#OnThisDay: British Invasion of Washington, DC

My blog post on June 22, 2020 (#OnThisDay: The Chesapeake – Leopard Affair off Virginia, 1807) was about a naval incident that was a cog in the wheel of events that resulted in the War of 1812. One of the most famous events of that three-year war between the United States and Great Britain was the British invasion of Washington, DC and the burning of the White House on August 24, 1814.

Left behind in Washington City

United States First Lady Dolley Madison showed what she was made of on that day. Her husband, President James Madison left Washington City to join General Winder. Before leaving, he asked Dolley if she would be all right there until his return. She assured him that all was well and she wasn’t afraid. He instructed her to take care of the public and private Cabinet papers, the Cabinet being the Secretary of State and other federal department heads.

That’s not how things played out, though, and Dolley became a bit of a hero on that August day 206 years ago. It turned out that the British troops were much closer to the capital city than the president had thought. When President Madison realized the imminent danger posed by the British troops, he wrote to Dolley twice in pencil that she should get out of Washington as soon as possible.

Dolley filled trunk after trunk with government papers, sacrificing the Madison family possessions in order to save important documents. People all around her were fleeing for their lives. As she wrote in a letter to her sister, Anna, “even Colonel C with his hundred, who were stationed as a guard in this enclosure” fled.

Photo by David Everett Strickler on unsplash.com

A faithful servant, French John, offered to “spike the cannon at the gate, and lay a train of powder, which would blow up the British should they enter the house.” Dolley declined to take him up on his offer of defending the White House.

The Battle of Bladensburg

At sunrise the next morning, Dolley looked through her spyglass in all directions, watching for her husband to appear. He didn’t come. In the early afternoon she could hear the cannons firing as the British defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg. By mid-afternoon she had procured another wagon and “filled it with plate and the most valuable portable articles belonging to the house.” That wagon was dispatched to the Bank of Maryland for safe keeping.

Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of George Washington

Dolley was urged to get in a carriage and leave immediately, but she still refused to leave the White House without Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington. It turned out that the frame was bolted to the wall, so it was not just a matter of taking it down. To save time, the canvas was cut out of the frame, rolled up, and saved by Dolley Madison. She went down in history for her heroics of August 24, 1814.

The Burning of Washington City

As the British troops entered the capital city, they torched one government office after another until finally reaching the White House. Some sources say the soldiers feasted on a meal prepared for 40 guests at the grand dining table before setting fire to the house; but that seems a little far-fetched since there was no one remaining there to prepare food and Dolley Madison had fled with the china.

It was surely a day and night of terror for any Washington residents who dared to stay behind. When the sun rose the next morning, the Capitol Building, the White House, and every other building of importance lay in smoking ruins.

Dolley Madison’s Background and Legacy

Growing up in North Carolina, I wasn’t taught much about the War of 1812 when I was in school. The battles all took place north of our state. It just wasn’t emphasized when I came along. If one of my social studies teachers had related the above story with energy and enthusiasm, it would have made the War of 1812 much more memorable and relatable than a recitation of battles and dates.

Dolley Madison is also remembered for making a conscious effort to invite guests from both political parties to social functions at the White House. The term “bipartisanism” had not yet been coined when she worked to do all she could to encourage cooperation between the political parties.

Dolley Payne Madison was born to Quaker parents in Guilford County, North Carolina in 1768. Her family moved to Philadelphia when she was 15 years old. She married John Todd, a Quaker lawyer, and they had two children; however, Mr. Todd and the younger of their sons died during a yellow fever outbreak in 1793.

At that time, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital. Dolley was an attractive young widow. Senator Aaron Burr introduced her to then Congressman James Madison. She married Madison after a brief courtship.

James Madison was an Episcopalian. Dolley converted to his faith and abandoned her Quaker upbringing and manner of dress. The Madisons lived at Montpelier, the family plantation in Virginia before moving to Washington, DC in order for James to be President Thomas Jefferson’s Secretary of State. It seems that Dolley happily fell right into the Washington social scene.

Since President Jefferson was not married, Dolley Madison served as the unofficial First Lady. It was she who got to make many decisions about the furnishings of the newly-constructed White House. James Madison was elected US President in 1808. Although much-revered as the “Father of the US Constitution,” he was 17 years Dolley’s senior and his terseness was in great contrast to the vivacious Dolley.

