A Retrospect of the Year 1811

On the commencement of the new year, it is a practice not only becoming the historian, the philosopher, the moralist, and the Christian, but we had almost said incumbent on every rational being, to take a calm and cautious retrospect of that which has just concluded its circle; to collect, and faithfully enregister, if not on paper, at least in the memory, the most striking and instructive events and phenomena, whether physical, moral, political or accidental, that have fallen out within its compass.  A view like this, embracing such a mighty and diversified mass of anterior occurrences, can seldom fail to be pregnant with sources of something desirable,--amusement, delight, improvement, or amelioration—to every feeling and contemplative mind.  It furnishes both matter and motives for reflection on the past, enjoyment of the present and useful calculation and arrangement, as to that which is to come.  It addresses itself to every spring and power in our nature that are worthy of cultivation—to the heart, through the medium of some event that has excited the passions, awakened the affections—to  the understanding and the judgment by expanded and practical representation of nature and society, the laws of our Creator, and the institutions of man—to the imagination, by means of the beautiful, the terrible, or the sublime—and to our sense of religion, by enabling us to trace, at times, the finger of Providence in the administration of sublunary affairs.

The present is a period, which, in a manner the most earnest, and with a voice peculiarly loud and solemn, calls on the American people to employ their minds in such a retrospect. On the ever-restless pinions of Time, the year 1811 has passed away; but it events are not of so transient a nature.   While the present inhabitants of our country shall survive, they will cling to the memory with an indissoluble adhesion, and some of them will be transmitted to posterity in a recorded form,

                               ”Ære perennius, si non
                                Regalique situ Pyramidum altius,”

more durable than bronze, if not more lofty than the heaven-supporting pyramids.

To such of our readers, then, who are more inclined, for the moment, to be serious and contemplative than sportive and gay -- whose souls are attuned rather than to solemnizing thought, than to exhilarating fancies -- to “salutary wo, rather than to useful mirth”—to such of our readers we especially address ourselves.  We invite them to accompany us in imagination, to some elevated and commanding spot, where our prospect of time and space shall be equally constructed.  In this situation, where all must be silence, and where no perplexing cares must be suffered to intrude, we will endeavor to present them with a mirror, in which they may behold, on a miniature scale, a few of the principal events of the year that has just elapsed.  It is not, however, our intention, nor would it comport with the limits of the present article, to attempt to trace these several events to their causes.  Equally foreign is it from our view to draw from them, in a spirit of censorship and uncharitable denunciation, all those moral and theological conclusions, which in the opinion of some, they might seem to warrant.  Our chief business shall be to represent facts, leaving to our readers to make such application and use of them, as each one’s feelings may incline him and his judgment direct. 

Recollecting, then, the words of the poet, “omina ab Jove incipiuntur,” all things begin from above, we will first direct our attention to the heavens.  We are here presented with a –“burning sphere,” a “fierce, fiery form,” threatening in it aspect, and stupendous in its dimensions, which had lately made an eruption into the solar system.  One of those rare and erratic bodies denominated comets, alike unusual for its magnitude and brilliancy, with its “illimitable torch,” lighting up the heavens like another moon, appears in the north, and with a rapidity of motion, altogether inconceivable to us, sweeps across the hemisphere, till it disappears in the south.  Although happily emerged from that dismal night of ignorance and superstition, during which the approach of comets excited universal terror and dismay, these “meteor orbs” are still viewed by us with a lively interest and awakened feelings—we are still susceptible of very serious and solemn impressions from their appearance.  When attentively examined, and considered in all the views and relations they present to the mind, their aspect is no less awful than sublime. Though it would be difficult to persuade us that they do literally, “from their fiery hair, shake pestilence and war,” yet we cannot help regarding it as an extreme, almost equally extravagant, and certainly no less erroneous, to contend, that they are altogether inefficient in their passage through the solar system. That they produce some effect on the economy of this earth, as well, perhaps, as on that of her sister planets, is a point respecting which our present views of the subject absolutely forbid us to cherish a doubt.  On this topic, however, it is our intention to dilate in a future article.


