In August 1814 John Norvell and his brother in law Spencer Houghton Cone found themselves as part of the American forces defending the City of Washington from the British invasion at the Battle of Bladensburg. At the time, Norvell was married to Alexandrine “Kitty” Cone, Spencer’s sister. She along with her sister, Amelia, were alone in Washington.
The American army moved from Baltimore to the outskirts of Washington, near the small village of Bladensburg, Maryland. Norvell and Cone served in the Baltimore city militia and were now fighting (heroically, they recalled) in the disastrous Battle of Bladensburg. It was later, called the “Bladensburg Races’ because most of the American troops simply emptied their guns and then retreated as quickly as possible. Given the situation, Norvell and Cone, hastened to Washington to try to rescue their wives. Kitty was pregnant and almost due to deliver. The men rushed to the city barely ahead of the panic.
In Washington a scene of terror greeted Norvell and Cone. Men, women, and children ran through the streets, alone and unprotected Kitty and Amelia could only follow the example. Hastily grabbing any money they could find and a bag of clothes, the women prepared to flee. They set out not knowing where they would go. In the yard of the White House, they came upon a fugitive soldier who blocked their path. They attempted to retreat and met a human wall of populace fleeing the city. With their path blocked and no one to assist them, they wandered helplessly. Suddenly, they saw Spencer Cone and he also saw them. At that moment, the fugitive tried to grab them. Spencer drove him off and came to their rescue. He was soon joined by Norvell.
Norvell and Cone were starved and asked the women to show them where there was food. Moving back to their house, they discovered the larder which contained a cold chicken and some milk. Eating a quick meal, they now had to flee the city for the British were moving quickly on the scene. They attempted to walk out of the city, but Cone’s feet were badly blistered and he found it impossible to move. Norvell spied a pony in a neighboring field and caught him. Cone mounted him and they were once again on their way. Stopping at the White House, they asked one of the servants for a drink. He put a bottle of wine on a silver tray and giving it to them fled the scene. Thus refreshed, they crossed the Potomac and proceeded out of the city for three miles into Alexandria.
Night was coming on, and fearing the British were in pursuit, they halted. In a deserted mansion nearby, certain that Kitty needed rest, the men helped the sick and weary women into the house. After searching the house, the only food they could find was a handful of wheat flour, which they made into unleavened wheat pancakes. They were so exhausted that they fell asleep even before they had finished their meager meal, sleeping on the bag of clothes spread out on the floor. While the men slept, Amelia awoke and went out into the garden—in the distance she could see the burning White House and Capitol building.
In the morning, Norvell and Cone secured a cart and hitching the pony to it, they moved on. Kitty unable to walk, lay in the cart, exhausted in her pregnant condition. Slowly moving, they put nearly six miles between them and the city. It was a terrible ordeal, moving in the open cart in the August sun. By afternoon they paused again to rest in the shade of the woods. Returning to the road, they noticed that a storm had arisen. With the thunder and lightening, the pony balked and refused to move. In the terrible storm, the women left the cart and found refuge in a log house. There a family helped them, putting Kitty Norvell in their bed. Kitty survived her ordeal to give birth to their son Spencer Norvell nearly a month later, but she would later die of pneumonia in 1821.
The story of Norvell and Cone’s adventures in the War of 1812 is condensed from Some Account of the Life of Spencer Houghton Cone, A Baptist Preacher in America, New York, 1856, pp 104-120.