At the end of President Madison’s second term, he and Dolley returned to Montpelier. They lived there until his death in 1836. Dolley then moved back to the social life in Washington, DC, where she died in 1849.

Since my last blog post

Life has thrown a few curves at me since last Monday. It seems in the coming days I’ll learn how to care for a diabetic dog. My work on my scenic or step plot outline got hijacked, but I’ll get back to it.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. My mind has been pulled in more than a few directions, making it difficult for me to concentrate on reading. I still have a couple of books I want to finish, though, by the end of the month.

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have quality creative time.

Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask. It’s not a sacrifice in the big scheme of things.

Janet

#OnThisDay: The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair off Virginia leads to War of 1812

Although the War of 1812 didn’t officially start until the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, a number of incidents over a nine-year period led up to America’s second war against her Mother Country.  Those incidents centered around Great Britain’s maritime violations against United States ships and their crews.

Today is the 213th anniversary of a skirmish between the USS Chesapeake and the HMS Leopard off the coast of Norfolk, Virginia on June 22, 1807. (Sorry, if you were hoping for another kind of affair.)

The War of 1812 wasn’t emphasized much when I was taking history in school. Or perhaps I just didn’t retain the details. I couldn’t have told you what led to the United States going to war with Great Britain again so soon after the American Revolutionary War.

In case you’re like me in that respect, in today’s blog I’ll give you some insight. I promise, today’s blog post won’t be as long as my previous two #OnThisDay posts. No one needs or wants to know that much about the War of 1812.


How all this started

There was trouble on the high seas between the American and British navies as early as 1803. Things escalated and resulted in The Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in 1807.

Jenkin Ratford and four other crewmen on a British vessel patrolling off the coast of Virginia decided to steal a boat and desert their ship. They came ashore at Norfolk and bragged about what they’d done. Ratford joined the crew of the USS Chesapeake, a frigate of the US Navy. Great Britain was embarrassed.

The Chesapeake sailed out of Norfolk in June of 1807, heading for the Mediterranean Sea. The HMS Leopard intercepted it and was set to take revenge for what Ratford had done. When the commander of the Leopard requested to go aboard the Chesapeake to search for deserters, James Barron, the American commodore refused to muster his crew.

The response from the Leopard was swift and decisive. Three Americans were killed and 18 were wounded as the frigate attacked the Chesapeake with a barrage from its artillery. The crew of the Leopard seized the opportunity, boarded the crippled vessel, and captured Jenkin Ratford and other British Navy deserters.

Americans were humiliated by the incident and called for war. This was something that people agreed on, in spite of their political differences. US President Thomas Jefferson’s navy had already largely been dispatched to the Mediterranean in an effort to quell the activity of the Barbary pirates. Furthermore, budget cuts had reduced the fighting power of the US Army. He could ill afford to call for a war with Great Britain.

Jefferson decided to take revenge against Great Britain economically. The Embargo Act was passed by Congress a few months later and signed into law in December of 1807.


The Embargo Act of 1807

The Embargo Act of 1807 forbade all international trade in or out of all US ports. The objective was to get Great Britain and France (who were at war at the time) to stop harassing US ships and to recognize the autonomy of the United States as a nation.

One can imagine how unhappy the US port cities were. They depended upon the international trade for their survival. The embargo failed due to loopholes in the law. For instance, Great Britain continued to export goods to the US via Canada. Goods were smuggled in from Canada and whaling ships. Enforcement was a problem.

In the end, Americans suffered far more than the British or the French. Sailors lost their jobs, farmers couldn’t sell their crops, and merchants went bankrupt.


The end results

Tensions continued. The US declared war against the United Kingdom and Ireland and all its territories on June 18, 1812. By then, James Madison was the US president. The war continued until it officially ended with the Treaty of Ghent on February 17, 1815.


What happened to James Barron and Jenkin Ratford?

James Barron was court-martialed and found guilty of “neglecting on the probability of an engagement, to clear his ship for action.” He was suspended, without pay, from the US Navy for five years.

