Category Archives: The War of 1812

The burning of Washington DC by Admiral George Cockburn in 1814

The Scourge of Washington D.C.

[Since there is renewed interest in the War of 1812, I thought I would post this old article to recognize the 200th Anniversary of that war. A revised edition of this article appeared in the September-October 1992 issue of American History.]

Admiral Lord George Cockburn, the Scourge of Washington D.C.

© 2013 Gary Glynn

The ornately uniformed British Admiral leaned back in the President’s chair. In one hand he held a lit cigar, in the other a decanter of James Madison’s liquor. Admiral George Cockburn, feared and hated by the American colonists, was enjoying the fruits of victory while his soldiers rummaged through Dolley Madison’s closets. After sampling the President’s victuals and drinking a toast to “Jemmy’s” health, as he derisively called Madison, Cockburn chose one of “Jemmy’s” old hats and one of Dolley Madison’s embroidered chair cushions for souvenirs. His officers also chose souvenirs. One claimed a clean shirt from the President’s wardrobe, another found a sword to his liking. Soldiers and Marines pocketed the silver and plates off the table after consuming the food meant for President Madison and his Cabinet.

Major General Robert Ross, “was collecting in the drawing-room all the furniture to be found, and was preparing to set fire to it.” When preparations for the fire were complete, Cockburn gave the order to his sailors. “each man was station’d at a window, with his pole and machine of wild-fire against it, at the word of command, at the same instant the windows were broken & this wild-fire thrown in, so that an instantaneous conflagration took place & the whole building was wrapt in flames and smoke.” The night of the 24th of August, 1814 was overcast and stormy, the darkness accentuated by the red flames coming from the magnificent White House, the unfinished Capitol Building, and the Navy Yard. British subaltern George Gleig described the inferno as Washington D.C. burned, “The blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs… It would be difficult to conceive a finer spectacle than that which presented itself… The sky was brilliantly illumined 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…”

Miles away, as his house and city burned, President Madison fled through the night, on roads clogged with thousands of his demoralized and defeated militiamen. Through the darkness, he could plainly see the burning White House and Capitol building. Attorney General Richard Rush, who was with the President, recalled afterward, “the vivid impression upon my eye of columns of flame and smoke, ascending throughout the night of the 24th of August from the Capitol, President’s House, and other public edifices, as the whole were on fire, some burning slowly, others with burst of flame and sparks mounting high up in the dark horizon… If at intervals the dismal sight was lost to our view, we got it again from some hill-top or eminence where we paused to look at it.” Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced Coburn), the man responsible for the President’s humiliation, was just ten years old when he joined the Royal Navy in 1882. Helped by influential family friends and relatives, he rose quickly through the ranks and was given command of the brig #Speedy# at the age of twenty. Cockburn was eventually promoted Captain of the #Minerva#, Commodore Horatio Nelson’s flagship during 1797, and he saw much action during the Napoleonic wars. An aggressive and tenacious fighter, Cockburn amassed a fortune in prize money from the many French and Spanish ships he captured. He was a Rear Admiral of the Blue commanding a British squadron off the coast of Spain when word came in 1812 that American President James Madison had declared war on Britain. Madison, angered by the Royal Navy’s impressment of American sailors and interference in American commerce, could not have suspected that his declaration of war would bring an uninvited and unwelcome guest, Admiral George Cockburn, to his dinner table. Few Americans living along the Virginia and Maryland coasts had ever heard of Admiral George Cockburn when his ships appeared in the Chesapeake Bay in February of 1813, but it didn’t take him long before his name inspired fear and hatred throughout the central United States. Ordered to capture shipping and harass American coastal towns, Admiral Cockburn arrived in the Chesapeake with two frigates and half a dozen smaller ships carrying four hundred Royal Marines. In April of 1813 the Admiral raided Lynnhaven Bay, Virginia and captured five small boats. He moved on to Frenchtown, Maryland and destroyed stores of food and military supplies. He then sailed up the Susquehanna River and on May 2 he spotted an artillery battery flying an American flag near the small town of Havre de Grace, Maryland. “…To cause the proprietors to understand and feel what they were liable to bring upon themselves by building batteries and acting towards us with so much useless rancor,” Cockburn personally