CAPTURE AND EVACUATION OF WASHINGTON IN 1814
By James Croggon, The Evening Star, August 29, 1909 [p. 13]
After the battle of Bladensburg, August 24, 1814, the way opened to the British army under Ross, the army hastily reformed for the advance, reaching the commons east of the Capitol about sundown, and soon approached the Capitol, the first object marked for destruction.
About 8 o'clock Ross and Cockburn, with others, stopped to confer, when a shot was fired from the Robert Sewall house, at Maryland avenue and 2d street, and Ross' horse fell dead. This house was immediately burned to the ground. Cockburn in an official letter says: "The general, myself and some officers, advancing a short way past the first houses of the town, without being accompanied by the troops, the enemy opened a heavy fire of musketry from the Capitol and two other houses; these were therefore almost immediately destroyed by our people, after which the town submitted without further resistance.” It was claimed that the firing on Ross led to the burning of the Capitol. But the Secretary of State had by letter to Admiral Cochrane of August 18 been informed of the intention "to destroy and waste such towns and districts upon the coast as may be found assailable." Gen. Ross, after describing the battle and stating his arrival, in his report says: "Judging it of consequence to complete the destruction of the public buildings with the least possible delay, so that the army might retire without the loss of time," the buildings were consumed and the object of the expedition was accomplished. Cockburn did not deny that the destruction of the public buildings was the object, though he afterward expressed regret, and both he and Ross had asserted that private property would be respected.
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With one exception, all the public buildings were destroyed, and much private property. The house and store at the southeast corner of East Capitol and 1st streets, belonging to Alexander McCormick, lieutenant in Capt. Caldwell's troop, was burned, as was also the Tomlinson Hotel building, owned by Daniel Carroll.
With burning the two wings of the Capitol was included the destruction of the houses and effects of Messrs. Claxton, Dunn and others employed by Congress living near the buildings.
The building erected by Washington on North Capitol street, then occupied in part by the Frost family, was burned, and with the effects were the current books and papers of the office of the clerk of the House, which had been removed there by John T. Frost, an employe. Nothing but the bare walls was left, and they today form the upper part of the Hotel Burton, having stood over 110 years.
The President's house followed the fate of the Capitol, but Mrs. Madison had succeeded in sending away the most valuable effects of the government before securing her own. The house was the same as it now is, but there was no portico on the north side, the main entrance being on the south side. The east and west executive buildings at 15th and 17th streets, respectively, fronted on a line with the south side of F street. They each contained near forty rooms in three stories, and besides the departments accommodated other officers. The departments were of brick and the walls were but little injured.
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The post and patent office building, which was intended by Mr. Blodget for hotel purposes, was spared; and in the following month, by the session of the Thirteenth Congress, it was the Capitol pro tem. An officer led his detachment and halted to the front on E street between 7th and 8th streets, when he was met by Dr. Thornton, superintendent of the patent office, and he acceded to his plea for the preservation of that depository of the arts and sciences. The knowledge that the bureau of military supplies was also there was not communicated, otherwise it would have shared the fate of the others. Nineteen years after it accidentally caught fire and the loss was total.
The office of the National Intelligencer, on the south side of the avenue between 6th and 7th streets, was wrecked, the presses broken, type scattered and the books and papers, including Mr. Gales&l valuable library, were thrown out the back windows, placed in a pile and burned. Cockburn is said to have shown his temper by personally feeding the fire. This vandalism was perpetrated in retaliation for the course of Gales and Seaton, the editors and proprietors in upholding the administration of Madison. Though the former was of English birth, he, with Mr. Seaton, had enrolled as a volunteer, and through arrangements with the military authorities, they, with the office force, served alternately in the office and field. After getting out the paper of August the 24th the entire force was in the ranks. The building was saved from the torch by some of the women of the neighborhood. The stock of the rope works of Renner & Health, on the Mall, was of use to the enemy, who took possession of and carried off over $20,000 worth of it and destroyed the building. Strenuous efforts had they made to move their stock, but the wagons that were engaged were pressed into government service, and hence it was carried off by the enemy. Congress some years later reimbursed them.
