The Burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans

Welcome to part 3 of our series on the War of 1812. Here we focus on two epic moments in that conflict. The first gave us our national anthem, the second gave us a controversial president.

We covered the attack on Washington briefly in the last post, Overview of the War of 1812. The British navy had been terrorizing the Atlantic coast, particularly the Chesapeake Bay area, from the start of the war. The U.S. had few warships with which to challenge the British, who sometimes sent detachments to coastal towns offering them the choice of paying a fine or being bombarded. The British moved up the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1814, heading not really toward Washington but toward Baltimore.

Baltimore was a thriving port and an important U.S. city. The British plan was to destroy Washington for the symbolic value of it, then overcome nearby Baltimore to drive home the final nail in the coffin of U.S. resistance. On August 24 a battle was fought at Bladensburg, Maryland, just miles from Washington, between desperate Americans and the determined British. It was a defeat for the Americans. President James Madison had left the White House to watch the battle from a short distance away, and when it became apparent that the British were victorious, and heading directly for the capital, a messenger was sent to the White House to let the First Lady, Dolly Madison, know that she had to leave immediately.

First Lady Madison did not do so. With nerves of steel, she collected important documents from the president’s office, and with the British vanguard in sight, she finally took the portrait of George Washington from the president’s walls and fled, her carriage just escaping the attack on her home.

The British intent was to destroy the city as completely as possible. One British soldier, George Gleig, happily described the scene in an 1826 history: “[We] proceeded, without  a moment’s delay, to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with government. In this general devastation were included the Senate House, the President’s palace [the White House], an extensive dockyard and arsenal… the blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs informed them, as they proceeded, of what was going forward. You can conceive nothing finer than the sight which met them as they drew near to the town. The sky was brilliantly illuminated by the different conflagrations, and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face.”

Washington was quickly vanquished, and British sights set on Baltimore. The attack was two-pronged: a land attack on North Point and a siege of Fort McHenry in the harbor. Major General Samuel Smith stopped the British at North Point, in an unexpected and certainly unusual American victory. All now waited to see how the siege would go at the important fort. Major George Armistead was in charge of U.S. defenses there. Bombardment of the fort by British ships began on September 13th. Nearly 2,000 cannonballs were launched at the fort over 24 hours, but damage was light.

The British commander decided to land troops west of Fort McHenry, hoping to lure the U.S. army away from North Point, but Armistead discovered them and opened fire, scattering the landing party of British soldiers. Early on the morning of September 14, the giant American flag that local seamstress Mary Pickersgill and her daughter had made was raised over the fort, to replace the one torn apart the night before. Seeing that the fort still stood in American hands, British land forces withdrew and returned to the ships. British General Cochrane then withdrew the fleet to prepare for the attack on New Orleans.

Francis Scott Key was an American lawyer who had gone on a mercy mission to the British to gain the release of an American doctor who had been captured but had previously tended British soldiers. Key was on a truce ship in Baltimore Harbor during the bombardment. When morning dawned on the 14th, and Key saw his country’s flag still flying over Fort McHenry, he wrote the words of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on the back of a letter in a paroxsym of joy. It became the U.S. national anthem in 1931.

Now to the Battle of New Orleans. The goal of the British was not just to capture the port city, but to do so and then lay claim to all of the territory included in the Louisiana Purchase.

Cochrane’s fleet arrived from the failed attack on Baltimore on December 12, 1814. They anchored in the Gulf of Mexico and planned their attack to capture Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne surrounding New Orleans. Once again, the U.S. had only gunboats to defend its territory. Lake Borgne was captured by the British on December 14.

On December 23, the British reached the Mississippi River, only six miles south of New Orleans; rather than attack immediately, their commander waited for reinforcements and was surprised by U.S. soldiers under Andrew Jackson. After a brief but devastating attack, the Americans pulled back to a canal four miles from New Orleans and fortified it. The British made small attacks on the earthworks on December 28, but the first heavy attack came on January 1, 1815. The earthworks were partially destroyed, and the British ran out of ammunition. British Major-General Pakenham decided to wait for reinforcements before launching another attack.

It came on January 8. The British advanced early that morning in a heavy fog, but that fog lifted as they came upon the earthworks and the Americans began to fire. Lt. Col. Thomas Mullins, leading a British regiment, had forgotten to bring the ladders his men would need to scale the defenses, and as the British stalled in front of the earthworks they were mowed down by American fire. As different groups of British soldiers crossed the battlefield, one managed to briefly overtake a section of the earthworks but could not hold it without reinforcements. The Americans, however, received reinforcements from the 7th Infantry, and before the battle was over most of the British officers  leading the charge were dead.

The victory was significant, but the battle for the city was not over. On January 9, the British began a 10-day bombardment of Fort St. Philip. The fort held, and the British withdrew to Biloxi, Mississippi. They were preparing to attack the port city of Mobile when word came that the war had in fact ended before the Battle of New Orleans had even begun. Jackson was a hero, and Americans rejoiced.

Next time: after the war

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