of Stansbury's line. The frightened regiments of Schutz and Ragan broke, and fled in the wildest confusion. Winder tried to rally them, but in vain. Sterett's corps maintained their ground gallantly until the enemy had gained both their flanks, when Winder ordered them and the supporting artillery to retire up the hill. They, too, became alarmed, and the retreat, covered by riflemen, was soon a disorderly flight.

The first and second line of the Americans having been dispersed, the British, flushed with success, pushed forward to attack the third. Peter's artillery annoyed but did not check them; and the left, under the gallant Colonel Thornton, soon confronted Barney, in the centre, who maintained his position like a genuine hero, as he was. His eighteen-pounders enfiladed the Washington road, and with them he swept the highway with such terrible effect that the enemy field off into a field and attempted to turn Barney's right flank. There they were met by three twelve-pounders and marines under Captains Miller and Sevier, and were badly cut up. They were driven back to the ravine already mentioned as the duelling-ground, leaving several of their wounded officers in the hands of the Americans. Colonel Thornton, who bravely led the attacking column, was severely wounded, and General Ross had his horse shot under him.

The flight of Stansbury's troops left Barney unsupported in that direction, while a heavy column was hurled against Beall and his militia, on the right, with such force as to disperse them. The British light troops soon gained position on each flank, and Barney himself was severely wounded near a living fountain of water on the estate of the late Mr. Rives, which is still known as Barney's Spring. When it became evident that Minor's Virginia troops could not arrive in time to aid the gallant flotilla-men, who were obstinately maintaining their position against fearful odds, and that further resistance would be useless, Winder ordered a general retreat. The commodore, too severely hurt to be moved, became a prisoner of war, but was immediately paroled by General Ross, and sent to Bladensburg after his wound was dressed by a British surgeon. There he was joined by his wife and son and his own surgeon, and on the 27th was conveyed to his farm at Elkridge, in Maryland. The great body of Americans who were not dispersed retreated towards Montgomery Court-House, in Maryland, leaving the battle-field in full possession of the enemy, and their way to the national capital unobstructed except by the burning of the two bridges over the eastern branch of the Potomac. The Americans lost twenty-six killed and fifty- one wounded. The British loss was manifold greater. According to one of their officers who was in the battle, and yet living (Mr. Gleig, Chaplain-General of the British army), it was "upward of five hundred killed and wounded," among them "several officers of rank and distinction." The battle commenced at about noon, and ended at four o'clock.

Up to this time the conduct of the British had been in accordance with the rules of modern warfare. Now they abandoned them, and on entering the national capital they performed deeds worthy only of barbarians. In a proclamation issued by the President on the 1st of September he submitted the following indictment: "They wantonly destroyed the public edifices, having no relation in their structure to operations of war, nor used at the time for military annoyance; some of these edifices being also costly monuments of taste and of the arts, and others depositories of the public archives, not only precious to the nation as the memorials of its origin and its early transactions, but interesting to all nations as contributions to the general stock of historical instruction and political science." Let us briefly examine the testimony of history.

When Ross was assured of complete victory, he halted his army a short time on the field of battle, and then, with the fresh Third Brigade, which had not been in the conflict, he crossed the Eastern Branch Bridge. Assured of the retreat of the Americans beyond Georgetown, Ross left the main body a mile and a half from the Capitol, and entered the town, then containing about nine hundred buildings. He came to destroy the public property there. It was an errand, it is said, not at all coincident with his taste or habits, and what was done by him appears to have been performed as humanely as the orders of his superiors would allow. When, on his arrival in the Chesapeake, he had been informed by Admiral Cochrane that he (the admiral) had been urged by Sir George Prevost, the Governor-General of Canada (who was not satisfied with the terrible devastation of the Niagara frontier at the close of 1813), to retaliate in kind upon the Americans for the destruction of the government buildings at York and the village of Newark, he demurred, saying that they had carried on the war on the Peninsula and in France with a very different spirit, and that he could not sanction the destruction of public or private property, with the exception of military structures and warlike stores. "It was not," says one of Ross's surviving aides, Sir Duncan McDougall, in a letter to the author in 1861, "until he was warmly pressed that he consented to destroy the Capitol and President's house, for the purpose of preventing a repetition of the uncivilized proceedings of the troops of the United States." Fortunately for Ross's sensibility, there was a titled incendiary at hand in the person of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who delighted in such inhuman work, and who literally became his torch-bearer.