Were we, at this time, to dwell any longer on the subject of comets, it would be descant on the wonderful display they make of the infinitude of space, the grandeur of the universe, and the immensity as well as the power, wisdom, and goodness of Him who rules all, controls all, preserves all, and is everywhere present.  In relation to these points, the comet seems to impart to us a more luminous and impressive lesson, than all the other bodies that roll through the heavens. More rapid in its motion than the lightning of the skies, travelling several millions of miles every hour, it journies at this rate for many centuries, before it completes a single round of its customary orbit.  How many other suns it passes; through how many other systems it sweeps, and what proportion of entire space it traverses during this stupendous career, it does not belong to us even to conjecture.—Imagination itself, unable to pursue it through a field so unbounded, shrinks from the attempt in absolute despair.  When we reflect on the inconceivable impetus with which the comet moves; the number of other celestial bodies it must necessarily pass in its course; the thousand fragments into which it would shiver both itself and them, were it to impinge against them; the disorder and confusion likely to ensue in the grand system of nature, from such an event, and the difficulty of regulating and controlling millions of such bodies, all flying in swift and simultaneous motion—when we reflect on these points, we are lost in amazement at the power, the wisdom, the vigilance, and the benignity of that Being, who sits at the helm of creation, and directs the movements of the mighty machine.  Such is the lofty and pious style of reflection, which the appearance of comets is calculated to inspire; and, should it not be thought self-commendation, we might safely, because truly, add, such is the style which oftentimes took possession of our own mind, on viewing the comet of 1811.  It is, in a peculiar manner, when looking on these bodies, that we are inclined with the poet, emphatically to exclaim,

                        --“An undevout astronomer is mad.”            
On the 17th day of September last, the sun suffered an annual, amounting almost to a total eclipse. The skies were unusually serene, as if fitted up for the grand celestial exhibition.  The spectacle bespoke, in the loftiest language, the boundless power and magnificence of its author.  It displayed a most impressive combination of the terrible and the sublime.  Solemnity and awe were its necessary effects on the minds of mortals.  Even the inferior animals seemed fixed, for a while, in deep apprehension and mute amazement. While the astronomer applied this instructive phenomenon to the cultivation and improvement of his favourite science, the pious and reflecting mind could not fail to derive from it a freshened recollection, and to perceive in it a faint image of that great day, when the moon and the stars shall withhold their light, and the sun himself be turned to darkness.

From this brief survey of the heavens, we must now direct our view to the atmosphere and the earth.  Here, again, we are presented with a series of events, during the year 1811, not, indeed, new with regard to their nature, but certainly new, in relation to the scale of magnitude on which they occurred.  In the United States, the intensity of our summer heats was, for a short time, unparalleled within the memory of the oldest inhabitants.  Perhaps it would not be extravagant to assert, that it was without a precedent in the annals of our country.  Certainly thermometrical registers do not, at any former period, place it so high.

In one place the earth was unusually parched with drought; in another, drenched with torrents of rain.  In Europe, whole plains and forests consumed by fire, and thousands of peasants either reduced to beggary, or destroyed by the conflagration.

             “Robora comprendit, frondesq:  elapses in atlas
             “Ingentern coleo sonitum dedit:  inde secutus
             “Per ramos victor, perque alta cacumina regnat,
             “Et totum involit flammis nemus, et ruit atram
             “Ad cœum picea crassus caligine nubem.”

In the United States, various places overwhelmed by unheard of inundations, sweeping along with them, in promiscuous ruin, the works of nature and the monuments of art, the products of the “unvanquished forests”, and the labours of the cultivated farm.

             “ruit ardous ǣther,
             Et pluvial ingenti sata lǣta, boumque labors
             Diluit:  implentur fossæ, et cava flumina crescent
             Cum sonitu, fervitque fretis spirantibus æquor.
             Proluit insane contorquens voritce sylvas
             Fluviorum rex Eridanus, camposque per omnes
             Cum stablis armenta tulit.”

As far as records entitled to credit are extant on the subject, the inundations of the year 1811 appear to have been more formidable and destructive in the United States, than those of any former period since the settlement of the country.

