City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Jan 5, 2011 2:29 PM
Discovering the Decades: 1810s
Points in Time
Few periods of Alexandria's history have been more tumultuous than the War of 1812. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, Great Britain's interdiction of American shipping, impressment of U.S. seamen, and its support of Indian depredations against the American frontier exacerbated its poor relationship with the United States. Finally, as the crisis intensified, Congressional "War Hawks" clamored for military action and, in June 1812, President James Madison's issued a Declaration of War against the British.
The U.S. was ill-prepared for the conflict. Prophetically, the Alexandria Gazette editorialized in June 1812: "What pledge have we that a naval force will not be sent to lay our rich maritime cities under enormous contributions or raze them to the ground?" By September the impact of war preparations could be felt in Alexandria as a federal tax was assessed on more than one hundred local families. The Gazette announced that "all young men whose many feelings dispose them to join the service of their country were requested to meet at the courthouse."
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. [Alexandria Gazette] 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.
The people, their commerce and their institutions
Several detailed accounts published in the teens paint an excellent profile of Alexandria's social, commercial and maritime status during this era. The following sketch of Alexandria was gleaned from A Chorographical and Statistical Description of the District of Columbia published in Paris in 1816. It notes that the [shipping] tonnage of Alexandria in 1811, was eleven hundred and fifty-nine, of which its merchants are the sole proprietors....
During the first three months of the year 1811, the exports of Alexandria to foreign countries, consisted of goods, wares, and merchandises, estimated at 507,988 dollars, of which there were of flour 47,687 barrels, valued at nine dollars per barrel. The other articles were fish, staves, shingles, beef, port, hams, lard, corn, rye, oats, bread, candles, soap, etc....
The principle merchants of this place have failed in consequence of losses abroad, or unfortunate speculations. Those who carry on business at present employ their capitalism in a more cautious manner.
Manufacturers are yet in their infancy. Two manufacturers of cut nails have been lately established (1816) and several of woolen and other cloths.... Two newspapers are published in the town... There are 9 or 10 physicians, but there is no medical society. Any person may exercise this profession.... The obstetric art is in the hands of old women who are supposed to possess it as a gift of nature. Dr. Dangerfield informs us that surgical cases are rare... Baths have been lately established, the price of which is half a dollar.
The population of Alexandria has increased... Many foreigners have been attracted thither on account of the generous sentiments of the natives, who, convinced that the worth of man depends on his conduct and talents, feel no prejudice on account of his foreign birth...
The inhabitants are truly hospitable. The usual visit of friendship is in the evening, when tea and cakes and fruit is offered... The women, industrious by habit, prefer the joys of private life and objects of utility, to parade and luxurious repasts....
The right of suffrage for members of the Common council belongs to every free white male citizen of full age who has a freehold estate in the town, or who has resided therein for the space of a year, paid a public tax, and has been a housekeeper three months...." [Miller, ed., Pen Portraits of Alexandria, Virginia]
A census taken in the year 1817 enumerated a population of 5,513 white residents and an African American population of 2,646 consisting of 1,599 slaves and 1,047 free people. A count was also made of the buildings, businesses and institutions in Alexandria revealing 1321 houses and warehouses, 51 sheds occupied by artisans, seven houses of worship, six banks, one brewery, seven biscuit bakeries, two sugar refineries, two potteries, one brass foundry, two nail factories, one morocco leather factory, two plaster mills, two ship yards, five lumber yards, one vinegar yard, five livery stables, three tanneries and four rope walks. Among the buildings and institutions were 22 private schools, and one free, "Lancastrian" school, built with the town's funds in 1812. [Minutes of the Common Council; Alexandria Gazette 10/2/1817]
Alexandria entered a new era of transportation in 1815 as the steamboat Washington began packet service between Georgetown, Washington, Alexandria and Aquia Creek. Other vessels soon engaged in the trade, including the Camden and the Dandy and Surprise which sailed between Alexandria and Georgetown. In August 1818 a group of entrepreneurs gathered at the Exchange Coffee House to establish a major steamboat operation which would ply the waters between Alexandria and Norfolk. [Shomette, Maritime Alexandria]
Before the construction of the Mason's Island causeway in 1808, barge and boat traffic to Alexandria could descend the river from above Georgetown. The causeway virtually blocked this transportation corridor and made more treacherous the currents of the channel. Such a state of affairs was intolerable to Alexandrians who had supported financially the construction of the Potomac Canal. Several memorials were forwarded to Congress requesting that funds be allocated to construct a lateral canal around the western terminus of the causeway to Alexandria. Congress passed an act in 1812 establishing a canal company in Alexandria. The war intervened, however, and little was accomplished.
In March 1817, the General Assembly of Virginia incorporated a second Alexandria Canal Company, charged with constructing a canal from Goose Creek near Leesburg to the waters of Hunting Creek in Fairfax County. The commissioners met at the Exchange Coffee House in Alexandria on March 25 and commenced selling stock in the Company. By November a resolution was passed by the Virginia Board of Public Works instructing an engineer to survey the route. Despite a promising beginning, this venture also languished and fell victim to the economic malaise which enveloped the country in 1819. Not until May 1830 would Congress again authorize an Alexandria Canal Company.
Although Congress authorized the construction of the Alexandria and Leesburg Turnpike (Route 7) in 1813, little was accomplished on the project until the 1820s.
A Place in Time
In 1817, Alexandria's Commonalty decided to erect a new market house on Royal Street. Designed by the famous architect Benjamin Latrobe "the building was connected to old market house on Cameron Street, was 154 feet long and 24 feet wide. It was a three-story brick structure, the cupola containing the bell and town clock. On the eastern side of the building was a two-story porch supported by brick pillars. The first floor was a market, providing a total of twenty-three butcher stalls on the square. There were also benches under the portico between the pillars for the country people. The second floor contained the Alexandria Library in the north, the office of the Clerk of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia, the Exchange Coffee House and Reading room, and after 1827 the Town Hall for Council meetings. The third floor was rented from the city by the Alexandria Museum." [Morrill, "Alexandria Virginia's Market Square" in The Alexandria Chronicle Spring 1993]
Travelers Accounts of the Alexandria Waterfront provides additional information on Alexandria’s early history.
Discovering the Decades was created as a series in Alexandria Archaeology's newsletter, in honor of the City's 250th Birthday in 1999. A number of City staff contributed to this project, including Al Cox, Pamela J. Cressey, Timothy J. Dennee,T. Michael Miller, and Peter Smith. Some of the original articles have been updated based on new research.