A Brief History
From Discovering the Decades: The 1810s, by Timothy Denee and T. Michael Miller, in Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News.
Fearing occupation by British forces, several townsmen met with the Secretary of War Armstrong to solicit arms and ammunition on March 21, 1812. Alexandrians also convened with President Madison and General William Winder and apprized them that unless funds were expended for Alexandria's defense, the town would be at the mercy of the British. The Common Council secured loans from three banks totaling $50,000 for the purpose of mounting defenses against the river approaches. Alexandria banks also advanced the national government $35,000 for the purpose of reinforcing Fort Washington and for buying arms. In February 1814, citizens sent the Common Council a petition requesting that five cannon be mounted along the waterfront. Still, when General Winder inspected Alexandria on July 25, 1814, he declared the town was inadequately defended.
On August 6, 1814, a British fleet consisting of nearly fifty vessels sailed into the Chesapeake. Commanded by Rear Admiral George Cockburn, the Brits planned a two pronged attack; troops would land at Benedict, Maryland on the Patuxent River, while the naval force, including 1,000 men under the command of Captain James Gordon, would continue up the Potomac to Washington. The British succeeded admirably, routing American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, and burning nearly all of Washington's public buildings-including the Capitol and the Executive Mansion-on the 25th and 26th.
Alexandrians recognized the increasing peril as the British juggernaut inched its way northward, up the Potomac. With the exception of two institutions, the commercial banks of Georgetown, Washington and Alexandria agreed to loan the Government $200,000 for the purpose of providing a defense for the district. The Alexandria town and county militia were called out en masse in late August of 1814 and were ordered to cross the Potomac to take up a post between Piscataway and Fort Washington. They took with them nearly all the arms and artillery belonging to the town, leaving Alexandria defenseless. Thus, when the militia retreated to the Virginia countryside and Captain Dyson, commander of Ft. Washington, blew up the fortress, Alexandria's fate was sealed. On the morning of August 28, 1814, a committee led by Alexandria Mayor Charles Simms rowed south to meet the British Captain Gordon and request terms of surrender. Refusing to give conditions, Gordon and his fleet arrived in front of Alexandria in the evening. The next morning, the British lined up their gun boats (two frigates, the 38-gun Sea Horse and the 36-gun Euryalus; a "rocket ship"; three bomb vessels of eight guns each; and a two-gun schooner). They were "so situated that they might have laid [the town] in ashes in a few minutes." (Shomette, Maritime Alexandria).
Captain Gordon offered terms which called for the removal of naval supplies, ships and agricultural commodities from the port. At the mercy of the British squadron, the town council acceded to the enemy's demands, and for the next five days the British looted stores and warehouses of 16,000 barrels of flour, 1,000 hogsheads of tobacco, 150 bales of cotton and some $5,000 worth of wine, sugar and other items. On September 2, the British weighed anchor and, after a skirmish with American forces at White House Landing below Mount Vernon, they made their escape.
On Christmas Eve 1814, American and British peace commissioners signed the Treaty of Ghent, formally ending the War of 1812. Although Alexandria's grain trade would briefly recover, the losses occasioned by British looting coupled with the economic panic at the end of the decade sounded the death knell for Alexandria as a major seaport.
First Person Accounts of the Occupation
From "Commemorative Wares in George Washington’s Hometown," Barbara H. Magid, in Ceramics in America, 2006.
The War of 1812 had a direct impact on Alexandria, when British forces occupied the city for five days, from August 29 through September 2, 1814. A few days earlier, on August 23, the British troops had set fire to Washington. A British soldier wrote:
... this was a night of dismay to the inhabitants of Washington. They were taken completely by surprise... The first impulse of course tempted them to fly, and the streets were in consequence crowded with soldiers and senators, men, women, and children, horses, carriages, and carts loaded with household furniture, all hastening toward a wooden bridge which crosses the Potomac... Of the senate-house, the President's palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen, except heaps of smoking ruins; and even the bridge, a noble structure upward of a mile in length, was almost wholly demolished.
George Robert Gleig, A Narrative of the Campaign of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814.
