- 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
Galloping back to the Navy Yard, he informed Captain Tingey. Momentarily, at least, the news took a little pressure off the captain: the British were not as close as he had feared. Perhaps he could still save the Yard if only he knew where the American troops were. Except for Armstrong’s terse warning, nobody had told him anything.
Once again Booth rode out, this time to the President’s House. He supposed that Madison was still there, and if anybody knew where the Army was, it ought to be the nation’s Commander in Chief. Arriving at the mansion, he found only an agitated cavalry colonel standing by the steps. In the gathering dark the officer assumed Booth was the advance guard of the enemy and pulled his pistol. It was all Booth could do to persuade him they were both on the same side.
To Booth, that dark empty house, standing alone in the dusk, said far more than a bundle of intelligence reports. For the first time he fully realized that the capital of his country had been completely abandoned.
By the time he reached Capitol Hill again, several stray horsemen had joined up. These included a trooper named Walter Cox and Navy Captain John O. Creighton, who had also been sent out by Tingey to gather information. It was now quite dark, and as the party approached Long’s Hotel on A Street, N.E., Cox leaned far forward in his saddle. He was clearly trying to make something out. Only cows, Booth remarked. Yes, Cox replied, he saw the cows, but he also saw men … right there, rising out of that hollow.
They were there all right. Within forty yards. The little group wheeled and scattered wildly for safety. Booth and Creighton dashed for the Navy Yard to warn Captain Tingey.
Lieutenant James Scott decided that all resistance was over as he rode through the gathering darkness with the British advance guard, led by Major General Robert Ross himself. Leaving Bladensburg at twilight after a three-hour rest, they found the Americans had disappeared completely.
And now Washington lay at their feet, the climax of the week’s campaign. It was a soldier’s dream of triumph—the capture of the enemy capital—yet there was no trace of martial glory: no bands, no banners, no grand entrance, no conquered boulevards lined with a sullen, beaten populace. The city lay dark and empty, its sprinkling of houses and buildings looking (in the words of a contemporary visitor) “as if some giant had scattered a box of child’s toys upon the ground.”
Only the 3rd Brigade was making the march. Consisting of the seamen, marines, and most of the 2ist Foot—some 1,460 men altogether—they had seen little action and were fresh and rested. The other brigades would follow along later, after reorganization. Entering the city, most of the troops halted just inside the turnpike gate, while Ross, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, and a small advance guard continued forward. Moving down Maryland Avenue, they headed directly for the Capitol.
At some point the two commanders had decided to lay the city under contribution as the price of sparing it, and now a drum rolled loud and long, sounding the call for a parley. If any American heard, he either didn’t understand this military refinement or chose to ignore it, for there was no answer whatsoever.
The little British party rode on, halting at a point perhaps two hundred yards short of the Capitol. Directly to their right stood the large brick house owned by Robert Sewall. Other buildings loomed in the darkness. Not a light or a sound came from any of them.
The Admiral and the General conferred, wondering what to do next. A few more seconds, then a volley of musket fire shattered the night. Four men were hit—one killed—and Ross’s horse was shot from under him. It was hard to see where the firing came from but certainly from Robert Sewall’s house and possibly other buildings, too.
Splinters flew as Lieutenant Scott led the party that broke through Sewall’s front door. But it took several minutes, and by the time the men got in, the house was completely empty. No one ever knew who fired the shots. Later, most accounts attributed it to a few diehards led by a local barber named Dixon, but it seems more likely that some of Barney’s flotilla men were responsible. They never considered themselves bound by Winder’s orders to retreat, and many of them were on the Capitol grounds long after the army had gone.
Whoever they were, British reaction was swift. Cockburn raced back to the turnpike gate to get the light companies of the 2ist Foot, and Michael Shiner—a local black, hence according to British policy left alone watched with fascination as the troops fired their Congreve rockets into the house. Beams and rafters went flying in all directions.
But no one looked at the blaze for long. Already the glare of a far bigger fire was creeping across the sky to the south. Soon billows of flame and smoke were gushing upward. Deep explosions shook the ground, and embers shot like comets through the blackness of the night.
Captain Tingey was burning his Navy Yard. For the colorful, headstrong commandant, it was a bitter moment indeed. Head of the yard since its founding in 1800, he had made it the finest in the country. By now he regarded it as practically his own- so much so that he had even included the Commandant’s House in his will.