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Tornado Saves Capital (and Steals Anchor for Museum!)

Recently I had the pleasure of giving a behind the scenes tour to attendees of the annual conference of the National Society Children of 1812 (if you follow me on Facebook you might remember they gave us $1850 towards the conservation of a watercolor in the collection). While planning the tour, I decided to include one of the anchors in our collection because it had a great War of 1812 provenance.

Kedge anchor, HMS Dictator (Accession# DA75)

The anchor, a large Old Plan kedge anchor, had been recovered from the bottom of the Patuxent River near Point Patience, Maryland in 1959 by US Navy divers from the Naval Ordnance Laboratory Test Facility. Luckily, despite spending 145 years underwater, the anchor was in fairly pristine condition and retained many of its identifying marks.

Map showing the location of anchor’s recovery.
Shortly after recovery when it has been washed to remove thick layers of mud.
When recovered the anchor ring was still overlaid with rope covered in pitched canvas. Unfortunately, when the fragile organic materials were exposed to the air and drying they quickly disintegrated.

Besides a number of broad arrows (indicating British government ownership), the letters “Rec Chat” (showing the anchor was received at Chatham Dockyard after being made by an outside contractor), and “No. 6225” (the number of the anchor); the stock and shaft were marked with the numbers “6 x 3 x 24” (the weight of the anchor, 780lbs) and most importantly, the word “dictator.”

Ship name and anchor weight
Broad arrow on shaft
Anchor’s number
Anchor’s weight

Research conducted by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, the Smithsonian, and the Mariners’ Museum determined that there has only been one HMS Dictator in the Royal Navy; a 3rd rate, 64-gun ship-of-the-line launched at Limehouse in 1783. In 1798 Dictator was converted into a troop ship and served throughout the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. She saw a lot of action during the Gunboat War (1807-1814) and most importantly, had carried British troops into the Chesapeake Bay in the summer of 1814.

Plan showing the body plan, sheer lines with inboard detail, and longitudinal half-breadth for Dictator (1783). The plan may represent her as built in 1783. Collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (Object ID ZAZ1440)

One of the things I noticed while working on my talking points was that everyone said they didn’t know why Dictator’s anchor had been abandoned at the bottom of the Patuxent River. Well, you know me! Ever the curious sort, I started researching the movements of the Royal Navy in the Chesapeake Bay in 1814 to try and discover a possible reason for the loss and as usual it turned out to be a very interesting story!

First, let’s set the stage. When the United States declared war on June 18, 1812, Great Britain was embroiled in the Napoleonic Wars (which had been going on since 1803). Knowing the British government’s attention was aimed somewhere else, many American politicians assumed the British would immediately make concessions and stop restricting American trade and impressing American sailors. Um, excuse me? We freaking declared war! Did those guys even bother to stop and THINK about the country they had declared war on? The British regularly and successfully fought wars on many fronts–sometimes without any allies and with what seemed like the entire world against them. If you declare war, fighting is a given but with luck it’s short-lived.

Following the defeat of the French and Spanish fleets at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar Great Britain pretty much ruled the seas. (Accession#QO800)

The smarter men in our government immediately began making battle plans. Since it was doubtful the tiny United States Navy could effectively compete with the powerful, and seemingly invincible Royal Navy, Canada became the target—invade and conquer Canada and the British would have to accede to our demands. Right? As you would expect, this left the people along the Atlantic coast and Chesapeake Bay fairly unprotected.

Before the fighting even ended in Europe (late 1813), the British government had turned its full attention onto the United States. In an effort to divert American troops away from Canada, the British admiral commanding the North American Station, Sir John Borlase Warren, established a blockade of the Chesapeake Bay and ordered his ships to make raids along the Atlantic and Southern coasts. When this tactic didn’t work, the new commander, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, gave Rear Admiral George Cockburn (the guy who had been harassing the residents of the Bay since March of 1813) a new directive: “act with the utmost hostility against the shores of the United States.” Taking his orders to heart, Cockburn began threatening, plundering, pillaging and burning his way through the towns and villages around the Bay.

Admiral Cockburn and the British burning & plundering Havre de Grace, Maryland. Collection of the Maryland Historical Society
Portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn (pronounced “Co-burn”), the most hated man in the Chesapeake Bay. James O. Boyle of Pughtown, Virginia even offered a reward of one thousand dollars for the head of “the notorious incendiary and infamous scoundrel, and violator all laws, human and divine, the British admiral Cockburn—or five hundred dollars for each of his ears, on delivery.” (Collection of National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Object id: BHC2619)

It’s at this point that HMS Dictator enters the fray. After carrying troops to Holland in early 1814 Dictator was sent, with many other transports, to the Garonne River in Bordeaux to embark troops of the British Army’s first division. The fleet, including the 3rd rate HMS Diamond and six frigates, then sailed to Bermuda. Arriving on July 23rd, they found eighteen ships-of-the-line including HMS Tonnant and HMS Royal Oak sitting in Murray’s Anchorage waiting for the signal to depart for the North American continent.

