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The Defense of the Capital

     In April 1813, Admiral Sir George Cockburn brought a squadron into Chesapeake Bay. On the 13th, he burnt Frenchtown, at the far north end on Elk River, a port on the Philadelphia-Washington sea and land route. He ranged up and down for 12 days, raiding and looting without encountering resistance. Hampton, Virginia was raided, and 600 runaway slaves given sanctuary. Slaves were drawn to British descents on the coast, eager to escape from the Land of the Free. Virginia had taken the unusual step of organizing a state army, as distinct from a militia, in this year, fearing slave revolt. The state army was only temporary, as it was deprecated by the federal authorities.

     By November 1813, the blockade of the coast was solid from Florida to New York. New England had been left unblockaded to facilitate the supply of Canada. Earlier, grain was furnished for Wellington's troops in the Peninsula, but this was no longer necessary. Ships of the Royal Navy on blockade duty obtained their supplies from the country they were blockading in this blockade. This trade, carried out in small boats, was quite profitable.

     The next summer's cruise was more ambitious. On 19-20 August 1814, Admiral Alexander Cochrane deposited General Robert Ross's 4500 regulars at Benedict, Maryland, on the Patuxent, which was as high as large ships could go. Captain Joshua Barney USN had been given the charge to defend the Chesapeake with his Jeffersonian flotilla of gunboats, but had immediately run up the Patuxent as far as he could go and burnt his boats when he saw the British coming. This was the complete answer of the United States Navy in this whole campaign. Neither the navy nor the worthless coast artillery could defend the Chesapeake. All considered, Ross's advance was a wise move. By the 22nd, the force had marched up the Patuxent to Upper Marlboro. On the 24th, they had reached the East Branch of the Potomac at Bladensburg.

     Secretary Armstrong had appointed General William Winder as commander of the forces covering the Capital on 1 July. Winder wandered about until he saw Ross's force at Bladensburg. He had arranged his 5938 troops and 22 guns in three lines: the Washington and Baltimore brigades, and Barney's sailors and marines. He'd put Barney's division where it couldn't support the other two, and James Madison came up and thought he could do better, so Madison moved the second division so it couldn't support the first, either. Ross did not know what to make of the motley crew opposing him, but thought he had better get things started before nightfall. Considerately, Winder had left the bridge across the Potomac whole, though the water was shallow enough to wade through.

     Ross's 4270 troops and 3 guns moved forward, firing Congreve rockets that terrified but did little damage, and engaged the defenders. One American officer thought he should move his division back a little, and that was all it took to start the Bladensburg Races. The American troops fled in any directions in which there was not a redcoat, only Barney's division putting up a stiff resistance. Barney was soon overwhelmed and captured.

     Meanwhile, everyone was leaving Washington. Dolley Madison saw that some important papers were saved from the Executive Mansion, leaving her own belongings behind. The President had already fled precipitately. There was no transport for records in the capitol, since all the horses and gigs were very much in demand in a general move in the direction of Alexandria. When Ross arrived about 8 pm, there was no one there to greet him. He looked for someone to treat with, but nobody official was left. Government buildings were soon blazing in the night, all except the Patent Office, where the Commissioner of Patents had convinced him that the patent models were an irreplacable treasure. (They were later burnt up in a fire in the 1830's, anyway. They were no treasure, just curiosities.) The Executive Mansion was left a charred shell.

     Ross withdrew the next day, 25 August, and re-embarked at Benedict on the 30th. While this was going on, Captain Gordon sailed up the Potomac in support of Ross. The commander of Fort Washington was already drunk when Gordon arrived, and surrendered immediately. Gordon went on to sack Alexandria, making off with all kinds of valuables. If this whole ridiculous episode had not actually happened, it would be considered beyond belief. Ross and Cochrane were not inconvenienced, either by the Navy or the Army. Secretary Armstrong immediately resigned, and the episode speaks volumes about his capabilities. He was replaced as Secretary of War by James Madison, who had made the appalling troop movement at Bladensburg. Madison immediately pushed for another invasion of Canada.

