Congreve rockets, a giant flag, a national anthem and the sacking of Washington get most of the attention.
When it comes to the War of 1812, often called “America’s second revolution,” that’s understandable.
But the war’s 300 military engagements in Virginia—which happened two centuries ago right now—are also significant, local historians say.
Yet until a few years ago, most of these encounters between British forces and Virginia civilians and militias were unknown or nearly forgotten, historians Mike Lyman of Lancaster County and Walter Sheffield of Fredericksburg said.
Sheffield, for instance, said he was “flabbergasted” to learn that some 2,000 militia men fought the Royal Navy and marines of the world’s greatest seagoing power in Stafford County—one day after the British burned the young nation’s capital.
The Battle of Potomac Creek, waged in southeastern Stafford on Aug. 25, 1814, was the county’s only engagement of the war, said Lyman and Sheffield, who believe that is worth noting as Stafford celebrates its 350th anniversary.
The fight proved how ill-prepared Virginia was to stop the British invasion, Lyman said.
“American militias were not well organized or well trained, or even had weapons that would shoot,” said the retired Army lieutenant colonel, a former Stafford resident who lives in White Stone. “These men had whatever they had at home when their units were called up. The militias hated to take on the British because they knew they were militarily superior.”
Still, the Stafford and King George County militias delayed the navy’s much-feared Potomac Squadron and bought time for other Americans to fortify Baltimore against the British bombardment that followed in September, Lyman said.
Their actions, almost lost to time, were discovered by Burke resident Patrick O’Neil, who unearthed British ships’ logs in London from the period.
“Until recently, the British trip up the Potomac has been unknown to historians, as no mention of it is made in any American newspaper, British field report, or published history book or article,” Lyman, Craig M. Kilby and Edward J. White wrote in the Northern Virginia Historical Society’s magazine.
Titled “The War of 1812 in the Northern Neck,” their March 2014 article describes scores of British raids on this part of the commonwealth.
In the summer of 1814, British strategy was to burn American towns along the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and raid Washington, Baltimore and Philadelphia, partly in retaliation for U.S. attacks on British civilian properties on Lake Erie, said Bruce G. Terrell, chief historian of the Maritime Heritage Program at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration.
Those were the orders given Rear Adm. George Cockburn, best known as the man who burned Washington. Amphibious assaults by Cockburn’s sailors, marines and infantry dominated the Potomac and Patuxent rivers east of the capital, forcing Commodore Joshua Barney to scuttle the American fleet in St. Leonard’s Creek in Maryland on Aug. 22, Terrell said in an interview.
A storm on the Potomac
As part of Cockburn’s plan, seven British ships were sent up the Potomac to shell Washington and support a “Plan B” escape in case British forces couldn’t return by land to Benedict, Md., from which they marched on the capital.
Had the vessels—which included a rocket ship and three bombers—reached Washington on time, imagine the damage they could have inflicted, Lyman and Sheffield said.
“The most prominent building in the city, the U.S. Capitol, was high atop a hill—a sitting duck,” Sheffield said.
The ships—the Meteor, Anna Maria, Devastation, Euryalus, Erebus, Aetna and Seahorse—could have destroyed much of Washington and Alexandria, Lyman said.
First, though, the squadron encountered Brig. Gen. John Hungerford, whose Virginia militia shadowed the British, harassing the ships and their attendant barges and tenders as they sailed up the Potomac from Kettle Bottom Shoals (today’s Dahlgren) to Aquia Creek in North Stafford.
Even as the Americans lost the Battle of Bladensburg, Md., and first lady Dolley Madison evacuated the White House in the nick of time, the “Potomac River foray caused a debilitating change of fortunes for the British,” Lyman and his co-authors write.
The heavy-laden squadron was done in by three things: the tricky shoals where today’s State Route 301 bridge crosses the Potomac, its dalliance at Potomac Creek, and Mother Nature.
On the night of Aug. 24, the Meteor recorded seeing “a large fire” to its north-northeast: Washington’s public buildings ablaze.
The next day, the British realized, “They were too late for the party at Washington,” Lyman & Co. write.
So, for seven hours, the Seahorse and Euryalus attacked an armed U.S. schooner in Potomac Creek as Stafford and King George militia there and at Marlboro Point engaged the British boats in a heavy firefight.
Driven off at first by the Virginians, the British after several attempts burned the schooner at the wharf in Belle Plains.
But that afternoon, a fierce squall blew in, de-masting the Meteor, Seahorse and Euryalus. In Washington, heavy rains from the same storm snuffed the fires at the White House, Capitol, Treasury and other buildings torched by the British, cutting short their occupation of the capital.
Rallying a young nation
One relic of the Stafford fighting survives, passed down through the family of Page Henley, a past president of the Northern Neck Historical Society, Lyman said.
Henley’s ancestor, Capt. John C. Edrington of the Stafford militia, lived at the mouth of Aquia Creek and fought at Marlboro Point. Edrington’s son John Jr. came along to watch the show. His father shouted to him to “run home!” as the British came ashore, guns blazing.
When John Jr. did as instructed, a British cannonball “chased him along his path,” the authors write. Once the projectile stopped rolling, the boy scooped it up. It has been in his family ever since.
Terrell, the maritime historian, admires the bravery of these citizen–soldiers.
“These were mostly farmers and watermen led by community leaders who often paid to arm the troops,” he said. “They were not trained soldiers, for the most part, but they were united in their passion to defend their families and communities.”
Their efforts—and the four-year-long war’s eventual, surprising demoralization of the British—rallied people in the former colonies around a new idea of what it meant to be Americans, the historians agreed.
“The War of 1812 solidified us a nation to be contended with,” Lyman said. “It improved public opinion about our country, and we realized we had to have a national navy and army to defend ourselves.”
©2014 The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Va.) Distributed by MCT Information Services