WAKEFIELD AT WASHINGTON: The New Zealand Founding Father Who Set Fire to the White House

The destruction of the White House is a scene most commonly associated with fictional alien invasions or terrorist plots on the big screen, but today marks two hundred years since an enemy force marched on Washington and set fire to the famous residence. This is the relatively unknown yet remarkable story of how one of the junior officers in the force that torched the White House went on to become the founding father of one of New Zealand’s earliest settlements and ultimately met his fate during a skirmish with one of the most revered and feared of all Māori chiefs – Te Rauparaha.

Arthur Wakefield was only ten years old when he joined the Royal Navy in May 1810. The British had enjoyed naval supremacy since their famous victory at Trafalgar, less than five years earlier, but the fate of Europe was still uncertain with Napoleon’s armies waging war across the continent. Young Arthur was about to embark on a big adventure.

Drawing of Arthur Wakefield in uniform. Ref: 1/2-018885-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Drawing of Arthur Wakefield in uniform. Ref: 1/2-018885-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

His first service was as a midshipman, a junior commissioned officer, on the only recently launched HMS Nisus under the watchful gaze of his father’s close friend, Captain Philip Beaver.

PORTRAIT OF CAPTAIN PHILIP BEAVER R.N (1766 - 1813) - Wikimedia Commons

PORTRAIT OF CAPTAIN PHILIP BEAVER R.N (1766 – 1813) – Wikimedia Commons

Arthur first saw action during the British capture of Java in 1811. During this campaign he went ashore with Captain Beaver to help man a battery that was laying siege to Fort Cornelis, which was defended by a joint force of French, Dutch and East Indies soldiers armed with nearly three hundred cannons. Heavy exchanges between the two positions resulted in casualties on both sides but after a midnight assault on the fort the British proved victorious.

A quasi-extension of the Napoleonic Wars erupted when the United States declared war on the United Kingdom in June 1812 and launched raids on their colonies in what is now Canada. This was the first time that the United States had ever declared war on another nation. Spoiler Alert: It wouldn’t be the last.

The British were locked in a mortal struggle with Napoleon so initially this new conflict in North America was treated as a sideshow, but things soon changed once Britain and her allies defeated Napoleon and vanquished him to the island of Elba. This freed up British forces significantly and allowed them to redirect more to the ongoing ‘War of 1812’. Among those dispatched was the now fourteen-year-old Arthur.

Arthur had stayed on the Nisus after the capture of Java, continuing to serve under Captain Beaver until his death in April 1813 and then under the command of Captain Schomberg. When the Nisus returned to Portsmouth in March 1814 Arthur’s father undertook to transfer him to the Spartan under the command of his friend Captain Brenton, but when word of this arrangement reached Captain Schomberg he confronted Brenton in Admiralty Hall and remarked that “You shall not have him. As long as I have a pendant flying, Arthur shall be one of my midshipmen.” It appears that Arthur had made quite an impression. The Nisus was preparing to join the North American war when unexpected orders put her out of commission and Arthur transferred to the frigate Hebrus (36 gun), which under the command of Captain Palmer had recently captured the French frigate Etoile. On 10 May 1814 the Hebrus sailed for North America. Arthur was about to have another adventure…

In July 1814 the Hebrus joined the rest of the squadron at Chesapeake Bay. A month later an expeditionary force commanded by Vice Admiral Cochrane and led by Major General Ross and Rear Admiral Cockburn took the war right to the heart of the United States. On 24 August 1814, two hundred years ago today, they attacked the Americans at Bladensburg.

The night before the battle Captain Palmer of the Hebrus joined Cockburn and in tow was his Aide-de-Camp, none other than the fourteen-year-old Arthur Wakefield. They were among only a handful of naval officers who took part in the battle. Remarkably an account of the action from Arthur’s perspective survives, as told to Robert Barrett, a fellow midshipman on the Hebrus

“When the orders were given to charge the American army, my brave young messmate, A. Wakefield, informed me that it was a glorious, but heart-rending scene, as the advance of the British army moved, in double quick time, up the hill, in face of a destructive fire, to observe many soldiers of the gallant 85th, when following the heroic example of their leader, Colonel Thornton, who led the charge, actually drop down dead, with the exhaustion and fatigue of marching, under the rays of a burning sun, to the field of battle; whilst ever and anon the exhilarating voices of the officers could be distinctly heard, cheering on the assault,- “Hurrah! Gallant 85th! Push forward, for the honour of Old England!” and nobly did all present do their duty in this short and decisive battle.”

