My View: How a prank almost sunk the Port City

My View: How a prank almost sunk the Port City

By Daniel Lee
(File Photo)

Daniel Lee

Taking military intervention off the table is a strategic mistake

When seven British warships dropped anchor along Alexandria’s waterfront in late August 1814 (yes, the War of 1812 lasted past New Year’s Day 1813), city residents were, perhaps justifiably, apprehensive.

Having large groups of young British men in your town did not seem like a recipe for peace and order. The men under the command of Capt. James Gordon, for example, split the difference, maintaining a remarkable level of discipline while absconding with large amounts of flour, tobacco and beef, which residents many years later claimed were never paid for.

Perhaps the most exciting incident occurred just as the British were leaving Alexandria. Call it a lack of humor — or an assault on a young British officer — but the eyewitness accounts agree that were it not for a neckerchief breaking in the hands of an American captain, David Porter, the peaceful occupation might have ended very differently.

We have a different idea today of what are appropriate activities for boys between the ages of 8 and 15. Prominent British families in the beginning of the 19th century thought highly of sending their young sons (especially second sons and beyond) around the world.

Midshipman John Went Fraser — the aforementioned British officer — was such a young man. But while collecting a few last odds and ends for the soon-to-depart fleet, he was collared by Porter and Master-Commandant John Orde Creighton.

Whether or not meant humorously, Gordon didn’t take it as a joke. The British captain trained his guns on the town and, according to Alexandria Mayor Captain Charles Simms:

“This rash act excited the greatest alarm among the inhabitants of the town. … I explained to him (a British officer) by whom the outrage was committed that the town had no control over them [Porter and Creighton] and ought not to be held responsible for their conduct. …[The] town was providentially saved from destruction by the accidental circumstance of the midshipman’s neckerchief giving away, for had he been killed or carried off, I do not believe the town could have been saved from destruction.”

Alexandria’s leaders had tried everything to save the town. They requested a defense force, invested their own money into Fort Washington — only for the commander to blow up the fort without a shot being fired — negotiated surrender, and then kept conflict from brewing between the sailors and civilians. And it was almost all undone because two louts rode down King Street at full speed to play a prank on a defenseless teenager.

Can’t all of us relate to having our day ruined by an incident like that?

Enjoy a special screening of “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” at Old Town Theatre at 815-1/2 King St., complete with a cocktail reception, exhibition of clothing worn on the film set and a pre-screening film discussion on Thursday, April 24 at 6:30 p.m. The event marks the launch of the City of Alexandria’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration. To purchase tickets, visit or call 703-746-4242.
– The writer is the research 
historian at the Office of 
Historic Alexandria.