led a raid on the town and burned 40 of the 60 houses. Riding around in a “borrowed” coach, the Admiral supervised while his men destroyed a cannon foundry several miles from town. Encouraged by the lack of any organized American resistance to his raids, he sailed up the Sassafras River, where several of his sailors were wounded by Americans. In retaliation, Cockburn burned Georgetown and Frederickstown, Maryland. As there was “now neither public property, vessels, nor warlike stores remaining in the neighborhood,” Cockburn sailed back down to the mouth of the Chesapeake and rejoined the main fleet, leaving behind the perpetual enmity of the citizens of the region. Throughout the summer of 1813, the cocky British Admiral continued his raids on the small towns of the Chesapeake. In July he anchored off Ocracoke bar, captured two American privateers, and occupied the towns of Beaufort and Portsmouth, Virginia for several hours. He developed his raiding into a system. As soon as his Marines landed in a town, buglers were sent out in different directions. Any bugler who ran into resistance from the townspeople would blow a blast on his horn, and a squad of Royal Marines would come at the run. As long as the residents of a town offered no resistance, the Admiral was good natured, and often paid (with British money) for the goods he seized. However, one shot from a lurking American patriot was cause enough for Cockburn to loot and then burn an entire town. Enough villages in Maryland and Virginia resisted him to keep his ships filled with hogsheads of valuable Virginia tobacco and confiscated food and military supplies. His sailors quickly became efficient arsonists, and word got around that it was best not to resist when Admiral Cockburn came calling. In order to save their homes, some Americans began providing information and selling food to Cockburn. By the time winter weather put an end to his raids, the Admiral was confident of his ability to land anywhere in the Chesapeake with impunity, and he now knew the backwaters and rivers of the bay better than most Americans. The lack of any serious resistance to his raids prompted Cockburn to ponder more ambitious plans. His thoughts began to turn towards the nearby Yankee Capitol at Washington D.C. By this summer of 1813, Admiral Cockburn was well known to Americans, most of whom considered him a scoundrel of the worst sort. Newspaper editors compared him unfavorably with the devil, and noted that his name rhymed with “Go Burn”. In print, his name was usually preceded by “ruffian”, “bully”, “vandal”, “Great bandit”, or an “outlaw of Christian charity”. The editor of a typical paper wrote, “the pompous details of Admiral Cockburn, might well make us laugh, if his savage outrages could inspire anything else than horror. The infamous wretch claims brilliant achievement, in actions that would have been disdained by a one gun privateer.” Actually, the ambitious and energetic Admiral Cockburn was usually quite jovial towards the Americans he met, provided they offered no resistance to his Marines. His sailors respected the Admiral’s fighting qualities, and one of them wrote that Cockburn was “an officer who never spared himself either day or night, but shared the same toil, danger, and privation of the foremost man under his command”. On April 1, 1814, British Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Cockburn’s immediate superior, arrived in Bermuda and took charge of naval operations in the Chesapeake. Admiral Cochrane brought word of Cockburn’s promotion from Vice-Admiral of the Blue to Vice-Admiral of the White. To celebrate the promotion, the British warships in the Bay fired a cannon salute in Cockburn’s honor, which prompted Baltimore editor Hezekial Niles to write, “The ruffian will be anxious to deserve this distinction, by some act of great atrocity and meanness, or we much mistake his character.” Cockburn, by this time convinced he could successfully attack anywhere he chose, was indeed planning a “great atrocity and meanness.” He had his sights set firmly on the undefended Capitol at Washington, and wrote Admiral Cochrane, “It is impossible for any country to be in a more unfit state for war than this now is.” Unlike Cockburn, Admiral Cochrane thoroughly detested Americans, and intended to give them “a complete drubbing…” Cochrane turned to his second in command for advice, and Cockburn recommended a landing at Benedict, where he reasoned, “Within forty-eight hours after the arrival in the Patuxent … the City of Washington might be possessed without difficulty or opposition of any kind.” Cochrane was more cautious about marching on Washington however, and first ordered Cockburn to locate and destroy a small flotilla of American warships under Commodore Joshua Barney, as well as “To destroy and lay waste such towns and districts upon the coast as may be found assailable.” Commodore Barney was a tough, experienced, and aggressive sea-captain who feared neither the British or his own superiors in Washington. A former privateer in the Revolution, Commodore