A View of the Town of St. George, in the Bermudas, or Summer Islands, 1816 (Accession# LP 2973)

As British ships and troops continued to arrive in Bermuda, Admiral Cochrane received dispatches from Admiral Cockburn recommending large scale actions on the Potomac and Patuxent rivers. Taking this recommendation to heart, Cochrane sailed for the Chesapeake Bay with about sixty ships (according to the August 27, 1814 Nile’s Weekly Register of Baltimore) and thousands of British troops.

The fleet arrived in the Bay on August 2, 1814 and a short time later Cochrane split his forces sending about fifty ships, including HMS Dictator, into the Patuxent River and the remaining ten or so into the Potomac. While it was presumed the British were headed into the Patuxent to deal with the only credible threat to the total British domination of the Chesapeake Bay—Commodore Joshua Barney’s little Chesapeake Flotilla–it was just a cover, their main goal was Washington DC.

Action in St. Leonard’s Creek, June 8-10, 1814. The first battle of St. Leonard Creek included five to six battles spread across three days between Barney’s Chesapeake Flotilla and a large British force under Captain Robert Barrie. (Accession# QW364)

My first hint of a possible cause of Dictator’s lost anchor came while reading the book Personal Narrative of Events, From 1799 to 1815 by Vice Admiral William Stanhope Lovell (known as ‘Captain Badcock’ before he changed his name!). In Chapter 15 Lovell, who was captain of the 38-gun HMS Brune, writes:

Towards the middle of July and the month of August some parts of this coast are subject to tornadoes. We had one of them on the 25th of July, which obliged us, although lying at anchor in a river, to let go a second…. The storm came on from the north-west, with the greatest violence, accompanied by a few claps of thunder and vivid flashes of lightning: such was its force that, although in smooth water, the ship heeled so much over that the main-deck guns nearly touched the water; and a fine schooner of seventy tons burthen, tender to the Severn, with a long 18-pounder on board, at anchor near us, without topmasts, her sails furled and gaffs on deck, was turned bottom upwards in a moment, and one poor fellow drowned. Its fury was spent in about ten minutes, but during its continuance we saw immense trees torn up by the roots, barns blown down like card houses of children, and where the strength of the current of wind passed scarcely anything could withstand its violence.

In other words, the storm was so bad the crew of Brune had to deploy a second anchor to prevent the ship from being driven ashore. Now I know what you’re thinking, “but this event occurred before HMS Dictator arrived in the Chesapeake” but Lovell continues:

This circumstance was mentioned…to…Captain Napier, who commanded the Euryalus, but Charley would not believe that the force of wind could upset a schooner of seventy tons, lying at anchor with all her sails furled, with her gaffs on deck, and without even top-masts; however, on the dashing, brilliant expedition, under Sir James Gordon, up the Potomac to Alexandria, above Washington, he had an opportunity of judging for himself when (part of a tornado passing across the bows of the frigate) he saw in a moment both his bowsprit and fore-topmast broken in two, like twigs.

This storm occurred after Dictator’s arrival and it affected the entire region. After reading this, I wondered if I could determine if Dictator had been sitting off Point Patience when this storm hit.

Admiral Cochrane’s fleet reached the Patuxent River on August 17, 1814. That same day Rear Admiral Edward Codrington sent a letter to the captains of the fleet detailing how the troops in the larger ships would be transported ashore. According to the document, eighty-six soldiers of the 44th regiment would be carried in Dictator’s ships boats (a pinnace, launch and cutter); three-hundred more would be taken from Dictator and Hornet by tenders belonging to Rear Admiral Cockburn (HMS Albion); and Melpomene’s tenders would take the remaining one-hundred forty-four.

According to ensign George Robert Gleig of the 85th Light Infantry as the ships traveled up the river the ships-of-the-line began to “take the ground; and a little while after, even the frigates could proceed no farther.” The ships anchored and the night was spent moving troops from the larger ships to the boats that “drew the least water” and carrying them up the river, “running as high as prudence would permit, under convoy of the gun-brigs and sloops of war.”

According to Gleig, at dawn on August 19th a gun-brig was stationed one hundred and fifty yards off shore of Benedict, Maryland while the rest of the ships were “several miles lower down the stream, some of them being aground at the distance of four leagues.” Despite the distance “the boats were quickly hoisted out from every one of them” and the troops were transported to Benedict “though the stream ran strong against them, and some of them were obliged to row fourteen or fifteen miles” back and forth between ship and shore.

