- 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
That over, the Admiral expansively told his victim to help himself to a souvenir. Weightman suggested something valuable, but Cockburn said no, the expensive things must feed the flames, and handed him instead a few odds and ends off a mantelpiece. The Admiral himself chose an old hat of the President’s and a cushion off Mrs. Madison’s chair—joking that the latter would remind him of her seat, or so a letter written three days later delicately implied.
By now, others, too, had joined the souvenir hunt. Ranging from Madison’s medicine chest to a pair of rhinestone shoe buckles, the variety was endless. Captain Harry Smith was more practical: he went upstairs and, taking off his grimy, sweat-stained shirt, helped himself to the Presidential best. Downstairs, a soldier swept the plates and silver into a tablecloth and made off with the evening’s best haul. Outside, the guards—unable to join the fun—amused themselves by hacking up an abandoned carriage.
The job of starting the fire was turned over to the efficient Lieutenant Pratt. His sailors quickly got torches from Nordin’s beer house opposite the Treasury, and once again the familiar scene unfolded. The huge dining-room sideboard, the red velvet cushions of the Oval Room, the pianoforte from Andrew Hazlehurst, the President’s half-filled portmanteau, the twentyeight-dollar guitar—all of it went up in one roaring bonfire.
As the flames soared skyward the force turned its attention to the long brick Treasury building just to the east. The men had high hopes here, taking the name literally, and felt almost cheated when they found no money at all. But there were plenty of old records to burn—some going back to the Revolution- and the building was soon blazing nicely.
Now at last the night’s work was done. General Ross and his staff retired to Mrs. Suter’s for their prearranged dinner and were soon joined by Admiral Cockburn.
Following the meal, Admiral Cockburn was heading back down Pennsylvania Avenue when he had an afterthought. Hailing a man standing outside McKeowin’s Hotel, the Admiral asked where he could find the offices of the National Intelligencer . The editor, Joseph Gales, Jr., whom he liked to call Dear Josey, had been very tough on him, and now there was a score to settle.
The man hailed was Chester Bailey, the contractor who ran the New York-Philadelphia mail stage. Pleading that he was a stranger in town, he said he had no idea where the paper’s offices were. Actually, he knew perfectly well that they were right across the street.
Cockburn turned to two other bystanders, who also equivocated. Whatever else he might be, the Admiral was no fool, and he made it clearly understood that he wanted no more of this nonsense.
The bystanders got the point, and showed him the building themselves. A soldier then broke into the office and emerged with the last issue of the paper, assuring its readers that the city was safe. General Ross attempted to keep it as a souvenir but couldn’t fit it into his pocket. “Damn it,” he said, allowing himself a rare vulgarity, “my pocket is full of old Madison’s love letters; I have no room for this trash.”
Cockburn now ordered the building burned, but at this point he was confronted by two ladies who lived in the block. They begged him to hold off, or their houses would go, too. The Ad- mirai listened carefully, and finally agreed not to burn the place down. Instead, he would wreck it in the morning. “Be tranquil, ladies,” he added cheerfully, “you shall be as safely protected under my administration as under that of Mr. Madison.” He then bade everybody a polite good-night and headed back to Capitol Hill.
A single sentry was left on guard at the newspaper offices. This lone soldier was the total British occupation force in central Washington that night. The rest of the men of the 3rd Brigade bivouacked on Capitol Hill, while the 2,300 of the ist and 2nd brigades remained at the edge of the city, watching the flames from the heights just inside the tollgate.
For the capital’s scattered population it was a night of sheer terror. The fire dominated everything. It glowed brightly at Baltimore forty miles away, where the citizens gazed in alarm from the rooftops. It hovered over General Winder at Tenleytown, three miles north of Georgetown, as he tried in vain to regroup his shattered army. It rose and fell across the horizon, spurring on Secretaries Armstrong and Campbell as they hurried toward Frederick, Maryland, where the government was to reconvene.
Typical of this chaotic night, none of the other administration leaders was going there. At the moment, they were hopelessly scattered about the Virginia countryside. James Madison, Attorney General Richard Rush, and the rest of the Presidential party rode to Salona, the estate of the Reverend John Maffitt, where Madison now expected to meet his wife. Secretary Monroe went to Wiley’s Tavern, near Great Falls. Secretary Jones was with his family and Dolley Madison’s entourage, struggling through the clogged roads toward the Salona rendezvous. They finally decided they would never make it and spent the night at Rokeby, the home of Mrs. Madison’s friend Mathilda Lee Love. Here, the First Lady sat silently by an open window where she, too, watched the great angry scar in the sky.
Relief finally came from the heavens. Toward dawn one of Washington’s patented thunderstorms rumbled in, wetting down the fires and ending the danger that the flames might spread to the whole city.