I saw this about the War of 1812 in the Washington Post last week and thought I’d pass it along.
Steve Vogel, a Washington Post reporter, is the author of “Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation.”
On Independence Day 199 years ago, there was little cause for revelry in Washington. With America on the brink of defeat in the War of 1812, some feared it would be the nation’s last July Fourth celebration. The British forces threatening to dismember the union would bring their own fireworks — setting the White House, the Capitol and other public buildings ablaze later that summer. The burning of Washington has become the subject of much myth.
1. The British burned Washington to avenge the American burning of York (modern-day Toronto).
The British were already torching towns in the Chesapeake region when news arrived that American troops had burned the capital of Upper Canada, a British colony, in April 1813.Rear Adm. George Cockburn, commanding a Royal Navy squadron on the Chesapeake, pressed to attack Washington not in response to York, which was barely noted at the time, but as the logical continuance of his campaign of terror, hoping to force the U.S. government to make peace on British terms.
The British general who captured Washington, Robert Ross, did not mention retaliation in his reports to England but instead described it as an American humiliation that would soon end the war. “They feel strongly the disgrace of having had their capital taken by a handful of men and blame very generally a government which went to war without the means or abilities to carry it on,” Ross wrote to his wife.
As the British approached, Madison rushed to Bladensburg, straying past American lines and later coming under British rocket fire. Not only was Madison the first sitting president to arrive on a battlefield — and the only one, save Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War — he nearly was the first to be captured or killed.
On the afternoon of Aug. 25, the day after the British began torching the capital, Washington was hit from the northwest by a line of severe thunderstorms that may have spawned one or more destructive tornadoes. But this didn’t save the District — it actually further damaged the city.
But the tan-colored sandstone exterior had been whitewashed even before the mansion became home to the presidents in 1800, making it stand out from most Washington houses, which were brick or wood frame. Some residents were calling it the “White House” at least as early as 1810.
5. The repulse of the British at Baltimore three weeks later proves that Baltimoreans are tougher than Washingtonians.
“If our city had waited for advice on self-defense from Washington in the War of 1812, all of us would be singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ ” Martin O’Malley (D), then mayor of Baltimore and now governor of Maryland, told Congress in 2002.
But the idea that Charm City has more moxie ignores the fact that the commander of Washington’s defenses was a Baltimore lawyer, the incompetent Brig. Gen. William Winder. Moreover, most members of the militia manning the first lines of defense at Bladensburg were from Baltimore and Baltimore County, and they were the first to flee in the face of the British advance.
The District militia rushed from Washington and joined a third line anchored by Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotillamen and U.S. Marines. Largely not engaged, it did not retreat until ordered to by the panicking Winder over the objections of its officers.
The militia unit that fought best at Bladensburg was the Georgetown Field Artillery, which peppered the advancing British with fire and then expertly covered the American retreat. The Baltimore militia redeemed itself three weeks later at North Point. Among the key differences: This time, it was fighting for Baltimore, not Washington.