George Gleig, soldier, chronicler of the War of 1812 (b 20 Apr 1796 at Stirling, Scotland; d 9 Jul 1888). A soldier who fought with the British on two continents, George Gleig was participant and witness to key battles during the final years of the War of 1812, including the burning of the US capital and the British defeat at the Battle of New Orleans. A gifted writer, Gleig turned his experiences into a series of vivid written accounts of his service in the New World, and these works have given us a personal picture of the war through the eyes of a soldier-scholar.
The son of a bishop, George Gleig had the tools to become a first-rate scholar or clergyman, but as the Napoleonic Wars consumed Europe and threatened Britain, he sought to serve his country in the army of the Duke of Wellington. In 1813 he turned his back on a scholarship and joined the 85th Light Infantry as an ensign. He fought as part of the harrowing “Peninsular Campaign” in Spain, and in France at the battle of Toulouse. After Napoleon’s abdication, Gleig, like many veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, soon found service in the New World against the Americans during the War of 1812.
Battles of the War of 1812
In less than two years, Gleig fought in five critical battles—Bladensburg, Baltimore, New Orleans, Washington and Fort Bayo—and suffered three wounds. Throughout them all, Gleig took copious notes of his experiences, the sights, the terrain, the conduct and nature of both British and American forces. While an able soldier, Gleig’s greatest contribution was taking these notes and transforming them in his post-war account. His memoir, The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans 1814-1815, provides a rich, detailed and occasionally critical account of the major actions taken at Washington and New Orleans.
Regarding the battle of Bladensburg (summer of 1814), during which British troops marched on Washington, Gleig was critical of the initial campaign and honest about the new soldiers' ignorance of the region compared to the American soldiers. On 24 August 1814, Gleig witnessed the burning of the American Capitol building. For the locals, Gleig wrote, it was “a night of terror and dismay.” The city was ruined. “Of the Senate-house, the President's palace, the barracks, the dockyard, &c., nothing could be seen, except heaps of smoking ruins; and even the bridge, a noble structure upwards of a mile in length, was almost entirely demolished. There was, therefore, no further occasion to scatter the troops, and they were accordingly kept together as much as possible on the Capitol Hill.”
Gleig’s account of the Battle of New Orleans is a critical and personal account. The fighting had been brutal and exhausting, and many of the soldiers had little to no faith in the skills and leadership of their commander, Edward Pakenham.
“For two whole nights and days not a man had closed an eye, except such as were cool enough to sleep amidst showers of cannon-ball . . . We retired, therefore, not only baffled and disappointed, but in some degree disheartened and discontented. All our plans had as yet proved abortive; even this, upon which so much reliance had been placed, was found to be of no avail; and it must be confessed that something like murmuring began to be heard through the camp. And, in truth, if ever an army might be permitted to murmur, it was this.”
At war’s end, Gleig served again in Europe under Wellington and against a returning Napoleon. With the defeat of the French despot, he returned to his studies, and eventually followed his father’s footsteps and became a reverend. He soon turned his mind to writing books and articles ranging from war accounts to novels, including his important memoir of his experiences in the War of 1812.
Author: Jason Ridler