     Historians usually say Winder was "incompetent" and dump the blame on him. The real incompetence was in the War Department and particularly in its Secretary, Anderson, who was fully responsible, and some blame also adheres to Madison who fled in a cloud of dust when he heard the British were coming, and as well to Monroe, who was on the spot but contributing only some bungling of his own. This seems to be the way lawyers run a war, at any rate (Jackson, however, was a lawyer too). American stores of bad generals appeared to be inexhaustible.

     The good generals, Harrison and Jackson, were too popular with soldiers and citizens, and were, therefore, politically suspect, Jackson as a westerner, and Harrison as not a reliable Republican (he was known to associate with Henry Clay, and later became a Whig). They represented a danger to the Virginia Dynasty, and were suppressed as far as possible. Before Armstrong resigned, he had insulted Harrison deeply enough for Harrison to leave the army in disgust on 11 May 1814. The fear of the Republicans was justified: both Jackson and Harrison became Presidents.

     The Washington raid had gone so well that a sequel was planned for September. On 12 September, General Ross landed at North Point, near Baltimore. This time he was actually rudely blocked by Maryland militia under General Stricker. It was a hard fight, but another costly victory for the British, since Ross was killed by a sniper during the fight. Colonel Brooke took over and continued toward Baltimore, but decided not to attack, and retreated. He was not pursued. In the harbor, Fort McHenry was bombarded through the night of 13-14 September. The fort could not return the fire, since its armament was not properly designed, but made it through anyway. Admiral Cochrane had hoped the Americans would show the same courage as at Washington the month before, and decamp for the hills, but for once this did not happen, since neither party could injure the other. The night bombardment did provide a fine show, however. The Star Spangled Banner was written by F. S. Key, on board a British ship to arrange for exchange of a prisoner of war, where he had to stay the night. Ms. Pickersgill's big flag had the wrong number of stars and stripes, fifteen each. Stars for Tennessee and Ohio, and even Louisiana, should also have been included by this time, but legislation lagged. Admiral Cochrane made several attempts at landings, but nothing effectual was done, so he withdrew. Everyone was re-embarked, and the fleet returned to Jamaica. American patriotic folklore expands this minor episode into a great and glorious matter. But nothing was really at stake, especially American independence--the United States was the aggressor in the war. It just demonstrated government incompetence.

War in the Southwest

     The southwestern theatre of war was the vast Mississippi Territory, and the new state of Louisiana. Florida, the southern boundary, was claimed variously by Spain and France, but became British in 1763. West of Georgia, it reached to latitude 33°. To the north, Georgia claimed to the Mississippi River, and South Carolina even claimed a narrow panhandle to the same boundary. Spain seized Florida in 1781, and Britain ceded it to Spain in the treaty that ended the War for Independence, in 1783. In 1795, the strip north of 31° was ceded by Spain to the United States. This strip included the town of Natchez, and was organized as Mississippi Territory in 1798. Georgia and South Carolina gave up their western claims, and this territory was added to Mississippi in 1804.

     Mississippi Territory was settled from the west, with its outlet at New Orleans. The Chickasaw Trail, also called the Natchez Trace, was a path from the Mississippi at Natchez to the Cumberland at Nashville, 501 miles, used by boatmen returning from New Orleans and infested by bandits. It passed through the territory of the Chickasaws, and had been improved to something somewhat like a road by the federal government, beginning in 1806. South and east of the Chicasaws were the Choctaws, and east of them was the large Creek Federation, based on the Muskokees. These people were less warlike than the northwestern Indians, since they had been less affected by the fur trade, and practiced agriculture. They had given way with more or less grace before the Europeans, who occupied the seacoast and major river valleys, and moved into the vast interior. Quite a number of Europeans had preferred Creek ways, and had blended into their culture, as did escaped slaves. It was the last integrated society in the United States for quite a while.

      Tecumseh had agitated among the Creeks, his mother's people. The Red Sticks, a group of influential young Creeks, had been at the River Raisin débacle, as we have seen. The "red sticks" were medicine rods painted red that protected the warriors in battle. The Red Sticks took up the cause, and a civil war broke out among the Creeks, between the elders who wished to sit tight, and the youths who clamored for war. On 27 July 1813, a band of Red Sticks were attacked by the Mississippi militia at Burnt Corn, 80 miles north of Pensacola, while returning from there with trade goods. The Red Sticks came off the better in this encounter, but lost most of their property. On 30 August, William Weatherford or Red Eagle (1780-1824), a Creek war chief, overran Fort Mims, 40 miles north of Mobile, in retaliation, and massacred the inhabitants, said to have numbered 553, except for the slaves and mixed bloods, who joined him. Screaming terror broke out in the white population, and militias were called out in response to their cry for help.

