A decorated navel commander of the Napoleonic Wars, George Cockburn sailed up the Chesapeake in March of 1813 with orders to “blockade the ports and river harbors in the most strict and rigorous manner according to the usages of war”, as well as, “to capture and destroy trade and shipping off Baltimore and particularly in the Potomac, York, Rappahannock, and James Rivers”. Britain was unable to commit to a full occupation of America’s coastline, so Cockburn was sent with a small fleet, ultimately under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir John Warren, to threaten the capital region and divert American troops then fighting in Canada.
By spring of 1814, a larger fleet returned from wintering in Bermuda and was under the command of the more ambitious Sir Alexander Cochrane. The two admirals proved an effective team, with Cochrane administering the campaign while Cockburn handled the tactics of engagement. The first few months were highly successful. The British quickly occupied Tangier Island, turning it into a base of operations from which they conducted numerous raids into southern Maryland. Tangier Island also became a hub for escaped slaves who had accepted Cochrane’s offer to be, “received as Free Settlers into some of His Majesty’s Colonies”
Cockburn’s advance was slowed in June by the presence of Admiral Joshua Barney‘s flotilla. This ragtag collection of small gunboats, crewed by able Chesapeake watermen, was able to move into the shallow water of the Patuxent where Cockburn’s much larger frigates could not follow. Cockburn was able to blockade the flotilla in St. Leonard’s Creek but attempts to then destroy the flotilla were unsuccessful. Yet the British were reinforced in July, allowing Cockburn to push forward in an attack on Washington. With the capital in peril, Barney’s flotilla was forced to disband or face capture. Following a victory over outnumbered and outgunned militia at the Battle of Bladensburg, Cockburn, supported by a detachment of marines, marched into Washington and set fire to many public buildings including the abandoned White House and Capitol.
Naturally, the Rear-Admiral received a great deal of hatred from Americans, especially from Washington D.C.’s pro-war press as well as the many militiamen who defended their homes and property. He disdained “those inhabitants who fired on the British from behind lurking places on their farms or from their houses” and therefore “would have their property ‘treated as a place of arms’ and their persons as military prisoners of war”. As a result, he often destroyed property that he suspected was used by such men. But he also respected the wishes of a few southern Marylanders, such as Elizabeth Key and Clement Dorsey who appealed to him directly to spare their property.
Cochrane, Sir Alexander. “Proclamation of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander F. I. Cochrane, R.N.,” in The War of 1812: A Documentary History: Vol. III ed. Michael J. Crawford. Washington D.C.: Navel Historical Center, 2002, 60.
File: Georgecockburn.jpg. 19 Feburary, 1995. [online] Available at http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/us.capitol/nintsevn.jpg 1 May, 2012.
Morriss, Roger. Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. 92.
Pack, James. The Man Who Burned the White House: Admiral Sir George Cockburn 1772-1853. Hampshire: Kenneth Mason, 1987, 145.