The Burning of the White House and the Star Spangled Banner

On 2 June 1814, 2,500 men from Wellington’s army under the command of Major General Robert Ross, like many of his men a Peninsular War veteran, left Bordeaux, arriving at Bermuda on 25 July. Another battalion of 900 men was then added to Ross’s force.

Ross’s force and its naval escort then proceeded to Tangier Island in Chesapeake Bay where it joined a British fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who had been appointed to command of the Royal Navy’s North American Station in March. The combined fleet included more than 20 warships, four of them ships of the line, and a large number of transports. Ross’s force was increased to over 4,000 men by the addition of 700 marines.[1]

Cochrane sent frigates up the Potomac and towards Baltimore in order to confuse the Americans before entering the Patuxent. On 19 August Ross’s force made an unopposed landing at Benedict, 50 miles from Washington.. However, the difficulty of including horses in an amphibious operation meant his force lacked cavalry and had only one 6 pounder and two 3 pounder guns, which had to be man-handled.

Jeremy Black notes that:

‘the British could not only take Washington without fatal effects to the American war effort…but…the Americans had the opportunity to withdraw from Washington without losing their capacity to maintain their forces.’[2]

At Bladensburg on 24 August, Ross attacked a larger American force commanded by Brigadier-General William Winder, a lawyer before the war. He had been captured at the Battle of Stoney’s Creek in July 1813, and had only recently been released as part of a prisoner exchange.

Alfred Mahan quotes the subsequent US Court of Enquiry as saying that Winder had 5-6,000 men, all but 400 of them militia. The Navy had provided 120 marines under Captain Miller and the 500 sailors of Commodore Joshua Barney’s gunboat flotilla, but Barney had to leave some of his men behind to burn their vessels.[3]

Theodore Roosevelt says that the militia fled so quickly that only 1,500 British troops got into action, to be faced by 78 marines under Miller and 370 sailors under Barney with two 18 pounder guns and three 12 pounders.[4]

Mahan gives British casualties as being 64 killed and 184 wounded. He says that only 10 or 12 Americans were killed and 40 wounded ‘by the estimate of their superintending surgeon.’[5] Wikipedia quotes sources giving a range of 10-26 Americans killed, 40-51 wounded and 100-20 captured.  The small number of losses suffered by the losing side indicates how few Americans stood and fought. This should be blamed on politicians who did not make proper provision for the defence of their capital, rather than on poorly equipped, inexperienced and badly led citizen soldiers.

The British entered Washington the same night without further fighting. Rear Admiral George Cockburn ordered the destruction of the public buildings and military facilities, including the White House. Black comments that this was done:

‘in retaliation for American destructiveness at York in 1813, an attempt at equivalence not generally mentioned in American public history where the emphasis, instead, is in damage by the British.’[6]

It is often claimed that the White House is so called because it was painted white to hide the scorch marks from the burning. In fact it is built of white-grey sandstone;  the name was used unofficially from about 1810, when it was officially named the Executive Mansion, but it did not become the official name until 1902: see the Encyclopaedia Britannica‘s website.

Ross ordered that private property should not be destroyed. This was obeyed, with the exception of a small number of buildings whose occupants resisted the invaders. British looters were flogged.

The Americans themselves burnt the Navy Yard, its stores and supplies and two warships that were almost complete: the 44 gun frigate USS Columbia and the 18 gun USS Argus. The damage from this destruction alone was estimated to have cost $500,000.[7]

The invaders re-embarked on 30 August and landed at North Point, 10 miles from Baltimore. A force of Maryland militia confronted Ross and his advance guard. The British attacked and the Americans, assuming that they were heavily outnumbered, retreated, but Ross was killed.

The British, now under Colonel Arthur Brooke, another veteran, continued to advance, but met more Americans. The British defeated them, but Brooke halted his force a mile and a half from Baltimore as the British believed that the army could not advance further until the navy had overcome Fort McHenry. Baltimore’s defences had been greatly improved by Major General Samuel Smith, a rich merchant who commanded the Baltimore militia and was a Republican Senator.

The naval bombardment was carried out by the rocket ship HMS Erebus and the bomb ketches Devastation, Aetna, Meteor, Terror and Volcano, each carrying a 13 inch mortar with a range of two and a half miles. The bombardment lasted from dawn on 13 September to 7:30 am on 14 September. From 1,500 to 2,000 rockets and bombs were fired, but relatively little damage was done. Only four Americans were killed and 24 wounded.

The British ships stayed out of range of Fort McHenry’s guns, with the exception of a short period on the afternoon of 13 September, when they closed the range, before withdrawing again after being damaged by American fire. Ships of that period were vulnerable to forts, so the British were forced to stay at a range where they could do little damage. A night time amphibious assault also failed.

Brooke’s men re-embarked at North Point on 15 September and were taken to Jamaica. From there, they could threaten the Gulf Coast of the USA. The British defeat at Baltimore did not end their blockade of the USA.

The American victory was celebrated by Francis Scott Key in a poem called the Defence of Fort McHenry. It was then set to the tune of a British song called The Anacreontic Song, written by John Stafford Smith for the Anacreontic Society, a London social club for amateur musicians. It was renamed The Star Spangled Banner and became the US national anthem in 1931.

HMS Terror was used as a polar exploration ship from 1836; bomb vessels had to be strongly built, so were particularly suited to operating in ice. She was fitted with a steam engine before being sent on the expedition led by Sir John Franklin that set off in 1845 to try and find the Northwest Passage.

The HMS Erebus that accompanied her was not the ship of the same name that had taken part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The entire expedition was lost, but in September 2014 the underwater wreck of Erebus was found.

 

 

[1] Troop and ship numbers are from A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol, ii, p. 184

[2] J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), p. 167.

[3] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, pp. 185-87

[4] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. ii, p. 44.

[5] Mahan, Sea Power 1812. vol. ii, p. 189.

[6] Black, War of 1812, p. 174.

[7] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, location 6238.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under War History

2 responses to “The Burning of the White House and the Star Spangled Banner

  1. Reblogged this on History Stuff That Interests Me and commented:
    Great post on the War of 1812, the forgotten war with Great Britain.

  2. Pingback: The End of the War of 1812 | War and Security

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s