- 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
In the President’s House Sioussa went about the last duties of a good doorkeeper. He carefully hid some gold and silver Algerian pistols that looked as though they might make good loot. Next, he put out buckets of water and some bottles of wine for any more thirsty soldiers who might happen by. Then he picked up the mansion’s pet macaw—a great favorite of Dolley Madison’s—and took it a few blocks to Colonel John Tayloe’s Octagon House.
Now back to the President’s House for a final look around. Everything seemed in order, so he carefully closed all the windows and doors. Then he departed for the last time, leaving the front-door key at the house of the Russian Minister, Daschkoff, who had wisely gone to Philadelphia.
Some two hundred fifty to three hundred of Joshua Barney’s men were still at the Capitol, without orders. Winder never considered them part of his own command, as they were really naval personnel; and with the Commodore wounded and a prisoner, there was really nobody to tell them what to do. While the men lay exhausted in the square Captain Bacon of the Marines and Captain Gohegan of the flotilla wrangled over who had command.
Captain Thomas Tingey at the Navy Yard was another officer whom Winder left in the dark. Here it was not a question of command—Tingey clearly came under naval authority; but close coordination was all-important so that he would know if and when to carry out his careful plans for demolishing the installation. The General never sent a word.
Secretary Armstrong learned of the lapse just before setting out himself for Frederick, Maryland, where the government was supposed to reconvene once the British had taken the city. There wasn’t time to do much, but he did send Major John Bell to Tingey with a verbal message that was crystal clear in its brevity: “The Navy Yard cannot be covered.”
This announcement was punctuated a few moments later by a loud explosion. Captain John O. Creighton had blown up the main bridge over the Eastern Branch. Then a great cloud of smoke rose as the wreckage began burning.
Tingey quickly warned the families still living in the neighborhood that the Navy Yard would go next, the fires might spread, better save what they could.
Quiet slowly settled over the city. Here and there a few people still scurried about on last-minute missions. The mood was sombre at Francis Scott Key’s house on Bridge Street in Georgetown. Key had arrived home exhausted and was now begging his wife and children to leave. He himself felt duty bound to stay, but it was no place for them. Polly Key would have none of it. The most Key could do was pack their things. Then he bolted all the windows and the family sat in the stifling heat, half expecting the British to come any minute.
Where were they anyhow? At the time the battle ended, there wasn’t a fleeing American who didn’t feel that some redcoat was personally following him. Yet four hours had passed, and not an enemy soldier in sight. In the silence of the August twilight the jitters steadily grew. Mrs. William Thornton, riding north out of Georgetown, was warned to turn back—the British were purposely herding the American Army that way and planned to fall on them. A delegation of leading Georgetown citizens headed out to obtain the best terms possible but could find no one to surrender to.
Another rumor had the British approaching by the race track, out Fourteenth Street, but there was no one there either. According to a third story, they were down by the Marine barracks on the other side of town—“the whistling of the balls had been distinctly heard”—but again, there was nothing to it. Late in the afternoon still another account put them at the Capitol, in full force. A young officer arrived at the Navy Yard saying it was true. If so, this was getting dangerously close, and Captain Tingey made ready to light his fuses.
His chief clerk, Mordecai Booth, exploded in indignation, using language quite out of character for this faithful but docile underling. He had just been to the Capitol on a reconnaissance of his own, and he knew the British weren’t there. It would be a crime to destroy the Yard on such false information. In fact he felt it would be a crime to destroy it anyhow; it could so easily be defended by recruiting some of Barney’s now leaderless men and using the numerous guns on hand.
Booth offered to ride out and find where the British really were if only Tingey would hold off his demolitions a little longer. Very well, said the captain, adding that the intelligence had better be good, his whole career was resting on it.
Booth quickly rode to the turnpike gate and studied the rolling country in the direction of Bladensburg. Nothing in sight. Then a lone horseman suddenly came in view, racing down the turnpike toward him. It was a Georgetown butcher named Thomas Miller. He had been looking for the British, too, had found exactly where they were, and would be happy to show them to Booth. The two rode to the top of a nearby hill, and Miller pointed out a long column of troops slowly advancing toward them. They wore the dark blue of British seamen, but Booth knew nothing about that. Like most Americans, he assumed every hostile Englishman was invariably dressed in red, and he now argued that these must be a Georgetown rifle company still in the field. A shot whizzed by his ears, ending the discussion.