Tuesday, August 24, 2010

August 24, 1814 – Ceasefire Declared at Washington

The War of 1812 had turned to a fiasco by 1814. America's invasion of Canada had been rebuffed despite taking the city of York twice (and burning public buildings there the second time). Naval victories in the Great Lakes had stalled Canadian counter-invasions. A flotilla of ships in a British expedition blockaded the Atlantic, but, even with the defeat of Napoleon, there were too few troops to do much more than raid coastal shipping. For the most part, the war was over, and commissioners had begun to meet in Ghent to discuss a treaty.

In the meantime, the raiding continued. Alexandria, Virginia, had been looted by the British, and American forces worked to defend the militarily significant Baltimore from full invasion. British General Robert Ross, however, had a different aim: the center of politics and morale for the young nation, Washington, D.C. As British landed on August 21, Americans scurried to put together militia to oppose them. On August 24, a haphazard collection of 7,000 men, including President James Madison himself armed with a collection of pistols, met with the British at Bladensburg.

The battle was yet another fiasco for the Americans. Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury had moved his exhausted men away from well defended positions to prevent a possible, but unlikely, flanking maneuver. As officials from Washington arrived, Secretary of State James Monroe ordered troops to different positions, creating confusion and weak gaps in the line. American regulars fought valiantly, but the rest were quickly routed without clear evacuation plans, and the British marched on Washington unopposed.

Returning to Washington, James Madison had planned to grab papers and escape into the countryside like most of his cabinet and Congress were doing. As he saw the evacuation of the city, he decided that the war had gone long enough. When an advance guard of British arrived under the white flag, Madison rode out to meet them. Patriots looked as if they were ready to ambush the Redcoats, but Madison's presence stopped them. After a brief discussion, the British returned to Ross with Madison and his entourage of diplomats and soldiers.

Madison met with Ross, and the two began to discuss ceasefire. On the 25th, Admiral Cockburn arrived, giving more clout to the discussion. Vice-Admiral Alexander Cochrane, the Commaner-in-Chief of the North American Station was preparing for the bombardment of Baltimore, but messages from Ross and Cockburn about the Americans' request for peace stopped the altercation. By the end of the month, word of armistice began to spread throughout the war-weary country. Diplomacy would take many more months to sort out, but the Treaty of Ghent would officially end the war December 24, 1814.

Feeling officially independent of Britain, the Americans settled about their affairs. Madison would pass his presidency to James Monroe, who would in turn pass it to John Quincy Adams, and then to the firebrand John C. Calhoun of South Carolina (who narrowly defeated Andrew Jackson of Indian-fighting fame in party conventions). Calhoun vetoed often, such as the Tariff of 1828 and the Tariff of 1832, keeping Southern ideals of states rights in place over the more Federal-thinking Whigs.

After Calhoun's presidency, the workable federation of the United States went to war with Mexico while he still served as senator. Polk's War ended favorably with large gains in the Southwest, but this sudden gain of territory stressed the question of slavery for the nation. After countless arguments and debates in Congress, the idea of secession finally came up. The North and the South would never agree, so perhaps they would best seek their fortunes as neighbors rather than housemates. The Constitution never addressed secession completely, so legal precedent allowed the peaceful separation of the United States with the consent of Congress, which had never happened before in the minor uprisings of territories decades before. Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas, under the guidance of an ancient Calhoun too weak to speak but able to write powerful pages, crafted the Act of Disunion of 1850, separating the United States of America in the North and the Confederated States of America in the South with a westward border compromised at 36 degrees, 30 minutes north.

With a stronger industrial base, the USA quickly outpaced its southern neighbor, who spent much of its political time and energy with expansionism toward Latin America, adding Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands to its domain in the Spanish-American War in the 1880s. World War I would see the South enter on the side of the Allies early in 1916 while the USA sat out. In 1941, when the Confederate base at Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan, CSA President “Cactus Jack” Garner asked USA President Franklin Roosevelt to acknowledge various treaties between the two brotherly countries and join them in battle. FDR agreed, and the two nations fought alongside one another for the first time since the Mexican War that had ended up driving them apart.

After WWII, many asked if the two nations would rejoin, but, despite its troubled economy, the South sought to maintain its independence. Racial subjugation rejected in the North under two-term president JFK was still accepted as legal in the South with gradual concessions such as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 signed by President George Wallace guaranteeing separate but equal segregation.

Despite their differences, the two American nations remain, for the most part, friendly. Their fiercest competition come in the Olympics, when the anthems of “My Country, 'Tis of Thee” and “God Save the South” are often heard.

In reality, Madison was not in Washington as the British arrived. Despite their flag of truce, the British were attacked by militia from a house (which was quickly destroyed by the Redcoats). Taking this as a sign of war, the British seized the town, raising the Union Jack above Washington. The rest of Ross's soldiers arrived and Admiral Cockburn followed, and much of the public buildings were burned in retaliation for the torching of York in Canada years before. Shortly thereafter, the Battle of Baltimore would serve as a display of American fastidiousness as well as the inspiration for Francis Scott Key's poem “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Having not heard word of the end of the war when it came in December, General Andrew Jackson performed his victory at New Orleans, catapulting him to national fame. Jackson would crack down on South Carolina during the Nullification Crisis of 1832 in which the state attempted to supersede the powers of the Federal government. With precedent established for obedience of national law to the point of military intervention, the secession of the South in 1861 would prove worthy of civil war.

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