Of these overwhelming floods the ultimate effects were by no means made manifest on their first appearance.  Their aspect was terrible, and their devastations great, on the tracts of country over which they immediately swept. Beyond these limits they were not, in the first instance, felt, except through the medium of public sympathy.  Disasters, however, of a more melancholy and extensive natures they still kept in reserve.  Bodies of stagnant water which they every where left behind them, being impregnated with vegetable and animal matter, and acted on by the rays of an ardent sun, were soon converted into vast and offensive repositories of putrefaction.  From these numerous and prolific sources issued a noisome odour, accompanied by a pestilentical vapour, which soon infected the atmosphere to a great distance around them.  A state of things like this could not long remain ineffective or innocent.  Diseases of a malignant character and dangerous tendency overspread the adjacent country, in some instances to a very alarming extent.  Whole families and settlements were prostrated at once, the well being insufficient to minister to the wants and distresses of the sick.  Under such circumstances, the mortality could not fail to be great, although not always in proportion to the extent of suffering, or the amount of disease.  In no instance does Death appear to have been sparing, in many he was unusually prodigal of his visits; in no instance had the Grave a right to complain that he was defrauded of his due.  This is no exaggerated picture of real, much less a mere fancy of fictitious calamity.  It would be easy to demonstrate by authentic documents, that if it be in any respect false to nature, it is below the truth.  Our large commercial cities have, indeed, been happily exempt from the devastations of those wide-wasting epidemics, which, on former occasions, poured their thousands into the tomb.  Notwithstanding this, it is, we think, susceptible of distinct and incontrovertible proof that within the limits of the United States, the year 1811 was as fruitful of disease, as any other since the middle of the eighteenth century.  The general amount, therefore, of our national suffering from this source, constitutes an event which is strongly entitled to our remembrance and serious reflections as a people.

Having glanced at our calamities inflicted by the waters, we must now turn to those that have so fiercely assailed us on the wings of the wind.  When we take a view of the seacoast, we behold the Atlantic, from the banks of Newfoundland to the Gulf of Mexico, frequently lashed into wide-yawning vallies and mountains of foam, by the fury of the tempest.  Our liveliest sympathies are awakened, and our feelings even roused to horror, at the sight of numerous vessels within the very jaws of destruction, now tossed to the heavens, now sinking as low in the fathomless abyss.

            “Hi summon in fluctu pendent, his unda dehisceus
                “Terram inter fluctus aperit.”

Here they are dashed against the rocks and shivered into fragments,

            “Tres Notus obrepta in sax latentia torque,”

there they suddenly descend into a wide-gaping chasm, and the surrounding waters enclose them forever;

            “__________et rapidus vorat æquore vortex;”

while such as are enabled to ride out the storm, are left in the condition of floating wrecks.

            “Rudes cedunt, et mali et franguntur antennæ—
                “_________laxis laterum compagibus omnes
                “Accipiunt inimicum imbrem, rimisque fatiscunt.”

It is a melancholy truth, that during the course of the year 1811, such “sea-scenes” as this have been unusually frequent.  In no former year has the “spirit of the tempest” reveled with a sterner delight on the bosom of the Atlantic, or marked his course through the elements with more dismal commotions.

It is not, however, on the ocean alone that the winds have been productive of signal disasters.  On the 10th day of September last, the city of Charleston, from being in a state of profound security, was suddenly assailed by one of the most fierce and tremendous hurricanes that ever brought dismay and calamity on a people.  No tongue can describe, nor can imagination conceive the horrors of the scene.  The roaring of the element was like the voice of thunder, and the impetus of its course more dreadfully irresistible than the lightning of heaven.  Everything was prostrated        or driven in fearful confusion before it.  Bricks, tiles, beams, stones, and even large and ponderous metallic bodies, were swept through the atmosphere like the thistle’s beard.  To consummate the terrors and grandeur of the spectacle, darkness dropped from the whirlwind his ebon wings, and shrowded the city in the gloom of midnight.

In the midst of such a “war of elements,”—such a seemingly impending “wreck of nature,”—what power was competent to rescue the inhabitants from inevitable destruction?—We answer,--His, and His alone, who sends forth, and controls alike, the howling tempest and the whispering breeze;

            Who knows no high, no low, no great no
                But fills and bounds, connects and governs
He spoke, and the voice of the whirlwind was no more—He smiled, and the face of the heavens was serene.  While the war of the tempest was raging around them, Mercy threw a shield over the humbled inhabitants, which the sword of the destroying angel was unable to pierce.  People of Charlestown! awful has been your visitation, and powerful the arm made bare for your deliverance! may the event tend to strengthen your reliance on a protecting Providence, and your gratitude evince that you are worthy of its signal interposition in your behalf!