     By this time, the United States had seized the part of Florida west of the river Perdido, called West Florida. American settlers had risen at Baton Rouge in 1810 and declared the Republic of West Florida. It was quietly absorbed by the United States the next year. The part west of Pearl River was attached to Louisiana, the rest to Mississippi Territory. Spain was in no position to object, because of Bonaparte, and held on gamely where not pushed out. This whole area possesses an aura of romance and wildness, with its strange mix of people and trackless swamps.

     The conflagration in Mississippi attracted the attention of Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), Major-General of the Tennessee militia. With 2500 troops including Sam Houston (1793-1863) and Davy Crockett (1736-1836), he marched over the difficult country directly to the heart of the conflict. We have already seen that Tennessee sent enthusiastic troops for the conquest of Canada. This was the start of Manifest Destiny, and its heart was in Tennessee. Jackson was victorious at Tallushatchee and Talladega, but the enlistments were soon up, and the men returned to Tennessee. By the new year, he had collected some 1000 new militia, and drew the battles of (charmingly named) Emuckfau on 22 January and Enotachopco Creek on the 24th. At Calibee Creek, on 27 January, he was roughly handled by the Creeks. However, by February he commanded 4000 men, including 600 regulars, and won an overwhelming victory at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa on 27 March. Among his allies were Choctaws and Cherokees. Disunity was the curse of the Indians' cause. The Creeks were prostrate, and by the treaty of Fort Jackson, 9 August 1814, they ceded more than half of their lands.

     Andrew Jackson was a proud, coarse barbarian much better appreciated from a distance than close up, an almost exact opposite of William Henry Harrison. They were by far the best American generals of the period, but had very different styles. Harrison shared the discomforts of his men, was fair, clement and even-tempered, sober and scrupulously honest. Harrison talked to his men personally on important matters, considering them his fellow-citizens, instead of having general orders read to them by others. Jackson's men fought because they feared him more than the enemy, with good reason. Jackson brawled and drank, fought duels, and considered Indians and Blacks little more than animals. He shot deserters, and was autocratic with civilians. These admirable traits made him very popular with the average American citizen. Both Harrison and Jackson had to undergo unwarranted and cruel personal attacks, Jackson's perhaps harder to bear. Jackson was promoted to regular Major-General on 22 May 1814.

     By late 1814, with Napoleon apparently out of the way, Britain could apply more naval and military pressure to the American war. Canada was reinforced as a base for possible future action, and American attempts to retake Mackinaw and other places on the lakes firmly repulsed. Combined forces attacked on the Chesapeake, as we have seen, and attention was now directed to the Gulf Coast. The forts of Pensacola, the best harbor on the Gulf, were occupied by a force of 100 marines. Indians and escaped slaves were recruited to strengthen the force. The Spanish, remaining in nominal control of the port, were helpless to object, and viewed the recruitment of blacks with the same horror as the Americans did. There was agitation for a slave revolt in Louisiana on 29 August, and the white settlers sweated much more than usual in the humid heat. An attempt to take Mobile with a small force was unsuccessful, when a slave revolt did not materialize.

     Secretary of War Madison, in the same spirit as his immediate predecessors, ordered Jackson not to attack Pensacola when he got wind of the general's intentions. Fortunately, communications were too slow, or Jackson ignored them, and on 7 November 1814 Jackson marched into Pensacola while the Spanish governor wrung his hands in indecision, his forces hopelessly outnumbered. The British blew up the forts and retired to the Apalachicola, 145 miles east, and built a fort there in the swamps. Jackson then marched west, by way of Mobile. When he did not find the British there, he left General Winchester there out of the way, and hurried on to New Orleans, arriving on 1 December.

