- Historic Sites
Humiliation and Triumph
The year was 1814, and within three weeks our “young and not always wise” nation suffered acute shame and astonishing victory
August 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 5
Winder would have none of it. He had too small a force. The men were too exhausted. The Capitol was too isolated. He could be starved out in twenty-four hours. Even if he managed to hold the place, the British would be free to roam at will through the rest of Washington. His only hope was to retreat again, this time to the heights behind Georgetown. Here at last he’d be safe. Probably some of the Maryland militia routed at Bladensburg would come there, too, and he would have a real chance to collect and reorganize the shattered army.
Monroe backed him up. In fact, he added a point. During the retreat from Bladensburg the Secretary of State thought he had detected a powerful British column moving to the west. He feared that if the Americans delayed at the Capitol any longer, they might be driven into a cul-de-sac between the Eastern Branch and the Potomac.
Outvoted and half-convinced, Armstrong concurred.
So it was retreat again. And now the last semblance of discipline vanished. Many of the men had stood by this long only because they were from the District. Their sole purpose had been to save their homes and families. Falling back to Georgetown was no way to do that. A few raged —even wept—but most simply scattered to look after their own interests.
The rest streamed up Pennsylvania Avenue in no order whatsoever. Francis Scott Key, a Washington lawyer serving as a military aide, rode by—his horse steaming, his uniform soaked with sweat. Secretary Armstrong tried to dodge an angry citizen named Thomas Ewell, who rushed up shouting that Armstrong was to blame for everything. At Hughes’s grocery near Seventh Street the crowd swarmed around the pump. Some were content with the water; others preferred a barrel of whiskey thoughtfully provided by John P. Van Ness, formerly the commander of the District’s militia.
Suddenly a voice cried, “There goes the President!” It was true. Back from the shambles of Bladensburg, James Madison had transferred to a carriage and was now rolling through the crowd on Pennsylvania Avenue. Ultimately, he arrived at the President’s House around 4:30—about half an hour after his wife had left—accompanied by several aides who had been with him most of the day. Entering, they found Jacob Barker and Robert de Peyster collecting a few final valuables, and for more than an hour the group sat around exchanging experiences. It was an odd interlude, with the British just over the horizon and the city clearly doomed, and can best be explained by the sixty-three-year-old President’s desperate need for rest after his grim, long day in the saddle.
The conversation was appropriately serious. Madison was especially awed by the superb discipline of the British army. Like most Jeffersonians, he had relished the theory that the free democratic yeoman fighting for his home was always a match for the mere paid hireling of a foreign foe. Now he knew better. “I could never have believed,” he told Barker, “that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.”
In contrast with this quiet post-mortem, the scene outside was increasingly raucous. The collapse of all discipline, the knowledge that the city was lost, and perhaps a little of John P. Van Ness’s whiskey did their work. The fleeing soldiers and civilians began rummaging through the government offices, taking what they wanted. At the President’s House the guards stationed at the door had long since run off, and stragglers roamed at will through the mansion. Someone even stole a pair of pistols that the weary President had taken from their holsters and left on a front-hall table.
Clearly it was time to go. The plan had been for the Madisons to join forces with Secretary of the Navy William Jones and his family at Bellevue, the Carroll house, but now that was out. It would be simpler and safer to meet at Foxhall’s foundry by the river, and an aide was sent ahead to alert everyone. But no sooner had he gone than this plan was changed, too; probably it was felt that the sooner the President got across the river, the safer he would be. Finally, Madison and his party rode across the meadow behind the President’s House and down to the river. Here, at Mason’s Ferry, they took a boat over to Analostan Island and then went by the causeway to the Virginia shore.
Barker and de Peyster remained at the mansion, continuing their last-minute effort to save a few more things. At one point a group of exhausted soldiers stopped by, and they took time out to break open some of the President’s brandy. The big portrait of George Washington still lay attached to its stretcher on the dining-room floor.
The time had now come to do something about it. Dolley Madison had said not to roll it up, and they would follow her instructions. Recruiting two blacks, the four of them carefully lifted the whole framework, carried it through the front door, and loaded it on a cart that had miraculously been found. Tossing in some large silver urns and a few other odds and ends, they set off up Pennsylvania Avenue in the midst of the fleeing crowd.