A Tale of Two Thorntons

This past Thursday was the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans. Commemorations of the event have mainly focused on the people — men such as Major General Andrew Jackson, General Sir Edward Pakenham, or Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane — or the irony of the battle having occurred some two weeks after the Treaty of Ghent was signed on Christmas Eve. Yet we have always been struck by another facet of the clash that is marked by one of those strange historical coincidences that happens every now and then. This one concerns the peculiar appearance at two pivotal events of the war by two men of the same name, one an eccentric American and the other a decorated British officer.

The officer was William Thornton, an Irish-born career military man who had won medals and promotion for his feats in leading His Majesty’s 85th Regiment of Foot during Wellington’s Peninsula Campaign. Thornton was among those veterans of the Napoleonic Wars freed up for North American service after the first defeat of Bonaparte in the spring of 1814, and he and his regiment were part of General Robert Ross’s force that put ashore that summer in Maryland in the third year of the War of 1812. Ross’s objective was the U.S. capital, and the 85th Foot were in the thick of things from the start. At Bladensburg, Thornton led the charge that sent the Americans into a flight so panicked that the affair was immediately dubbed “the Bladensburg races.” It was a fitting role for the thirty-five-year old who had acquired a reputation for reckless courage but also for unerring reliability. On the Peninsula, Thornton was not just consistently punctual in executing maneuvers, he was often dependably early and had a way of turning battles’ tides by simply showing up. His performance at Bladensburg came as no surprise then, but his impetuous bravery for once got the better of him. As American forces scattered and ran, and the British began their rapid descent on Washington, DC, Thornton lay wounded and left behind. American stragglers captured him. It looked like the end of the war for him and in losing one of their most capable officers, a considerable loss for British arms.

The American government evacuated its capital, and the British occupation was both leisurely and destructive. They set fire to the Capitol and treated themselves to the food in President James Madison’s larder while vandalizing his home and making crude jokes about his bravery and Dolley’s looks. Eventually they put the Executive Mansion to the torch as well. Among the evacuees from Washington was the American William Thornton, who had repaired to Georgetown with a wagonload of miniature contraptions and bundled documents while the first shots were being fired at Bladensburg. Thornton was neither a packrat nor a coward. He was the head of the U.S. Patent Office, and as was his custom, he was running late. His hasty gathering together of the scattered and mostly uncatalogued items in the Patent Office had been haphazard and random, but that too was part of his character. Even in unhurried moments, Dr. Thornton (he had begun his career as a physician) could have had “haphazard” as his motto and “random” as his middle name.

From his youth in a British Caribbean colony, Thornton had always indulged a scatterbrained approach to life. When he settled in Philadelphia in 1787, the heady atmosphere of that city’s intellectual vibrancy encouraged his already eclectic nature. Though educated in medicine at Aberdeen, he dabbled in architecture, engineering, botany, and anything else that struck his fancy. He won the contest for the design of the U.S. Capitol, much to the dismay of more experienced competitors, but his plan was so imaginative it couldn’t be achieved without busting budgets and ignoring the calendar. Thornton was never prideful about such matters, and he cheerfully consented to changes that made the project thriftier and more manageable. Accustomed to coping with temperamental architects, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were forever grateful. President Jefferson, in fact, appointed Thornton to head the Patent Office in 1803 despite Thornton’s reputation for eccentricity. In 1799, for example, he had arrived at Mount Vernon for George Washington’s funeral with the suggestion that Washington’s corpse be injected with lamb’s blood to restore him to life. The awkward pause that followed this proposal apparently convinced Thornton to drop the idea.

The Patent Office was hardly a plum job. The department had to share space with the more prestigious Post Office on Eighth Street, but Thornton basked in the post even if he proved typically disorganized in it. The passing years saw enough patents issued to prevent inquiries, but some applications and models went unrecorded and were still gathering dust in the office’s dark corners when news of the British invasion sent Thornton into an uncharacteristic frenzy. He loaded up what he could in catch-as-catch-can fashion, drove the bulging wagon to Georgetown, and spent the night forlornly watching the skies alight with the flames of the Capitol and Presidential Palace.

