200 years ago, the Americans and British were fighting the War of 1812. The British were winning.
In mid-August, 1814, the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay launch a pincer attack on Washington, DC. The army and most of the fleet sailed up the Patuxent River, marched west, defeated the American forces at Bladensburg, and burned the public building (and one newspaper office) in Washington DC.
The other half of the pincer was the Potomac Flotilla. It sailed up the Potomac River, but was slow in getting past the shoals and mudbanks. When Admiral Cockburn reached Washington, he realized that his other forces had not arrived yet. The British evacuated DC, rather than stayed to wreak more havoc.
The Potomac Flotilla did not get close to DC until three days later. The Americans abandoned Fort Washington without a fight on August 27, and Alexandria surrendered a second time. (Alexandria’s leaders had surrendered to Admiral Cockburn first when he arrived in DC, but he simply returned to his ships on the Patuxent River.)
The Potomac Flotilla agreed not to destroy Alexandria, if left undisturbed while emptying the warehouses of flour, tobacco, cotton, and other valuable. The British also seized commercial ships in the harbor; officers and crew were granted a share of the captured goods and prize ships, when later sold.
As the British looted Alexandria, the Virginia militia organized downstream. They chose to fortify at a location where the deep river channel came closest to bluffs on the Virginia shore, in front of the ruins of William Fairfax’s plantation at Belvoir.
A structure on the shoreline there was known locally as the “white house.” The Battle of White House Landing happened nearly 20 miles downstream from the President’s House that had just been burned in the nation’s capital.