The War of 1812 in the Fredericksburg Area: Backstory and the First Local Campaign


from: Harrison

Imagine troop concentrations in southern Stafford County and on the heights just west of Fredericksburg…and military movements from one towards the other. Easy to do? Yes, but I have in mind such scenes from the eighteen-teens, not the eighteen-sixties. Let’s consider another American war with a single- or multiple centennial this year. This post, part 1 of a short series, recounts the first sequence of operations that occurred in Fredericksburg and Stafford during the War of 1812, specifically events in the summer of 1813.  (Limited space necessitates omitting the better-known operations that took place further afield that summer, along the Northern Neck.)

Besides surveying some of the local contours of the conflict during its bicentennial, my interest lies with an intriguing aspect of the history of the Fredericksburg area, an aspect that’s obscured by the drama and duration of the Civil War: the nature of military events here, whether limited or extensive, has shifted back and forth between those involving local or regional combatants, and those featuring overseas interests or forces.

Artist Tom W. Freeman, SM&S Naval Prints, recently created the only known rendering of a Fredericksburg landscape during the War of 1812 era. Published here for the first time through the courtesy of business- and civic leader Joe Wilson, who commissioned the painting for his family’s collection in 2006, “Fredericksburg Landing” shows the town’s Rappahannock wharves in 1816. The painting illustrates vividly the local river connections—Potomac as well as Rappahannock—that brought vulnerability as well as economic opportunity. Permission courtesy Joe Wilson, copy photo courtesy Tom W. Freeman; image not for re-use or reproduction.

Artist Tom W. Freeman, SM&S Naval Prints, recently created the only known rendering of a Fredericksburg landscape during the War of 1812 era. Published here for the first time through the courtesy of business- and civic leader Joe Wilson, who commissioned the painting for his family’s collection in 2006, “Fredericksburg Landing” shows the town’s Rappahannock wharves in 1816. Local river connections—Potomac as well as Rappahannock—brought vulnerability as well as economic opportunity. Permission courtesy Joe Wilson, copy photo courtesy Tom W. Freeman; image not for re-use or reproduction.

The local-regional category of military history includes everything from a battle near Potomac Creek between resident Potowomekes and Indian outsiders in the 1610’s to the launching of a raid into Maryland by the Stafford Troop of Horse in 1675 to the numerous clashes of the Civil War in 1861-1865.  Events in which overseas interests or forces played a key role include the Mannahoc-English skirmish at the Rappahannock falls in 1608—resulting from an effort by the Virginia Company of London to find gold, silver, and trade routes to the Pacific—to a brief but contested British amphibious landing on Stafford County’s Widewater Peninsula in 1775.  This varied, shifting nature of “war” and “the enemy” is even more pronounced when we also consider the fears (however unfounded those proved) of overseas invaders operating in the Fredericksburg area, particularly Spanish landing-parties in 1898 and Axis saboteurs and aircraft during World War Two.

In the era of the French Revolution and through the rise of Napoleon, Europe’s wars roiled the people of the central Rappahannock valley despite the vast distances intervening. An early Fredericksburg historian, who doubtless had neighbors and acquaintances possessing memories of the Napoleonic period, wrote that “bitter feeling” over foreign policy and other political issues increased locally through the 1790’s, “even boiling over at times.” In 1796, Fredericksburgers learned that one of their fellow townsmen, William M’Coy, was among the American sailors impressed by the British Navy. In the Caribbean, the French seized in 1795 the Fredericksburg-based sloop Martha, and in 1797 the Tappahannock-based sloop Prudent, also voyaging from Fredericksburg and also carrying barrels of flour.

Slide2

Conjectural sketch (inset) of Fredericksburg’s first Market House/Town Hall, constructed c. 1757 and fronting on Caroline Street. This building hosted public meetings about the coming and fighting of no less than three wars between 1774 and 1812. It was demolished in 1813 and replaced with the current Market House/Town Hall (situated on the opposite side of the same block). The alley in the modern photo passes through what was once the center of the c. 1757 building. Modern photo courtesy Greg Chapman; sketch courtesy Fredericksburg Area Museum and Cultural Center.

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