"The first step was plunder without distinction"

Americans living on the Chesapeake Bay paid a steep price for the War of 1812.

“The first step was plunder without distinction. Wherever the evil genius directed the steps of the enemy . . . conflagration, robbery, waste and devastation were the consequences . . ”

Portrait of Admiral Cockburn with Washington burning in background
As this portrait of Admiral Cockubrn suggests, the siege of Washington was a highlight of his career

Royal Museums, Greenwich, England

For over six months, beginning in the spring of 1813, the British Navy launched amphibious raids on coastal towns and farms, destroying crops, stealing livestock, and encouraging the enslaved to flee. British Rear Admiral George Cockburn disrupted American shipping by blockading the bay.

British attacks on bayside towns, including Norfolk and Frenchtown, stirred resentment. “The first step was plunder without distinction,” the author of an account of the raid on Havre de Grace claimed. “Wherever the evil genius directed the steps of the enemy . . . conflagration, robbery, waste and devastation were the consequences . . . ”

First Lady Dolley Madison labeled Cockburn’s attacks on civilians as a “savage stile of warfare.” Cockburn himself earned the epithet the “Beast of Havre de Grace,” and threatened to capture Mrs. Madison and parade her through London’s streets. “Fears & alarms” circulated through the capital city. Newspapers printed sensational tales of British atrocities and rumors circulated of attacks on women.

Following a winter respite, the war returned to the Chesapeake with renewed fury. Governor General George Prevost decided to avenge American attacks in Canada and weaken the United States in other theaters of the war by forcing troops to regroup to defend their capital.

The British landed in Maryland in mid-August 1814, burned Washington, captured Alexandria, and bombarded Fort McHenry. The attacks were bad enough, but the Corps of Colonial Marines, recruited from enslaved blacks, marched with the British sowing seeds of racial paranoia.

Last updated: May 24, 2016