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Cochrane accordingly issued
an order[358] to the ships under his command, to use measures of
retaliation "against the cities of the United States, from the Saint
Croix River to the southern boundary, near the St. Mary's River;" "to
destroy and lay waste," so he notified the United States Government,
"such towns and districts upon the coast as may be found
assailable."[359] In the first heat of his wrath, he used in his order
an expression, "and you will spare merely the lives of the unarmed
inhabitants of the United States," which he afterwards asked Prevost
to expunge, as it might be construed in a sense he never meant;[360]
and he reported to his Government that he had sent private
instructions to exercise forbearance toward the inhabitants.[361] It
can easily be believed that, like many words spoken in passion, the
phrase far outran his purposes; but it has significance and value as
indicating the manner in which Americans had come to be regarded in
Great Britain, through the experience of the period of peace and the
recent years of war.

However the British Government might justify in terms the impressment
of seamen from American ships, or the delay of atonement for such an
insult as that of the Chesapeake, the nation which endured the same,
content with reams of argument instead of blow for blow, had sunk
beneath contempt as an inferior race, to be cowed and handled without
gloves by those who felt themselves the masters. Nor was the matter
bettered by the notorious fact that the interference with the freedom
of American trade, which Great Britain herself admitted to be outside
the law, had been borne unresisted because of the pecuniary stake
involved. The impression thus produced was deepened by the confident
boasts of immediate successes in Canada, made by leading members of
the party which brought on the war; followed as these were by a
display of inefficiency so ludicrous that opponents, as well native as
foreign, did not hesitate to apply to it the word "imbecility." The
American for a dozen years had been clubbed without giving evidence of
rebellion, beyond words; now that he showed signs of restiveness,
without corresponding evidence of power, he should feel the lash, and
there need be no nicety in measuring punishment. Codrington, an
officer of mark and character, who joined Cochrane at this time as
chief of staff, used expressions which doubtless convey the average
point of view of the British officer of that day: President Madison,
"by letting his generals burn villages in Canada again, has been
trying to excite terror; but as you may shortly see by the public
exposition of the Admiral's orders, the terror and the suffering will
probably be brought home to the doors of his own fellow citizens. I am
fully convinced that this is the true way to end this Yankee war,
whatever may be said in Parliament against it."[362]

It is the grievous fault of all retaliation, especially in the heat of
war, that it rarely stays its hand at an equal measure, but almost
invariably proceeds to an excess which provokes the other party to
seek in turn to even the scale. The process tends to be unending; and
it is to the honor of the United States Government that, though
technically responsible for the acts of agents which it was too
inefficient to control, it did not seriously entertain the purpose of
resorting to this means, to vindicate the wrongs of its citizens at
the expense of the subjects of its opponent. Happily, the external
brutality of attitude which Cochrane's expression so aptly conveyed
yielded for the most part to nobler instincts in the British officers.
There was indeed much to condemn, much done that ought not to have
been done; but even in the contemporary accounts it is quite possible
to trace a certain rough humanity, a wish to deal equitably with
individuals, for whom, regarded nationally, they professed no respect.
Even in the marauding of the Chesapeake, the idea of compensation for
value taken was not lost to view; and in general the usages of war, as
to property exempt from destruction or appropriation, were respected,
although not without the rude incidents certain to occur where
atonement for acts of resistance, or the price paid for property
taken, is fixed by the victor.