Barney commanded thirteen vessels, ten of them large galleys or rafts. Knowing that he could not outfight the vastly more powerful British warships, Commodore Barney’s ships sailed up the Patuxent River in April, hoping that Cockburn’s ships could not follow him in the shallow water. Several of the British ships made their way slowly upriver, effectively bottling up Commodore Barney’s small fleet in the Patuxent. Admiral Cockburn was waiting for 3,400 British Army veterans under Major-General Robert Ross who were on their way from Spain to join him. To pass the time, Cockburn and his marines spent the month of July capturing ships, occupying towns, and plundering tobacco warehouses. The first of the fifty-one ships carrying the British reinforcements arrived on the morning of August 16, 1814. “The ultimate destination of the combined force was Washington, should it be found that the attempt might be made with any prospect of success,” but first Commodore Barney needed to be dealt with. On August 19 Admiral Cockburn, General Ross, a battalion of marines and four regiments of infantry, some four thousand men in all, landed on the western bank of the Patuxent at Benedict, forty miles southeast of Washington. The British, dressed in wool uniforms and carrying heavy packs, were out of shape from their long sea voyage and suffered horribly in the hot muggy August weather. Each soldier carried three days rations, 3 pounds of pork, and seven and a half pounds of bread per man. A small group of sailors dragged three guns, and others carried large Congreve rockets. They marched due north, putting themselves in a position to threaten Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Commodore Barney’s flotilla all at once. The only Americans in the area were a few scouts led by Secretary of State James Monroe, a former cavalry colonel who was destined to succeed Madison in the Presidency. Although they tracked the red-coated column through the tangled river bottom, the Americans made no effort to impede Admiral Cockburn’s march. While the British marched, the bureaucrats in Washington frantically called for troops. General Levin Winder, a Baltimore lawyer with no military experience, was nominally in charge of the defense of Washington, but he had no staff, no surgeons, no transport, and no supplies of any kind. He also had no soldiers. Incredibly, President Madison and his military advisers were relying on the citizen militia of the area to defend the nation’s capitol. Just calling out the militia was a time consuming and frustrating process, but eventually the citizens of Washington were joined by the 5th Maryland Militia and two additional regiments under General Tobias Stansbury. Seven hundred unarmed militiamen from Virginia also headed for Washington. The only regular military men near enough to help were Commodore Barney’s five hundred seamen, whose ships were now trapped in the upper Patuxent. On the 21st of August, the British reached Nottingham, hoping to find the U.S. flotilla there, but the wily Commodore Barney had managed to get his ships further upstream in the increasingly shallow river. In pursuit, Cockburn ordered his small boats into the water while General Ross’s column marched to cut off Barney by land. At Pig Point Barney knew he could go no further upriver, and he reluctantly abandoned his small fleet. With Admiral Cockburn urging his oarsmen on, the British sailors finally caught up with Barney’s flotilla around noon on the 22nd of August. As soon as the British boats came within sight, the few remaining American sailors lit fuses leading to the shipboard ammunition lockers, then abandoned ship. The sound of exploding ships and munitions was heard miles away. A daring British sailor saved one ship by climbing aboard and stamping out the burning fuse before it reached the powder kegs, but the rest of Barney’s flotilla was completely destroyed. From his Admiral’s launch, Cockburn stared with satisfaction at the ruins of the American fleet. He had accomplished Admiral Cochrane’s condition; now he was free to march to Washington, conveniently only twenty miles away. There was only one obstacle in his path, General Ross was reluctant to push on to Washington. The two men argued heatedly before Ross gave in and ordered his soldiers onto the road leading to Washington. Meanwhile, only a few miles from the British camp, General Winder had by this time assembled thirty-five hundred militiamen at Long Old Fields. Nervous American sentries had kept the entire American camp awake all night by shooting at shadows in the woods, and as the British column began to approach Long Old Fields, Winder ordered his weary citizen soldiers to withdraw towards Washington. When the soldiers streamed back to the Capitol, they found the city in an uproar, on the verge of panic. At the Navy Yard, sailors prepared their ships for destruction. Citizens hurriedly packed their belongings, while government officials frantically tried to safeguard the vital documents and records of the fledgling democracy. The State Department records