The Raid on Alexandria was a British victory during the War of 1812, which gained much plunder at little cost but may have contributed to the later British repulse at Baltimore by delaying their main forces.
As part of the British expedition to the Chesapeake Bay in the middle of 1814, a naval force under Commodore James Alexander Gordon was ordered to sail up the Potomac River, to attack Fort Washington, which was then known as Fort Warburton. Located on the Maryland shore about 8 miles (13 km) below Washington, it was the only fortification on the Potomac River. The raid was supposed to be a demonstration, to distract American troops from the main British attack on Washington under General Robert Ross.
Gordon's force consisted of the frigates Seahorse of 38 guns, and Euryalus of 36 guns, the bomb vessels Devastation, Aetna and Meteor, each mounting two large mortars and eight or ten smaller guns and carronades, and the rocket vessel Erebus.
Starting on 20 August, Gordon's ships spent several days working over the Kettle Bottom Shoals. Gordon later claimed all his ships grounded twenty times. On 27 August, his bomb vessels opened fire on Fort Washington. The commander of the fort was Captain Samuel Dyson. His orders from Major General William Winder, commanding the district around Washington, were to demolish the fort only if attacked by large numbers of troops. Winder also deployed about 500 militia to defend the fort. However, as soon as Gordon opened fire, Dyson promptly spiked his own guns, blew up the fort and retreated. (He was later dismissed).
With the fall of Fort Washington, there was nothing to stop the advance of the British warships on the prosperous port of Alexandria, which lay only a few miles upriver. The town's Common Council had earlier decided not to oppose any British attack, and on the morning of 28 August, the Mayor of Alexandria, Charles Simms, was rowed down river under a white flag to ask Gordon for terms for the surrender of the town. It being Sunday, Gordon told Mayor Simms to return to Alexandria and he would bring up his squadron on Monday.
In the subsequent Congressional Investigative Committee report on the burning of the capital and the surrender of Alexandria, the town's clerk, Israel Thompson, submitted the following account:
On the morning of the next day, to wit the 29th of August, [the British squadron] arranged itself along the town, so as to command it from one extremity to the other. The force consisted of two frigates, to wit: the Seahorse, rating thirty-eight guns, and Euryalus, rating thirty-six gus; two rocket ships, of eighteen guns each; two bomb-ships, of eight guns each; and a schooner of two guns, which were but a few hundred yards from the wharves, and the houses so situated that they might have been laid in ashes in a few minutes.
To avoid destruction of the town, the Council agreed to hand over all merchant ships, even those which had been scuttled to prevent them being captured, and merchandise. The British thus acquired twenty-two merchant ships and vast quantities of loot, including flour, cotton, tobacco, wines and cigars. The delays caused by the shallow water conditions on the Potomac resulted in Gordon's squadron arriving off Fort Warburton nearly a week after Ross' troops had entered and left the city of Washington. Having accomplished his primary objective of silencing Fort Warburton, and learning that the Capitol and the Washington Navy Yard had been burned a week earlier, Gordon decided not to proceed any further and rejected any suggestion that he take his squadron further up river to burn the docks at Georgetown. His presence in Alexandria nevertheless almost paralysed Washington and the American government, which was trying to reassemble and resume its functions.
After the British had occupied Alexandria for three days, the Cruizer class brig-sloop Fairy reached Gordon with orders to rejoin the main British fleet in the Chesapeake under Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane.
The late August rains (which had doused the fires burning Washington) had raised the water level in the Potomac, ensuring the British squadron's descent of the river would be swifter than its ascent. Gordon began his departure in stages, first sending the bomb-ship Meteor and the sloop Fairy ahead on 1 September to reconnoiter. The remaining ships departed Alexandria on 2 September, but sailed only a few miles because the retreat was more strongly opposed than Gordon's advance up the Potomac. Commodore John Rodgers, with the crews of two frigates under construction (USS Guerriere and Java), twice tried to send fireships against Gordon's ships, but both attempts were foiled by British seamen in the squadron's launches and cutters.
On 31 August Secretary of State James Monroe, in his capacity as acting Secretary of War, ordered an American field artillery battery to be hastily erected on the Virginia shore on the heights of present-day Fort Belvoir. (He had overruled Colonel Decius Wadsworth, who had first gathered the guns, and who resigned rather than take Monroe's orders.) The battery, known as the White House battery, caused some loss. Due to the narrow deep water channel as the Potomac flows past Belvoir, the British warships had great difficulty in elevating their guns to return fire on the White House battery. On 5 September, Gordon had his seamen shift the ballast in the bottoms of the ships so that the list to starboard allowed the port side guns to fire higher, and, after unleashing a fulsome fire, the squadron was finally able to pass the battery in about one hour.
Gordon rejoined Cochrane on 9 September. Although the raid had been very successful (financially at least), Cochrane had been forced to wait for Gordon for several days (from 29 August), partly in case Gordon required rescue, and also because Gordon's flotilla included most of the available bomb-ketches and rocket vessels necessary for bombarding fortifications. This gave the defenders of Baltimore time to reinforce their defences and spurred them to resist rather than risk financial ruin.
- Whitehorne, p. 153
- "No. 16947". 27 September 1814. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/16947/page/
- Forester, p.182
- Elting, p.206
- Elting, p.223
- Elting, pp.224-225
- Elting, pp.223-224
- Herrick (2005) p.168
References and further reading
- Elting, John, R. Amateurs to Arms, Da Capo Press, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-306-80653-3
- Forester, C. S. The Age of Fighting Sail, New English Library
- George, Christopher T., Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay, Shippensburg, Pa., White Mane, 2001, ISBN 1-57249-276-7
- Herrick, Carloe L. August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames, Falls Church, VA: Higher Education Publications, 2005
- Pitch, Anthony S.The Burning of Washington, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2000. ISBN 1-55750-425-3
- Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, Random House, New York, ISBN 0-375-75419-9
- Whitehorne, Joseph A., The Battle for Baltimore 1814, Baltimore: Nautical & Aviation Publishing, 1997, ISBN 1-877853-23-2
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