- Historic Sites
The Day They Burned The Capitol
Only a lucky rainfall put an end to our humiliation
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
At about 3 P.M. , Dolley Madison was still sturdily waiting at the White House for specific instructions from her husband. At last a wagon was procured, and Dolley superintended the packing into it of plate and other valuables, consigned to the Hank of Maryland. Charles Carroll came up to urge haste, and was annoyed when Dolley insisted on removing the Stuart portrait of Washington. The heavy gilt frame had to be smashed, but the picture was at last removed and entrusted to “two gentlemen from New York,” who were successful in preserving it.
Dolley waited staunchly, though long before four o’clock everything was over at Bladensburg, and it was felt that at any moment British advance guards might appear. Mayor Blake twice came to urge her to fly, and at last she climbed into a carriage. The coachman whipped up his horses and headed for the crowded bridge that led to Virginia and safety.
Very soon alter, the weary Madison, slight and scholarly and 63 years old, who had been in the saddle since dawn, appeared in the White House grounds with Monroe and Attorney General Richard Rush. Colonel Laval, with a detachment of regular dragoons, and groups of volunteers, swarmed about and into the house, seizing on what refreshment could be found, especially wine. But they dared not tarry. Madison, with Monroe and Rush, set their horses to follow Mrs. Madison. John Sioussat, known to all Washington as “French John,” and steward at the White House, was true to his trust. He carried Dolley Madison’s parrot to the French minister’s cook at the Octagon.
Ann Thornton, wife of the head of the Patent Office, tarried still later, setting a dinner that she could not take heart to eat, and at last driving out of town in the midst of groups of disconsolate volunteers. She drove to Dr. Peter’s home, Tudor Place, and met her husband there. The two stood in the windows of the mansion Dr. Thornton had built, and watched a mounting glow from the burning Capitol—the Capitol which Dr. Thornton had designed.
The British had entered the Capitol grounds at about 6 P.M. , the advance guard firing a derisive volley through the windows of the undefended building. The city was almost deserted.
As General Ross, with an advance party, passed a house just east of the Capitol, someone in the house fired a solitary musket. The shot killed Ross’ bay mare, and the assumption is not unfair that it was aimed at Ross. The house was immediately burned.
By eight o’clock the Capitol was in flames. It consisted, then, of two wings, House and Senate, connected only by a temporary wooden gallery—neither center section nor dome had yet been built. The surrounding grounds were a mere uncultivated open space.
One of the stories told later when Congress reconvened was that Admiral Cockburn had climbed to the rostrum in the House, called his troops mockingly to order, and put the derisive motion: “Shall this harbor of Yankee Democracy be burned? All for it will say, Aye!” The inevitable affirmative shout arose. From the wooden center structure flames immediately leaped skyward, and the glow mounted to the heavens as both wings began to blaze. The grim beacon was visible even to President Madison, clinging wearily to his horse somewhere in the Virginia hills.
A British subaltern, G. R. Gleig, later to be Chaplain-General of the British army, recorded the fiery spectacle thus:
“The blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs, informed them (the British) as they proceeded, of what was going forward. It would be difficult to conceive a finer spectacle than that which presented itself as they approached the town. The sky was brilliantly illumined by the different conflagrations; and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face …”
At 8:30 P.M. , Commodore Tingey had set matches to prepared powder-trains at the Navy Yard. These new flares were added to the glare in the sky as naval stores, equipment, buildings, and a new and nearly complete ship began to crackle. Tingey and his rear guard pushed off in a cutter for Alexandria.
It was close to nine o’clock when a detachment of British sailors and marines trudged down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. The glow of the burning Capitol and Navy Yard flickered weirdly on their dusty uniforms. The town was silent and deserted. The column moved on to the White House, leaving the road and trudging across the ill-kept, small oval park in front of it. Some bore torches, as yet unlit, on long poles.
Admiral Cockburn was obviously enjoying himself. He even picked up a few trifling souvenirs to remember the occasion—an old hat of the President, a cushion from Dolley Madison’s chair. Then he gave the word. The sailors and marines smashed in the windows with their torches, and the darkness no longer enveloped that quarter of the city.