The Dawn's Early Light: The War of 1812 and the Battle That Inspired Francis Scott Key to Write

The Dawn's Early Light: The War of 1812 and the Battle That Inspired Francis Scott Key to Write "The Star-Spangled Banner"

by Walter Lord

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The Dawn's Early Light: The War of 1812 and the Battle That Inspired Francis Scott Key to Write "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Walter Lord

It took more than a revolution to win true independence: The story of the War of 1812, the United State’s second war on England, by a New York Times–bestselling historian.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the great powers of Western Europe treated the United States like a disobedient child. Great Britain blocked American trade, seized its vessels, and impressed its sailors to serve in the Royal Navy. America’s complaints were ignored, and the humiliation continued until James Madison, the country’s fourth president, declared a second war on Great Britain.
British forces would descend on the young United States, shattering its armies and burning its capital, but America rallied, and survived the conflict with its sovereignty intact. With stunning detail on land and naval battles, the role Native Americans played in the hostilities, and the larger backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, this is the story of the turning points of this strange conflict, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner” and led to the Era of Good Feelings that all but erased partisan politics in America for almost a decade. It was in 1812 that America found its identity and first assumed its place on the world stage.
By the author of A Night to Remember, the classic account of the sinking of the Titanic—which was not only made into a 1958 movie but also led director James Cameron to use Lord as a consultant on his epic 1997 film—as well as acclaimed volumes on Pearl Harbor (Day of Infamy) and the Battle of Midway (Incredible Victory), this is a fascinating look at an oft-forgotten chapter in American history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453238486
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 03/06/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
Sales rank: 122,245
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Walter Lord (1917–2002) was an acclaimed and bestselling author of literary nonfiction best known for his gripping and meticulously researched accounts of watershed historical events. Born in Baltimore, Lord went to work for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. After the war’s end, Lord joined a New York advertising firm, and began writing nonfiction in his spare time. His first book was The Fremantle Diary (1954), a volume of Civil War diaries that became a surprising success. But it was Lord’s next book, A Night to Remember (1955), that made him famous. The bestseller caused a new flurry of interest in the Titanic and inspired the 1958 film of the same name. Lord went on to use the book’s interview-heavy format as a template for most of his following works, which included detailed reconstructions of the Pearl Harbor attack in Day of Infamy (1957), the battle of Midway in Incredible Victory (1967), and the integration of the University of Mississippi in The Past That Would Not Die (1965). In all, he published a dozen books.

Walter Lord (1917–2002) was an acclaimed and bestselling author of literary nonfiction best known for his gripping and meticulously researched accounts of watershed historical events. His first book was The Fremantle Diary (1954), a volume of Civil War diaries that became a surprising success. But it was Lord’s next book, A Night to Remember (1955), that made him famous. Lord went on to use the book’s interview-heavy format as a template for most of his following works, which included detailed reconstructions of the Pearl Harbor attack in Day of Infamy (1957), the battle of Midway in Incredible Victory (1967), and the integration of the University of Mississippi in The Past That Would Not Die (1965).      

Read an Excerpt

The Dawn's Early Light

By Walter Lord


Copyright © 1972 Walter Lord
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-3848-6


Sails on the Chesapeake

THE GUESTS AT THE Pleasure House, a popular inn near Cape Henry, Virginia, could hardly believe their eyes. There in the first light of August 16, 1814, the horizon was dotted with sails, standing in from the rolling Atlantic.

By 8:30 they were entering the Chesapeake Bay, and Joseph Middleton—the U.S. Navy's lookout stationed at the hotel—could make them out pretty well: three big ships of the line, a brig, a topsail schooner, several frigates, at least nine transports—some 22 vessels altogether. With a good glass he caught sight of the blue flag of a British admiral flying from the mizzenmast of the leading ship. Middleton jotted down the details, and by 9:45 an express rider was pounding hard for Norfolk. But the ships didn't head that way. They turned north, and with fair wind and tide swept on up the Chesapeake.

Around 1:00 P.M. they passed New Point Comfort ... 3:00, they were off Gwynn's Island ... 6:00, Lieutenant Colonel John Shewning reported them abreast the Dividing Creeks near Wicomoco Church ... 7:00, Major Hiram Blackwell picked them up off Smith Point at the mouth of the Potomac. Here they met about a dozen other ships, already in the Bay, and as the two groups joined forces, the evening echoed with the thunder of saluting guns.

