Naval General Service medal 1793-1814 clasp The POTOMAC 17 Aug 1814 to “John Smith”. Slight separation to right carriage which has been repaired. John Smith was Supernumerary Boy 2nd Class on H.M.S. Erebus. During the War of 1812 the British Navy sent a small naval force under the command of Commodore James Alexander Gordon up the Potomac River in order to attack Fort Washington (then known as Fort Warburton). This attack was intended as a distraction in order to allow British ground forces under General Robert Ross to enter and take Washington. Gordon’s force consisted of the frigates Seahorse (38) and Euryalus (36), the bomb vessels Devastation, Aetna and Meteor each of which were armed with two large mortars and carronades, and the Rocket Vessel Erebus.
On 20th August 1814 Gordon’s force began working its way up river, a difficult undertaking owing to the shallow waters and the fact that the British ships did not have any Pilots that were familiar with the navigational challenges presented by the local shoals. Because of this, the advance up-river occupied several days. Reaching Fort Washington on the 27th, Gordon opened fire on the fort with the bomb vessels. The commander of the Fort, Captain Samuel Dyson, was under orders to destroy the fort only if attacked by superior numbers of troops. Nevertheless, once the bomb vessels opened fire with their mortars Dyson spiked his guns, blew up the fort and retreated. With Fort Washington silenced there was nothing to stand in the way of the British Force to prevent them from entering the prosperous port of Alexandria which was only a few miles further up river.
The town Council voted not to oppose a British attack on the port. On the morning of the 28th, the Mayor of Alexandria, Charles Simms, went downriver under a flag of truce to arrange the surrender of Alexandria to Gordon’s force. The 28th being a Sunday, Gordon told the mayor to return to Alexandria and he would bring his squadron up the next morning. This he did, arranging his forces so that he could command the town from one end to the other. Seeing this, and to avoid destruction of the town, the Council agreed to hand over all merchant ships, including those that had been scuttled to prevent capture as well as the merchandise contained within. In all, twenty-two merchant ships were turned over including substantial quantities of flour, cotton, tobacco, wine and cigars.
Gordon remained at Alexandria for three days, where his presence paralyzed the American government which was trying to recover from General Ross’ successful attack which resulted in the burning of the Capitol and the destruction of the Washington Navy Yard. The Brig-sloop Fairy reached Gordon with orders for him to rejoin the main British Fleet in the Chesapeake under Admiral Cochrane.
Heavy rains began, resulting in the water level of the Potomac River being raised somewhat (also quelling the flames engulfing the Capitol), making the descent of the river somewhat easier. Gordon began his withdrawal on 1st September. Gordon’s squadron encountered resistance as they sailed down the Potomac. The men of the squadron foiled two separate fire ship attacks. In the meantime, American Field Artillery had been gathered near Belvoire, Virginia on the heights where the Potomac enters a narrow deep water channel. This artillery was known as the White House Battery. Gordon’s ships had difficulty in elevating their guns high enough to engage to White House Battery and took moderate damages. Gordon then ordered his men to shift the ballast in the ships so that the list would allow his guns to fire higher and after firing a heavy barrage was able to clear the battery. He then continued down river to rejoin Admiral Cochrane and the main fleet.
The delays encountered by Commodore Gordon’s Potomac Squadron forced Admiral Cochrane to delay his planned attack on Fort McHenry and Baltimore. The Americans used the time wisely and strengthened the defences around the city and fort. Once Gordon’s force had rejoined the fleet, Cochrane moved against Americans. At dawn on 14th September the British naval forces began the bombardment of Fort McHenry employing the bomb vessels and their large mortars. HMS Erebus and her Congreve Rockets also played a key roll. The Congreve Rockets were based upon those used by the Tippoo Sultan during the Anglo-Mysore Wars in India. They created such havoc that the Royal Arsenal began a research and development program under William Congreave. The rockets had a maximum range of around two miles but were for the most part wildly inaccurate. They were also prone to early detonation. During the battle, H.M.S. Erebus fired numerous rockets from its 32 pound battery installed below her main deck and firing through the portholes or scuppers cut in her side. The overall bombardment lasted for nearly 25 hours.
One witness to the battle was Francis Scott Key, who on seeing oversized Stars and Stripes still flying over Fort McHenry on the following morning was moved to write the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” In the poem, the fifth line refers to the “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” which was a direct reference to the Congreave Rockets fired during the battle by H.M.S. Erebus. The poem was later renamed “The Star Spangled Banner” and became the National Anthem of the United States in 1931.
** This medal was stolen during transport by Registered mail to the US. Please contact me if you see it for sale at any time. An international stolen police report has been filed.