The next day brought the relatively happy report that the building on Eighth Street still stood. Thornton impulsively headed into Washington to save more inventory. He arrived at the Patent Office just as British soldiers were preparing to set it on fire. Thornton implored the young officer to spare the building. Destroying the intellectual legacy of invention and innovation it contained would be, cried William Thornton, an act of irredeemable barbarism. The soldiers stopped as their young officer frowned, paused, and disappeared to consult a superior. When he returned, he called the entire operation off, and Thornton sighed in relief. By the merest stroke of luck, he had arrived in the nick of time.

The other William Thornton meanwhile mended in captivity, which ended in October when he returned to his army by way of a prisoner exchange. Col. Thornton had missed the repulse of General Ross’s army at Baltimore where Ross had been killed by a sniper. When Thornton rejoined the 85th Foot in Jamaica, the army was under the command of General John Keane, and Thornton was true to form in being right on time for the new campaign being organized to take New Orleans. And just as always, Thornton was in the thick of things from the start. He led his regiment in the advance parties that landed at Pine Island on Lake Borgne that December.

Yet delay and hesitation came from ranks above Thornton’s. Logistical snarls and abysmally cold weather also worked to retard British plans and gave Andrew Jackson time to dig in a line at the Rodriguez Canal, reinforce it, and then fortify it even more. Sir Edward Pakenham took command of the British force outside New Orleans in late December and didn’t care for what he saw. A few probing assaults on Jackson’s line always came back bloodied, but the men were not discouraged. The British were reassured, after all, that they were attacking a ragtag gaggle of “dirty shirts,” the kind of mob that had scattered like frightened rabbits at the Bladensburg races. Pakenham dispensed with tentative strikes and scheduled his major assault.

Though Pakenham didn’t think it necessary, he consented to sending a detachment to the western bank of the Mississippi where a floating American artillery battery was moored. Those guns in British hands would be able to run off the American ship protecting Jackson’s right flank and could even lob shells into the right of Jackson’s line to soften it up for the main British assault. If that part of the American line anchored on the Mississippi crumpled, the British could conceivably role the entire position up like a carpet. New Orleans would be Pakenham’s for the taking.

Timing was everything for the operation against the American battery. It was a job that called for the army’s most obsessively reliable officer commanding its most consistently dependable regiment. Col. William Thornton and his trusty “Bucks Volunteers” (the 85th’s nickname for having been originally raised in Buckinghamshire), accompanied by a contingent of sailors and Royal Marines, pushed off for the western bank during the night of January 7. They soon disappeared in a rolling fog that muffled the splash of oars while cloaking the Chalmette Plain in front of Jackson’s line, just the kind of cover that would allow Pakenham to bring his army in close with a minimum of casualties. His plan to use the unexpected advantage of the fog was one of the reasons Pakenham didn’t wait to launch the main assault the following morning. The eerie sound of shrill bagpipes and the funereal cadence of regimental drums brought the British on to the Chalmette Plain. But the dense fog gradually turned to wisps and soon vanished altogether. Jackson’s artillery opened up, and riflemen accustomed to dropping squirrels at some distance found the larger targets wearing redcoats and coming closer in massed ranks impossible to miss. The American line didn’t break and run as it had at Bladensburg. These Americans stood and fired. They fired en masse and then at will, firing and reloading to fire again, repeating the lethal drill for about thirty minutes until Pakenham lay dead with his army broken and the battle over. In front of the Rodriguez Canal were almost 300 British corpses. Four times that number were wounded. An additional 500 hardened veterans of the European wars lay motionless among their dead and wounded, hoping the pretense would save their lives and eager to raise hands in surrender when the Americans moved among them. American losses totaled 6 men killed and 7 wounded.

As the guns had fallen silent across the river, William Thornton had finally arrived on the western bank and with relative ease had taken the American battery. Orders, however, soon came from Pakenham’s successor in command across the river to quit the position and return for a general British withdrawal to the gulf.

Months separated the exploits of our two Thorntons in the closing phases of the War of 1812, but in these episodes, it is strange to consider how their fortunes were strangely reversed, as if Providence for a while had been confused by the monikers and settled on one the usual fate of the other. Dr. William Thornton, the confirmed eccentric whose absentminded habits made him chronically late, was right on time at a key moment to save the U.S. Patent Office. Outside New Orleans, Col. William Thornton, the impeccable professional who counted seconds and overcame all hazards to fulfill any mission earlier than scheduled, was for whatever reason late at the key moment in the Battle of New Orleans. The not yet captured guns that could have made all the difference remained silent, two hundred years ago, last week.


David S. Heidler 2017