were hidden in an abandoned grist mill, while a creaking oxcart carried the Congressional Records to safety in nearby Georgetown. The British camped that night at Wood Yard, fifteen miles from Washington but close enough for Admiral Cockburn to smell success. Nothing could stop him now, not the American militia which had as yet not fired a shot in anger, or the message from Admiral Cochrane which arrived in the middle of the night. Cochrane, who was with the British fleet in the Patuxent, had gotten cold feet and ordered Cockburn not to attack the Yankee Capitol. That was good news for General Ross, still eager to get back to the fleet, but Cockburn had been planning this assault for more than a year. He again argued vehemently against withdrawing. “We are too far advanced to retreat,” he told Ross, “…the militia, however great their numbers, will not, cannot stand against your disciplined troops…there is no choice now left us. We must go on.” Ross reluctantly gave in to Cockburn’s forceful personality, and in the early morning hours of the 24th of August, 1814, his red-coated soldiers set out on the road to Washington D.C. American Secretary of State James Monroe, who had been acting as chief scout for the past week, brought word that the Redcoats were marching on Bladensburg Maryland, a small village just a few miles northwest of Washington. General Winder knew he had run out of options as he watched the citizens of Washington and the militia from Baltimore as they marched out to do battle with four thousand seasoned regulars. Commodore Barney and his five hundred experienced seamen had just arrived, but they were ordered to stay in Washington to guard the valuable supplies and equipment at the Naval Yard, and to blow it all up if the British approached. The crusty old Commodore was not one to be left out of a fight, however, and he personally appealed to the President, saying that he was being “kept with five hundred of the precious few fighting men around to do what any damned corporal can better do with five.” The fuming Commodore eventually won his argument, and his seamen and Marines joined the tail-end of the American column winding its way to Bladensburg. The President and his Cabinet were also preparing to go to war. Accompanied by Secretary of War Armstrong, James Madison strapped on two dueling pistols and set out to join General Winders Army. At Bladensburg, where the British obviously intended to cross the Eastern Branch of the Potomac, the inexperienced citizen soldiers formed a battle line. Soon they could see dust clouds rising, and then the red uniforms of the approaching British column. British subaltern George Gleig saw the militiamen blocking the road across the river. They “… seemed country people, who would have been much more appropriately employed in attending to their agricultural occupations than in standing with muskets in their hands on the brow of a bare green hill.” As Admiral Cockburn and General Ross watched from a nearby hill, a column of British soldiers moved forward to the bridge. Commodore Barney’s men, just arrived in the center of the American line, mowed down the front of the British column with a cannon volley. Cockburn spurred his white horse forward and directed his sailors as they set up their Congreve rockets. Although relatively harmless, the rockets, spewing sparks and sulfurous smokes, shrieked over the heads of the untrained militiamen and terrified the whole left of the American line. Sitting on his white horse, with his Admiral’s lace hat on his head, Cockburn made a fine target for the American riflemen. Suddenly a bullet tore one of the stirrups from his saddle. A Marine stepped up to make repairs and was shot dead just inches from the Admiral. One of Cockburn’s officers suggested that Cockburn find a safer place to view the battle. “Nonsense,” [p99] the Admiral roared back, with a satisfied smile on his face. The center of the British line was taking a pounding from Commodore Barney’s guns, but General Ross’s regulars spread out and began to flank the Americans on both sides. General Winder, uncomfortably aware of the presence of the President and his cabinet, watched the British troops moving on both of his flanks. His left was already fading away because of the rocket fire. His right was about to be enveloped by the British. Seeing, no alternative, Winder ordered a retreat which quickly turned into a rout. Accompanied by President Madison and his cabinet, thousands of Americans fled the battlefield for the temporary safety of Washington. In the center of the line, Barney’s sailors and marines kept fighting as British soldiers moved in on them from three sides. Two of his officers had been killed and two wounded when Commodore Barney was also struck by a bullet. His men were nearly out of ammunition and Barney knew further resistance was futile. He ordered them to leave him behind and flee. A few minutes later, Admiral Cockburn and General Ross rode up to where the wounded Commodore was lying. “Well Admiral, you have got hold of me at last,” Barney said to