War of 1812 – Who Won?

War of 1812 – Who Won?

This is the last of a series of articles telling how Alexandrians were affected 200 years ago by the War of 1812. For earlier articles in this series, go to alexandriagazette.c….


Foreground: Homes at 208 and 210 North Fairfax Street today. Both houses were built before 1814, and both might have been destroyed had the British navy opened fire on Alexandria in August 1814.

After the British left Washington and Alexandria, their good luck changed. On Sept. 12-14, 1814, the Americans defeated them at Baltimore and on Jan. 8, 1815, defeated them again at New Orleans.

Even before the Battle of New Orleans, the British had had enough of the war. In Ghent, Belgium on Dec. 24, 1814, they and American negotiators signed a treaty to end it. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, and President Madison signed it on Feb. 16, 1815. The War of 1812 finally was over.

Yet, who won the war – the British, the Americans – or was it a draw? How did the war affect Alexandria?

The treaty itself did not change the relationship between Britain and America on issues that caused the war. It contained no language preventing the British from seizing American ships or American seamen. It also was silent about British trade restrictions.

The British, however, were no longer in a deadly war with France. They had no need to restrict American trade. They also no longer needed additional ships or additional seamen. Instead, they were mothballing ships and putting seamen on dry land, and they never again subjected Americans to those practices that helped lead to war.

Also, when the war ended the British still controlled Canada. Yet America continued its expansion, not northward but into the vast continent to the west. Westward expansion now was safer because in 1813 an American army defeated the charismatic Shawnee leader Tecumseh. This defeat and the American expansion westward led ultimately to the cessation of Indian attacks, another issue that had led to war.

Perhaps Americans did not win the war in the traditional sense, but at the war’s end, the country’s pride and prestige had increased considerably. The United States had won the last two major battles against the vaunted British army. During the war the American navy had embarrassed the British navy in ship-to-ship combat. Americans were legitimately proud of these victories, and other nations began to realize the United States’ potential to become a great power on both land and sea. The war also gave the United States new, powerful symbols, such as the flag that flew over Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and the future national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

To some extent the war was a second War of Independence. Although Britain never seriously challenged America’s independence, it had not respected America’s sovereignty. After the war that changed. “I must acknowledge that the war has been useful,” wrote Albert Gallatin, one of the American peace negotiators. “The character of America stands now as high as ever on the European continent, and higher than ever it did in Great Britain.” Never again did the United States and Great Britain go to war against each other.

What was the effect of the war on Alexandria?

Before the British left the Potomac River, the brigade of Alexandrians at White House Landing had helped retrieve some honor for the Americans after the disgraceful Battle of Bladensburg. Many Americans, however, focused not on the Alexandrians’ fight against the British as they sailed down the Potomac, but on Alexandria’s earlier surrender.

Criticism of the surrender began even before the British left Alexandria. On Sept. 1, Washington’s National Intelligencer wrote, somewhat inaccurately: “The degrading terms dictated by the Commander of the British squadron below Alexandria . . . connected with the offer of the townsmen before the squadron had even reached the fort, to surrender without resistance . . . have everywhere excited astonishment and indignation.” The Richmond Enquirer exulted on Aug. 31, “Thanks be to the Almighty God: that this degraded town no longer forms part of the state of Virginia.”

Samuel Snowden, editor of the Alexandria Gazette, countered by describing Alexandria’s numerous, futile efforts to persuade the federal government to help with the town’s defense. He then told how the government not only failed to help, but also ordered away the town’s soldiers. Snowden proclaimed that under these circumstances to call Alexandrians cowardly was “Matchless impudence! Unparalleled libel upon the character of a virtuous and high-minded people.”


Alexandria Gazette; The Hidden History of Alexandria, D.C. by Michael Lee Pope; and The War of 1812 by Donald R. Hickey.

Gradually Alexandria’s image began to be rehabilitated. A congressional committee appointed to inquire into the invasion of Washington and Alexandria issued its report on Nov. 29, 1814. The report included detailed statements from the Alexandria Common Council and others setting forth the circumstances leading to the surrender. Although the report contained no conclusion, it was clear that Alexandria was defenseless and had no choice but to surrender.


Thanks for help in researching stories, obtaining images, reviewing drafts, placing articles on city website, and providing encouragement to Alexandria Archaeology staff and volunteers Elizabeth Field, Ruth Reeder, Marya Fitzgerald, Barbara Magid, Anna Lynch, and Robert Colton and to Old Presbyterian Meeting House historian Don Dahmann and Washington writer Jim Johnston.

Unfortunately, after the war Alexandria’s economy never fully regained its earlier vitality. By the mid-1820s, Alexandria had been surpassed by both Baltimore and Richmond.

Whatever others might think of the town and whatever the state of its economy, on Dec. 11, 1815, Alexandrians decided to celebrate their contribution to the Battle of White House Landing. On that date, as reported by the Alexandria Gazette, the town hosted an “elegant dinner” at what today is Gadsby’s Tavern complete with a band, the firing of cannons, and 30 grand toasts.

Now, although knowledge of Alexandrians’ actions during the War pf 1812 has largely faded, what has endured are the Alexandria buildings that might have been lost had the British ships aimed their 100-plus cannons at the town and fired. Fitzgerald’s Warehouse, Gadsby’s Tavern, the Carlyle House, Christ Church, the Stabler-Leadbeater Apothecary, and other homes and structures remain. They not only help preserve Alexandria’s past, they help create its present. To many people they are the essence of Alexandria.