Directing our attention from the air and the waters to the solid ground, we are there presented with a phenomenon of a character still more formidable and destructive.  Staggered by the throes of some fierce imprisoned agent struggling to get free, the earth on which we tread, trembles beneath us, and swells into undulations that are visible to the eye.  In one place the waves of the ocean, without any apparent cause, retreat from the shore, in fearful agitation; in another, assail it with unwanted fury.  On the mountains, rocks are shaken from their beds, where they had reposed for ages, and hurled into the vallies in thundering commotion.  In some places the “sure and firm set earth,” loosened in its texture by the mighty concussion, sinks from it level and rises no more.  Our dwellings quake around us like the leaf of the aspen.  For a moment all is dismay and trembling expectation of immediate ruin. Even the inferior animals, struck with amazement at the impending horrors, stand mute and motionless, or hurry about in the wildest disorder.

This is but a faint picture of what occurred in various parts of the United States on the 16th and 17th of December last, when our country was shaken by an earthquake from Maine to Georgia, and from the Atlantic to the Mississippi.  The shocks were several times repeated, at short intervals, and some of them are believed to have been the severest that have occurred in this part of the American continent within the memory of our most aged inhabitants.  There is strong ground of apprehension, that what we experienced was nothing but the expiring throes of an earthquake which was felt in all its force, in S. America or the West Indies.   
From the calamities inflicted by the operations of nature, let us next direct our view to one which is the offspring of the human passions.  For many months, a clan of savages, associated under the directions of a fanatic chieftain, appeared to be meditating hostilities against our western frontiers.  Preparations are made to repel the threatened invasion, and to carry the war into the enemy’s country.  A small but gallant army, composed of soldiers fit to stand by Cæsar himself, are assembled and put in motion for this purpose.  Besides regular officers of his distinction, some of the bravest hearts and noblest minds, “the choice and master spirits of the age,” had volunteered their services on the occasion, and thrown themselves as a shield between their country and danger.  After a toilsome march thro’ the difficulties and privations of a savage wilderness, our band of heroes, eager for battle, and panting for glory, arrive on the 6th of November within sight of the foe.  Induced by false appearances and treacherous promises, to hope that the effusion of blood might yet be spared, they defer their meditated attack till the following day—a day, which many an eye ardently beaming with martial fires, was forbidden to behold.—Before the arrival of morning, their camp is surprised.  The silence of the night is suddenly interrupted by the war-whoop of the savage, and it darkness is fired by the flash of his rifle.  It was an occasion to try the soul of the bravest.  With the heart and swiftness of a lion, bounding on his prey, our troops are in array, and the battle commences.  On the field of strife, Night maintains his reign no longer.  His thickset shades are instantly dispersed, and a dismal day succeeds, lighted up by the fiery gleam of arms.  The conflict is fierce, determined and sanguinary.  The combatants intermix and grapple in death.  Not a hostile weapon is unemployed, and scarcely a hand but is dripping with gore.  The tomahawk and the bayonet, the sword and the scalping knife, toil promiscuously in the work of destruction.  Heroic deeds and noble darings consecrate the spot where the warriors contend.  Valour himself is satisfied with their achievements, and carnage is sated with the blood that is shed.  For a while the scales of fate hang doubtful; and uncertainty rests on the fortune of the day.  But courage and discipline ultimately prevail over impetuosity and rage.  The savages are dispersed, and Victory crowns the arms of our country.  But, alas! Her favours are dearly purchased! Her laurels are stained with the choicest blood of the army