Cockburn. Magnanimous in victory, Cockburn expressed his regrets about Barney’s wound, and detailed one of his officers to personally look after the Commodore. Only ten or twelve Americans were killed at Bladensburg, compared with sixty-four dead British soldiers, but the defeat of the American militia was complete, just as Cockburn had predicted. While British surgeons tended the forty American wounded and one hundred and eighty-five British wounded, thousands of demoralized Americans streaked towards the relative safety of Washington, Baltimore, and Georgetown. As the soldiers fled through Washington, the residents of the nation’s Capitol felt their panic, and those who hadn’t already left began hurriedly evacuating the city. In the White House, first lady Dolley Madison nervously penned a note to her sister Lucy. “Three o’clock…I am still here within sound of the cannon. Mr. Madison comes not; may God protect him. Two messengers covered with dust come to bid me fly: but I wait for him… At this late hour a wagon has been procured: I have had it filled with the plate and most valuable portable articles belonging to the house…”[Brant The First Lady refused to leave until a portrait of George Washington was taken down, then she abandoned the White House. The President and his cabinet rode up soon afterward, and a mob of militiamen soon joined them at the White House. The undisciplined militiamen wandered through the White House, eating and drinking whatever they could find, before joining the throngs of people fleeing the city. So complete was the panic that Washington was nearly deserted when Cockburn, Ross and two hundred men entered Washington at eight p.m. The British marched through the silent streets to the unfinished Capitol Building, where the soldiers fired a volley at the building, and then broke down the doors. As he entered the still unfinished Capitol building, Admiral Cockburn climbed on the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives, and in front of his troops yelled, “Shall this harbor of Yankee Democracy be burned? All for it will say, Aye”. As the “Ayes” resounded around the room, the building was looted. The Admiral watched with satisfaction while his men chopped up furniture, piled books from the fledgling Library of Congress on top of the wreckage, then used rocket powder to fuel the fires. Across town at the Navy Yard, a few remaining American sailors saw the flames and began setting fire to the facilities and munitions stored there. With the U.S. Capitol building well ablaze, the Admiral turned his sights towards the White House, his ultimate goal. At nine p.m. Cockburn led the way down Pennsylvania Avenue on his white horse. “50 men, sailors & marines, were marched by an officer, silently thro’ the avenue, each carrying a long pole to which was fixed a ball about the circumference of a large plate.” Suddenly out of the darkness came a volley of rifle fire. Four soldiers and General Ross’s horse fell dead, which did nothing to allay Ross’s uneasiness about the whole venture. “Genl. R. thought that his life was particularly aimed at, for while his troops remained in the city he never made his appearance, altho’ Cockburn & the other officers often rode through the avenue.”[432] The Admiral ordered four or five private homes burned because the unseen snipers had hid behind them. One house that succumbed to Cockburn’s torch belonged to former Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin. Upon arrival at the White House a few minutes later, Cockburn found the tables still loaded with the food and wine prepared for the President and his Cabinet earlier in the day. Enjoying himself thoroughly, Admiral Cockburn insisted on “sitting down and drinking Jemmy’s health” before putting it too to the torch. With his souvenirs in hand, Cockburn watched as fire consumed the White House, then ordered his arsonists on to the U.S. Treasury building. The British soldiers eagerly searched for money or gold, but were disappointed to find only old records. Admiral Cockburn added a Treasury report to his collection of souvenirs, and then used the numerous government records to ignite the building. The Capitol, the White House, the Navy Yard, and the Treasury building were all burning fiercely when Admiral Cockburn remembered the bad press he had received from American newspapers. He forced several bystanders to show him the way to the offices of the National Intelligencer, a leading newspaper. When he announced his plan to burn the building, two women with houses on the same block stepped forward and appealed to the Admiral. “Mrs. Brush, Mrs. Stelle and a few citizens remonstrated with him, assuring him that it would occasion the loss of all buildings in the row.”Well,’ said he, ‘good people I do not wish to injure you, but I am really afraid my friend Josey (Joseph Gales, editor of the paper) will be affronted with me, if after burning Jemmy’s palace, I do not pay him the same compliment,'” At the urging of the women, Cockburn finally agreed not to burn the building, and since it was late and his men