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Alexandria Goes to War (Again)

City planning a number of activities to commemorate forgotten conflict.

Cartoonist William Charles created this cartoon in 1814, mocking the City of Alexandria for acting cowardly in the face of the British invasion.

Cartoonist William Charles created this cartoon in 1814, mocking the City of Alexandria for acting cowardly in the face of the British invasion. Source: Library of Congress

The War of 1812 was the first war that America lost, a bitter conflict that began with an ill-planned invasion of Canada that ended when the British burned the Capitol and the executive mansion. Since that time, the president's house was painted white, and memories of the war have also been whitewashed. Now city leaders in Alexandria are planning a series of events to remember a forgotten war and its influence on the history of the city.

"The feds didn't really take this seriously, and that's why ultimately we had to surrender," said Lance Mallamo, director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. "And we're really kind of lucky they did because it preserved our historic district, which is now key to our economy."

The highlight of the commemoration will take place on Labor Day weekend, when Alexandria and the British will once again go to war with each other — metaphorically speaking. Late last year, the City Council adopted a resolution that offered a formal challenge to the British Embassy: Put up or shut up. The proclamation, which specifies that it "in no way should be taken as a formal missive from any government," issued a three-part challenge to the Brits — produce a cricket team, a tug-of-war team and a yacht team. British Commander John Ned Kelly appeared at City Hall to personally accept the challenge.

"Whereas there may have been some conflict between the residents of Alexandria and the British armed forces in history," said Kelly in a proper British accent, "I think the events as proposed will only go to strengthen the relationship we've had over the last 200 years."

THE WAR OF 1812 suffers from a terrible name. The only part of the war that actually happened in 1812 was the disastrous invasion of Canada, prompted by a group of war hawks in Congress. When 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.” But the British crushed the Americans, depleting the federal treasury and leaving the District of Columbia exposed to attack. By the summer of 1814, the Alexandria Gazette exposed how the James Madison administration failed to prepare for the coming British invasion.

“They have drained the public coffers of the last cent in vain and ridiculous adventures against Canada,” wrote Gazette editor Samuel Snowden, adding 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.”

As far as Alexandria and the District of Columbia are concerned, the conflict should probably be called the War of 1814 because that's when all the action took place here. In August 1814, a fleet of 22 British warships sailed into Chesapeake Bay. The flotilla was carrying 3,000 infantry troops who were hardened veterans of the Duke of Wellington’s campaigns against Napoleon across the battlefields of Europe. When the guns of August arrived, an Alexandria militia was raised and stationed between Piscataway and Fort Washington. Realizing that the town was now defenseless, the Committee of Vigilance made a difficult recommendation to the Common Council.

“In case the British vessels should pass the fort, or their forces approach the town by land, and there should be no sufficient force, on our part, to oppose them, with any reasonable prospect of success," the committee wrote. "They should appoint a committee to carry a flag to the officer commanding the enemy’s force, about to attack the town, and to procure the best terms for the safety of persons, houses and property in their power.”

THE BRITISH SQUADRON had two rocket-ships with 18 guns each, two bomb-ships with eight guns each, a schooner with two guns and two frigates, one with 36 guns and the other with 38 guns. On Aug. 24, the Alexandria Committee of Vigilance sent a delegation to the Executive Mansion to inform President James Madison that the city was defenseless. But they returned empty handed, so its members recommended to the Common Council that surrender was the only option. So members of the Common Council began assembling a delegation to meet the British commander.

“It is hard to imagine even the most patriotic citizens not seeking and accepting the British terms of surrender,” wrote historian Joseph Skivora.

A three-man delegation was selected, and the group set sail for the H.M.S. Seahorse to negotiate terms of surrender. The British wanted the delivery of all naval and ordnance stores, merchandise, provisions and shipping. The introduction to the terms of capitulation explained it this way: “The town of Alexandria, with the exception of public works, shall not be destroyed, unless hostilities are commenced on the part of the Americans; nor shall the inhabitants be molested in any manner whatever, or their dwelling-houses entered."

The Alexandria Common Council accepted the terms in an effort to save the city and prevent bloodshed, an admirable move considering what happened to the other District of Columbia. Mayor Charles Simms was able to score some victories for the city during the negotiations. First, he was able to remove a key passage requiring Alexandria to return supplies that had already been moved to the countryside. And he was able to remove a demand that the city refloat scuttled American ships.

THE OCCUPATION of Alexandria lasted five days. Knowing what had taken place for the last two years in the coastal towns of the Chesapeake Bay, Alexandria residents feared the worst. Yet residents were in for a pleasant surprise. City leaders were able to soothe the wrath of their captors. City residents could not have been happy about the occupation, but contemporaneous accounts noted the surprisingly good behavior of the British troops during their time in the city.

“It is impossible that men could behave better than the British behaved while the town was in their power,” Mayor Simms wrote to his wife. “Not a single inhabitant was insulted or injured by them in their person or houses.”

“Their conduct was respectful and decorous,” added Edward Stabler, owner of an apothecary on South Fairfax Street. “Instead of that exultation and triumph which expands the heart of a soldier when he encounters and overcomes a force like his own, these were evidently dejected and adverse to what they were doing.”

Outside of Alexandria, though, critics said the city had acted cowardly. The Richmond Enquirer published a story the reported Alexandrians were so fearful that the British would return that they continued to fly the Union Jack even after the occupiers had sailed south. The Boston Patriot suggested part of the problem is that Alexandria had “scarcely a Republican in it.” The Niles Weekly Register said Alexandria's actions were "base and pusillanimous."

“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,” the Gazette editor responded. “The citizens of Alexandria never did desire or contemplate a surrender of their town.”

NOW THOSE HOSTILITIES have become the focus of a little good-natured fun, and city leaders are still trying to figure out who will represent the city against the British. The challenge is to get people skilled in the areas needed to compete against the British, tug-of-war, cricket and yacht racing. When the modern-day members of City Council took up the resolution last December, they were already trying to figure out who would be competing to win back the honor that the British took so many years ago.

"Should we start practicing now for the cricket team?" asked Councilwoman Del Pepper.

"I thought Del was going to say she wanted to be part of the tea-drinking team," responded Councilman Paul Smedberg.