To particularize merit, where all did their duty, might seem invidious.  By some it might, perhaps, be accounted unjust.  But all the brave are not equal in bravery, nor are patriots alike in their devotedness to their country. The hero will tower above the common warrior, and a Regulus and a Decius must forever stand conspicuous in the annals of glory.  To pass without a special tribute, the gallant but unfortunate Davies [Joseph Hamilton Daveiss] -- to suffer his fame, like his dust in the wilderness, to mingle with that of the common chieftain, would argue insensibility to peculiar merit, and a disregard for the most sacred of claims.  This distinguished officer, who fell in a desperate charge against the enemy, was calculated alike for the senate and the field.  His figure was formed in the prodigality of nature, and cast in one of her happiest moulds.  The look, the air, the fire of the warrior, shone forth through the veil of his civil occupations.  His sense of honour was refined and chivalrous.  His eloquence was equaled only by his bravery, his powers in debate by his skill in arms.  In each, the palm of pre-eminence was his.  He loved science, and he loved his country; but his master passion was his love of glory.  He courted her with the ardour of enthusiasm, obtained her favour, and perished in her embraces.  As a man, he possessed all that is pleasing in private, and all that is amiable in domestic life.  His fall is felt as a national loss; may his memory be honoured by a national tribute.  Could our breath embalm for immortality the hero’s glory, the name of Davies should triumph over time.  Loud be the note of Fame that tells history to after ages, and sacred the page that records his achievements!  Light be the sod, and unfading its verdure, that rests on the manly bosom of the brave!  May the laurel and the hays, springing fresh from his ashes, intermingle their foliage, and decorate the spot where their favourite reposes!  and may the savage chieftain, as often as he visits the battle ground of the Wabash, present at the humble tumulus his choicest offering, in honour of the grave of a brother warrior!

Let not this imperfect eulogy so feebly bestowed on the memory of Davies, be construed into disrespect for those of his companions in glory who fell by his side.  Though their graves are in the wilderness, their memory is enshrined in the hearts of their countrymen, and their fame shall be as an evergreen in a cultivated soil.  Hedged around by the public care, and fanned by the genial breath of Gratitude, it shall be plentifully watered by tears of Affection.  In after times, when that which is now a wilderness shall be converted into pleasant fields, the owner of the spot where their bones lie entombed, will glory in the possession of the soil, consecrated by the achievements and fertilized by the blood of the heroes of the Wabash.

Rest! honoured soldiers, rest!—May the dews of the night distil in mildness of your narrow dwellings, and the winds of heaven brush gently over them!  Let the coward shrink from your fate, and the ignoble spirit undervalue your fortune!  In the estimation of the brave, in the eye of Glory, the earth that forms a pillow for your heads, is softer than “the thrice-driven bed of down.”

            In the field of proud Honour, their swords in their hands,
                Their friends and their country to save;
                While Victory beams on life’s last ebbing sands,
                O! who would not rest with the brave!

Bending our views towards the southern regions of the hemisphere we inhabit, a spectacle suddenly breaks on us from that quarter, at which Nature shudders, and Humanity mourns.  With a convulsive struggle and a hideous yell, as if volcanic thunders shook the earth, the Fiend of discord severs her chains.  With giant step and frantic air, she hurries from her cell, brandishes her torch, and breathes in a people her own envenomed soul and sanguinary temper.  Wherever she turns, the olive withers beneath the fiery flashes of her eye.  Peace flies her baleful presence.  With such a joy as kindred dæmons know, she treads and crushes to pieces all her arts and monuments of civil life.  At her maddening call the fierce, malignant passions, “Hate and his furious colleagues,” rise in wild disorder.  Ancient friendships are forgotten, long subsisting harmonies subverted, and even the ties of consanguinity burst asunder like the spider’s thread.  The father arms against the son, the son against his sire, and a brother’s hand is deeply tinctured with brother’s blood.  Civil War makes bare her arm and rears her crimson banner.  On either side her hosts increase, alike resolved and anxious for the filed.  Fierce in the van appear the Pompey’s and the Cæsars, the Brutuses and the Antonies of modern times.  Like the Condors of the mountain they rush to battle, and on the plains of Mexico and Paraguay, Peru and Caracas, renew the scenes of Pharsalia Philippi.

Such are the tragic events, which in the year 1811 have drenched the Spanish American provinces in blood.

