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The Burning of Washington and Looting of Alexandria
By Bob Stockton
Monday, March 19, 2012
Rated "G" by the Author.
More imaginary conversations with my great-great-great grandfather, Commodore Robert F. (Fighting Bob) Stockton. Here he recounts his actions as a young Masters Mate.
© 2011 Bob Stockton. Excerpted from 'Fighting Bob, by Bob Stockton. Unauthorized use or reproduction is prohibited.
“A large British fleet of twenty warships strong commanded by Admiral Cockburn had sailed into Chesapeake Bay with the battle tested army of General Ross aboard. Cockburn landed Ross’ army on the Patuxent River. Ross then began a march toward our Capitol of Washington. Ross’ army was first met by elements of the Maryland Militia led by Generals Winder and Stansbury near the Maryland town of Bladensburg resulting in a complete rout of the Marylanders, due in no small part to the incompetence of the aforementioned officers and the cowardice of their men, who were observed fleeing willy nilly through the streets of our Capitol. Ross then advanced unopposed into Washington and proceeded to burn all public buildings to the ground.”
“I don’t understand why the Brits chose Washington when Baltimore, with its harbor would have been a much more high value target.”
“High value target, you say? That phrase sir, has a favorable ring to it. With your permission I shall add that phrase to my vocabulary when describing past battles.”
“I digress. Earlier in the year American troops crossed into Canada and took the undefended town of Port Dover and set it afire. The Washington burning was largely seen as retaliation for that earlier foray. The larger issue at hand was the peril in which Alexandria and Baltimore found themselves.”
“A British naval diversionary force under a Captain Gordon was despatched along the Potomac to capture Fort Warburton. This was accomplished with ease, as the cowardly Militia Captain Dyson, upon seeing the British squadron, spiked his cannons, blew up the fort and fled along with 500 Maryland militiamen. In my opinion Dyson should have been court martialed and summarily shot. He was merely dismissed from the service. Such were the troubles that our land militia forces encountered throughout much of the war when faced with battle hardened British troops who had recently fought in Wellington’s armies. They simply turned and ran. A national disgrace, I tell you.”
“When the Mayor of Alexandria observed the British squadron approach he met Captain Gordon under a white flag and simply handed the Britisher the soverign town of Alexandria. All goods and supplies stored in the dockside warehouses and twenty-two merchant ships - twenty-two! - were taken by the British without firing a shot.”
“It seems to me that Baltimore was the more important target. Why divide forces and worry about Alexandria?”
“Well sir, once Gordon had captured what remained of Fort Warburton the path to Alexandria and its port was virtually unopposed. Gordon simply sailed in with his force and a wealth of provisions were at his fingertips. I should tell you that once Alexandria had been taken the path to Georgetown lay before him.”
“After the sacking of Washington the Secretary and other governmental offices had fled to Georgetown. Hearing the sound of cannon in the direction of Alexandria and not knowing what was occurring a volunteer was solicited to ride into the captured town to determine the intention of Gordon’s force. Being an accomplished horseman I immediately stepped forward and volunteered to undertake the perilous mission.”
“A horse was procured and I set off for Alexandria in the dead of night, some dozen or so miles distant. The passage was without incident and I soon arrived at the outskirts of the town.”
“The town was quiet, the citizens having retired and the only activity was the work at the port where the British were in the process of preparing the seized merchantmen for the outward voyage. I tethered my horse and crept closer to the docks.”
“Sailors and marines were busily engaged in looting the pierside warehouses and loading them onto the prized merchantmen. Gordon’s squadron lay at anchor, awaiting favorable tides to get underway. An officer was urging the men to make haste as the orders had been received to rejoin Cockburn’s fleet for the onset of the siege of Baltimore. Another officer approached the first with an order from Gordon to return to the flagship immediately as the recent rains which had doused the flames in Washington had made the river favorable for egress.”
“Upon learning of this I stole back to my horse and rode off at full gallop back to Georgetown to report to Secretary of the Navy Jones and Commodore Rodgers that Gordon did not intend to menace Georgetown but rather had orders to rejoin Cockburn’s main force for the Baltimore attack.”
“Our orders from the Secretary were clear: The Commodore was to harass Gordon’s ships as they transited back to join Cockburn’s fleet. We immediately set about construction of several fireships and boarding barges to not only delay our adversary but to defeat them. The fireships with their kindling and explosives would ignite the enemy combatants and our barges would provide platforms for our brave sailors and marines to board the British vessels and engage in hand to hand fighting. If all went well the day would be ours!”
“And so your fleet of fireships and barges engaged Gordon’s squadron and defeated them?”
“We did not, sir. Owing to a change in wind direction our efforts succeeded only in delaying Gordon’s run to join Cockburn. After a delay of several days the Gordon squadron of eight warships and the twenty-two seized merchantmen rejoined Cockburn’s fleet. While we had not defeated Gordon his delay would prove fatal to Cockburn’s mission to take Baltimore. Gordon’s foray was financially successful but our delaying tactics forced Cockburn to delay his assault on Baltimore for nearly two weeks which allowed our reinforcements to arrive and assist in the defense of the city.”
Site: Navy Publishing
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