The 85th Light Infantry were veterans of the Peninsular campaign, where they had fought at Badajoz. Arthur was fighting alongside troops that had tested their mettle against some of Napoleon’s best. The Americans may have had superior numbers but most of their men were inexperienced militia.  Many of them fled their positions.

Arthur’s exact role during the battle is unknown but he later claimed to have taken one of the three enemy flags that were captured that day and remarkably he was honourably mentioned in Rear-Admiral Cockburn’s despatches. His father shared details of the action in a letter to a family friend, presumably based on an account sent by Arthur, “During the battle the shot fell thick as hail stones, he has been placed in an extraordinary situation for a young boy.” Midshipman Barrett even went so far to claim of Arthur “No officer in the Navy (of the same age) has seen more real service than this gallant gentleman.”

After their decisive victory at Bladensburg the British continued forward under the hot sun and reached Washington later that day. All American resistance had been routed, well nearly all, as the British advanced on Capitol Hill a sniper took aim at General Ross and fired, killing his horse. This detail was mentioned by Arthur himself, who recorded that “I entered Washington close to Sir George Cockburn and General Ross, when the General’s horse was shot under him.”

There was no other resistance to the invading army. Admiral Cockburn, likely followed by Arthur, strolled into the House of Representatives and sat in the chair of the Speaker of the House, asking his fellows “Shall this harbor of Yankee Democracy be burned? All for it say Aye!”

The Burning of Washington forms the background to this portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

The Burning of Washington forms the background to this portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn
Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

"Capture of the City of Washington," August 1814 Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

“Capture of the City of Washington,” August 1814
Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

Capitol House went up in flames, along with the Library of Congress, and Cockburn and Ross then led their force to the President’s House, known to some as the White House, where they found dinner waiting for them at his table. After enjoying the President’s food and wine the merry men then piled up furniture against the walls and set the building alight. Did young Arthur dine at the President’s table? Probably. Did he personally take a torch to the White House? Possibly. He was certainly there.

The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House Wikimedia Commons - Public Domain

The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House
Wikimedia Commons – Public Domain

Ross and Cockburn’s force only occupied Washington D.C., for little over twenty four hours, during which they were for the most part respectful towards its inhabitants and spared most private property from the destruction. However the majority of Government buildings were torched and there was an outcry when news of this reached Europe.

Three weeks later the same British force attacked Baltimore. The Royal Navy bombarded Fort McHenry with cannonballs, mortar shells and Congreve rockets but the gallant Americans held out against everything that was thrown at them. Robert Barrett, Arthur’s fellow midshipman on the Hebrus, recalled the sting of defeat.

“Thus, after bombarding the forts and harbour of Baltimore for twenty-four hours, the squadron of frigates weighed, without firing a shot, upon the forenoon of the 14th, and were immediately followed by the bombs and sloops-of-war. In truth, it was a galling spectacle for British seamen to behold. And, as the last vessel spread her canvas to the wind, the Americans hoisted a most superb and splendid ensign on their battery, and fired at the same time a gun of defiance.”

There is another, much more famous, account of that same ensign being raised.

“O say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

These lines penned by Francis Scott Key were published in a poem titled ‘The Defence of Fort M’Henry’ and were eventually adopted as the lyrics for ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the national anthem of the United States.

Arthur was spared the indignity of experiencing the defeat at Baltimore, as after the victory at Washington he had, at the age of fourteen, been given command of a prize of war and given orders to sail from Chesapeake Bay to the British base at Bermuda. The details of this prize don’t seem to have been recorded but I suspect that it was one of the twenty-two merchantmen captured by Captain Gordon (thought by some to have been part of the inspiration for the fictional Horatio Hornblower) at the City of Alexandria.

