Stratford Hall During Wartime:
The fact that Stratford Hall still stands today is a testament to history; in the War of 1812, Stratford was not subjected to the cannon-shots blasting up from the Potomac River, nor was it burned down by the British as they blazed through the local fields and other Westmoreland plantations. Its survival was ensured by the house’s strategic location – just far away enough from cannon reach by the river – and possibly due to the long-standing ties of the Lee family to England. For many generations, the Lees sent their children off to be educated in England, and many Lees lived in London as merchants and lawyers. Luckily for the Lees, when war broke out, the British troops did not destroy Stratford. Rumors of British royal funding provided to Thomas Lee for the construction of Stratford Hall circulated, but they have proven to be false.
Stratford saw its share of American soldiers, too. Colonel James McDowell was in charge of organizing the local regiments and reported on July 23, 1813, that Stratford Mill was one of the picket locations. Stationed here were 19 Infantry of the Line and 6 Cavalry videts – a total of 25 men. The picket line locations chosen by McDowell spanned a total of 65 miles of the Potomac shore.i
The William Pitt Portrait:
An amusing tale about Stratford Hall during the War of 1812 focuses on the portrait of William Pitt, originally hung at Chantilly but moved to Stratford in 1794 where it resided for 27 years. This grandiose portrait of the First Earl of Chatham, known for being one of the influential repealers of the Stamp Act imposed on American colonies, was commissioned to demonstrate the gratitude of the Westmoreland County gentlemen for Pitt’s stance in the Revolution. Colonel Richard Henry Lee was chosen to arrange the specifics, and his London agent, Edmund Jenings, saw to it that the job was completed and the portrait sent back to Virginia. The portrait remained in the Lee family possession from 1769 to 1821 before it was returned to the Westmoreland County Courthouse.
During the portrait’s stay in Stratford, war broke out and the great plantation houses along the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers were ravaged by many British ships. Chantilly was shelled, and as the British soldiers marched upriver, they stopped at Stratford along the way and raided the provisions left in the empty house, including barrels of wine. As the story goes, a few of the soldiers, loosened by the wine, came upon the portrait of William Pitt and mutilated the canvas: “One man put a shot through the middle of the painting, while another took his saber and slashed the canvas.”
ii The soldiers were forced to leave before any other damage was made to the portrait, but the implication of their distaste for Pitt lingered in the ripped canvas. The portrait of William Pitt remained damaged for over 100 years until it was finally restored in 1934, its marred surface a testimony to those sentiments of wartime strife between England and America.
Westmoreland County During the War:
Strategically close to the heart of the country, Virginia was an important location during the War of 1812. Westmoreland county in the Northern Neck was a predominantly rural area, but its prime location along the water meant that it saw quite a lot of military action.
Leading the local militia of Westmoreland during the War of 1812 was Colonel Richard Parker. When men began to be pulled from militia units in Virginia into regular service, Parker requested to Governor James Barbour that his men be kept “under his command, because of the exposed waterfront areas that it was necessary to protect.”iii Parker was “content to remain at home to defend”iv the Northern Neck area rather than get a larger commission for Canada or another frontier. Also, Secretary of War James Monroe was careful to note the importance of aiding his home county of Westmoreland and tried to supplement the militias with enough troops to protect the waterfront.
Virginia’s Atlantic coast and the Chesapeake Bay made it one of the more vulnerable states to naval attacks; the generous shoreline gave easy access for British soldiers to invade, and the men along the Northern Neck were less prepared and equipped than many other militias.
“Although skirmishes were fought on land, the British troops came and went by sea, frequently landing an attack force by day and returning to their ships at nightfall. This form of incursion was a threat to many creeks, bays and inlets along the Potomac shore of Westmoreland County from the spring of 1813 until the end of the war.”v
These various skirmishes occurred in the Chesapeake Bay area, as well as the Potomac River. One of the famous local instances of the war was the British naval attacks on the USS Scorpion and USS Asp that took place in the Yeocomico River, a smaller branch of the Potomac, on July 14, 1813.vi Outnumbered by the British ships in pursuit of the Scorpion, the armed schooner Asp was an easier target and was run upriver to Kinsale and boarded, with half of its crew killed or injured. The Scorpion fared better than the Asp, for it managed to escape into the Chesapeake Bay. This incident is one of the earlier recorded attacks that made apparent the need of local troops to protect Virginia’s waterfronts. Midshipman James B. Sigourney of the Asp, who refused to surrender to the British, was one of the men murdered. His bravery was commemorated and a monument was erected on the spot where he was originally buried, close to the Great House in Kinsale.
The burning of Kinsale in Westmoreland County is one of the more well known attacks that occurred in the Northern Neck during the War of 1812. Captain Henderson of the Northumberland militia was forced to retreat in early August 1814, when the British landed, and the enemy “pursued and burned every house in route along the way until finally reaching Henderson’s own home.”vii
The plantations in the county were just as vulnerable as the waterfront. Bushfield, one of the prominent Westmoreland plantations, was attacked and burned by the British. Interestingly, plantation slaves aided the soldiers in Bushfield’s destruction; the utilization of the slave population by the British was not an uncommon occurrence during the war. The fear of a slave uprising was a concern during the war because the slave population took advantage of the chaos of British raids to escape from plantations. Col. Parker feared that “unless some vigorous measures are adopted and a sufficient force allowed us, this whole peninsula will be stripped of its valuable and personal property,”viii predominantly the slaves. General Hungerford, when describing the attack at Kinsale, mentioned that “the Negroes were flocking to the enemy from all quarters, and because of their intimate knowledge of the land, were turned into spies capable of disclosing every bypath and of setting up ambushes in the woods.”ix
The eventual capture of the Westmoreland Courthouse occurred around the time that British troops were storming through the area. In July 1814, the largest group of British troops Col. Parker had seen anchored off Blackstone [Blackistone or St. Clement’s] Island. The local militia was armed and prepared to defend, but the numbers of military men remained insufficient to repel the British. There is no mention of a date of retreat, but it is presumed that the British left the area when the war was over or when they depleted the available supplies.