needed rest, he decided to postpone destruction until the morning. He left a single British soldier to guard the building, virtually the only soldier left in the American Capitol that night. One British brigade camped on Capitol Hill, while the other two camped on the edge of the city. At 5:30 AM Cockburn was back in the saddle and riding down Pennsylvania Avenue with the British Light Brigade. A rainstorm during the night had kept the fires from spreading, but Subaltern Gleig wrote, “Of the Senate-House, the President’s Palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins…” Returning to the Gales and Seaton printing office, home of the National Intelligencer, Cockburn personally supervised as his men wrecked the building. He ordered the presses smashed and helped dumped the type in the streets, ordering his men, “Be sure that all the c’s are destroyed, so the rascals can’t abuse my name any more.” No doubt he was amused by the previous morning’s edition which had declared, “We feel assured that the number and bravery of our men will afford complete protection to the city.” Spare copies of the paper, the records and Gale’s reference library were carried out into the street and burned. Repeating “coarse jests and vulgar slang” as the bonfire burned, “Cockburn was quite a mountebank,” He asked a neighbor lady, “Now did you expect to see me such a clever fellow? Were you not prepared to see a savage, a ferocious creature… But you see I am quite harmless; don’t be afraid, I will take better care of you than Jemmy did.” Once the destruction at the National Intelligencer was complete, Cockburn concentrated on destroying military supplies and the remaining public buildings. The Patent Office was saved from destruction by the personal appeal of Dr. Thornton, the director, but other buildings were not so fortunate. Three factories which produced rope for the American Navy were burned. Although Cockburn had encouraged his officers to take souvenirs from the White House, he kept a tight rein on his men and ordered seven soldiers flogged for looting. The Admiral was horrified when a hysterical prostitute was brought in claiming she had been shot by a British soldier. Cockburn threatened to shoot the man responsible, but the culprit was never identified so the Admiral gave the woman several gold coins in compensation. At Greenleaf’s Point Arsenal the British captured and destroyed large amounts of military stores. Barrels of gunpowder were dumped down a deep well, but a premature explosion killed twelve soldiers and wounded fifty more. Forty four of the most seriously wounded were left behind when the British pulled out later that day. After noon on the 25th, a terrific thunderstorm ripped roofs off houses##, adding to the destruction of the city. Admiral Cockburn imposed a sunset to sunrise curfew on Washington, and after dark his men quietly slipped away from their blazing campfires. That night the soldiers marched past the unburied bodies of the casualties at Bladensburg, and here Cockburn again talked with the wounded Commodore Barney, who agreed to look after eighty-three British wounded. Several days later, without “a single musket having been fired,” on the withdrawal, Cockburn and his troops boarded their ships at Benedict. Two weeks after the triumphal capture of Washington, General Ross was mortally wounded by American militiamen at Fort McHenry, the battle immortalized in the #Star-Spangled Banner#. [Niles Register Oct. 27, 1814.] Admiral Cockburn however, continued his trademark raids until the end of the War of 1812, and each raid was followed by another barrage of invective from various newspaper editors. “With a fine field for genius and enterprize, he has yet distinguished himself for nothing but pitiful pilfering of the country people, and savage burnings of their houses and property. It would be a pity that a wretch so lost to honor and humanity should have the reputation of a brave man. He appears to be a ruffian or bully.” Cockburn made a successful attack on Cumberland Island off the south coast of Georgia on Jan. 12 1815, drawing a blast from the editor of the Savannah Republican, who called Cockburn, “a finished buccaneer, an accomplished vandal, an outlaw in the code of christian charity.” Rebuilding of the White House commenced just days after Cockburn rode out of town, and just three years after it’s destruction, the new President James Monroe, moved in. Although Admiral Cockburn was considered a devil by the Americans, he was a hero in his own country. Highly acclaimed as the victor of Bladensburg, Cockburn returned to England in 1815 and was immediately promoted to Commander in Chief of the Cape station, where his first assignment involved escorting Napoleon Bonaparte and his family and staff to exile on the island of St. Helena. After his return to England in 1816, Cockburn lived a long and very successful life, rising to Admiral of the Fleet and First Naval Lord of the Admiralty before his death in 1853. To the end, his audacious raid on Washington remained one of his proudest accomplishments.