Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Good Hurricane

In all the news lately, hurricanes have played a prominent part.  Whether it was Harvey flooding the Texas coast or Irma preparing to fornicate skyward most of Southern Florida, you can easily get the impression that hurricanes are bad, really bad.

I’m not particularly fond of them, either.  After living on Galveston Island for seven years, I have more than a little experience with them.  (And I have the scars and a slight limp to prove it).  Personally, I think they are caused by secret NASA weather satellites.  (Don’t you think it is suspicious that they always come in alphabetical order?)

Despite the impressions left by recent events, or my damaged knee’s uncanny ability to predict rain, there was at least one good hurricane.

In 1812, the United States went to war with Great Britain, primarily over freedom of the seas.  The British had been stopping American ships at sea, seizing sailors to serve on their ships, and frequently confiscating cargo and ships they suspected of trading with the French.  We were in the right and for two years, we held off the British, even though we were still a rather weak country.

Luckily for the United States, Great Britain was in a life and death struggle with Napoleon.  In fact, just as the United States declared war, Napoleon was marching off to invade Russia. If Napoleon had won, as everyone expected, he would control Europe, and Great Britain would be isolated. It was no time for her to be involved in an American war.

At first, our seamen proved better than the British.  After we won a battle on Lake Erie in 1813, the American commander, Oliver Hazard Perry, sent the message "We have met the enemy and they are ours."  However, the weight of the larger British navy beat down our ships eventually.  New England, hard-hit by a tightening blockade, even threatened secession from the union.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was beaten in Russia and in 1814 was forced to abdicate. Great Britain now could turn her full attention to the United States.  She launched a three-pronged attack on our small nation.  While the northern prong was to come down Lake Champlain toward New York and seize parts of New England, the southern prong was to go up the Mississippi, take New Orleans and paralyze the West.

The central prong was to head for the Mid-Atlantic States and then attack Baltimore, the greatest port south of New York.  If Baltimore was taken, the nation, which still hugged the Atlantic coast, could be split in two.  The fate of the United States, then, rested to a large extent on the success or failure of the central prong.

The British force, under the command of Admiral Cockburn and General Robert Ross, reached the American coast, and on August 24, 1814, moved towards the nation's small capital.  At the Battle of Bladensburg, a numerically larger force of American militia attempted to stop the Redcoats.  Whether it was the scary new Congreve’s rockets or simply the superb discipline of the British Army, the American forces scattered like quail.

One soldier, Hezekiah Niles, later wrote that the rout was “the most lamentable and disgraceful thing, the militia generally fled without firing a gun, and threw off every incumbrance of their speed.” 

Actually, that’s not quite accurate: a few shots were fired.  The British Admiral Cockburn, who was mounted on a white charger and dressed in a white uniform trimmed with gold lace, was highly visible.  Just as General Ross told him he made too prominent a target, a bullet passed between the admiral’s leg and his horse, hitting neither but severing the stirrup leather.  When a second bullet caused General Ross to involuntarily duck, Cockburn said, “Don’t move your head, Bob.  It looks bad.”

Watching the battle from the other side were President James Madison, Secretary of State James Monroe, several generals, and most of the President’s cabinet.  All of them fled as fast as they could.   After the war was ended, the whole affair was ridiculed in a poem, The Bladensburg Races:

So like an arrow swift he flew,
Shot from an archer’s bow;
So did he fly—so after him
As swift did fly MONROE.
Six gentlemen upon the road
Beheld our GENERAL ride—
MONROE behind—the chapeau gone;
The broadsword by his side.

This battle would change President Madison’s opinion about the wisdom of America's maintaining a standing army.  He would later write that up until that point he did not fully realize the difference between a militia and a professional disciplined army.

The British proceeded to march into Washington D.C., unopposed, and—under the orders of Admiral Cockburn—began burning the government buildings.  Cockburn and his men found the White House abandoned, but with the dining table set for a party of 40.  After drinking several toasts to the Prince Regent and dining, the men gathered a few souvenirs. Cockburn took the pillow from Dolley Madison’s chair, while an officer took the president’s dress sword.