Dawn of the 17th, a meticulous lawyer from Washington, D.C., named Thomas Swann took up the watch. Swann was a volunteer military observer for the U.S. Army, stationed at Point Lookout on the northern side of the mouth of the Potomac. His job was especially to keep an eye on ship movements.

This morning he had his hands full. The ships were spread over two miles, and a heavy August haze made the viewing difficult. But he managed to count them up, and during the night the total had grown to 46 sails. Adding three more frigates off St. Georges Island and another two in the Patuxent River, that made 51 altogether.

At 8:15 A.M. they began to head up the Bay again. There was no more time to lose. To Swann, all those transports meant only one thing: invasion. It was the third year of this ugly war with Britain, and now at last the fighting was moving south from the Canadian border to the nation's front door.

Collaring a young man by the name of Carmichael, Swann dashed off a dispatch and started him for Washington 70 miles away. All over the tidewater countryside other riders too were galloping over the rutted clay roads, bound on the same mission. For every vantage point in sight of the Bay, there was some leading citizen or militia officer who, heart in mouth, scribbled down the details and sent word to alert the capital.

Meanwhile Washington lay dozing and unknowing in the August heat. Few could see any danger. John Armstrong, the stubborn, arrogant New York Democrat who was Madison's Secretary of War, felt the city was perfectly safe. Who on earth would want the place? He never liked the capital here, and every time he looked at the little clusters of buildings scattered around the swamps and meadows, he knew he was right. "This sheep walk," he called it.

James Monroe, the dedicated but ambitious Secretary of State from Virginia, feuded with Armstrong over almost everything; but on the subject of Washington's safety he was inclined to agree. Late in June he had written Minister William Crawford in Paris that any British expedition had "little prospect of success."

Secretary of the Navy William Jones, a modest, hard worker from Philadelphia, felt just as secure. In May, when Madison suggested that he might strengthen the capital's naval posture, Jones had three 12-pounders mounted on carriages at the Navy Yard. The cooks and clerks at Marine headquarters would man them. The rest of the cabinet were equally confident.

Some of these officials, it must be added, had their occasional doubts. When several of His Majesty's ships blockaded Commodore Joshua Barney's flotilla of American gunboats up the Patuxent River in June, Secretary Jones did indeed warn Barney of a possible strike at Washington. But on the whole, nobody expected anything serious, and every alarm was followed by a return to complacency.

There was one exception: the President himself. But James Madison was anything but forceful in driving home his opinions. He had none of that quality that would later be called charisma; he was only five feet six; always dressed in black with old-fashioned knee britches. Unkindly but not unreasonably, Washington Irving called him "a withered little applejohn."

Yet he had a good head—Jefferson said there was none better—and his good head told him that with Napoleon out of the way, the British would be coming in force. Then, on June 26 a grim letter arrived from England supporting his worst fears. Dated May 6, it came from Albert Gallatin and James Bayard, two of five American peace commissioners sent by Madison at Downing Street's suggestion. They were marking time in London until the site of the conference was set, and what they saw was chilling. England had the troops to spare, "and there can be no doubt that if the war continues, as great a portion of that disposable force as will be competent to the objects of the British government will be employed in America...."

That was enough for Madison. No time to waste trying to wake up Armstrong. Enlisting Monroe's help, the President quickly conjured up his own defense plan. It called for concentrating 2,000 or 3,000 men at some point covering both Baltimore and Washington. They would be in the field, ready to fight. An additional 10,000 to 12,000 militia would be earmarked in neighboring states, ready to assemble and march when called. It would have been better, of course, to put them on active duty, but as usual the problem was money. The government couldn't afford to pay or feed them.

Since the whole mission of this force was to protect the capital, the President also decided to give it special status by setting up a new military district for the area, under a separate, independent command. The new commanding general would be an attractive 39-year-old Brigadier named William Henry Winder.

In peacetime General Winder had been a Baltimore lawyer and politician. He had seen little military service. In his only battle he had been captured on the Canadian front and just recently exchanged. His ideas on tactics were unknown, and his immediate superior, Secretary Armstrong, was against the appointment.

Yet there were good reasons for naming him. First, he was available—often important in the military selection process. Also, the very fact that Armstrong opposed him worked in his favor with Monroe, as the two Secretaries continued their feuding. But most important, Winder's uncle was the Honorable Levin Winder, the Federalist Governor of Maryland. The state was bitterly divided on the war, yet had to supply most of the militia for this particular effort. It was all-important to win the Governor's support. What better way than to make his nephew the commanding general?

