The Day They Burned The Capitol

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There was nervous bustle in the city itself. People were packing possessions, anxiously looking for wagons and carriages. The government offices were doing as much for the public records—the State Department archives (including the Declaration of Independence) were scooped into linen bags, carried to Leesburg, Virginia, and piled in a vacant house.

On Monday, “a gentleman at Washington,” otherwise unidentified, wrote a letter to New York describing the panic.

“The distress here and in Georgetown is beyond any description,” he wrote. “Women and children running in every direction … Expresses are continually coming in from our troops … If the force of the enemy is as large as stated, this city will fall … All is confusion as you may easily imagine … Stages, hacks, carts or waggons cannot be procured for love or money. They are all pressed for the military. I have just returned from taking a load of children eight miles out of town, and the whole distance the road was Riled with women and children. Indeed I never saw so much distress in my life as today … I am fearful by twelve o’clock tomorrow this city will not be ours.”

Nobody in the city knew what was happening twenty miles away. Winder had brought his militia together at Battalion Old Fields, eighteen miles from the Capital. Ross and Cockburn had marched as far as Upper Marlboro without any serious opposition at all. Winder sat at the Old Fields, driven almost to distraction by “infinite applications, consultations, and calls,” for the handling of which he had no staff. no organization. no facilities whatever.

Early in the morning of Tuesday, August 23, President Madison reviewed the 3,000 troops that had been scraped together at the Old Fields, and after waiting all day for an attack by an army assumed to be twice their number, they received an order about 5 P.M. to fall back to Washington. This was accomplished with such precipitation as to be almost a rout, and the exhausted troops were bivouacked in and around the Navy Yard in the eerie glare of the Eastern Branch bridge, which they had burned behind them. The Cabinet officers and most of the prominent citizens who had been riding With Madison returned to the city.

Poor Winder had worn out two horses with his aimless riding about, and had to borrow another to ride from his Navy Yard bivouac to confer at their homes with the President and the Secretary of War (whom he found asleep). The borrowed horse also gave out, and Winder had to foot it back to camp, during which hike he fell into a ditch and bruised himself lamentably.

That same evening Colonel George Minor arrived with a regiment of Virginia militia, some 700 or 800 men, largely lacking both arms and ammunition. Colonel Minor, seeking to remedy these deficiencies, first called on the President, then on the Secretary of War, who referred him to a Colonel Carberry, who could not be found at all. So Colonel Minor marched his men up Capitol Hill and bivouacked them in the House of Representatives.

The sun rose blazing hot on Wednesday, August 24, 1814. Before noon the thermometer had passed 95 degrees; a breathless and enervating day.

Madison, the Cabinet and a throng of prominent citizens were in eager conference with Winder. Still no one knew British intentions. And while they hesitated, debated, speculated, a messenger galloped up with word that the British were approaching Bladensburg. Winder set about getting his main body to that village.

Little groups of militia began to appear on Capitol Hill. They could be seen from the White House, and an overwhelming premonition of disaster swept across the town. Minor’s Virginians stood there, ready at last for action, now that it was all over. They had the flints and muskets, too, though they had only just finished getting them, for a petty official at the armory had insisted on counting them out one by one, and then re-counting them all over again.

There was agonized quick debate on whether a stand might be made on the Hill, using the Capitol as a fortress. It was useless—the order went out to continue the retreat right on to the heights of Georgetown; to try to rally there; if that proved impossible, then on to Montgomery Court House.

The militia streamed clown into the town in dejected disorganization, largely in little groups of twos, fours, and sixes. As they trudged down the Avenue between the dust-covered poplar rows, General Van Ness of the District militia had an inspiration. He bought a barrel of whiskey from a storekeeper and set it out on the street for the vanquished warriors’ refreshment. It is pleasant to record that a grateful Government later reimbursed him.

 

In spite of even so heroic a measure, most of the men drifted hack to their homes to look to the safety of their families or simply to get something to cat. Hundreds just disappeared or straggled vaguely on out the Avenue, past the White House and on into Georgetown. It was no longer anything remotely resembling an army.