Threatened with an invasion and with insufficient forces to defend the city, Alexandria’s Common Council surrendered to the British without resistance. The city avoided being burned, but was required to surrender contents of stores and warehouses. According to the terms of capitulation, "The town of Alexandria, with the exception of public works, shall not be destroyed, unless hostilities are commenced on the part of the Americans; nor shall the inhabitants be molested in any manner whatever, or their dwelling-houses entered, if the following articles are complied with . . . "
Alexandria’s mayor wrote:
“It is impossible that men could behave better than the Britissh [sic] behaved while the town was in their power, not a single inhabitant was insulted or injured by them in their person or houses.
Joseph F. Skivora, “The Surrender of Alexandria in the War of 1812 and the Power of the Press,” Northern Virginia Heritage, June 1988, citing Mayor Simms in a letter to his wife.
A prominent Alexandria Quaker, apothecary Edward Stabler, wrote:
Their conduct was respectful and decorous; and instead of that exultation and triumph which expands the heart of a soldier when he encounters and overcomes a force like his own, these were evidently dejected and adverse to what they were doing.
Skivora “The Surrender of Alexandria,” citing a letter from Stabler to other Alexandria Quakers.
Terms of Capitulation
Copy of a letter from the Mayor of Alexandria to the Mayor of Georgetown
Enclosed is a copy of the terms proposed to the common council of Alexandria, by the commanding officer of the squadron now lying before the town, to which they were compelled to submit.
Terms of Capitulation. His majesty’s ship Sea Horse, off Alexandria, 29th August, 1814.
In consequences of a deputation yesterday received from the city of Alexandria, requesting favorable terms for the safety of the city, the under mentioned are the only conditions in my power to offer. The town of Alexandria, with the exception of public works, shall not be destroyed, unless hostilities are commenced on the part of the Americans, nor shall the inhabitants be molested in any manner whatever, or their dwelling houses entered, if the following articles are complied with:
- All naval and ordinance stores, public or private, must immediately be delivered up.
- Possession will be immediately taken of all the shipping, and their furniture must be sent on board by the owners without delay.
- The vessels that have been sunk must be delivered up in the state they were, on the 19th of August, the day the squadron passing the Kettle Bottoms.
- Merchandise of every description must be instantly delivered up, and to prevent any irregularity, that might be committed in its embarkation, the merchants have it at their option to load the vessels generally employed for that purpose, when they shall be towed off by us.
- All merchandise that has been removed from Alexandria, since the 19th inst. is to be included in the above articles.
- Refreshments of every description to be supplied [to] the ships, and paid for at the market price, by bills of the British government.
Officers will be appointed to see that article No. 2, 3, 4 and 5, are strictly complied with, and any deviation of non-compliance, on the part of the inhabitants of Alexandria, will render this treaty null and void.
I have the honor to be, John A. Gordon, Captain of H.M. ship Sea Horse, and senior officer of H.M. ships off Alexandria. To the Common Council of the town of Alexandria.
Reminiscences of the Occupation, from The Local News, 1861
T. Michael Miller, Manuscripts of an Old Bachelor: Reminiscences of Alexandria, (Alexandria, 1987), 30. An anonymous author’s reminiscences upon visiting Alexandria after a thirty year absence, entitled “Reminiscences of an Old Bachelor,” were serialized in the Alexandria newspaper The Local News in 1861-1862. This quotation is from November 23, 1861.
