City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Apr 5, 2013 4:30 PM
War of 1812 Bicentennial
The year 2012 marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812. The war, and the five-day occupation of Alexandria by British forces in 1814, had a profound effect on the town and its economy.
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From "Commemorative Wares in George Washington’s Hometown," Barbara H. Magid, in Ceramics in America, 2006.
The War of 1812 had a direct impact on Alexandria, when British forces occupied the city for five days, from August 29 through September 2, 1814. A few days earlier, on August 23, the British troops had set fire to Washington. A British soldier wrote:
Threatened with an invasion and with insufficient forces to defend the city, Alexandria’s Common Council surrendered to the British without resistance. The city avoided being burned, but was required to surrender contents of stores and warehouses. According to the terms of capitulation, "The town of Alexandria, with the exception of public works, shall not be destroyed, unless hostilities are commenced on the prt of the Americans; nor shall the inhabitants be molested in any manner whatever, or their dwelling-houses entered, if the following articles are complied with . . . "
Alexandria’s mayor wrote:
A prominent Alexandria Quaker, apothecary Edward Stabler, wrote:
Although Alexandria had no option but to surrender, the town was sharply ridiculed. A political cartoon “Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians,” drawn and etched by William Charles in 1814, shows Alexandrians cowering and pleading with Johnny Bull, a symbol for England. An editorial in the Richmond Enquirer, on August 31, 1814 stated, “In what terms can we express our indignation against the conduct of the citizens of Alexandria? Thanks be to the Almighty God: that this degraded town no longer forms a part of the state of Virginia!.” Unlike Washington, DC, Alexandria was largely unscathed by the brief but dramatic occupation, apart from the economic costs of the terms of capitulation, and the resultant humiliation.
Alexandria had much to celebrate four months later, when the Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas day in 1814. With the end of the War of 1812, American independence was assured, and the seas were open to trade with all nations.
From Discovering the Decades: The 1810s, by Timothy Denee and T. Michael Miller, in Alexandria Archaeology Volunteer News.
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. 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.
Copy of a letter from the Mayor of Alexandria to the Mayor of Georgetown
... The troops and citizens of Alexandria, capable of bearing arms, had been ordered from the place, and were nineteen miles off on the day the squadron came opposite the town; and the Fort below, where it was expected that the passage up the river, of the British vessels, would have been, at least, disputed, was abandoned by the U.S. forces, and blown up. The explosion reverberated through the streets of Alexandria and announced to the town its fate as a captured city . . . To their credit, be it said, the British observed strictly, on their part, the terms of the capitulation. The inhabitants were personally not molested in any manner whatever, nor their dwellings ever entered. Their municipal and police authorities and regulations were never disturbed nor interfered with, in the slightest degree. Discipline was enforced, without an exception, for such a spectacle as a drunken or disorderly British soldier, marine, or sailor was never seen in the streets – nor, is it believed, that one of them ever came up town farther than Washington Street. The flour and tobacco captured and seized, were removed to the lighters in the docks by the sailors, who dragged the drays – and a quantity of flour, the barrels holding which were broken, was given to the poor of the town. The officers appeared to be gentlemen, with the feelings of gentlemen, and never failed to express their sympathy with the inhabitants, at the condition to which they had been reduced, and never turned a screw for pressure, beyond what their duty, under the terms of surrender, (and they were hard enough) required . . . .
The British had been here for a day or two, the town surrendered and given up by capitulation, and the fleet moored, as I have said, but a few hundred yards from the wharves. A barge had been sent on shore for some purpose or other, under the charge of a midshipman, and came into the dock at the foot of Prince street. The seamen were listlessly lounging about, and the officer, having executed his commission on shore was sauntering leisurely back to the boat. Just at this moment the clattering of horses hoofs were heard on Union street, and Captain Creighton, of the U.S. Navy, with a few others accompanying him, dashed by. – Creighton, seeing the middy in the streets, seized him by the black leather neck-stock which he wore, and attempted to drag him on his horse intending to carry him out as a prisoner and a “trophy.” Fortunately for the British officer, the string fastening the two ends of the stock broke, and he fell to the ground, when, recovering himself instantly he darted for his boat, jumped in, followed by his men, and pulled out instantly to the Sea Horse. It was all the work of a minute. Creighton’s horse had hardly paused in its career, and by the time the boat had left the head of the dock, he was in full gallop up Duke Street. This was a gallant and daring adventure, but an imprudent one . . . The midshipman had no sooner reported the affair to his superior officers, than the drums on the British vessels beat to quarters – the port holes were opened – and every preparation made to fire upon the town. And then, the old inhabitants recollect, there was such a stampede as was never before witnessed. The women and children, and the few men who had remained, started for flight, and long trains were seen going out of the principal streets, laden with every description of property that could be, in our old Virginia phrase, “toated.” It was a steady stream for some time, most persons expecting every minute to see the shot and shells of the enemy falling upon the houses, and decimating the flying crowd. However, a deputation was immediately sent off to Captain Gordon, the affair explained, and all further proceedings in the matter dropped. The inhabitants being reassured soon ceased to leave town – those who had gone returned, and everything was restored to the former condition.
There was, during the occupation of the town, almost an entire cessation of business. Many stores and shops, however, remained open. The publication of the Alexandria Gazette was then suspended for two weeks, I think – the first and only time . . . .