July 1, promptly at noon, the cabinet assembled to hear the plan at the President's House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Standing bare on unlandscaped ground, the building had a rather unfinished look; yet it somehow promised great things to come, and along with the Capitol, it was quite the pride of Washington. It was just beginning to be called the White House.

Madison explained the danger, collected some unimpressive defense statistics from Armstrong, then outlined his scheme. The cabinet had no ideas to add, and the meeting adjourned after a large dinner, which the President always hoped in vain would bring his official family closer together.

Now to put the plan into action. July 2, the 10th Military District was officially set up, covering northern Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia, with General Winder in command. July 4, a requisition went out to the governors of all 15 states calling for 93,500 militia to be held in readiness.

It took General Winder about a week to discover that his command existed mainly on paper. He had no staff, no transport, no surgeon, no provisions, no rifles, no flints. There wasn't even a guard at his door. There were few regulars and no militia. It turned out that Secretary Armstrong had a pet theory that militia fought best on the spur of he moment. It dulled their spirit, he felt, to spend time drilling in camp; so they would be called up only when the British appeared.

Winder did his best to point out that this would be too late. "What possible chance will there be of collecting a force after the arrival of the enemy?" he wrote Armstrong on July 9. "He can be in Washington, Baltimore or Annapolis in four days after entering the Capes."

Armstrong never even answered. Stuck with a plan and a general he didn't want, he let the whole business slide. He rarely replied to any of Winder's letters. He failed to stockpile military stores, as directed by the President. It took him six days to get a copy of the militia requisition to the Governor of Maryland, only 23 miles away. He idled ten days before sending Winder authority to call out any of the militia he had been appointed to command.

Even then, the General was severely limited. Although the militia pool totaled 93,500 men, Winder was authorized to draw only on Maryland's quota of 6,000—and these only "in case of actual or menaced invasion." Later some Pennsylvanians and Virginians were added on the same basis, but he never had authority to call more than 3,000 Marylanders for immediate service.

Undismayed, Winder deluged the Secretary with a stream of suggestions and questions. How to strengthen Annapolis? Were express riders stationed at observation points along the Bay? Shouldn't the militia from remote places be drafted first, since it would take them longer to assemble? Would Armstrong order some necessary tents and supplies? "I have no knowledge where these articles are.... I must pray you give the necessary orders."

As usual, Armstrong didn't answer.

The Secretary's whole performance seemed incredible to tall, impressive Major General John P. Van Ness, who commanded the District of Columbia Militia. A civic-minded banker deeply involved in the capital's future, he had seen Secretary Armstrong on several occasions, always urging that the city's defenses be strengthened. This July he finally went to James Monroe and asked if the government was deliberately planning to abandon Washington. Not at all, said Monroe; "every inch" would be defended.

More danger signals were coming in. Mid-July, a batch of Canadian newspapers arrived, reporting that thousands of British troops were boarding transports in France, bound for America. The stories were uncomfortably specific, even ticking off the regiments. The latest London papers said the same thing.

Van Ness decided to try once again. He went back to Armstrong, this time urging an extension of the earthworks at Fort Washington, a key position 12 miles down the Potomac. The owner of the land wanted too much for it, the Secretary replied, "considering how poor the government was."

In exasperation Van Ness got the local banks to offer the administration a $200,000 loan to build the necessary fortifications. If the government wouldn't put up the money to defend its own capital, the citizens would do it themselves.

No one charged General Winder with such indifference. The commander of the 10th Military District was a whirlwind. Nothing seemed too small to occupy his personal attention. One minute he was mediating a quarrel between Paymaster Clark and Colonel Carberry over the clerical services of Sergeant Rowe ... the next, he was telling "the non-commissioned officer left at Butler's Mills" to obey his captain ... the next, he was arranging a corporal's guard to escort two cannon to Washington.

And all the while, he was dashing around the countryside at a pace suggesting that he equated activity with accomplishment. July 24, he was at Nottingham ... the 25th, at Fort Washington ... the 26th, at Port Tobacco ... the 27th, at Piscataway ... the 28th, at Upper Marlboro ... the 30th, back at Washington. He gyrated about so much that one of Armstrong's few letters, mailed on the 17th, took 22 days to catch up with him.