After the War of 1812 Arthur Wakefield continued to serve with distinction in the Royal Navy, eventually rising to the rank of Captain. Much could be said of his other adventures both at sea and on land, but they might have to wait for future posts. He even served under the command of Sir Thomas Hardy, former flag captain to Admiral Lord Nelson, yes, the Hardy of “Kiss me, Hardy” fame, and received a letter of support from him when he applied for promotion in 1837.

However prize money and promotions were hard to come by in the post-Napoleonic world and despite the support of notable naval commanders his career stagnated and he instead looked for opportunities elsewhere. In 1841 he left the navy and joined the New Zealand Company, an organisation started by his brother Edward Wakefield to promote the colonization of New Zealand.

Arthur Wakefield oversaw the founding of a settlement at the top of the South Island, which he named after the most revered of all naval commanders – Nelson. Initially the settlement went smoothly but the New Zealand Company had promised settlers more land than was available and soon there was friction between the angry immigrants, the New Zealand Company and local Māori who were reluctant to sell more land. Wakefield was out of his depth.

The tensions reached boiling point when Nelson’s Chief Magistrate, Henry Thompson, issued an arrest warrant for Māori chiefs Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata who had burned down a surveyor’s hut that had been erected on the much desired Wairau plains. Settlers were recruited as temporary constables and Wakefield and Thompson led the armed party on an expedition to arrest the two chiefs. This action was akin to attempting to smother a fire with an oily rag. Both the claim to the land and the arrest warrant were found even by the dubious standards of the time to be baseless; Thompson was erratic and had a reputation for displaying extreme anger management issues; and the ragtag assembly of poorly armed and for the most part extremely inexperienced settlers (some of whom didn’t even know how to load a firearm) were facing off against battle hardened veterans of the Musket Wars who were led by a renowned military strategist and much feared chief.

Hall, R, fl 1840s. Hall, R., fl 1840s :Te Raparaha, chief of the Kawias. [After 1843]. Ref: A-114-047. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Hall, R, fl 1840s. Hall, R., fl 1840s :Te Raparaha, chief of the Kawias. [After 1843]. Ref: A-114-047. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Considering Arthur Wakefield’s considerable military experience the only conclusion that I can draw is that he never intended for the show of force to actually lead to armed confrontation. One account even suggests that while en route to the Wairau he briefly saw reason and tried to call the expedition off but was persuaded by Thompson and the Crown Prosecutor to continue.

The party that marched on the Māori camp was a far cry from the force that marched on Washington and Wakefield seemed anxious of the fact – repeatedly reminding his men not to fire unless ordered to. Many of them didn’t want to be there and their nerves were beginning to show. Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata and their party of warriors were waiting for them across a stream with a waka serving as a bridge.

Initially the confrontation was civil but that soon changed when Thompson threatened to take Te Rauparaha by force and attempted to place handcuffs on him. Wakefield gave the order to advance and at that moment one of the Englishmen fired a shot, either by accident or in panic, and then all hell broke loose.

The site where Wakefield and the armed settlers confronted Te Rauparaha and his party © Lemuel Lyes

The site where Wakefield and the armed settlers confronted Te Rauparaha and his party
© Lemuel Lyes

The two forces exchanged volleys and it was quickly evident that the settlers were well out of their depth. Wakefield tried to maintain order as they retreated up a nearby hill but many panicked and ran while others fell to Māori musket and tomahawk. In a last-ditch effort to salvage the situation Wakefield gathered a group of his men and encouraged them to surrender to Te Rauparaha – as many militia had once surrendered to the British at Bladensburg – however the rules of warfare in New Zealand differed to those of the northern hemisphere. Initially it seemed that peace could be achieved and many of the Māori, including Te Rauparaha, accepted that the fighting was unintended and welcomed an end to it. However Te Rangihaeata was consumed with rage at the death of his wife Te Rongo, also a daughter of Te Rauparaha, who had been accidentally shot during the skirmish. Te Rangihaeata demanded utu, revenge, on the captured Englishmen and even Te Rauparaha could not persuade him otherwise. This is how the career of one of the men that burned the White House came to an end – clubbed to death by a Māori chief on a lonely hill at the top of New Zealand’s South Island.