When the fleet left Alexandria, with their captured property, and proceeded down the river, they found they were not to go “scot free.” Com. Rogers, “with boats and fire vessels, attacked and annoyed their rear,” and they had to pass the gauntlet at the White House, where a battery had been erected by Com. Perry and Capt. Creighton, and where the Alexandria artillery . . . so behaved, as to receive great praise . . .
A number of ceramics celebrating the end of the war and honoring its heroes were found on archaeological sites in Alexandria, and are in the collection of the Alexandria Archaeology Museum. Alexandria's taverns, in particular, had many patriotic pieces, including a set of small shell-edged plates depicting the American Eagle (the Great Seal of the United States) The Great Seal was designed in 1782, but it became a popular image on ceramics following the War of 1812. Both Arell’s Tavern and Gadsby’s Tavern had creamware pitchers depicting Peace, Plenty and Independence and McKnight’s Tavern had a creamware pitcher depicting a ship under sail. These designs celebrated the resumption of trade following the Treaty of Ghent. From nearby residential sites, archaeologists recovered pitchers celebrating “Peace and Plenty” , "Peace, Plenty and Independence, "and “Virtue and Valour,” and honoring war heroes General Zebulon Pike and Captain Jacob Jones.
This Carronade was apparently used in Alexandria on an American gunboat during the War of 1812. It was recovered from the muddy shoreline in the vicinity of where Hunting Creek and the Potomac River converge, and is believed to have been scuttled by Americans in 1814 when British forces seized Alexandria.
Carronades were first introduced and manufactured in Scotland by the Carron Company, in 1779. They were designed specifically to require minimal effort in moving, loading and firing. Their light weight and short barrels made them immediately practical on board ships. Although the firing range was very short, they were particularly effective in destroying the rigging of enemy ships. With the versatility of long range guns and continued sophistication of naval weaponry, the carronades were soon restricted to augmenting a ship’s artillery. By 1860, most carronades became virtually obsolete.
The Lyceum Collection, purchased with a donation from Interarms North American Group of Alexandria.
Sword and Scabbard
Sword and Scabbard, 1814, Mark: J. Gaither for Alexandria silversmith John Gaither, Silver, Ivory, Iron, Leather. The initials and infantry number for Lieutenant C.I. Queen of the 36th Infantry are scratched on the sword’s knuckle guard. During the War of 1812, this unit participated in the Battle of Bladensburg and the defense of Fort McHenry in Baltimore.
The Lyceum Collection, gift in memory of Charles Cecil Williams by the American Silver Guild and Friends, July 4, 1998.
Pearlware plate, England, ca. 1815–1830. A number of ceramics celebrating the end of the war and honoring its heroes have been found at archaeological excavations in Alexandria, many at tavern sites. Arell’s Tavern, in particular, used many patriotic pieces, including a set of small shell-edged plates with an “even scallop” pattern and depicting the American eagle. While this motif appears on wares made before the Embargo of 1807, it was commonly used following the end of the War of 1812. These dishes were popular among the lower and middle classes, and therefore were appropriate for Arell’s, a working-class tavern. Another blue shell-edged eagle plate was found at McKnight’s Tavern, which was known by its sign of the spread eagle.
Alexandria Archaeology Museum Collection, excavated from the site of Arell's Tavern on Market Square. Site 44AX94, MB-B, 67.1578. Photo by Gavin Ashworth, Courtesy Ceramics in America.
Peace and Plenty Pitcher
“Cameo jasper” refined stoneware pitcher, England, ca. 1815. The Great Seal is depicted on one side, and Miss Liberty on the other. Peace is represented by the caduceus and hands clasped in friendship, Plenty by the overflowing cornucopia. This pitcher celebrates the Treaty of Ghent, which was signed on Christmas Day 1814.
Alexandria Archaeology Museum Collection, excavated from the 400 block of King Street, north side. Site 44AX93 GB-3, 67.978. Photo by Gavin Ashworth, Courtesy Ceramics in America.
Peace, Plenty and Independence
Many variations of the popular print Peace, Plenty and Independence appeared on creamware and pearlware pitchers made for the American market by the StaVordshire potters Enoch Wood and Sons, Herculaneum, and others. The print depicts the spread eagle perched atop a cannon, beneath which is a circle with the slogan “Peace, Plenty and Independence.” There is a female figure at right, Peace, who torches the tools of war; a figure at left, Plenty, holds a sheaf of wheat and a cornucopia.
These creamware fragments are from two different pitchers, found at the sites of Arell's Tavern (depicting the eagle) and Gadsby's tavern (with the slogan).
Alexandria Archaeology Museum Collection, excavated from Arell's Tavern, Site 44AX94, MB-D 67.1850 and Gadsby's Tavern, Site 44AX93 GB11 67.1429. Photos by Gavin Ashworth, Courtesy Ceramics in America.
This creamware pitcher commemorating the end of the War of 1812 depicts a soldier standing on a lion—representing Britain—and gesturing toward a merchant ship under sail. American flags and weapons of war ornament the cartouche. Many diVerent versions of this print appear on pitchers, bowls, and plates, and each usually includes the words “By Virtue and Valour WeHave F reed Our Country, Extended Our Commerce, and Laid the Foundation of a Great Empire.
Alexandria Archaeology Museum Collection, excavated from a residential site at 414 King Street, Site 44AX91 4KSW-19. Photo by Gavin Ashworth, Courtesy Ceramics in America.