In the evening on August 24, 1814, British troops led by Major General Robert Ross arrived in Washington after taking casualties but defeating a small American force at nearby Bladensburg, MD. The short version of the story notes that shots were fired at the British, who responded by burning the public buildings in the city before departing the next day. For more, here’s an excerpt from John McCavitt’s article from the upcoming issue of The Capitol Dome. Look out for the full article soon, which includes a new explanation for why the British chose to burn only some of the buildings in the capital. Here, McCavitt discusses who might have fired those infamous shots.
Excerpt from “Capitol Conflagrator? Major General Robert Ross”
…A parley to discuss terms of surrender had been sounded by drum and by trumpet. According to the British they carried a flag of truce.1 No response was received to the sounding of a parley. As [Major General] Ross’s small party approached the Capitol and passed the Sewall Belmont house on the way, a volley of shots rang out. Two British soldiers were killed and several were wounded.2 Ross himself narrowly missed death or serious injury. His horse, however, was killed and the mount of the trumpeter also was shot.3
Several British officers reported that the firing came not only from the Sewall Belmont house but from other nearby houses, as well as from a party of up to three hundred Americans based at the Capitol.4 Ross ordered up a brigade of troops and instructed them to fire a volley of shots at the Capitol with a view to deterring further resistance, reinforcing the impression that the British believed they had come under fire from the hallowed corridors of the American legislature.5
….In the years since the British occupation of Washington, debate has raged about the identity and number of assailants who opened fire on Major General Ross and his advance guard. Most American accounts attributed the attack on Ross to an Irish barber named Dixon, also known as Dickson.6 “Chief barber” to Congress for more than twenty years, for some he was a Figaro-type, a talkative, good-humoured man.7 While there is evidence to suggest that Dickson was involved in the attack on Ross, he was far from the only one who opened fire on the British.8 It was a volley of shots that rang out, not just a single report. Again, while they may not have acted alone, the hardest evidence about who attacked Ross indicates the involvement of some of [Commodore Joshua] Barney’s sailors who had remained in the Capitol area [after the Battle of Bladensburg earlier that day].9 The Capitol and the houses from which shots were fired at the British were not immediately burnt after the shooting incident. Still Ross tarried in the hope of negotiating a deal.10
[But t]he attack on Ross and his advance guard indicated to the British that the Americans were not going to negotiate. And so the burning began.
1. G.R. Gleig, The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans (1821; 3rd ed., corrected and revised, London: John Murray, 1827), p. 129.
2. T.A.J. Burnett, The Rise and Fall of a Regency Dandy: The Life and Times of Scrope Berdmore Davies, (London: Murray, 1981), pp. 223-25.
4. James Scott, Recollections of a Naval Life (London: R. Bentley, 1834), 3:298; Michael Crawford, ed., The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, 2002), 3:220-23; MacDougall letter to Times (London), May 25, 1861.
5. Richard N. Cote, Strength and Honor: The Life of Dolley Madison (Mt. Pleasant, S.C.: Corinthian Books, 2005), p. 303.
6. Walter Lord, The Dawn’s Early Light (New York: Norton’s, 1972), p. 161.
7. “Sketches of Private Life and Character of William H. Crawford,” Southern Literary Messenger 3(April 1837):262-65.
8. Glenn Tucker, Poltroons and Patriots: A Popular Account of the War of 1812 (Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1954), 2:553.
9. Lord, Dawn’s Early Light, p. 161. See also Steve Vogel, Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation (New York: Random House, 2013), p. 168.
10. Tucker, Poltroons and Patriots, 2:553.