The next and last event we shall have leisure to notice is the result of accident.  Though in its real limits contracted almost to a single point, yet from a concurrence of circumstances  peculiarly affecting, it swells to an affair of national importance, and excites an interest as wide as the reign of Sensibility itself.  Could it be adequately delineated, it would subdue, as by enchantment, the savage bosom, though schooled in the practice of human torture.  Like the head of Medusa, it can scarcely be looked on without converting the spectator into marble.  We beg pardon of our readers for resorting to fable.  The dismal reality is alone sufficient—far beyond the powers of fiction.

The event which it now becomes our melancholy duty to relate, is in the its aspect the most horrid—in its circumstances the most touching—in its issue the most tragical, and in its consequences the most afflicting, that ever wrung the souls of a people.  To describe it is impossible, though the pen were held by the hand of angel: to paint it, beyond the powers of the pencil, though capable of more than mortal expression, and equal to every shade and combination of colouring, from the brilliancy of the sun-beams to seven-fold darkness.  In approaching it, Imagination starts appalled from its horrors, and Fancy sickens at the shocking panorama of woes.  Even the powers of Utterance become for a time, suffocated by Sympathy, or paralised by Dismay. The reader must be sensible that we allude to the conflagration of the Theatre at Richmond.

On the 26th of December, 1811, that devoted building was unusually thronged by youth and beauty, age and respectability, genius and wealth. The worth, the virtue, the flower of Richmond was gaily assembled on the fatal spot.  The crowded boxes, where, from lightness of heart and brilliancy of attire, beauty shone with superior attractions, rendered the scene indescribably interesting.  Each one having left the “load of life behind him,” a more animated assemblage no eye has beheld. The evening passed away in cheerfulness and mirth. Friendly salutations, flashes of merriment, coruscations of wit, social converse, and scenic representation, winged the hours with unusual speed.

The play was out and the afterpiece had commenced. Every eye beamed with satisfaction at the past, and with anticipated pleasure from what was yet in reserve.  But, O God! what a reverse is at hand!  Nature shudders at the prospect, as at the approach of Fate.  Flakes of fire are seen descending on the stage.  A performer comes forward, points to the ceiling in unspeakable anguish, and calls out to the audience, “the house is on fire!”  The voice of thunder had been music to such a sound.  Terror and dismay pervade the building with electric velocity, and with little less than the lightning’s force.   The door of escape was narrow and difficult of access.  To every mind the scene presents itself in all its horrors. The manliest busom feels now the shock of consternation, and the sickening of despair.  Hearts utterly incapable of fearing for themselves, shudder for the fate of some beloved object.  One has his Anehises, another his Creuss, a third his Aseanius, and a fourth, perhaps, the three relations together, to rescue from the burning.

All rush for the door in tumultuary confusion.  The husband clasps his wife, his son, his daughter; the brother his sister:  the pious son his mother, and the lover the idol of his affections, in hopes to bear them in safety through the throng.  A narrow, dark, and winding stair-case becomes suddenly choaked up by the crowd pressing ahead, precluding those in the rear from all possibility of escape in that direction.  In the mean time the fiery, all-devouring element, comes rolling from behind with an unprecedented rapidity.  Its fierce and flickering spires, darting through volumes of pitchy smoke, are more awfully terrific than the yawning of the grave.  Spreading, thickening, strengthening as it advances, everything reddens into cinders at its touch.  Immense columns of flame mount impetuously to the top of the building, and thence reflected toward the audience below, pour among them a hot and suffocating vapour.  Respiration becomes difficult and agonizing, the pabulum of life being consumed by the flame.  Every light is suddenly extinguished, and impenetrable darkness prevails, except where it is broken by the gleams from behind.

