Washington, D.C. was burning, the 63-year-old President James Madison fled for Northern Virginia, the British navy was capable of striking Baltimore or Annapolis. It’s safe to say that the War of 1812 was an anxious time for American civilians.
“It must have been extremely stressful, not knowing where the next threat was going to come from,” said Rod Sauter, a park ranger at C&O Canal National Historical Park.
When it was said and done, the War of 1812 gave America a new sense of patriotism, not to mention its National Anthem. But it’s a good deal harder to find a War of 1812 expert than, say, a Civil War buff. For those who would like to learn more about this crucial part of America’s story, the National Park Service and Fort McHenry Guard will present ranger talks and living history demonstrations by Great Falls Tavern on Saturday, Aug. 28.
“It was very chaotic then. … The nation was still very politically divided over the war,” said Sauter. “This is still a young nation, not very far removed from … the Sons of Liberty. Their fathers and grandfathers had fought in the War for Independence.”
British ground troops advanced almost unresisted to Washington, D.C. after defeating American troops at the Battle of Bladensburg. Madison and his cabinet fled the city on Aug. 24, 1814. One day later, British troops torched the presidential mansion and the buildings housing the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
“The preparation for the defense of Washington was pretty atrocious, to put it bluntly,” Sauter said.
Montgomery County featured prominently in Madison’s flight, and was even the nation’s capital for one day. From the Virginia side of the Potomac, Madison crossed into Maryland at Conrad’s Ferry, just above Great Falls in an attempt to join American troops at Montgomery Courthouse, which still stands in present-day Rockville.
Madison and his staff reconvened in Brookeville, just above Olney on Georgia Avenue, where they conducted the business of the nation’s government.
Just four months after the chaos in Washington, D.C, the Treaty of Ghent ended the war, although the Battle of New Orleans followed two weeks after the treaty was signed. The battle was a triumph for America, in particular for Gen. Andrew Jackson, who commanded the U.S. troops.
“What started out being a great division did ultimately lead to greater national unity and sense of identity,” Sauter said.