     General James Wilkinson (1757-1825) had been in command in the southwest for long enough to have become thorougly unpopular. On 15 April 1813 he had captured Mobile from the Spanish, presenting Mississippi with an excellent port. The assault of Spanish forts seemed to be an exercise within the compass of any American general, since the forts were very thinly manned and poorly supplied. To forestall a mutiny of the Louisiana troops, he was removed in 1813, promoted, and sent to do his rotten best in New York. How he fared will be related below.

     The city, having been under the command of Wilkinson, was as unprepared as Washington to resist an attack. Many, if not most, of the locals cared little whether the United States or Britain prevailed, so Jackson had to scratch for troops. The Baratarian Pirates were enlisted. This band of bloodthirsty criminals, led by Jean Lafitte, hoped their service would earn them a pardon if the United States prevailed, and they had most of the artillery and munitions in the area, which made them welcome in spite of Jackson's misgivings. Black troops from Santo Domingo, under Jean Baptiste Savary were accepted, as well as any free blacks who wished to fight, again in spite of Jackson's misgivings. However, the most reliable troops were 850 Tennessee riflemen that were marched in from Baton Rouge, in addition to those that Jackson had brought with him.

     A force under General Edward Pakenham composed of regulars of the Peninsular War against France was assembled in Jamaica for the assault on the Gulf coast. The flotilla moved westward from Florida, looking for opportunity. When none presented itself, the force bypassed Mobile and reached Cat Island, 65 miles east of New Orleans, on 13 December. On the 14th, the force entered Lake Borgne, where a small flotilla under Captain Jones blocked the way until it was removed in a sharp action. By 23 December, an advanced party reached Villeré's plantation, where the headquarters was established. Jackson acted immediately when he heard the news, and in a confused battle came off about equally with the surprised British. This was a valuable check, causing the British to halt and entrench.

     General Pakenham's force numbered about 5300 (some say 8000), while Jackson had 5700, not all of which could be considered reliable. However, he did not counterattack, giving Jackson the opportunity to pull back and construct a strong defensive line along the Rodriguez Canal from the river levee to the cypress swamp, about 900 yards. He put 3200 of his best troops, including the Tennessee riflemen and the Pirate artillery, behind the breastworks, and moved the less reliable ones across the river to guard a battery there that protected his river flank. His line extended into the swamp to protect his left flank, but it was never threatened. Battle began at daylight on 8 January 1815. Pakenham made a frontal assault on Jackson's line, hoping by shock to dislodge the untrained troops. Jackson kept his men firing from cover and took care to prevent any rearward motion. The long-range rifle fire and the effects of the artillery were devastating, but the red coats pressed the attack valiantly. Then General Pakenham was killed by a cannon ball while encouraging his men, and this took the heart out of the assault. Two other generals also fell, leaving only General Lambert, who was with the reserve, to command. Colonel Thornton attacked the militia across the river and routed them, but it was too late to help the failed assault.

     Colonel Thornton was recalled from the right bank after the failure of the assault, and the British forces retired on their camp. Around the 18th, the force re-embarked, unwilling to make another attack on Jackson, and went to Mobile, which they assaulted and captured from Winchester on 11 February. There they learned of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, and their war was over. It is easy in hindsight to see that the British should have pinned Jackson to his fortifications, while bypassing him on the other bank of the Mississippi, or turning his left flank, instead of making futile frontal assaults. He would then have had to retreat to cover his rear, and all would have been over. However, there was no effective leadership in the British camp, three generals having fallen in the initial assault, and they could not believe that they outnumbered Jackson.

     Meanwhile, Jackson had declared martial law in New Orleans and was making himself extremely unpopular, especially with the Louisiana legislature and judiciary. He threw people in jail who disagreed with him, as well as judges who would not find his way. He executed five deserters on 15 February, ringleaders from a group of Tennessee militia who thought their enlistments were up earlier than he did. Martial law was lifed on 13 March with official news of peace.

     The Battle of New Orleans was a victory only in the sense that it prevented the capture of New Orleans and was costly to the British. Jackson successfully thwarted British intentions, but he did not defeat its army, which remained encamped and unattacked for two weeks before moving on. It was a big battle for the War of 1812, but small potatoes compared with battles of the Napleonic war. It had no effect on the outcome of the War of 1812. When it was fought, the war was legally still on, since the actual end did not come until 17 February, in spite of what is usually said.

Part 4 - War in the East, Effects of the War

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