History

 

Alexandria Surrenders

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.


In Virginia, 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."


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.


Gunfire on the Potomac

Provided by Glenn Williams


While British naval forces commanded by Captain James A. Gordon continued to confiscate goods and load them aboard the prize merchant vessels at Alexandria, Virginia Militia under Brigadier General John P. Hungerford and sailors and marines of Captain David Porter’s command were preparing a battery position on the bluff at White House Plantation (modern day Fort Belvoir).


The Americans intended to fire on Gordon’s squadron, whose ships’ deck guns would be unable to elevate sufficiently to return fire, as it worked its way back down the river.  On August 31 the brig HMS Fairy, carrying a message telling Gordon to rejoin the fleet, came into view.  Hungerford rushed two militia field guns to the unfinished position and opened fire.  The shots caused some damage, and prompted Captain Gordon to hasten his departure.


On September 1, Gordon sent the brig and bomb vessel Meteor to fire on the battery to impede its completion, but by evening the Americans had five naval long guns and eight artillery field pieces in place.  The British spent most of the next day getting their ships and prizes in position to run the gantlet while working to free the bomb ship Devastation, which had run aground, and waiting favorable winds.


On September 3, the bomb vessel Etna and rocket ship Erebus added their firepower to the effort to silence the American batteries.  During that day, Commodore John Rodgers led an unsuccessful sortie by four U.S. gunboats and some fire ships to destroy the stranded bomb vessel.  Sniping and gunfire exchanges continued throughout September 4 and 5, as Virginia militia reinforcements arrived and took position to defend against a British amphibious landings at the batteries or Alexandria.


On September 6, after shifting their ballast to the port side to enable 63 starboard guns to elevate sufficiently to engage the batteries, the frigates Seahorse and Euryalus and the brig Fairy opened fire.  After 45 minutes, the broadside guns silenced the 13 American cannons, and the British moved downstream.


All eight British warships and 21 merchant vessel prizes moved back to the main fleet.


American Forces Engaged

United States Navy and Marine Corps, Virginia and District of Columbia Militia

Total approximately 1,500


Forces Engaged British

Royal Navy sailors and Royal Marines

Total approximately 1,500


Estimated Casualties

American:  1  killed,  5  wounded

British:  Unknown


Order of Battle

American — Commodore John Rodgers, United States Navy

USS Essex crew and marines with 5 naval guns, Captain David Porter, United States Navy

14th Virginia Brigade with 8 field pieces, Brigadier General John P. Hungerford

111th Infantry Regiment - Lt. Colonel Richard Parker - (Westmoreland County)

Captain Tebb's Company - 41st (Westmoreland County) attached

Captain Janney's Company - 6th (Essex County) attached

Captain Glassock's Company (Westmoreland County)

36th Infantry Regiment - Lt. Colonel Reno - (Prince William County)

6th Infantry Regiment - Lt. Colonel Dangerfield (Essex County)

Lt. Colonel Green's Mounted Infantry

Captain Ball's Company (Loudon County)

Captain Osbourn's Company (Loudon County)

Captain Will's Dragoons (Jefferson County)

Captain Humphrey's Rifles (Jefferson County)

Captain Griffith's Alexandria Artillery Company (District of Columbia Militia)


British — Captain James A. Gordon

Frigates

HMS Seahorse, Captain James A. Gordon

HMS Euryalus, Captain Napier Charles


Brig

HMS Fairy, Captain Henry L. Baker


Bomb Vessels

HMS Devastation, Captain Thomas Alexander

HMS Aetna, Captain Richard Kenah

HMS Meteor, Captain Samuel Roberts


Rocket Ship

HMS Erebus, Captain David E. Bartholomew


References Consulted

Gilbert Byron, The War of 1812 on the Chesapeake Bay (Baltimore, MD: Maryland Historical Society, 1964). 58.


Joseph A. Whitehorne, The Battle for Baltimore 1814 (Baltimore, MD: The Nautical and Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1997).  151-153.


Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1972),  207-209.