The Bomb That Did Not Burst in Air

Fairfax County Park Authority

As Americans battled the British in the War of 1812, militiamen stationed near what is now Fort Belvoir caught a lucky break when one bomb did not perform as expected.

This 13-inch mortar shell was found at the US Army Engineer Research and Development Laboratories Pontoon Basin at Fort Belvoir in October 1959. Sometime between September 3 and 5 of 1814, the Royal Navy bomb vessel Aetna or Meteor likely fired this 194-pound bomb at an American gun battery that had been erected at a small building known as the White House, located at the Belvoir manor ruins.  

This hollow bomb was filled with 10 to 15 pounds of gunpowder and plugged with a fuse. The fuse should have burned for 27 seconds before the bomb exploded, projecting two-inch-thick shrapnel at its target. Fortunately for the Americans at Belvoir, this bomb did not burst. The diffused bomb is now preserved with many other artifacts associated with the British attack in September of 1814.

Just a month earlier, Royal Navy commander Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane had begun assembling a large task force off the Maryland coast and assigned Rear Admiral George Cockburn to strike Washington in an effort to demoralize Americans and suppress local resistance. Admiral Cockburn ordered Captain James Gordon’s squadron to sail up the Potomac to Washington to destroy fortifications along the river. On August 24, British soldiers and marines defeated Americans at Bladensburg, Maryland. They entered Washington that evening and set fire to the Presidential Mansion, the U.S. Capitol, and other government buildings. The British left Washington the next day and occupied Alexandria.

On September 2, Captain Gordon sailed south from Alexandria with his 29-ship squadron that included the bomb ships Aetna and Meteor. Meanwhile, American militia under Captain David Porter erected a gun battery on the high bluffs above the Potomac near a small fishing office known as the White House. The White House stood on the site of Belvoir, the long-abandoned Fairfax family manor. Porter planned to fire down the steep bluffs and disable Gordon’s warships before they could reach open waters.

Adverse winds stalled Gordon’s squadron between Mount Vernon and the White House landing. For two days, his fleet fired hundreds of bombs, rockets, and solid shot at the American defenses at the White House. Captain Porter’s militia fired on the British ships with little effect but repulsed two British ground assaults. Winds picked up on September 5, enabling Gordon’s squadron to sail downriver and rendezvous with Admiral Cockburn’s fleet. Within days, Gordon’s squadron would once again pass the abandoned White House with the entire British fleet. They moved up the Potomac toward Baltimore to attack Fort McHenry where, as we well know, bombs did burst in air.

Fairfax County curates artifacts for Fort Belvoir, such as this mortar shell, under a memorandum of agreement (MOA). This MOA allows Park Authority researchers to request access to Army artifacts to enhance our understanding of Fairfax County history.

Royal Navy Bomb Vessels

Bomb vessels were first used by the Royal Navy during the Nine Years War when French coastal towns such as Dunkirk and St Malo were bombarded by English fleets. The design of the bomb vessels improved considerably during this period. The first generations used fixed mortars, which were aimed by rotating the whole ship. By the end of the war larger mortars were being used and they were placed on traversable mountings

There were no new bomb vessels built or purchased between the end of the American War of Independence and the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. As with earlier wars, numbers of existing Royal Navy warships were converted into bomb vessels to serve during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and the War of 1812. These supplemented the existing fleet, which by 1793 consisted of only the Aetna-class vessels Vesuvius and Terror.[12] Purchased and converted merchant vessels, and converted navy warships provided most of the bomb vessels that saw service in these wars, though limited construction on purpose-built vessels began in the early 19th century, and by 1812 work had begun on a larger class of vessels.

Wikipedia:  Willis, Sam. Admiral Benbow: The Lift and Times of a Naval Legend & Winfield. British Warships of the Age of Sail 1794–1817. p. 363.

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