- 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
To the British ist and 2nd brigades, now approaching the city, the glare from the fires was so bright the men could easily recognize each other’s faces. “Except for the burning of San Sebastian,” Lieutenant George Robert Gleig later wrote, “I do not recollect to have witnessed, at any period of my life, a scene more striking or more sublime.”
Dr. James Ewell, who had taken his family to the house of a Mrs. Orr, several blocks from his own house, heard a noise like thunder as the fire burst through the roof of the Capitol, then was even more startled by a tremendous pounding on the Orr front door. Five or six British soldiers tramped in, but to Mrs. Ewell’s relief it was not rape they were after—only a little food. Their hosts instantly produced a cold ham, bread and butter, wine anything that might keep them satisfied.
Then a new cause for alarm. Glancing outside, Ewell saw every room of his own house lit up with flames. He dashed to the scene, hoping to save his medical library, and happily discovered that it was just the glass in his windows reflecting the fire at the Capitol.
But the house had been plundered, and as Ewell contemplated the shambles the Reverend Alexander McCormack, rector of nearby Christ Church, came up and offered to take him to General Ross and Admiral Cockburn. Perhaps they could help, the minister suggested; he had met them and they were “perfect gentlemen.”
Walking down the street a few steps, they approached an officer heavy with braid and lace. Putting on his best church manners, McCormack performed the honors, introducing Ewell to “General Ross.”
“My name is Cockburn, sir,” came the answer in the quick, high-pitched voice of the Admiral.
That straightened out, Ewell explained his troubles, saying he thought private property was safe; yet his was stolen, even though left in the care of servants.
“Well, sir,” said the Admiral, “let me tell you it was very ill confidence to repose your property in the care of servants.”
With this brief lecture on the dangers of the servant class, the Admiral seemed inclined to let the matter drop, but at this point Ross came up and was far more sympathetic. If Ewell would point out the house, he’d post a sentry there.
To the General’s amiable embarrassment, it turned out to be the very house he had picked for his headquarters. Ross gallantly declared he “could never think of trespassing on the re- pose of a private family.” He would order his things out at once.
Ewell was no fool. Realizing that his best bet was to keep the General there, he begged him to stay. Ross finally consented - any small room would do—but the doctor gave him his own bedroom, the one with the good mattress.
The General wasn’t ready for bed just yet. Parting with Dr. Ewell, he and Cockburn gathered together a small force of perhaps 150 picked men, and with each commanding a separate detachment, they started up Pennsylvania Avenue about 10:30 P.M. A single officer on foot led the way. Behind, the men marched two abreast, swiftly but silently. When somebody started talking, the officer broke in sharply: “Silence! If any man speaks in the ranks, I’ll put him to death!”
Here and there along the avenue the bolder citizens peeked from open windows. As William P. Gardner watched them pass his place, four officers on horseback rode up and politely said good-evening.
Then one of them, Admiral Cockburn, asked pleasantly, “Where is your President, Mr. Madison?”
Gardner said he didn’t know, but supposed he was by now far away. After a few minutes more of casual conversation, the officers excused themselves, explaining they were on their way to “pay a visit” to the President’s House, which they understood was a little way ahead.
Soon they were at the Fifteenth Street “bend,” where the avenue was interrupted by the grounds of the executive mansion. Here the force halted while arrangements were made at a boarding house kept by Mrs. Barbara Suter for a late supper for General Ross and his staff. Then on again, up Fifteenth Street, while the dismayed Mrs. Suter set about killing chickens and warming bread.
Now another stop, this time near the Treasury pump. While the troops crowded around, ignoring officers’ warnings of poisoned water, Admiral Cockburn sent a thoughtful message ahead. Not knowing Dolley Madison’s movements, he offered her an escort to any place of safety she might choose. But she was gone, of course, and there was no need for further amenities. The force moved on to the President’s House.
Nothing startled them like the dining room. There the table was perfectly set for forty people. The servant boy Paul Jennings had done his work well—the wine stood in the coolers, packed in ice. Sampling cold cuts and what Captain Harry Smith termed “super-excellent Madeira,” the unexpected guests hugely enjoyed themselves. The crystal goblets were raised in a joyous toast to “the health of the Prince Regent and success to His Majesty’s arms by sea and land.”
Cockburn had a special joke. Somewhere along the way he had corralled the Washington book dealer Roger Chew Weightman—probably impressed as a guide. Now the Admiral plopped the miserable Mr. Weightman down in a chair and told him to drink to “Jemmy,” as Cockburn almost invariably called the President.