There were many more contributing factors to this tragedy and the exact events are still debated to this day. For a long time it was referred to as the Wairau Massacre but is now commonly known as the Wairau Affray. Wakefield may have been egged on by others, and may not have intended for the expedition to actually result in combat, but responsibility for the unfortunate episode is his alone. He is one of a small handful of veterans of the Napoleonic Wars to be buried in New Zealand soil – his grave marked with a monument commemorating all who fell during the skirmish and the following massacre.

Today, two hundred years since it was set alight, the White House still bears some evidence of the fire that gutted it. The Burning of Washington is remembered as the only time that enemy forces have ever occupied the capital of the United States. General Ross, who lost his horse at Washington as Arthur Wakefield advanced alongside him, was hit by a sharpshooter during the Battle of Baltimore and later died from his wounds. His body was preserved in a barrel of rum and buried in Nova Scotia. Admiral Cockburn was given charge of escorting Napoleon to Saint Helena in 1815 where he acted as governor of the island. He outlived Wakefield by ten years and is best remembered for the Burning of Washington. Congreve rockets, which emitted the red glare immortalized in ‘Star Spangled Banner’, were later used to attack Māori positions during the New Zealand Wars of the mid-late 1840’s.

The story of Arthur Wakefield’s involvement in the Burning of Washington is barely remembered here in New Zealand or indeed elsewhere – seldom mentioned in many history books other than perhaps a brief footnote (with the notable exception of Philip Temple’s fantastic ‘A Sort of Conscience: The Wakefields’) and there is no lasting tangible link between New Zealand and the Burning of Washington…. OR IS THERE?

The streets and place-names of Nelson are a virtual who’s who of the heroes and victories of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The settlement itself is named after the most famous of all naval commanders, the main street leading to the cathedral is named after his infamous engagement at Trafalgar and Victory Square is named after his ship. Other streets also bear the names of famous naval officers, some of whom Arthur Wakefield knew personally, and the battles they fought at. Hardy, St Vincent, Collingwood, Nile and Vanguard. Among all these early street names there is one other that may have had a special meaning for Wakefield.

Washington Rd, Nelson Photo Courtesy of Logan Coote

Washington Rd, Nelson
Photo Courtesy of Logan Coote

The Street Committee gazetted Washington Road and Mount Vernon after a meeting on 31 March 1842. Henry Thompson, the fiery young magistrate that would be killed alongside Arthur Wakefield at the Wairau, was the Chairman of this committee and while no explanation was given for the reason behind these names it seems likely that they were a nod to the infamous action where the young Arthur Wakefield served with such distinction and shortly after gained his first command.

© Lemuel Lyes

For further reading I recommend the following.

Barrett, R. J. ‘Naval Recollections of the Late American War’, The United Service Journal and Naval and Military Magazine, 1841 Part 1.  Accessed via Google Books, – This original account from the perspective of a young midshipman gives a fascinating insight into the role of the Royal Navy in this campaign.

Temple, P. A Sort of Conscience:  The Wakefields. Auckland University Press, 2005. – This is a fantastic volume and by the far the single best account I’ve read of Arthur Wakefield’s naval career including his experiences during the War of 1812.  It is available here.

Wright, M. Old South. North Shore, N.Z., Penguin, 2009 – This book includes an insightful explanation of the contributing factors and context behind the Wairau Affray.

Finally, Wakefield himself summarized his career in his application for promotion which along with letters of support by those he had served under was published posthumously in Wakefield, E. J. Adventure in New Zealand and also in the Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle on 28 September 1844.