The rest of the furniture and paper records were gathered and set ablaze.  The White House was engulfed in flames and eventually the fire left only the outer stone walls.

Burning the Capitol was a little more difficult since at first the marble building refused to ignite.  Window sills and doorways were then ripped out and combined with the flammable contents of some of the Congreve’s rockets so that, finally, the large building caught fire.  Then the British forces moved out across the city, burning government buildings while sparing private property. 

That night, the burning Capitol, located on a center hill, lit up the night sky for the entire city.  The French minister wrote, “I never saw a scene at once more terrible and more magnificent.”

The soldiers, exhausted from their long march and battle, spent the night in the city and continued their orderly destruction of the city the next day. .

The offices of the War and Navy Departments went up like torches, fueled by the naval stores of hemp, cordage, and tar—as did the Library of Congress and adjoining workshops.  The only government building spared was the home of the Commandant of the Marine Corps, which Royal Marines deliberately spared out of the respect for the fighting ability of the American Marines.  Today, it is the oldest government building in the capital.

Only one private building was destroyed.  The National Intelligencer and its editor, Joseph Gales, had been denouncing Admiral Cockburn as a "monster" for months.  Cockburn took delight in having the building torn down, the presses smashed, and the contents of the building burned in the street.  He gave specific instructions the lead type, especially the c’s, be melted in the fire so the editor could no longer libel his name.  (To be fair, he had the building torn down and not burned to avoid harming the private homes on either side of the press office.)

At approximately two in the afternoon, the destruction suddenly had to be halted as a storm hit the city.  The ferocity and swiftness of the storm was something never before experienced by the British troops.  The clouds were so thick that no trace of the sun could be seen, the rain came down in torrents, and the fierce wind made missiles out of shingles and fence boards.

Soldiers ran into buildings for cover just as the winds began to tear the roofs off of the wooden buildings, flattening some homes.  The force of the winds sucked feather beds out of windows, knocked cavalry horses down, destroyed brick chimneys and—to the astonishment of the soldiers—picked up cannons and flung them aside.  Most of the men abandoned the idea of finding cover and lay facedown in the muddy streets for protection.

As one British officer recorded, “The conflict of winds setting at naught the industry and power of men.”  Or as Lieutenant Gleig wrote, “Of the prodigious force of the wind it is impossible for you to form any conception.”

After two hours, the storm began to pass as quickly as it had arrived.  Most of the fires either were extinguished or were left smoldering.  The storm had killed or wounded more British troops than the previous day's battle had.  The chain bridge over the Potomac connecting the city with Virginia was wrecked.  The the rigging of British ships anchored in the Chesapeake Bay was damaged and two ships were washed ashore. 

Since it was useless to try to burn any more of the soggy and muddy city, Admiral Cockburn withdrew his exhausted forces.  In his opinion, what the fires had not destroyed had been ruined by the storm.

A storm had saved Washington D.C. from being completely destroyed, and perhaps had done enough damage to the British Force that it contributed to the victory of the American forces at Fort McHenry.  (The failure to take the fort that guarded the Baltimore harbor did put an end to the British plan to split the young country).

But, was the storm really a hurricane?  Many of the contemporary accounts record that it was a tornado, but at the time, the words tornado and hurricane were used interchangeably.  The definition of a hurricane was simply a ‘tropical storm’.  In expanse, this storm was huge.  So, while there is no way of proving it, I think any storm that can move cannons and twist chain bridges into scrap metal is a hurricane.

At any rate, I have to admit:  you've got to admire any storm that can suck feather beds out of windows!


  1. I read some of the accounts and it looked to many of the British troops that the wrath of God had descended upon them and perhaps it had. At any rate the bedraggled Brits retreated giving the Americans time to regroup. In the middle of it all Dolley Madison saved George Washington's portrait and some historical artifacts from the White House while her husband was out fleeing from the British. Dolley was a tough and gutsy American lady and an inspiration to her sex. She did not retreat voluntarily. She helped her husband win the presidency, so much so that his opponent, Charles Pinckney grumbled, “I might have had a better chance had I faced Mr. Madison alone.”

    History is so much fun, especially if you believe God didn't like the British very much and the French (or at least Napoleon) even less.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your post. gf