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Revisiting Alexandria's Week Of Shame

The war that gave us "Uncle Sam" and "The Star Spangled Banner."

This Saturday, Aug. 23, Alexandria will revisit its darkest hour —Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, 1814. While Washington, The Federal City, burned and Dolly Madison risked her life to save America's early national treasures, Alexandria surrendered to the British without a single shot.

An historic re-enactment of the British occupation of Alexandria and the circumstances leading up to that event during the War of 1812 will be presented at Carlyle House Historic Park, 121 N. Fairfax St., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. It will include a series of lectures on various aspects of the war to be given each hour from 11 a.m. until 4 p.m. in the lobby of the historic Bank of Alexandria at the corner of North Fairfax and Cameron streets, immediately adjacent to Carlyle House.

Entitled, "War of 1812 - "Johnny Bull" Revisits Alexandria," the re-enactment will explore the events of those fateful five days and the rationale of City leaders to negotiate surrender. The consequences of those negotiations were noted by James Bartlinski, curator, Carlyle House, in his October 2007 article, "How a Royal Navy Midshipman's Neckerchief Saved Alexandria."

The concluding paragraph of his treatise sets the scene for the re-enactment — "Soon after the British left Alexandria, its inhabitants were branded as cowards and traitors by the Democratic-Republican propaganda machine. Disgraced, the people of Alexandria slowly allowed this humiliating event fade into the murky waters of history."

Triggered by American expansionism toward Canada and Britain's meddling in the new nation's desire to expand its international trade, the U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain on June 18,1812— less than three decades after the signing of The Treaty of Paris, officially ending the Revolutionary War. At the time Britain was militarily involved with Napoleon and in no hurry to fight two wars separated by the Atlantic Ocean.

HOWEVER, ALL THAT CHANGED in April 1814 with Napoleon's defeat. In August of that summer, with a victorious, battlehardened Army, the United Kingdom turned it attention to the American declaration.

Although we had naval successes on the Great Lakes and the Atlantic, American ground forces were no match for the Redcoats this time. Meeting the advancing British at Bladensburg, Md., the disorganized and poorly commanded American army, with twice the number of troops as the Brits, were defeated and scattered giving the British a straight shot at the national capital.

While Washington and the White House burned, Captain James Alexandria Gordon, British Royal Navy, brought his 36 gun flagship, "Seahorse," and six other battle and cargo vessels up the Potomac River to Alexandria's front door. There they moored to accept the bounty of the surrender negotiations aimed at preserving the City, if not its honor.

There also commences the story of "A Town Occupied – Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, 1814" and the subsequent embarrassment of Alexandria and her citizens. But, what role did that play in the British inability to subsequently defeat and occupy Baltimore? — where "at dawn's early light" after a fierce night of bombardment "our flag was still flying."

Those questions and others will be explored during the re-enactment and at the lecture series following. Presenting those insights will be: 11 a.m.- Dan Hicks, PhD, "The Wars of 1812: America's Conflicts with Britons, Creeks, Algerians, Floridians, Shawnees, and Fugitive Slaves from 1811 to 1815;" Noon and 2 p.m.- Christopher T. George, "Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay;" 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. - Carole Herrick, "August 24, 1814: Washington in Flames."

Both the re-enactment and lecture series are free and do not require advance reservations. Additional information is available by calling Carlyle House at 703-549-2997 or on their Web site at www.nvrpa.org.