The prospect of escape thus irrevocably snatched away, and the last whisperings of Hope forever put to silence, all turns to terror and frantic despair.  A scene of ineffable horror ensues.  Five hundred souls, most of them females, many in the springtime and blossom of life, but a few feet in advance of an ocean of flame, fiercely and rapidly rushing to devour them!—Overcome by their fears and suffocated by the deadly vapour which they breathe, numbers sink down and expire without a struggle.  Others are trodden under foot by the fury of the throng.  The survivors are overtaken by the raging element; their clothes are in flame, and agony unutterable is their only sensation.  Convulsive exertions, imploring attitudes, frantic contortions and contagious horror madden in the spectacle, and shrieks of anguish resound through the walls.  Some, mounting by preternatural efforts on the heads of their fellow sufferers, rush toward the adjacent windows, and, with their clothes in a blaze, throw themselves into the street, gleaming like fiery meteors in their fall.  Hundreds come tumbling down in this deplorable condition.  Through these avenues some escape without injury; but wounds, contusions, dislocations, fractures or death, are the lot of most.  Those still enclose in the burning pile,--anguish unspeakable, even to relate it!—prevented from falling by the compactness of the throng, stand writhing, screaming, literally roasting, till voice and motion and sense become extinct, and the stillness and silence of death cover all.

                “Grim horror shook! A while the living hill
                “Heav’d with convulsive throes, and all was still.”

To put the finishing touches to this maddening picture, the rafters give way, and in the presence of the spectators, the roof comes down in crashing, fiery ruin, on the already broiling carceases of their friends.

In such a scene, it is difficult to particularize.  A dismal indistinctness, a gloomy obscurity pervades the whole; prevents the eye from discriminating, and keeps subordinate parts out of view.  Every thing individual, every thing private, is swallowed up in the general and mighty mass of misery and wo.

In the calamity, however, at Richmond, one scene of a secondary character, demands our notice.  Eight females of rank and respectability, all mothers of families, all known to each other, and connected by the ties of affection and friendship, are thrust into a corner by the violence of the throng.  Thus associated in danger, the flames overtake them, and they are instantly in a blaze—They embrace, they writhe in anguish, as if united in one body, and actuated by one feeling; they shriek as if possessed of one power of utterance; they cling closer and closer in the agonies of death, and sink together into the lap of eternity.  What a scene for a Raphael!—what a group for a Praxitiles!  Could it be faithfully committed to canvas or sculptured in marble, the fable of Laocoon and his sons would be neglected.  

Were we to select from this dismal chaos of horrors, another feature worthy of distinct commemoration, it would be that which involves the fate of the much lamented Gibbon. This amiable, brave, and accomplished young man was the son of an officer, who, during our revolutionary struggles, had valiantly fought the battles of his country.  Enterprizing in his disposition, and inheriting an instinctive attachment to arms, he had early entered as a midshipman, and was now a lieutenant in the navy of the United States.  Though young in years, and younger still in naval services, his life had been a tissue of affecting vicissitudes.  Scarcely was he initiated in the rudiments of his honourable profession, when the chalice of misfortune was presented to his lips, and he was compelled to drink deeply of the bitter draught.

When the frigate Philadelphia sailed for the Mediterranean, young Gibbon was on board.  The fate of that vessel is known to the world.  By one of those unforeseen disasters, which could neither be prevented by prudence nor remedied by valour and skill, she was forced to surrender to a squadron of Tripolitans.  On this occasion, Gibbon, with his gallant associates, was thrown, by the fortune of war, into the power of a barbarous and mercenary foe.  The tedious and hope-sickening moments of their captivity, have been already numbered by the sensibility of their country.  The only American bosoms that did not swell with the sigh of despondency, the only American eyes that did not overflow with the tear of affliction, were those of the high-minded sufferers themselves.  Superior to every reverse that could befall them, they submitted to their privations and hardships without a murmur.  With souls of a truly heroic temperament, their spirits rose as fortune forsook them, and they smiled at all their oppressors could inflict.  Their unbending fortitude under the pressure of their chains was more highly honourable, more permanently glorious, than the renown of victory.  By none of his companions in misfortune was young Gibbon surpassed in firmness and magnanimity.

After his release from captivity and his return to his native country, he contracted an attachment, which was feelingly reciprocrated, for a young lady in Richmond, of ample expectations on the score of wealth, and possessed of every quality and accomplishment requisite to render her an ornament to society, and to contribute to the happiness of domestic life.  For some time, difficulties and crosses, which he had not the power to control, threw a cloud over his prospects, and embittered, not a little, the cup of his existence.  At length, however, all obstacles were removed, all preliminary arrangement completed, and beauty, wealth, and virtue, were inviting his footsteps to the bower of felicity.