This is the British debarking troops at Belle Isle in 1761 but you get the idea! (Accession# LE414)

So, if you believe Gleig’s comments the largest ships of the fleet were about fifteen miles downriver from Benedict, Maryland. Wondering where this placed the ships, I immediately opened Google maps and used the distance measuring tool to gain an approximate understanding of where that might be. What I discovered was that the distance from Benedict to the approximate spot where Dictator lost her anchor was around sixteen miles. Since I don’t think Gleig was using a GPS to determine exactly how far downriver the ships were anchored, I feel confident that Dictator was anchored off Point Patience between August 17 and August 30th.

But how did she lose her anchor?

While the ships patiently waited in the river, the British army marched towards Washington in the stifling heat and humidity of a typical August day in Virginia. Temperatures were reputedly pushing 100 ̊, causing many of the troops to succumb to heat related illnesses, and there was no rest for the weary as sleep each night was disrupted by severe thunderstorms and torrential rain.

On August 24th, the British routed a large American force at Bladensburg, Maryland which left the road to Washington DC wide open. A little later that same night the city was in the hands of the British and most of its military installations and public buildings were burning. As British depredations continued to spread through the capital city on the 25th, ominous black clouds rolled in from the west. People across the entire region quickly took refuge as blinding sheets of lightning and deafening thunder were suddenly accompanied by a “frightening roar” of wind that announced the arrival of a strong line of thunderstorms and possibly as many as three tornadoes.

The City of Washington the Capital of the United States of American was taken by the British forces under Major Genl. Ross. (Library of Congress, Control#96510111)

Roofs were blown off, buildings were ripped from their foundations, and trees were uprooted by the thousands. People darted for cover amid flying debris and it was reported that small caliber British field cannons were upended by the wind. Several British soldiers were even killed by collapsing buildings. Following the storm, torrential rain fell for more than two hours drowning most, if not all, of the fires that remained burning in the city. The British wasted no time abandoning the ruins and by August 30th they had picked their way through downed trees and other storm damage and were re-boarding their ships at Benedict.

Reports from the anchored ships indicated they hadn’t fared much better. Captain James A. Gordon of HMS Seahorse, who was in the Potomac River when the storm hit, wrote: “the Euryalus lost its bowsprit, the head of her foremast, and the heads of all her topmasts, in a tornado which we encountered on the 25th, just as our sails were clewed up, whilst we were passing the flats of Maryland point [Maryland point is about 40 miles due west of Point Patience].” You remember her, Euryalus is the ship captained by the story-doubting Charley Napier. And that wasn’t the only ship in Gordon’s little squadron to be damaged. All of his ships were tossed about, sails were ripped, and along with the damage to Euryalus, Seahorse and Meteor also had masts and spars damaged by the fierce winds.

Eglomise, HMS Euryalus, 1803 (Accession# Q26)

Fifteen-year-old midshipman Robert J. Barrett on HMS Hebrus wrote: “…on the afternoon of the following day we experienced a hurricane of the most tremendous description: it drove both the Severn and our own ship [HMS Hebrus] on shore, close to the village, and lashed the smooth and placid waters of the Patuxent into one vast sheet of foam, which covered both our rigging and the decks with its spray.” Off Rock Hall on the Eastern shore an anchored tender of the schooner Mary capsized in the fierce winds sending a cannon, ammunition, muskets, and swords to the bottom of the Bay off Swan Point.

(Accession# LE 2539)

Providing further evidence of the weather-related problems, and more importantly the many anchoring problems experienced by the ships while in the Chesapeake Bay, is a letter from Captain Edward Dix of HMS Menelaus to Richard Pering, a gentleman who designed a new form of anchor the ship was testing for the Admiralty. Dix described the winter in Lynnhaven Bay as “very severe” and stated that the ship had a problem “driving with one cable and a half out” [a ship “drives” when her anchor trips or will not hold] but when the ship deployed Pering’s anchor “on no occasion has the ship drove…although every ship in the squadron at the same time, has dragged hers more or less.

Watercolor showing British ships riding out a gale in Lynnhaven Bay. Collection of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, Item #PAG9752


  • Knowing the storm wreaked havoc across the entire region;
  • Knowing HMS Dictator was anchored off Point Patience when it occurred;
  • Knowing that the ships down at Point Patience were there for at least 13 days and might have deployed multiple anchors to help them hold their position;
  • Knowing the fleet experienced constant problems with their anchors dragging and breaking during stormy weather;
  • And thinking back to Admiral Lovell’s description of how HMS Brune deployed a second anchor to survive the July 25th storm;

I think it’s quite plausible that the stormy weather of August 25th might have caused Dictator to lose her anchor. Don’t you??????

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