The city of Washington was overrun with British soldiers. In an act of retaliatory vengeance for the burning of Canadian settlements, the invading army set fire to the American capital; flames shot into the sky from the destroyed U.S. Capitol building. President James Madison and his cabinet fled the city, and U.S. troops perched on a hill northwest of the city watched the conflagration. Only one American lost his life that day in the capital city. His name was John Lewis, and he was the grandnephew of George Washington.
The British military commanders aimed only to destroy public buildings and threatened their soldiers (on pain of death) not to hurt civilians. General Robert Ross was even upset that in burning the Capitol, they had destroyed the nascent Library of Congress. “I make war neither against Letters nor Ladies,” he said. The few Washingtonians who stayed behind described the invading British as “perfect gentlemen.”
But Lewis felt differently. He held a legitimate grudge against the British: Both he and his elder brother Charles had been impressed into the British navy and only recently freed.
Impressment, or the taking of sailors and forcing them into naval service, had long been practiced by the British and was one of the key causes of the War of 1812. Great Britain was fighting a war with Napoleon’s France, too, and it needed all the sailors it could get. The British knew that many of their sailors had fled the rigors and indignities of naval service for more comfortable work on American merchant ships. John and Charles were only two of thousands of American sailors wrongfully forced into the British navy. It was a punishing job, and John reported being “often and unmercifully flogged.”
British officials claimed John was a British subject from Quebec, not an American. “Given that he was clearly a native English speaker with a North American accent, saying he was born in Quebec was the most plausible story that would make him a British subject,” historian Nathan Perl-Rosenthal explains. “This was because Quebec was by far the most populous British colony in North America.” Thus John was forced to serve the country his ancestors had fought against in the Revolution.
The brothers both sought to escape the British navy by emphasizing their famous great uncle. (Their father, Fielding Lewis, was the son of George Washington’s sister Betty Washington Lewis.) It’s unlikely that John or Charles had ever met George Washington, but both knew that appealing to the beloved first president would help their attempt to escape the navy. Charles, a tall man in his thirties, broadcast his family identity on his body by getting tattoos of the names of his family members. Tattoos of names were “the single most common kind of tattoo that sailors had,” Perl-Rosenthal says.
On board a British ship, a fellow sailor made punctures on Charles’s arm and breast which he filled with gunpowder. The tattoos included the letters GW and MW, for George and Martha Washington. British naval commanders might claim him as British, but his body reminded all around him of his distinguished American ancestry. John took a more traditional approach: He wrote to his uncle Lawrence Lewis, one of Washington’s favorite nephews, and asked him to appeal to Congress for help. He deserved to be freed, “Particular as my Dear Father being a Distant Relation of General George Washington now Deceas’d.”
In January 1812, only six months before the outbreak of war with Great Britain, Lawrence finally compiled documents to prove that John and Charles were American citizens. The brief documents noted twice that the men’s father was Washington’s nephew. Lawrence submitted copies to the State Department, and Secretary of State James Monroe appealed to the British ambassador for help—again noting the important Washington connection. However, John and Charles were freed before the British ambassador’s request ever reached England and both returned to Virginia. The homecoming of the “nephews to our departed hero Washington” made the Washington newspaper, whose editor opined that their sufferings should be the subject of speeches in Congress.
Madison confidante Richard Rush took up the call and featured Washington’s nephews in his July 4, 1812, oration in support of the freshly declared war. “Two of the nephews of your immortal Washington have been seized, dragged, made slaves on board of a British ship!” he exclaimed before the House of Representatives. “They were kept in slavery more than a year… How, Americans, can you sit down under such indignities?”
John would not take his treatment sitting down; according to an 1849 account of the war, he supposedly vowed “eternal and signal vengeance against the tyrants who had enslaved and scourged him.” However, he didn’t join the fight until nearly two years into the war, when he enlisted in the navy as a sailing master. Several months later he was dismissed, and given the dire need for troops, he must have conducted himself quite badly.
The disgraced sailor came to Washington, where on August 24, 1814, he watched British forces destroy the city bearing his great uncle’s name. Enflamed with anger—and, quite likely, with alcohol—Lewis jumped onto his horse, grabbed his sword, and rode up to a group of British troops. He hurled “a volley of epithets” at the enemy soldiers and was in the act of swinging his sword at one when he was shot. Lewis fell dead from his horse and his body lay in the street as the British continued on to burn the White House.
A local newspaper, the Washington City Gazette, lamented Lewis’s “murder” by “British scoundrels.” “Thus they have shewn their great respect to the memory of Washington,” the editor wrote, “and have proved to the world and to the misguided anglo-factionists here, that their respect to his memory is to murder his nephew and burn the second house he ever built to the ground.” Another newspaper, allied with the anti-war Federalist Party, contested the account, claiming that Lewis was drunk and had threatened British soldiers. The soldier who shot Lewis, the newspaper noted wryly, “did not stop to enquire whose nephew he was, as that had nothing to do with the business.”
The British forces that impressed the Lewis brothers and later killed John surely had no idea of these men’s connection to George Washington. The War of 1812 is often seen as America’s second war for independence, as America again threw off the imperial yoke of Great Britain. Little more than a decade after Washington’s death, his name—and his family—remained a touchstone of the fight for independence.