It was indeed a day and night of horrors, this fleet… lay directly before our house - Mary DeButts, letter to her sister, March , 1812, Interpretive Marker at Oxon Hill Park, Maryland
Alexandria, Virginia can be mighty proud of the scores of commemorative and interpretive markers the City and its organizations have erected in Old Town and Parker Gray. It is, however, a bit of mystery of why the “War of 1812” is not so immortalized. On the other hand, the omission is understandable. Ill-equipped to fight British Navy Captain James Gordon and his seven gun boats in late August 1814, their complete surrender was not the city’s finest hour.
Given this, I was worried the City would also not put on any commemorative events. All such concerns were swept aside today, when the Carlyle House sponsored a program titled, “A Town Occupied, Alexandria and the War of 1812.”
The Carlyle House, completed in 1753, was the appropriate main venue. John Carlyle’s grandson, Captain John Carlyle Herbert, took part in the Battle of Bladensburg (August 24, 1814). In the front foyer, an exhibit of artifacts owned by Todd Brighton gave visitors a feel for the period.
While that took place, three different lectures, including one by Brighton, were given at the former home of the Bank of Alexandria. I was very pleased with this choice. Just steps away, this handsome Federal-style building, completed in 1807, is one of the oldest surviving commercial structures in Alexandria. Occupied by a business firm, I had always wanted to see inside.
As I made note in some previous posts about other War of 1812 events, the timing of this commemoration will confuse some. 200 years ago, the war was just starting. Alexandria’s surrender, and all the main Maryland battles, came in 1814. But that’s ok. I’m glad we didn’t have to wait two years for the perfect match.
I took in the presentation of Patrick O’Neill, a professional historian and archaeologist who is writing a book on the subject he discussed, “The Battle of the White House.” No, not that White House, or “President’s House,” as it was known in those years. We’re talking a small house painted white that was located on the western Potomac shore on land now owned by Fort Belvoir. Because this fight occurred between the Burning of Washington and the Battle of Fort McHenry, it gets little or no attention. O’Neill showed why the four day battle was important, and gave an excellent account of its unfolding.
Historians have called this move a feign, but O'Neill will have more to say about that in his book, as well as other elements. For one thing, it was one of the longest engagements of the three-year long confict. The British sailors earned medals for the campaign, which was hailed as a stirring victory in the mother country.
After terrorizing Alexandria, Gordon’s “Potomac Squadron,” sailed down the river to join up with the main assault on Baltimore. Waiting below Mount Vernon were Commodore John Rodgers, Captain David Porter, 500 seamen and 2,500 Virginia and DC militia. They fought valiantly and some were mortally wounded, but ultimately, Gordon and his fleet escaped.
I missed the final two presentations, but I did talk with Brighton who pulled double duty as a Virginia militia soldier. His smoothbore musket fired off several loud booms. The Alexandria native also supplied two table’s worth of artifacts.
One of them was a copy of an editorial cartoon, “Johnny Bull and the Alexandrians,” that ridiculed Alexandria’s surrender. But that’s ok too. As a certain famous English playwright once said, “All’s well than ends well.” This colonial seaport lost ships, supplies and pride, but its 18th and 19th Century homes survived and stand today as monuments and reminders of the area’s rich past.