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Battle of the Capitol
Timeline: Trail of Glory
Part of War of 1812
Date August 24-25, 1814
Location Washington, D.C.
Result United States victory
Belligerents
United States United Kingdom
Commanders and leaders
Sam Houston
Patrick Driscol
Robert Ross

George Cockburn

The Battle of the Capitol (August 24-25, 1814) was a crucial symbolic and strategic victory for the United States during the War of 1812. During a battle that lasted from sunset to sunrise, a ragtag group of militia, regular United States Army, and some Cherokee soliders under the command of Captian Sam Houston and Lt. Patrick Driscol (both of whom had recently been part of critical U.S. victories on other fronts) prevented British forces from setting fire to the Capitol Building. In so doing, the Americans actually inflicted a substantial defeat upon the British, halting their planned drive on Baltimore.

Before the Battle[]

The British drive had begun with the Battle of Bladensburg, which proved to be a humiliating rout for the Americans. However, the senior British Army officer, General Robert Ross, realized that his forces had sustained far greater casualties than did the Americans. Not long after the battle was concluded, the British began receiving reports that Americans had begun the process of fortifying the building.

This had begun in the morning of August 24, when Sam Houston and his envoy of Cherokees arrived in Washington proper. Houston, horrified by revelation that U.S. General William Winder had ordered the city evacuated, instead made his way to the Executive Mansion and began rallying the various troops that were passing through the city.

Concurrently, Lt. Patrick Driscol made his way into the Washington along with Pvt. Anthony McParland from Baltimore. On their journey, they encountered a militia unit under the command of John Pendleton, and driver Henry Crowell, a freedman. Driscol dragooned the whole lot into returning to the capital. Not long after arriving, they met with Houston's group. With an increasing number of soldiers, the whole force made its way to the Capitol itself, and entrenched. Crowell was able to requisition shot and powder for the make-shift batallion's canons from his former employer.

Ross met the reports of fortification with some concern. Unfortunately, Ross was not in overall command; that was Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, who'd had ordered that the British march on the city, and Cochrane's immediate subordinate, Rear Admiral George Cockburn (himself contemptuous of the reports about the Capitol) was determined to carry out Cochrane's wishes.

While taking positions outside the building, the British turned American Commodore Joshua Barney over to the Capitol's defenders. Barney and his men had been the only effective fighters at Bladensburg, and Barney had been injured and captured there. While Barney was technically the superior officer, he was in no position to command, and simply left Houston and Driscol to their own devices.

The attack began that night.

The Battle[]

Ross wanted to flank the Capitol, but was quickly overridden by Cockburn, who just assumed that the Americans in the building would roll over.

The British launched the attack with a barrage of Congreve rockets. Inside the Capitol, Houston, although in overall command, paid close heed to Driscol's advice, and simply let his experienced regulars do their job.

When the rocket barrage ended, the British launched a frontal assault, and were met with deadly accurate artillery fire. While the British did make it within musket range, they were quickly crushed during an exchange of musket fire. Ross himself was injured when his horse was shot out from under him. He was carried from the field by his men.

Secretary of State James Monroe was able to sneak in during the fighting. Monroe approved of Houston's actions, but charged him with defending the Capitol only.

Bad weather arrived later. Houston called a truce to allow both sides to remove their wounded from the field. Cockburn took the opportunity to set fire to the Executive Mansion. Driscol's men fired on him as he did, but missed.

The British did not attack the Capitol again for the rest of the night, in large part because Ross forbade another assault. In the morning, Ross ordered a general retreat, and cancelled a planned attack on Baltimore. Ross also had himself surrendered to the Americans after he realized he was too badly injured for the mobile British Army to properly treat.

Aftermath[]

The successful defense of the Capitol made Houston and Driscol national heroes. During the fighting, Houston was able to approach Secretary of State Monroe about a possible plan for the voluntary relocation of the Cherokee. Simultaneously, the indispensible participation of blacks helped to underscore their value as more than just slave-labor. Both events in turn helped lay the foundation for the Confederacy of the Arkansas.

With their plans to attack Baltimore thwarted, the British now turned their attention towards the Gulf of Mexico, as long anticipated by all.

One government agent, Francis Scott Key, commemorated the battle in an impromptu poem written after he'd surveyed the scene.

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