Jenkin Ratford was court-martialed for mutiny and desertion. His punishment came on August 31, 1807, when he was hanged from the fore yardarm of the HMS Halifax, a ship on which he had previously served.


Until my next blog post

I apologize for not including any photographs in today’s blog post. I usually get my blog photos from unsplash.com; however, I was unable to download any images from that website to use today. One of the cardinal rules of blogging is to always include images, so I’m embarrassed to send today’s post out into the blogosphere without illustration.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m blessed with more library books than I can possibly read before they’re due. I’m giving them my best effort, though. Too many books! What a wonderful dilemma to have!

If you’re a writer or other artist, I hope you have lots of creative time during this pandemic.

Be safe. Be well. Wear a mask in respect for other people.

Don’t be shy. Share my blog!

Janet

They’re All Uncertain Times

Events of the last week prompted me to write about uncertain times for today’s blog post. It soon occurred to me that all times are uncertain because we cannot see into the future.

We tend to think the time we’re living in is more unpredictable than any other time, but if you’ll stop and think about it, you might see that life is and always has been full of doubts, worries, and stress. The unknown can do that to you.

I think about the uncertain times my known ancestors lived through:

English-speaking Lowland Scots being taken into the Gaelic-speaking Kintyre Peninsula in the southwest of Scotland to be tenant farmers in the 1600s and being required to attend a church where only Gaelic was spoken;

Scottish immigrants crossing the Atlantic and settling in the Carolina backcountry/wilderness in the 1760s; and

Those Scottish immigrants facing the American Revolution and not knowing what the outcome would be.

On December 23, 1776, in “The Crisis,” Thomas Paine wrote the following:

“THESE are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.”

My ancestors lived through those times. The deaths of my Morrison great-great-great-great-grandparents during the American Revolutionary War left my great-great-great-grandfather orphaned at the age of nine. He and his siblings were cared for thereafter by his uncles and their wives, but it must have been more than frightening.

Then came the following trying times:

War of 1812;

American Civil War;

Reconstruction Era in The American South;

My maternal great-grandmother’s death in childbirth in 1881;

My paternal great-grandfather’s accidental death while felling a tree for lumber to build a kitchen in 1886;

Spanish-American War;

World War I;

The Great Depression;

My paternal grandmother and maternal grandfather both dying as young adults;

World War II;

Korean War; and

Illnesses and epidemics.

Living in the age of modern medicine and miracle drugs, it’s difficult for most of us to empathize with our ancestors who lived with the possibility of dying or watching their children die of typhoid fever, tetanus, flux, or polio.

When the Salk polio vaccine became available in the late 1950s, I did not fully appreciate what it meant to my parents. For me, as a child, I just remember our family going to the gymnasium lobby at Harrisburg High School on three Sunday afternoon after church to get an oral vaccine on a sugar cube.

The 1960s and years since have brought the following times of uncertainty:

Vietnam War;

Civil Rights Movement in the United States;

Numerous wars in the Middle East;

Rumors of more wars;

Terrorism; and

Incompetency and recklessness in The White House. (Don’t blame me; I didn’t vote for him!)

All of my ancestors down through my grandparents were farmers. I can’t imagine a life full of more uncertainties than one in which one’s livelihood is at the mercy of the weather.

I believe that God created the world with everything we need to not only survive but thrive. Human beings have brought on many uncertainties by not being good stewards of the world that God has entrusted to us – its animals and natural resources. Come to think of it, we have created most of the uncertainties ourselves – war, poor planning, poor agricultural practices, greed, and envy.

Earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, volcanoes, and wildfires happen, but even many floods and wildfires are caused by man’s carelessness.

I attended two funerals in less than 48 hours last week. One was expected after a long battle with cancer, but the other one was quite sudden. Life is full of uncertainties.

Reviewing some of the events and hardships my ancestors faced, and the things I’ve witnessed in my 64 years has helped me put recent events and concerns in perspective.

The sun comes up. The sun goes down. The world keeps spinning around and revolving around the sun. What an amazing world!

simon-hesthaven-216108 (2)
Photo by Simon Hesthaven on Unsplash

 

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann and Among the Living by Jonathan Rabb.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have lots of productive writing time.

Janet