War of 1812 showed city’s vulnerability
June 27, 1996
by Pamela Cressey
Andrew Ellicott’s 1794 map of the new District of Columbia clearly depicts Jones Point’s commanding presence over the Potomac.
Alexandrians had long seen the need for a coastal fortification on Jones Point to defend their town and Potomac shipping, but they were still unprotected by the War of 1812. The fort approved by Congress in 1794 never did fully materialize, even though nearly $5000 ( a $2000 cost override) had been spent building portions of a fort and a crossway over the marshy pocoson which separated Jones Point from the town.
When the unfinished fort was inspected in 1808, the report stated that "...they saw the vestige of an old Fort which presented a circular battery in the front, and 2 small bastions in the rear." Jones Point was considered to be "well calculated for a water battery with very little expense. It is so low that the guns would be on a level with those of the enemies ship; and it looks down the channel in such a manner that no ship could avoid an attack on her bows...." Yet, this battery would never be built.
In 1812, Fort Washington was the only fortification on the Potomac River which protected the Capital and Alexandria. What would the townspeople do if the Capital was attacked by the British? This question was a serious one, prompting the Alexandria councilmen to call upon President James Madison and state their concern that the Capital endangered everyone surrounding it, especially their town. Fortunately, we know of what transpired from a number of sources. For those interested in reading more, see Don Schomette’s manuscript entitled "Maritime Alexandria," Frederick Tilps’ book "This Was Potomac," and a recent paper delivered by Dr. Steven Shephard at the Seaport Foundation’s lecture series.
However, the Alexandrians did not receive any federal support. Left to their own resources, the Common Council used local funds to mount a few canons and joined with other District of Columbia citizens seeking to strengthen Fort Washington. Unfortunately, the Army engineer reviewing the Fort found it satisfactory and "it was not apprehended that the enemy would attempt to pass it while its present defenses remain entire."
The situation declined. In the summer of 1814, Alexandrians worried even more as they heard reports of British Admiral Sir George Cockburn’s raids on lower Potomac towns. The Common Council took further action by obtaining loans from local banks totaling $35,000 for federal fortifications south of Alexandria. Their actions came to late. The three-pronged British attack consisted of an overland attack, as well as two by water. Captain Alexander Gordon’s fleet included 1004 men on seven ships. Upon hearing of the British movement up the Potomac, the Alexandria militia marched off to join others at Fort Washington.
Alexandria was left with less than 100 armed men and two 12 pound canons without ammunition to face Gordon’s fleet with his 38 gun frigate "Sea Horse," as well as another 36 gun frigate, a rocket ship, three bomb vessels and a dispatch boat. After Washington fell, Alexandrians were left to deal with the British on their own. Next week I will discuss our town’s reaction to the British danger, and the new nation’s response to it. Could all this have been avoided by completing the Jones Point fort and improving Fort Washington?