The bulk of the invaders, having crossed the Eastern Branch, halted upon the plain between the Capital and the site of the Congressional Burying-Ground, when General Ross, accompanied by Cockburn and a guard of two hundred men, rode into the city at eight o'clock in the evening. They were fired upon from behind the house of Robert Sewell, near the Capitol, by a single musket, and the horse on which the general was riding was killed. Mr. Sewell's house was immediately destroyed. The same fate awaited the materials in the office of the National Intelligencer, the government organ, whose strictures on the brutality of Cockburn had filled that marauder with hot anger. These, and some houses on Capitol Hill, a large rope-walk, and a tavern, comprised the bulk of private property destroyed, thanks to the restraining power of General Ross. Several houses and stores were also plundered. The unfinished Capitol, in which was the library of Congress, the President's house, a mile distant, the Treasury buildings, the Arsenal, and barracks for almost three thousand troops, were soon in flames, whose light was plainly seen in Baltimore, about forty miles northward. In the course of a few hours nothing of the superb Capitol and the Presidential mansion was left but their smoke-blackened walls. Of the public buildings only the Patent Office was saved.

All the glory that the British had won on the battlefield was lost in this barbarian conflagration. "Willingly," said the London Statesman newspaper, "would we throw a veil of oblivion over our transactions at Washington. The Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the capital of America." The British Annual Register for 1814 denounced the proceedings as a "return to the times of barbarism." "It cannot be concealed," the writer continued, "that the extent of devastation practised by the victors brought a heavy censure upon the British character, not only in America, but on the continent of Europe." Continental writers and speakers condemned the act in unmeasured terms; and yet the government of England, which had seldom represented the sentiments of the people, caused the Tower guns to be fired in honor of Ross's victory, thanked the actors through Parliament, decreed a monument to that general in Westminster Abbey at his death, and, making additions to his armorial bearings, authorized his descendants forever to style themselves "Ross of Bladensburg"!

While the public buildings in Washington were in flames, the national shipping, stores, and other property were blazing at the navy-yard; also the great bridge over the Potomac, from Washington City to the Virginia shore. Commodore Thomas Tingey was in command of the navyyard, and, before the battle, had received orders to set fire to the public property there in the event of the British gaining a victory, so as to prevent its falling into the hands of the invaders. Tingey delayed the execution of the order for four hours after the contingency had occurred. When, at half-past eight in the evening, he was informed that the enemy was encamped within the city limits, near the Capitol, he applied the torch, and property valued at about a million of dollars was destroyed. The schooner Lynx was saved, and most of the metallic work at the navy-yard remained but little injured. The fine naval monument [to the officers who fell at Tripoli] was somewhat mutilated, but whether accidentally at the time of the conflagration, or wantonly by the British, who went there the next day to complete the destructive work, is an unsettled question. At the same time, the Long Bridge over the Potomac was fired at both ends. The Americans on the Virginia side thought a large body of British troops were about to pass over, and fired that end to foil them, while the British on the city side, perceiving, as they thought, a large body of Americans about to cross over from the Virginia side, fired the Maryland end of the bridge. The value of the entire amount of property destroyed at Washington by the British and Americans was estimated at about two million dollars. The walls of the Capitol and President's house stood firm, and were used in rebuilding.

President Madison, and other civil officers who went out to see the fight and give such assistance as they might, remained on the field until Barney fell, when they fled to the city as fast as swift-footed horses could carry them, and were among the first to announce the startling intelligence that the British, victorious, were probably marching on the town. Mrs. Madison had already been apprised of the danger. When the flight of Congreve rockets caused the panic- stricken militia to fly, the President sent messengers to inform her that the defeat of the Americans and the capture of the city seemed to be promised, and to advise her to fly to a place of safety. These messengers reached her between two and three o'clock. Mrs. Madison ordered her carriage, and sent away in a wagon silver plate and other valuables, to be deposited in the Bank of Maryland. She anxiously waited for her husband, and in the mean time took measures for preserving the full-length portrait of Washington, painted by Stuart, which hung in the Presidential mansion. Finding the process of unscrewing the frame from the wall too tedious for the exigency, she had it broken in pieces, and the picture removed with the "stretcher," or light frame on which the canvas was nailed. This she did with her own hands. Just as she had accomplished so much, two gentlemen from New York, one of whom was the now [1867] venerable New Orleans banker, Jacob Barker, entered the room. The picture was lying on the floor. The sounds of approaching troops were heard. They might be the invaders, who would be delighted by the possession of so notable a captive as the beautiful wife of the President. It was time for her to fly. "Save that picture," she said to Mr. Barker and Mr. R. G. L. De Peyster, his companion, - "save that picture, if possible; if not possible, destroy it: under no circumstances allow it to fall into the hands of the British." Then, snatching up the precious parchment on which was written the Declaration of Independence and the autographs of the signers, which she had resolved to save also, she hastened to the carriage with her sister (Mrs. Cutts) and her husband and two servants, and was borne away to a place of safety beyond the Potomac.