18 replies »

  1. Reblogged this on Talking Auckland and commented:
    Interesting story and fate for one of Nelson’s founding fathers who was in the end killed by a feared Maori Chief. Prior to his death this founding father would be part of the Royal Navy force that captured Washington DC and razed the White House in 1814

  2. A part of history I would venture to guess many Americans are unaware of. Although back in the early 1800’s it wasn’t unusual for a boy to join the service at 10, Arthur had quite the career and happened to be in timeless situations to mark his journey. A remarkable and memorable life had he.

    • You are completely right, one might think it was unusual for a boy so young to be fighting but there were many youngsters. Junior officers like Arthur, but also young ships boys, drummer boys etc.

      I actually grew up in Nelson, and while I knew about the history of the early days of the settlement and recalled that Arthur had been in the Navy and seen service in the War of 1812 I never dug any deeper than that so never knew that he had been involved in such iconic events before his arrival in New Zealand.

  3. A fascinating story! I knew Arthur Wakefield had a naval career but had never looked into it. The Wairau Massacre or Affray was very much an own goal, I think – you’re right, Wakefield was realistic enough to know what he was getting into. The problem came when one of the untrained company employees they’d pressed into joining them panicked and opened fire. From the ethical viewpoint, Wakefield was out of line even by period standards, and had no support for the effort from colonial authorities. But equally, Te Rangihaeata’s actions in striking down men who had surrendered was also out of line. An intriguing incident in New Zealand’s history.

    • I lived in Nelson for quite a number of years and like you was aware that Arthur Wakefield had served in the Royal Navy, and that he was a veteran of the War of 1812, but I had no idea he had been at Washington or that he had such an incredible career.

      I actually lived not too far from where Henry Thompson was building his house, the first house in Tahunanui if I remember right, which fell into disrepair after suffering from earthquake damage. As a schoolboy I wrote an assignment on him and spent quite a bit of time at the Nelson museum archives which held his original diary and other papers. To say he had a bit of a temper is an understatement! I’ve always suspected, as have many others, that he was largely to blame for the situation getting out of control – but it was an expedition that Arthur could have called off.

      With a greater appreciation for just how much military experience Arthur had, not just at sea but also on land, I’m more convinced than ever that he never intended to actually have to fight. It is sad really, he seemed to have been a very capable leader in other areas and I wonder how different Nelson may have been had the incident at Wairau never occurred.

  4. Another Great article, one that I will take great pleasure in showing to my North American colleagues.

    On the subject of New Zealand Street Names, volumes could be written on their origins. Over the years I have resided throughout the Lower North Island in many streets including but not limited to a Ngatitoa St, Nelson Crescent, Brougham Street, Woodlands Street, Maadi Place, Florence Drive, Olympus Circle, Kent Street and a Marne road. I can connect all of them with some event in New Zealand’s past, or in some case my own family’s history in the service of the nation, but to the average Joe they are just names on a sign.

    • Thanks Rob! Glad that you enjoyed it!

      You are very right – the stories behind some names seem obvious but many are little known, or even unknown. I have to admit that I lived in Nelson for quite some time, frequently cycling around Wakefield Quay and over the hill to Washington Valley, and never even gave thought to the name, let alone link it to the War of 1812.

      I had presumed that the streets named after the figures and exploits of the Royal Navy were simply a patriotic gesture and never made the connection to Arthur Wakefield’s career. It is fascinating to realise that he knew some of the ‘heroes’.

      It is a good reminder to look around and take note of the place names around us – and see if there is a hidden story there somewhere!

      • Thanks for your brilliant research, love reading your blog. I still live in Nelson and now I’ll definitely look at the street names differently. You know, I’ve always wondered about the name of one of the earliest (and steepest!) streets in Nelson, Russel St of Washington Valley Rd. Any ideas of its origin??

      • Thanks for the compliments! I’m always thrilled to hear that readers have enjoyed my efforts!

        I don’t know the story behind Russell Street but note that it was mentioned in the same newspaper article I linked to in this post, at the same time that Washington Road and Mount Vernon were announced. Usually when the name Russell pops up in New Zealand I presume it is in honour of Lord John Russell who was British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies from 1839 – 1841. He later became Prime Minister in 1846. Russell in the Bay of Islands was named after him. That would be my first guess anyway!

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