DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Burning of Washington

It was Aug. 24, 1814, and, as usual for that time of year, summer conditions were creating a humid, hot inferno in what was a still-swampy, but slowly developing new capital city of the United States. The males of the city, along with President James Madison, were gathered in militia units about 6 miles away at Bladensburg, hoping to repel superior British forces determined to enter Washington and destroy it.

However, in less than an hour, the outcome was clear. American forces had been defeated and the way to Washington was clear. The news created a panic. Residents frantically scrambled to flee the city, saving only the possessions they could carry.

"Transportation had become more valuable than gold or jewelry," said author Anthony Pitch, who appeared at the National Archives today to discuss his book The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814.

The British troops entered the city unopposed. First, they burned the Capitol, the home of the Senate and the House of Representatives and the symbol of the hopes and aspirations of the young American Republic. They then staged a silent, orderly march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Arriving at the White House, they found the home of James and Dolley Madison completely deserted. While some of the troops feasted on a table set for 40 in the White House dining room, others spread through the home, looking for war-time souvenirs. They found a hat worn by Madison. An officer placed it on his bayonet. "If we can't capture the little president (Madison was only 5'4") we will parade his hat in London," he said.

Within an hour, all that remained of the White House was charred limestone and piles of ash. The British stayed in the city for another day, torching other government buildings. Cannons were spiked and dropped into the Potomac. A magazine of gunpowder exploded, killing and injuring dozens. Until a violent storm set in, the fires burned so brightly they could be seen in Baltimore. The British troops were under strict orders not to tamper with personal property. But that edict didn't apply to the residents of D. C. who hadn't been able to flee. Gangs roamed smokey Washington, taking advantage of the chaos and confusion to destroy buildings and loot any valuables they could find.

"Those 2 days were definitely a low point in American history," Pitch said. "But in times like these there are always a few individuals who represent the best stuff we are made of."

Pitch recounted 2 such stories; one well-known and the other not so much so. Despite orders to leave earlier, the President's wife, Dolley, refused to evacuate until she and her servants could save the giant painting of George Washington which still hangs today in the White House. "Now that's incredible," Pitch said. "That is real patriotism. It is a word that is much bandied about today and cheapened. But that is real patriotism."

Another hero was clerk Stephen Pleasanton, who saved America's most valuable historic documents from British torches. Acting with little help, Pleasonton acquired several coarse linen bags, and filled them with as many State Department records as they would hold. These included the still-unpublished secret journals of Congress, the commission and correspondence of George Washington, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and all the treaties, laws, and correspondence of the Department since 1789. He had all of this carted to a grist mill  three miles beyond Georgetown. Before he left, he noticed the Declaration of Independence had been forgotten and was still hanging in its frame on the wall, and took that as well. Pleasonton became fearful that the British would destroy a nearby cannon foundry and possibly even the grist mill and procured wagons to take the material another thirty-five miles to Leesburg, Virginia, where they were stored in an empty stone house until they could be returned to Washington.

"Because of the actions of Stephen Pleasanton you can still see the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution upstairs in this building," Pitch said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Even though it began 200 years ago, the War of 1812 and its aftermath share similarities with today's political headlines, Pitch maintains. For example, initial intelligence indicated that the British would march on Baltimore, not Washington. "History does repeat itself," Pitch said. "That (bad intelligence) happened a few years ago in the Middle East." Then there was the task of rebuilding D.C. itself. The process was delayed by political bickering and cost overruns. Columns that were supposed to cost $1,500 actually ended up costing $5,000 each. "You see Congress never changes," Pitch said, provoking much laughter from the crowd.

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