War of 1812 bicentennial
June 18, was the 200th anniversary of the declaration of war by President James Madison and the United States against Great Britain. This war came about largely due to British interference with American shipping and imprisonment of American Sailors on the high seas in violation of the freedom of the seas. In Baltimore, this past weekend, the “Sailabration” was held with the tall ships and Fort McHenry while The Washington Post in its Sunday Arts section ran the article “Portrait of A Rising Nation,” which addresses portraiture of leading Americans from that war.
If Americans think at all about the War of 1812, they usually focus on Fort McHenry and the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner” in September of 1814, or about Gen. Andrew Jackson defeating the British attack on New Orleans in January 1815. Few know that Fort McNair played a direct role in August 1814, and that what is now Fort Belvoir also played a direct role the same month. The view of the Washington government burning on August 24, 1814 must have been dramatic to see from the front portico of the Custis-Lee Mansion in what is now Arlington National Cemetery.
As the British fleet proceeded up the Chesapeake Bay in August 1814, they feigned an attack up the Potomac River against Washington and instead sailed up the Patuxent River into the central Maryland peninsula, landing their forces at the village of Benedict. From there they marched overland defeating the American forces at the Battle of Blandensburg on Aug. 24 and then marched into Washington to burn government buildings.
What the U.S. Navy failed to destroy at the Washington Navy Yard before the arrival of the British was done by the British when they captured it. The same turn of events happened at the Arsenal at Greenleaf Point (today’s Fort McNair). The 21st Foot Light Company captured the Arsenal complex and in so doing, dropped a torch down a dry well to check its contents. In so doing the torch blew up the hidden powder in the well, killing about 12 British soldiers and wounding some 30 others. It would take a number of years to rebuild the arsenal complex after its destruction.
When elements of the British fleet sailed up the Potomac to successfully capture the city of Alexandria, Va., they attempted to return to the main British fleet then sailed south from Benedict, Md., to rendezvous in the Chesapeake Bay before proceeding against Fort McHenry and the city of Baltimore. However, American forces, including elements defeated at Blandensburg and some new Virginia militia, halted these British men of war for three days at the Battle of Whitestone Point in Fairfax County (The area is just south of the officers club at Fort Belvoir and near the ruins of the Belvoir Mansion).
It seems that the channel for the Potomac River in this area cuts in very close to the Virginia shoreline and the American cannon and sharp shooting riflemen were able to detain the British ships for three days before they fought their way south down the Potomac River. British cannon balls from this three-day battle were still being found along the Potomac River shoreline of Fort Belvoir well into the 1960s.
Today few individuals who visit the National War College building at Fort McNair know it was the site of the Washington Arsenal and the great drama of the burning of Washington in August of 1814. The British burned Washington in retaliation of the earlier American burning of the Canadian capital at what is today Toronto. Nor do visitors know that close to the flagpole at Fort McNair is a British cannon captured in battle along the Canadian border with the large dent of an American cannonball midway down the barrel. It was one of seven cannons initially captured by the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) but they only had enough manpower to pull this one off the battlefield.
And how many visitors to Fort Belvoir and to its officers club know of the desperate battle fought for three days in late August 1814 just offshore. These events are the heritage of the citizens of Washington in this year of 2012 at the start of the bicentennial of the War of 1812.