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Posts Tagged ‘Fort Washington’

Today was a beautiful day.  Bright sunshine, a few clouds, low humidity, and temps around 80.  I’m not sure I could have ordered a better day.  Meanwhile, the East Coast is battening down the hatches as Hurricane Irene has come ashore and is working its misery.  As I type, New York City is in the crosshairs.  I hope my good friend Michael (who lives in Rhode Island and founded Today’s History Lesson) and a couple other good friends in the area will be alright.

At this time in 1814, it was the nation’s capitol that was the center of attention.  It wasn’t a hurricane that was approaching, but one that had just departed.  Actually, it was a two-headed hurricane.  The first was the literal storm that blew in, chasing the attacking British back to their ships.  The second head belonged to the British themselves, who landed just in front of the storm and stuck around long enough to burn down the White House, the Capitol building (including the Library of Congress), both houses of Congress, and numerous other buildings.

The U.S. government had scattered before the British onslaught.  The night the city was sacked, President Madison and his wife planned to meet, along with others, at Wiley’s Tavern near the Great Falls.  But the President ended up at the home of Reverend John Maffitt.  Dolley, just a mile away, bedded down at the home of her friend Matilda Love.

As we know, the British stay in the capitol was short-lived, and Madison soon received word of their departure.  It was time to reclaim the capital.  Shortly after 5:00pm on August 27, 1814, the President re-entered D.C. with James Monroe and Richard Rush.  Much had changed in 3 days, and the rebuilding would take years.  There was a tremendous explosion later in the evening as Fort Washington, for some reason, was blown up by its commander.

The good news was that the President was back in Washington.  But though he would be elected to a second term, he and Dolley would not again sleep in the White House.

Recommended Reading: James Madison

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By mid-November of 1776, the reality of their rebellion against the King George III was beginning to slap the Colonists in the face…hard.  The excitement of July 2nd’s Declaration of Independence had, in the ensuing months, been replaced a new truth.  A sobering, more immediate truth, stronger than the flush of breaking from the Crown.  The Colonies were now faced with an angry motherland, a motherland which had a pretty good army and an overwhelming navy.

The colonial militia was inexperienced, poorly equipped, lacked proper training, and simply wasn’t prepared to deal with an organized fighting machine like the one populated with Redcoats.  Early engagements verified it.  New York City’s fall in September was truly embarrassing to General Washington, who looked in anger at the men turning tail and shouted, “Are these the men with whom I am to defend America?”

September’s humiliation became October’s embarrassment at White Plains where, despite holding the high ground and inflicting more casualties than they took, the colonials were forced to retreat.  Desertion was becoming a problem, as were drunkeness and carousing.  Looking across the battlefields at the polished muskets, crisp uniforms, and strict discipline, it’s not hard to imagine Washington’s growing despair.

The White Plains debacle left the colonials with the barest of grips on Manhattan.  Fort Lee and Fort Washington, both constructed in early 1776, were built on opposite sides of the Hudson River, and constituted the last best positions that Washington’s men could hold in the area.  But that was fleeting as well.

On November 16, 1776, General Washington watched from Fort Lee’s observation post as Fort Washington was overrun by a combined force of British soldiers and Hessian mercanaries.  This loss was particularly painful because a large amount of supplies (muskets, gunpowder, etc.) were captured, as were more than 2,800 prisoners.

But even worse, Fort Lee was left in an indefensible position.  Four days later, it would be surrendered.  Washington was forced to retreat from New York with what was left of his “army”.  It was during the retreat that Thomas Paine would write that “These are the times that try men’s souls.”

General Washington, unanimously chosen to lead the militias, was now being heavily criticized for the loss of Fort Washington.  The army was a mess, dissension was growing, and the war for independence was looking more and more like a mismatch of comical proportions.

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