Council saved city through 1814 surrender
July 3, 1996
by Pamela Cressey
Political caricature by William Charles which ridiculed Alexandrians for surrendering to the British (aka Johnny Bull) by depicting them in spiked hair begging for leniency while their rum and tobacco were carried off. Courtesy, the Lyceum Collection.
Alexandria’s history has to some degree been shaped by its physical proximity to Washington D.C., as well as its political inclusion within the original District of Columbia from 1801 to 1847. Our destiny has been linked to the District’s good times and bad times. The town’s independent spirit has formed through nearly 200 years by realizing both the strengths and problems associated with our link to the federal city and government. The deleterious effects of this association have been most striking during the War of 1812 and the Civil War.
Donald Schomette has written a fascinating account of Alexandria’s maritime heritage including the War of 1812. Using the American State Papers on Military Affairs, Don documents how the Alexandria Common Council was quick to understand the town’s danger given its defenseless position near the Capital during the War of 1812. Although trying for years to secure federal funds and attention for fortifications, Alexandrians were left to deal with their own vulnerability after Washington fell to the British in 1814. The town’s vigilance committee recommended to the Common Council that since "...there be no sufficient force, on our part, to oppose them, with any reasonable prospect of success, they should appoint a committee to carry a flag to the officer commanding the enemy’s force...and to procure the best terms for the safety of persons, houses, and property...."
On August 24, the area was in panic. President Madison was in hiding, the British held Washington, and no American officers provided any direction. Alexandrians fearing brutalities and "outrages upon the female portion of society" went directly to Admiral Cockburn in Washington to ask "what treatment might be expected from him, in case his troops should approach Alexandria." Cockburn stated that private property would be respected and fresh provisions would be purchased, not confiscated.
Alexandrians went home and readied the town for occupation the next two days. They hid the two iron cannons (sans ammunition), sent 200 guns to Little Falls, and scuttled 21 vessels in the harbor to prevent capture. The fearful climate must have been raised to a feverish pitch by a series of incidents provoked by panic. Nearby, someone blew up 600 guns, and the long bridge joining Virginia and Washington was burned by its sentries. On August 27, Fort Washington exploded when its commanding officer, fearing a land attack, spiked the guns and detonated the powder supply. Captain Gordon’s British fleet sailed easily up the Potomac nearer to Alexandria. Without a fort at Jones Point, "nothing was left to oppose the progress of the squadron."
About 10:00 a.m. on August 28, a group of Alexandrians sailed six miles downriver and boarded Gordon’s flagship, the Sea Horse. They were informed that if no opposition occurred, citizens and homes would remain undamaged. The next morning, citizens awoke to see a battle line formed by Gordon’s seven ships and 1004 men "so situated that they might have laid [the town] in ashes." After some modifications, the Council accepted Gordon’s terms of surrender including the taking of all armaments, merchandise and ships. The Council stated that they "acted from the impulse of irresistible necessity and solely from a regard to the welfare of the town." The British looted these items from the waterfront warehouses and raised the sunken ships. When Gordon sailed on September 2, he took 21 vessels, 15,000 barrels of flour, 800 hogshead of tobacco, and thousands of dollars of other merchandise. But the Mayor and Council had saved the town, and no one was injured. Ironically their actions were called disgraceful, the press ridiculed them, and the federal government required Mayor Simms to document what occurred. In support of the actions, 117 Alexandrians wrote: "We yielded to superior power. Our weakness has been our crime. Our reliance upon the protection of our Government has been our misfortune."