- 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
During the lone nierht of burnina; no one had gotten to the rather pedestrian brick building that housed the State, War, and Navy departments just west of the executive mansion. The next morning, August 25, a fresh contingent of the British ist Brigade, followed by some thirty blacks carrying powder and rockets, was assigned to remedy the omission.
As they reached the scene a lone horseman darted out from nowhere. It was John Lewis, erratic grandnephew of the sainted Washington. Long ago, Lewis had run away to sea, suffered impressment by the Royal Navy, and escaped, and ever since he had been burning with vengeance. At last the moment had come. Possibly fortified by a dram or two, he charged the head of the column in a wild, one-man confrontation. He fired his pistol, hit no one, caught a blast of return fire, and fell from his horse mortally wounded.
Now the work could proceed. The Americans had moved most of the current records, but there was still plenty of fuel. Fed by such varied kindling as Secretary Jones’s furniture and undistributed copies of the Army’s System of Drum-Beating , the fire quickly mushroomed through the building.
That finished, the detachment headed back east along F Street. Next on their schedule was a visit to the Patent Office and Post Office, which shared an empty hotel building at Eighth Street. Here they had an unexpected encounter with Dr. William Thornton, the Superintendent of Patents.
Dr. Thornton was one of those universal men, essentially eighteenth century, who aspired to be an expert on everything. Born in the Virgin Islands, he took his medical degree at Aberdeen University, drifted to America, and within a couple of years had submitted the winning design for the U.S. Capitol. Characteristically, he had no architectural training whatsoever. He was obviously Jefferson’s kind of man and in 1802 was put in charge of patents. He never took his administrative duties seriously; rather, he used his time to pursue his own catholic interests.
At the moment, he was working on a new kind of violin, which he kept in his room at the Patent Office. He had left it there in his flight the previous evening, but at daylight, when he heard that the British hadn’t touched the Patent Office yet, he rushed to the city. He wasjust in time; the British troops had arrived and were preparing to burn the building. A Major Waters, who seemed to be in charge, told him to go ahead - save the violin and any other private property.
This gave the doctor an inspiration. Turning to Waters, he announced that practically everything in the building was private property. Clearly the course to follow was to take out the few items of public property, burn them in the street, and leave the building alone. Otherwise he could never get out the hundreds of inventors’ models that filled the place. Hitting his stride, Thornton dramatically warned that “to burn what would be useful to all mankind would be as barbarous as to burn the Alexandria Library, for which the Turks have been condemned by all enlightened nations.”
Thoroughly shaken, Waters said they’d better see his superior, Major Timothy Jones. The major, it turned out, was at the offices of the National Intelligencer , carrying out Admiral Cockburn’s instructions to wreck the place. When reached, he cheerfully accepted Dr. Thornton’s arguments, and the Patent Office was saved.
The National Intelligencer was another matter. Cockburn himself was on hand to make sure that place was destroyed. He even helped carry out Gales’s reference library, which was burned in back of the building. Then he watched with approval as Jones’s men smashed the presses and hurled the type out the windows. “Be sure that all the c’s are destroyed,” the Admiral joked, “so the rascals can’t abuse my name any more.”
Gales’s home might have gone next but for a quick-witted housekeeper. She closed the shutters and chalked on the front door “For Rent.” Cockburn would have appreciated that. Along with his toughness, he had a sort of zestful joy for combat that allowed plenty of room for tricks, recklessness, improvisation - almost anything except stodginess. Today he was understandably pleased with himself.
As he happily supervised the destruction of the newspaper office he asked a wide-eyed young lady standing at her door, “Were you not prepared to see a savage, a ferocious creature, such as Josey represented me? But you see I am quite harmless; don’t be afraid, I will take better care of you than Jemmy did !”
In contrast with Cockburn, General Ross seemed strangely subdued. He never returned to the center of town but spent most of his time either at the camp or at the Ewell house on Capitol Hill, commiserating with the doctor on the hardships of war. Yes, he was sorry he had burned the Library of Congress; no, he would never have burned the President’s House had Mrs. Madison been there.
Neither of these officers, however, tolerated lootina;. Both Ross and Cockburn knew how easy it was for an army to get out of hand in an occupied town. At least seven men were flogged —some for trivial offenses. They took their punishment with the stoicism of Napoleonic veterans, although one man was heard to complain that it was “damn hard, after being in the service eighteen years, that I should be flogged for taking a damn Yankee goose.”