This passion for trivia and movement left little time for the kind of thinking that went into being the commanding general. Weeks rolled by, yet Winder developed no overall plan for defending his district. The capital had no fortifications, nor did he devise any. Alexandria, the most important city near Washington, was left entirely out of his calculations. He was desperate for men, but did little to get them. He was positively diffident when he wrote Major General Samuel Smith, the tough commander of the 3rd Division of Maryland Militia, asking how much help he might expect. Winder wondered whether the Maryland troops would act under himself or, as he gingerly put it, "whether they expected to act as allies with the troops in the service of the United States but independently of their authority and that of their officers and solely for the defense of Baltimore."

The turnout was predictably poor. Of the 3,000 Maryland Militia called out, Winder got only 250. As July turned to August, the General privately wrote Secretary Armstrong that in his official dispatches he deliberately kept his troop figures vague "to tranquilize the morbid sensibility of the people of the District."

The political situation in Maryland was as touchy as ever. Governor Levin Winder's nephew might be the commanding general, but the Governor himself remained cool to the war. The Federalist-controlled state legislature felt the same, and opinion in some tidewater counties bordered on treason. Still bottled up in the Patuxent, Commodore Barney had a good chance to observe, and he sent a stream of bitter comments to Secretary Jones. The inhabitants at Benedict spiked some of his guns.... "Old Major Taney" supplied a British shore party with horses.... The local people told the enemy everything. In fairness, most of the inhabitants were at the mercy of the Royal Navy if they didn't cooperate.

The only open contact permitted with the enemy was through John S. Skinner, the exchange officer on prisoners of war. Mid-August, he visited the British squadron and returned to report a disquieting remark by the commanding officer, Rear Admiral George Cockburn: "I believe, Mr. Skinner, that Mr. Madison will have to put on his armour and fight it out."

This sparked a flurry of interest, but most Americans considered Cockburn a braggart, and Washington soon lapsed in the doldrums of a smothering heat wave. Congress had adjourned, and the wealthy citizens were away at country places or taking the waters in Virginia or Maryland. On August 13 the Washington Theater, the capital's only gesture to sophisticated living, gave up and closed for the rest of the summer. The few people remaining in town went about their small affairs. Thomas L. McKenney decided to sell one of his drygoods stores; Roger Chew Weightman, the enterprising book dealer on Pennsylvania Avenue, offered a new Life of Wellington (despite the war, the British General remained a favorite); and, reminding one that the nation's capital was really a small town after all, a Mr. Doyhar advertised for a red cow that had strayed away from his place on F Street.

The 18th began like just another day. At the plain brick building shared by the State, War and Navy Departments, Secretary of State Monroe glanced over an application from the British prisoner-of-war agent Thomas Barclay, asking permission to come to Washington on personal business. Normally Barclay was confined to Bladensburg, a small village just northeast of the capital. Here he had little opportunity to gather intelligence for His Majesty's government, but apart from professional considerations, Barclay hated the sleepy little place and used any excuse to come to town. This time there seemed no harm. Nothing much was going on ... few British raiding parties were about ... Washington itself was dead in the August heat. Monroe issued a pass good through August 20.

Across the hall the War Department's new accountant Tobias Lear hunched over his desk. He busily scratched away at a letter to Colonel William Pratt in New Orleans, pointing out that 7 pairs of hinges at 37½¢ cost $2.62½, not the $8.62½ claimed by the Colonel.

Elsewhere in the building Allen McLane, Collector of the Port of Wilmington, Delaware, complained to Secretary Jones about the navy's seizure of some ships and cargoes in his district. Suddenly he was interrupted—an express just in, requiring Jones's immediate attention. Carmichael, the messenger from Point Lookout, had arrived with the momentous news that the British invasion fleet was at hand.


Excerpted from The Dawn's Early Light by Walter Lord. Copyright © 1972 Walter Lord. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


ONE. Sails on the Chesapeake,
TWO. "Chastise the Savages",
THREE. Face to Face,
FOUR. Sleepless Hours,
FIVE. Time Runs Out,
SIX. Bladensburg,
SEVEN. Ordeal by Fire,
EIGHT. Shock Waves,
NINE. Focus on Baltimore,
TEN. North Point,
ELEVEN. Fort McHenry,
TWELVE. Britain Struggles with Herself,
THIRTEEN. "The Dawn's Early Light",
Chapter Notes,

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The Dawn's Early Light: The War of 1812 and the Battle That Inspired Francis Scott Key to Write "The Star-Spangled Banner" 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
*sticks out her tounge*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sad. One day I came home from school and my fish Kendall was dead. Fair enough, he was 3 years old(old for a fish) and he had a tumor.