On the fatal night, Gibbon and the young lady to whom he was affianced, were among the most engaging ornaments of the theatre.  When the tumults arose, his own escape he could have effect with ease.  But into the heart of the maguanimous and the brave, personal considerations are the last to enter.  The idol of his affection was in danger, and her safety constituted his only care. Over-powered by her sensibility, and fainting from her fears, he raised her in his arms, and endeavoured to force his way through the crowd.  A friend offered him assistance, which he generously declined, declaring himself to be competent to the task, and entreating the gentleman to fly to the rescue of some other females, who were without protectors.  With great coolness and incredible exertions, he continued to make his way through the opposing multitude.  But coolness and strength, and firmness and perseverance, were of no avail—The raging element was too rapid in its progress for so tardy a retreat.  The flames overtook him, yet he retained his fortitude even to the last.  While all were shrieking around him, his manly bosom uttered not a groan.  While all were writhing in ten-fold agony, his graceful and nervous form refused to shrink from the devouring element.  Partly overcome by the flame, and partly by the suffocating vapour which he breathed, he sunk on the stairs, to mingle his ashes with those of the lovely burthen which he bore.

            Thus falls the brave, who sinks to rest,
                With all his country’s honours blest!
                His turf shall form a greener sod
                Than ever fairy footstep trod;
                And Faith and Love shall oft repair,
                To hold their hallowed converse there;
                And Valour’s self be often seen,
                A pensive wanderer o’er the green,
                And oft exclaim, with dewy eyes,
                Beneath that turf a favourite lies.

We must bring this afflicting narrative to a close.  For our own feelings, as well, we fear, as for those of our readers, we find that we have dwelt too long on it already.  If, however, we have erred, our sensibility is in fault, and we hope therefore, to be forgiven by a generous public.  We will not, because we cannot, depict the perturbation, the agony, the speechless horror, the frantic despair, which overspread the streets of Richmond, while the theatre was in flames—in one instance, relatives and friends tortured to frenzy by a dismal uncertainty as to the fate of those that were dear to them—in another, gazing with unsupportable anguish on beloved objects perishing in the flames, without having it in their power to snatch them from destruction—in a third, receiving, with keen and conflicting emotions, their blazing and half-burnt bodies, precipitated from the windows—and in a fourth, prevented by some friendly hand from rushing into the conflagration to attempt their deliverance.  Nor will we follow to their chambers, examine their defaced and distorted features, probe their wounds, and listen to their piercing groans, those who were burnt or otherwise maimed and disabled in effecting their escape.

We shall only add, by way of narrative, that on that ever memorable and melancholy occasion, Virginia was suddenly deprived of nearly one hundred of her principal inhabitants—females, who would have added luster to a court; and males, who would have been distinguished in Greece or Rome, in their proudest days of wisdom and glory.  The ashes of most of them are entombed on the fatal spot—their virtues and memories live in the hearts and affections of their immortal part, we trust, is with their God.

How mutable, how uncertain is the condition of man!—how perishable his hold on mortal existence!  Behold a gay and crowded audience, now intent on scenes of delight, a moment afterwards, writhing in agony and sinking in despair—another, and the stillness of death is upon them! an entire city reduced, in an instant, from merriment to mourning—from the seat of pleasures and the garden of joys, to the abode of calamity and unutterable wo! 

Richmond! afflicted Richmond! accept our sympathy, sincere though unavailing! May He who has given the blow provide the means, and heal in mercy the wound He has inflicted!

Such is the melancholy picture we have to offer of the memorable and calamitous year 1811.  While we acknowledge it to be feeble, thousands and millions can testify that it is just.  Whether it be in any measure calculated to move feelings, excite the imagination, or gratify the taste of our readers, it is theirs to determine, not ours.  In the serious and contemplative mind, it will tend to awaken a two-fold sentiment—Gratitude at not being numbered with the sufferers of the past, and deep conviction of the necessity of being prepared to encounter the calamities that may befall us during the present year.


Steamboat Adventure
Made possible by the Rivers Institute and the
History Department of Hanover College.

How to cite this article:  "A Retrospect of the Year 1811," The Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal (Winchester, Va.) May and June,1812, available at http://history.hanover.edu/texts/1811.