If retaliation upon any but the immediate culprit is ever permissible,
which in national matters will scarcely be contested, it is logically
just that it should fall first of all upon the capital, where the
interests and honor of the nation are centred. There, if anywhere, the
responsibility for the war and all its incidents is concrete in the
representatives of the nation, executive and legislative, and in the
public offices from which all overt acts are presumed to emanate. So
it befell the United States. In the first six months of 1814, the
warfare in the Chesapeake continued on the same general lines as in
1813; there having been the usual remission of activity during the
winter, to resume again as milder weather drew on. The blockade of the
bay was sustained, with force adequate to make it technically
effective, although Baltimore boasted that several of her clipper
schooners got to sea. On the part of the United States, Captain Gordon
of the navy had been relieved in charge of the bay flotilla by
Commodore Barney, of revolutionary and privateering renown. This local
command, in conformity with the precedent at New York, and as was due
to so distinguished an officer, was made independent of other branches
of the naval service; the commodore being in immediate communication
with the Navy Department. On April 17, he left Baltimore and proceeded
down the bay with thirteen vessels; ten of them being large barges or
galleys, propelled chiefly by oars, the others gunboats of the
ordinary type. The headquarters of this little force became the
Patuxent River, to which in the sequel it was in great measure
confined; the superiority of the enemy precluding any enlarged sphere
of activity. Its presence, however, was a provocation to the British,
as being the only floating force in the bay capable of annoying them;
the very existence of which was a challenge to their supremacy. To
destroy it became therefore a dominant motive, which was utilized also
to conceal to the last their purpose, tentative indeed throughout, to
make a dash at Washington.

The Patuxent enters Chesapeake Bay from the north and west, sixty
miles below Baltimore, and twenty above the mouth of the Potomac, to
the general direction of which its own course in its lower part is
parallel. For boats drawing no more than did Barney's it is navigable
for forty miles from its mouth, to Pig Point; whence to Washington by
land is but fifteen miles. A pursuit of the flotilla so far therefore
brought pursuers within easy striking distance of the capital,
provided that between them and it stood no obstacle adequate to impose
delay until resistance could gather. It was impossible for such a
pursuit to be made by the navy alone; for, inadequate as the militia
was to the protection of the bay shore from raiding, it was quite
competent to act in conjunction with Barney, when battling only
against boats, which alone could follow him into lairs accessible to
him, but not to even the smaller vessels of the enemy. Ships of the
largest size could enter the river, but could ascend it only a little
way. Up the Patuxent itself, or in its tributaries, the Americans
therefore had always against the British Navy a refuge, in which they
might be blockaded indeed, but could not be reached. For all these
reasons, in order to destroy the flotilla, a body of troops must be
used; a necessity which served to mask any ulterior design.

In the course of these operations, and in support of them, the British
Navy had created a post at Tangier Island, ten miles across the bay,
opposite the mouth of the Potomac.[363] Here they threw up
fortifications, and established an advanced rendezvous. Between the
island and the eastern shore, Tangier Sound gave sheltered anchorage.
The position was in every way convenient, and strategically central.
Being the junction of the water routes to Baltimore and Washington, it
threatened both; while the narrowness of the Chesapeake at this point
constituted the force there assembled an inner blockading line, well
situated to move rapidly at short notice in any direction, up or down,
to one side or the other. At such short distance from the Patuxent,
Barney's movements were of course well under observation, as he at
once experienced. On June 1, he left the river, apparently with a view
to reaching the Potomac. Two schooners becalmed were then visible, and
pursuit was made with the oars; but soon a large ship was seen under
sail, despatching a number of barges to their assistance. A breeze
springing up from southwest put the ship to windward, between the
Potomac and the flotilla, which was obliged to return to the Patuxent,
closely followed by the enemy. Some distant shots were exchanged, but
Barney escaped, and for the time was suffered to remain undisturbed
three miles from the bay; a 74-gun ship lying at the river's mouth,
with barges plying continually about her. The departure of the
British schooners, however, was construed to indicate a return with
re-enforcements for an attack; an anticipation not disappointed. Two
more vessels soon joined the seventy-four; one of them a brig. On
their appearance Barney shifted his berth two miles further up,
abreast St. Leonard's Creek. At daylight of June 9, one of the ships,
the brig, two schooners, and fifteen rowing barges, were seen coming
up with a fair wind. The flotilla then retreated two miles up the
creek, formed there across it in line abreast, and awaited attack. The
enemy's vessels could not follow; but their boats did, and a skirmish
ensued which ended in the British retiring. Later in the day the
attempt was renewed with no better success; and Barney claimed that,
having followed the boats in their retreat, he had seriously disabled
one of the large schooners anchored off the mouth of the creek to
support the movement.

There is no doubt that the American gunboats were manfully and
skilfully handled, and that the crews in this and subsequent
encounters gained confidence and skill, the evidences of which were
shown afterwards at Bladensburg, remaining the only alleviating
remembrance from that day of disgrace.

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