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The arsenal, then a small enclosure, at the end of Greenleaf’s point, was the scene of an explosion and considerable loss of life to the enemy. It consisted of a few shops, storehouses and barracks, and with the house occupied by A.D.Villard, the chief artificer, was destroyed. A heavy gun, north of the enclosure, commanded the channels. It was then a depot of supplies, with Capt. H. Rodgers, M.S.K., and Capt. N. Baden’s company was here posted. Before leaving several buildings were destroyed and some of the public stores were saved by removal. Much of the powder in kegs was attempted to be concealed in a dry well. The following afternoon a detachment of about 200 of the enemy, including Capt. Blanchard, on a marauding expedition, entered the arsenal to demolish it, and while here the powder in the well, with a magazine of loaded shell nearby, exploded, hrling a number to death.
An English account gives as the cause the accidental dropping of a lighted port fire into the well by an artillerist, and after describing the demolishment of buildings, the flying of earth, stone and bricks, gives the loss of about twelve killed and thirty wounded. But there is another story to which more evidence is given by descendants of former officers and workmen. This is that some of Capt. Baden's men had remained behind and with one or two others laid a fuse from the well to a boat concealed in the high grass south, anticipating the visit of the enemy; that when the place was crowded, as they judged from the noise, the fuse was lighted, and they hastily rowed away, and were shot at, when well toward Giesboro, where they landed safely.
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It is difficult for many to believe the port fire story, for from statements made by persons on the ground soon after they found that where the mouth had been tons of earth had been moved and covered bodies, arms, legs, etc., protruding from the mounts, while portions of bodies were found outside the works. And as in the quadrangle about the well, men gathered naturally; it is difficult to believe that the loss was less than eighty, as stated soon after.
The marine barracks was occupied the night of August the 23d by the marine battalion under Maj. Samuel Miller and Commodore Barney's men, but on the morning of the 24th they resumed the field. Col. Wharton, commandant of marines, residing there, left before the entry of the British and joined Commodore Tingey at the navy yard. The enemy took possession of the barracks a few hours after entering the city and occupied it the day following; officers and men, holding high carnival there; destroying everything there in view and burning the buildings, etc., but one book and some papers being saved.
Commodore Tingey, after the conference between the President, cabinet and Gen. Winder, at the navy yard bridge, the morning of the 24th, received his orders from Secretary Jones to destroy the yard and bridge, in case of the success of the enemy, and he prepared to carry them into execution if necessary. At 4 o’clock Col. Monroe informed him that he could be no longer protected. Arrangements were made to carry out the orders. Capt. Creighton was assigned the destruction of the bridge, and arrangements were made ready for departure. The bridge was blown up and destroyed about 5 o’clock. When the orders as to the burning of the yard became known they caused much protest from residents. The match was withheld till the enemy reached the barracks, about 8 o'clock. Having fired the buildings and vessels, the commodore and others in one boat and Col. Wharton in another, rowed to Alexandria. On returning next day he found that the enemy had entered as he had left. The commodore's house and one or two others escaped destruction, as well as a few small vessels.
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What damage was not done by the fire and enemy was by plunder. The commodore did not long remain at the yard on the 25th, for the enemy was not far off, and Cockburn had threatened to capture him. He returned to Alexandria, where he remained till the evening of the 26th, when, with a few marines and sailors, he took possession of the wrecked yard. The schooner Lynx, whose foremast had been carried away in the storm, was otherwise safe, as was also a gunboat. The monument erected here in memory of Somers, James, Decatur, Wadsworth and Israel, officers killed in the Algerine war, was mutilated by the enemy.
On the afternoon of the 25th one of the most terrific storms struck this vicinity, and a vessel at the navy yard, having lost a mast, and other damage being reported, the enemy became concerned for the safety of their vessels, and fearing that their retreat would be cut off from the reported massing of the remnants of the army and the militia regiments from nearby states, preparations looking to withdrawal were made.