Just a Barker and De Peyster had taken the picture from the stretcher and rolled it up, a portion of the flying American army came up, and halted in front of the President's house. Some refreshments were given to them, when they marched up towards Montgomery Court-House, the appointed place of rendezvous for the broken army, followed by those gentlemen with the picture. The left it in charge of a farmer in whose house they lodged that night, and a few weeks afterwards Mr. Barker restored the portrait to Mrs. Madison. It now hangs upon the wall in the Blue Room of the Presidential mansion.

It was not the design of the British to hold the territory which they had, unexpectedly to themselves, acquired. Indeed, the whole movement up the Chesapeake was originally intended as a feint, -- a menace of Baltimore and Washington, to engage the attention of the government and people, and to draw in that direction the military force of the country, while the far more important measure of invading Louisiana with a formidable force and taking possession of the Mississippi Valley should be matured and executed. Accordingly, when Winder's forces were defeated and routed, the President and his Cabinet driven from the national capital, and the public buildings destroyed, the invaders retreated precipitately, evidently in the fear of a reactive blow. While the British cabinet, judging from metropolitan influence in European countries, were disposed to believe that, with the loss of their capital, the Americans would consider all gone, and would yield in despair to their victor, those conquerors, on the spot, saw too well the danger to be apprehended from the spirit of a people aroused to greater exertions, and with more united energy, because of that very misfortune.

Impressed with a sense of this danger, Ross and Cochrane moved away with their forces with great secrecy on the night of the 25th of August, after ordering every inhabitant of Washington to remain within-doors from sunset to sunrise, on pain of death, and increasing their camp-fires, so as to deceive the Americans. It was immediately after the passage of a terrific tempest of wind, lightning, and rain, during which houses were unroofed and trees were uprooted. Softly these victors stole away in the gloom. "No man spoke above his breath," says one of the British officers who was present. "Our very steps were planted lightly, and we cleared the town without exciting observation." At midnight, just as the moon arose and cast a pale light over the scenes, they passed the battle-field and Bladensbug, leaving their dead unburied, and full ninety of their wounded to the humanity of Commodore Barney and his men. It was humiliating to the British troops thus to steal away in the dark from the field of their conquest. They moved sullenly onward, so wearied with fatigue and loss of sleep that when the columns halted for a few minutes the roads would be filled with sleeping soldiers. At seven o'clock in the morning, finding themselves but little annoyed by pursuers, they halted for rest and refreshments for several hours. At noon they moved forward, encamped at Marlborough, and, marching leisurely, reached Benedict on the 29th, where they embarked on the transports the next day.

[This invasion was followed by a similar one directed against Baltimore. On September 6 Cockburn's fleet sailed up the Chesapeake, and entered the Patapsco on the IIth. Nine thousand men were landed at North Point, twelve miles below Baltimore. They found their task more difficult than that at Washington. General Ross was mortally wounded by a sharp-shooter, and for three hours the British were successfully resisted by three thousand volunteers, under General Stricker. Finally their right wing was turned, and they were forced to fall back. The invaders followed on the next day, but, finding their opponents reinforced and strongly posted, they did not venture on an attack, but withdrew in the darkness of the ensuing night.

Meanwhile, the fleet for twenty-four hours bombarded Fort McHenry and the adjoining intrenchments, from a distance beyond the reach of the guns of the fort. At night the fleet landed a force to attack the forts in the rear. It was met, however, with a shower of red-hot shot, and forced to retreat with severe loss. This ended the effort, and Cockburn retired with the fleet and army.]

Benson J. Lossing

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