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The Other British Invasion

War of 1812 reenactment to interpret 1814 British occupation of Alexandria, D.C.

As British warships sailed up the Potomac River, Alexandria residents began to worry about what might happen when the mightiest naval power in Europe descended upon its former colonial port. The District of Columbia — such as it was only 14 years after its creation — was ill prepared to defend itself and eager for the latest dispatches of intelligence. Many readers turned to the forbear of this newspaper, which was then known as the "Alexandria Gazette, Commercial and Political."

The paper had consistently opposed the war and the Jeffersonian Democrats. At the outset of the war, Gazette editor Samuel Snowden was asking questions about what might happen if President James Madison’s planned invasion of Canada failed.

"What pledge have we that a naval force will not be sent to lay our rich maritime cities under enormous contributions or raze them to the ground?" Snowden asked in 1812.

By all accounts President James Madison’s invasion of Canada had been a disaster, and Snowden’s question seems prophetic in retrospect. War hawks in Congress assumed that Canadians would welcome the Americans with open arms and create an insurgency against the British. So once American Gen. William Hull reached Canadian soil on July 12, 1812 he issued a proclamation ordering all British troops to surrender or the "horrors and calamities of war will stalk before you." Yet the bellicose proclamation served only to stiffen resistance to the American cause, and the British military crushed the Americans and launched their own invasion of Washington.

Meanwhile the Canadian misadventure depleted the federal treasury and left the District of Columbia exposed to attack. A call to arms in the defense of Washington removed all able-bodied men from Alexandria and the city’s citizens sent the Common Council a petition requesting that five cannons be mounted along the waterfront. The Aug. 18, 1814 issue of the Gazette carried a shocking article headlined "Defense of District" in which Snowden exposed how the federal government had failed to prepare for a proper defense of the District, which then included a part of Old Town known as Alexandria, D.C.

"They have drained the public coffers of the last cent in vain and ridiculous adventures against Canada," wrote Gazette editor Samuel Snowden. He reported that the republic was "already reduced to the extreme necessity of borrowing money from the pockets of individuals to enable them to defend the Capitol of their county from invasion."

THE OCCUATION OF Alexandria by British troops in 1814 is not the kind of thing that the city’s marketing department includes in brochures. In many ways, it’s one of the darkest and most unknown aspect of the city’s history — a diamond in the rough for the Carlyle House, which plays an interesting role in the occupation. William Herbert was living there in 1814. As president of the Bank of Alexandria — later Burke and Herbert Bank — Herbert was one of the city’s leading citizens and a member of the committee that boarded the British ship and negotiated the surrender.

"This is part of our interpretation of the Carlyle House," said Mary Ruth Coleman, administrator of the Fairfax Street museum. "A lot of people don’t know about this chapter in Alexandria’s history because it’s not very flattering, really. The whole surrender thing just doesn’t sound that great."

Unlike the rest of Virginia, which was squarely in support of Jefferson’s Democratic Republicans, Alexandria was a Federalist town and the Gazette was a Federalist paper. The city’s business class had a lingering bitterness for a political caucus that imposed an embargo against England, which cut into the profits of the seaport’s captains of industry. Nearly $100,000 worth of foodstuffs and grain was lost when the British entered the port and began pilfering.

"Besides the financial and monetary losses, Alexandrians were humiliated nationally because they had surrendered the town without a shot," said City Historian Michael Miller. "The invasion was a major contributing factor that led to the demise of the seaport of Alexandria."

AFTER THE SMOKE cleared — literally with the Capitol and White House burned by the British — Snowden was eager to set the record straight about what had happened. In a stinging rebuke of other contemporaneous newspaper coverage of Alexandria’s surrender, Snowden sought to dispel the "falsehoods" he said were "in circulation respecting the late occurrences at this town." Taking issue with what had been reported in a newspaper known as the "Examiner," Snowden said that the Union Jack was never hoisted above the city and that the townsfolk had no choice but to surrender.

"We can assure the public that the British flag was not hoisted at all by any of (Alexandria’s) inhabitants or the British except on board their vessels," Snowden wrote. "The citizens of Alexandria never did desire or contemplate a surrender of their town" but were forced to because the federal government left them defenseless.

He also took issue with a newspaper referred to as the "Patriot." Although Snowden does not repeat details of the Patriot’s coverage of the occupation, he wants readers to know that no vessels were sunk, no aid was afforded to the enemy, no insult was offered to the people of the town and only small amounts of tobacco and cotton were taken from the city’s warehouses. Furthermore, he said, the implication that the city’s residents acted in a way that was cowardly or traitorously were incorrect.

"Matchless impudence," exclaimed the Gazette’s editor. "Unparalleled upon the character of a virtuous and high-minded people."

Jim Barlkinski, curator of the Carlyle House, said that the War of 1812 is a little-known but important part of American history — one that created the Star-Spangled Banner, a growing sense of American nationalism and sayings such as "don’t give up the ship" and "free trade and sailor’s rights."

"I really believe they did the right thing during the surrender because the town would have been destroyed," said Bartlinski. "We would probably not have a lot of our historical buildings today if they had been destroyed by the British."