To these conditions the safety of the Columbian Iron Works, better known as Foxall's foundry, is charged. Mr. Foxall had come to this country from England prior to 1800 and built the foundry, just above Georgetown. There his work was principally the manufacture of ordnance for the government – guns. Those for Perry's fleet on Lake Erie were here made and hauled thereto by oxen. It was natural then that this place should be marked for destruction by Ross and Cockburn. The terrific storm drove the detachment en route to the foundry to shelter in the west market house, and after they hastened to camp at 20th street and Pennsylvania avenue. This was accompanied by much wind, which unroofed several houses, uprooted trees and at the navy yard carried away the foremast of the schooner Lynx, which had escaped fire. Mr. Foxall regarded the escape of his property from destruction as due to the interposition of Providence, and in recognition he erected at the corner of 14th and G streets a house of worship known as the Foundry Chapel.
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The Long bridge across the Potomac, at the foot of 14th street, was also burned, but it is not charged to the enemy. It seems that a trooper at the south end of the bridge, where there had been left under guard a quantity of military stores taken from the city, suspicioned that the enemy intended to capture them. Seeing some movement at the north of the bridge by a small force of the enemy the match was applied, and the southern end of the bridge, with a quantity of stores, burned.
They had accomplished the capture, but holding possession was another thing, and with the exception of the patrol on the avenue few were outside the camps east of the Capitol. The moving about of detachments had ceased, and toward evening preparations were made to move, and the men given to understand that an important maneuver would be made before morning. That night in the darkness, minus sound of drum or trumpet, they took up the line of march to their ships, going off as quietly as though they wore gum shoes. They drove before them nearly seventy-five head of cattle, and had several carts and wagons, which were sent ahead for the removal of the wounded at Bladensburg.
En route to Benedict some of their number fell out, some were captured, and at Marlboro three or four soldiers were placed in jail, but soon after were rescued by the enemy, who carried off Dr. Beans as a prisoner to their ship. When Francis Scott Key, through a flag of truce, sought the release of Dr. Beans, going to a British ship, he was detained during the bombardment of Fort McHenry and there wrote the "Star Spangled Banner." The enemy remained at Nottingham on the 28th, spending the Sabbath in removing plunder, and Monday 29, re-embarked.
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The loss in this campaign from the 19th to the 29th, by British accounts, was a little over 500 killed and wounded. Many had died from heat, and the desertions were not a few. Beside those buried by the enemy, nearly 200 were interred by a committee of citizens. The Intelligencer of August 31 says: "The loss of the enemy before they regained their ships probably exceeded 1,000 men. Many died of fatigue and numbers were taken prisoners by the cavalry hanging on their rear, and not a few deserted."
While in Maryland above Georgetown, a force was being gathered and the enemy's ships were in the Potomac and Fort Washington, having been blown up on the 27th. The city was opened to attack from that quarter. Monday the 28th, the presence of the squadron off Alexandria added to the fear that further trouble might be expected, but the squadron came no nearer than Alexandria. After plundering that town of tobacco, cotton and other property, including vessels, they sailed down the river, not, however, without difficulty. A battery had been erected at the White House on the Virginia shore and one at Indian Head in Maryland for their reception, and a number of boats attacked and annoyed their rear. Commodore Porter was at the first, Commodore Perry at the second, and Commodore Rodgers had charge of the boats. With the first was Col. Hungerford's Virginia militia, including Griffith's Alexandria artillery, in addition to the naval guns. At Indian Head were Maryland militia under Gen. Stewart, and the battery was augmented by the guns of Capt. Lewis of Maryland. Maj. George Peter of Georgetown and Capt. Burch of Washington, Capt. Stull's rifles and Capt. Davidson's light infantry were here supporting the guns. At each point was the enemy greeted with shot, and several of the vessels crippled, but the enemy passed the batteries. It was not, however, without some loss of life to them, one vessel losing twelve in killed and wounded. What troops engaged behaved with all others as veterans and their work was warmly commended by the commodores.
The government's loss in the destruction of the public building was at first put at $1,000,000 but on examination few of the walls had been injured. The two wings of the Capitol had cost less than half that sum, the President's house about $75,000 and others less. To restore them, $500,000 was borrowed from the banks of the District under an act of 1815, and about $355,000 in that and in the following years placed the buildings in condition; and the offices of the government permanently located on their original sites. Of course, the loss of much of the revolutionary war records was beyond restoration.