War of 1812 in Alexandria
Throughout 2014, celebrate the bicentennial of the War of 1812 in Alexandria's historic setting, largely preserved to appear as it did 200 years ago, when the British stormed the waterfront in 1814. As the blaze of Washington, DC structures in flames blinded Virginians from across the Potomac River, Alexandria quietly allowed the British to gather what they needed, in an effort to preserve their town. It was this submission that would allow the city to remain so remarkably intact, and today, act as a window into colonial life.
For nearly a year, Alexandria's historical sites will band together to enrich visitors with the city's role in the War of 1812, featuring events like historical lectures, film screenings, concerts, museum exhibits, outdoor activities and walking and biking tours, as well as a proclamation by Mayor Euille challenging the British embassy to a playful rematch. These activities all lead up to the grand "Signature Event" on August 31, 2014, where Alexandria's waterfront will host food vendors and hours of festivities.
Learn more about Alexandria's involvement in the War of 1812 or visit the Office of Historic Alexandria's website for tickets to special events and more information.
Alexandria and the War of 1812
The United States declared war on its old enemy Great Britain on June 18, 1812. For years before, Britain had seized U.S. shipping and impressed U.S. sailors into service with the British navy. In addition, western states had been angered by the British in Canada for urging Indians to attack their communities and some believed Canada to be an easy conquest for American expansion. Thus, America declared war.
During the following two years, Alexandrians was hampered by the British navy's blockade of the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. Americans had been made uneasy by British raids on American farms and communities around the Bay, and by the British offer for slaves to join their ranks and fight for their freedom. Alexandria itself, however, had thus far been spared.
Although the British army that had just burned Washington had neglected Alexandria, Alexandrians realized they might not be as lucky, as the British navy sailed up the Potomac. The War of 1812 that thus far had been waged for over two years was finally reaching the shores of Alexandria.
Alexandrians awoke on August 29, 1814 to find the 128 guns of the British squadron "but a few hundred yards from the wharves, and the houses so situated that they might have been laid in ashes in a few minutes," as described by the city council.
Options were few. While Alexandria was part of the District of Columbia, the authorities had ordered the Alexandria militia to protect Washington, leaving Alexandria outside the Capital City's defenses. Two days before an explosion from the south shook the town, its last line of defense, Fort Washington, fell to the British. For the city council, there was no choice but to surrender.
Captain Gordon, commander of the British squadron, promised he would not destroy the town if citizens surrendered all naval stores, shipping and merchandise intended for export, while leaving the British unharmed. The city council agreed, and the British began removing ships from Alexandria's wharves, in addition to tobacco, cotton, flour, wine, sugar and other supplies from its warehouses.
The British spent six days in Alexandria before sailing back down the Potomac to rejoin the rest of the British forces. The return journey was much more difficult, however, as the cargo-laden ships kept running aground and American forces struck back from the heights along the river. While the Americans sank no ships, it was a reminder of their will to fight.
Alexandria's decision to surrender brought national scorn, but the town's leaders saved Alexandria from destruction, preserving much of the "Old Town" we see today. British time in Alexandria also gave Baltimoreans precious days to strengthen defenses, including critical preparations at Fort McHenry. It was this battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," which is now America's national anthem.