... The troops and citizens of Alexandria, capable of bearing arms, had been ordered from the place, and were nineteen miles off on the day the squadron came opposite the town; and the Fort below, where it was expected that the passage up the river, of the British vessels, would have been, at least, disputed, was abandoned by the U.S. forces, and blown up. The explosion reverberated through the streets of Alexandria and announced to the town its fate as a captured city . . . To their credit, be it said, the British observed strictly, on their part, the terms of the capitulation. The inhabitants were personally not molested in any manner whatever, nor their dwellings ever entered. Their municipal and police authorities and regulations were never disturbed nor interfered with, in the slightest degree. Discipline was enforced, without an exception, for such a spectacle as a drunken or disorderly British soldier, marine, or sailor was never seen in the streets – nor, is it believed, that one of them ever came up town farther than Washington Street. The flour and tobacco captured and seized, were removed to the lighters in the docks by the sailors, who dragged the drays – and a quantity of flour, the barrels holding which were broken, was given to the poor of the town. The officers appeared to be gentlemen, with the feelings of gentlemen, and never failed to express their sympathy with the inhabitants, at the condition to which they had been reduced, and never turned a screw for pressure, beyond what their duty, under the terms of surrender, (and they were hard enough) required . . . .
The British had been here for a day or two, the town surrendered and given up by capitulation, and the fleet moored, as I have said, but a few hundred yards from the wharves. A barge had been sent on shore for some purpose or other, under the charge of a midshipman, and came into the dock at the foot of Prince street. The seamen were listlessly lounging about, and the officer, having executed his commission on shore was sauntering leisurely back to the boat. Just at this moment the clattering of horses hoofs were heard on Union street, and Captain Creighton, of the U.S. Navy, with a few others accompanying him, dashed by. – Creighton, seeing the middy in the streets, seized him by the black leather neck-stock which he wore, and attempted to drag him on his horse intending to carry him out as a prisoner and a “trophy.” Fortunately for the British officer, the string fastening the two ends of the stock broke, and he fell to the ground, when, recovering himself instantly he darted for his boat, jumped in, followed by his men, and pulled out instantly to the Sea Horse. It was all the work of a minute. Creighton’s horse had hardly paused in its career, and by the time the boat had left the head of the dock, he was in full gallop up Duke Street. This was a gallant and daring adventure, but an imprudent one . . . The midshipman had no sooner reported the affair to his superior officers, than the drums on the British vessels beat to quarters – the port holes were opened – and every preparation made to fire upon the town. And then, the old inhabitants recollect, there was such a stampede as was never before witnessed. The women and children, and the few men who had remained, started for flight, and long trains were seen going out of the principal streets, laden with every description of property that could be, in our old Virginia phrase, “toated.” It was a steady stream for some time, most persons expecting every minute to see the shot and shells of the enemy falling upon the houses, and decimating the flying crowd. However, a deputation was immediately sent off to Captain Gordon, the affair explained, and all further proceedings in the matter dropped. The inhabitants being reassured soon ceased to leave town – those who had gone returned, and everything was restored to the former condition.
There was, during the occupation of the town, almost an entire cessation of business. Many stores and shops, however, remained open. The publication of the Alexandria Gazette was then suspended for two weeks, I think – the first and only time . . . .
When the fleet left Alexandria, with their captured property, and proceeded down the river, they found they were not to go “scot free.” Com. Rogers, “with boats and fire vessels, attacked and annoyed their rear,” and they had to pass the gauntlet at the White House, where a battery had been erected by Com. Perry and Capt. Creighton, and where the Alexandria artillery . . . so behaved, as to receive great praise . . .
The Local News, Nov. 23, 1861.
Elsewhere on this site
- The Alexandria Chronicle, a publication of the Alexandria Historical Society. "A British Fleet Sails into Alexandria," by Ted Pulliam (Spring 2009); "A Defenseless Alexandria", by Carole L. Herrick (Fall 2007).
- Alexandria History Magazine, a publication of the Alexandria Historical Society. 1984. Alexandria in the War of 1812.
- The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. Book discussion on C-Span: The Thomas Jefferson Professor of History at the University of Virginia, Alan Taylor has won the Pulitzer and Bancroft prizes for his histories of early America. In this video filmed by C-SPAN in September, 2013, he spoke at Monticello about his work for the 2014 Pulitzer-prize-winning book The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832. In May, 2014, Professor Taylor spoke at The Lyceum, connecting his research for this book with Alexandrians’ own experiences during the War of 1812. The Internal Enemy is available for sale at The Historic Alexandria Museum Store in The Lyceum.
- The Naval War of 1812 Illustrated. A production of the American Society of Marine Artists.