- 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
Yet orders were orders, and it had to go. Alerted by Mordecai Booth and Captain Creighton that the enemy were deep in the city, he finally gave the signal at 8:20 P.M. The matches were struck and the powder trains lit, leading to the storehouses and the sail loft. Kindled by the carpet of chips and pitch that covered the ground, the flames raced along, leaping from building to building—the sawmill, the rigging loft, the paint shops, the timber shed. Along with the rest went the new frigate Columbia , almost ready for launching, and the sloop of war Argus , completely finished.
Grimly satisfied that his duty was done, Captain Tingey stepped into his gig and rowed for Alexandria.
The brilliant glare from the Navy Yard made the job easier for General Ross’s men on Capitol Hill. As one group burned Sewall’s house others turned their attention to the rest of the nearby buildings. A stern-looking officer rode up to Andrew Hunter’s door and began interrogating Mrs. Hunter. Where was her husband? Not at home. When did he leave? In the morning. Why? To take the children from this “horrid scene.” When would he be back? She didn’t know. Desperately, she invited him to go to the sideboard and help himself, then gingerly asked a question of her own: Did the British plan to burn the city generally, or only the public buildings? The ofliccr said that all depended: where no resistance was made, private property would be safe, especially if everyone remained at home. But wherever there was resistance, or arms found, that place would be burned.
Outside, that policy was once again being demonstrated. Searching Tomlinson’s Hotel, across from the Senate wing of the Capitol, Ross’s men found guns and ammunition. It was instantly set on fire.
Now for the Capitol itself. The 3rd Brigade was quickly deployed in the square facing the building. A sharp command, and they fired a volley into the windows of the eastern façade. The practical purpose was, of course, to discourage any further sharpshooting, but it all seemed symbolic as well. It served as a formal announcement that this citadel of republicanism was being officially possessed in the name of His Majesty the King.
Stepping forward, Lieutenant de Lacy Evans led a party that quickly broke down the doors, and for the next hour the troops turned sightseers, roaming through the empty halls and chambers. Admiral Cockburn took a small bound copy of a Treasury report, which he kept as a souvenir. Someone with more extravagant tastes cut out the portraits of Louis xvi and Marie Antoinette hanging in the room adjoining the Senate chamber.
Lieutenant Scott took nothing, but he, too, was among the sightseers, staring with awe at Benjamin Latrobe’s handsome Corinthian columns in the Hall of Representatives. It all seemed so much more grandiose than the cramped quarters of the House of Commons back home. He rather suspected that this nation which boasted so loudly of its republican simplicity was actually “somewhat infected with an unseemly bias for monarchial splendour.”
The prospect of destroying this ambitious building raised no qualms—the British leaders in America were committed to the destruction or ransom of public property -but it did raise a question of method. The Capitol was so well built it seemed to defy burning. At first Ross and Cockburn were inclined to blow the place up, but word spread to the few remaining citizens in the neighborhood. They bitterly protested that the explosion would wreck their homes, too, and they had done nothing to oppose the British. The General relented; he would rely on the torch.
Naval Lieutenant George Pratt was put in charge. He was considered an expert at this sort of business, but at first things went rather slowly. In the House wing, three-man teams tackled each room on the lower floor. The first chopped the woodwork into kindling; the second sprinkled a bucket of rocket powder about; and the third applied the torch. This started a number of local fires, but nothing spectacular.
Upstairs, Pratt was having little better luck with the House chamber. At first his men fired rockets into the roof, but nothing happened. It turned out to be covered with sheet iron. Finally they piled the mahogany chairs, desks, and tables high in the center of the room, added some of the rocket powder, and fired more rockets directly into the pile. Similar measures were taken with the Senate wing, and Lieutenant Pratt’s efforts were at last rewarded.
Within minutes both wings were ablaze. The limestone outerwalls might only crumble and crack, but there was more than enough to burn inside: the red morocco chairs of the Senate, the secret journals of the House -so carefully locked in a special drawer —the law library of Elias Bardinot Caldwell, clerk of the Supreme Court, the baize curtains of the House, the 740 books purchased in Europe in 1802 as a nucleus for the Library of Congress, the handsome gilt eagle surmounting the clock above the Speaker’s chair, and the clock itself, whose hands pointed to 10 P.M. as the fire began.
Flames surged through the doors and windows, up through the roof, and fanned out into the night. The Navy Yard might make a better pyrotechnic display, but this was far more disastrous. The southwesterly breeze caught the sparks and carried them toward the streets to the north and east. Four more buildings were soon blazing, among them two houses built by George Washington on North Capitol Street.