By JOHN MARTIN
On the night of Wednesday, Aug. 24, 1814, Washington burned.
As it roared through the night and into the early morning hours, the conflagration that gutted the Capitol, the president's mansion, the Treasury and other public buildings was observed by frightened Americans in Leesburg, Va., to the west, and north to Baltimore. Since news traveled only as fast as horse and rider, distant witnesses to the destruction were left to speculate about the safety of President James Madison, the location of key members of Congress and the proximity of marauding British troops. The reports of terrified refugees did little to lift the sense of imperilment abroad in the country surrounding the doomed capital of the young republic.
In his new book, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (Naval Institute Press, 298 pp.) author Anthony S. Pitch delivers a crisp and well-documented account of the ruin of the city by British forces during the War of 1812, called by some the Second War of Independence. Mr. Pitch discussed the book at the Library on July 28, as part of the Center for the Book's "Books and Beyond" lecture series. Clarence J. Brown, president of the United States Capitol Historical Society and a former U.S. congressman, introduced Mr. Pitch.
"History," Mr. Brown said, "hangs by a slender thread. Mr. Pitch will relate how the thread of our national history was almost broken."
The book draws heavily on primary sources available in the Library's Manuscript Division, including the papers of the British officers responsible for the attack and the memoirs of first lady Dolley Madison. It will appeal to those interested in local landmarks, military historians and students of the foibles that often determine the course of human events.
Mr. Pitch, who lives in Potomac, a suburb of Washington, said curiosity, influenced by locality, prompted him to write the book. "How," he wondered, "did the residents react to this event? Was it like the feeling in Paris before the Germans captured that city?"
War between the United States and Britain grew out of the wider European conflict against Napoleon's France. The United States' burgeoning maritime trade created a shortage of able-bodied seamen. The lack was often supplied by deserters from the Royal Navy, who preferred the higher wages and liberality of American merchant vessels to the harsh discipline and low pay of conscripted service. Since naval manpower was a vital necessity, British warships stopped and searched American merchantmen, removing indiscriminately British deserters, naturalized Americans and native-born U.S. citizens alike.
Americans resented what they considered an intolerable affront to their sovereignty and national pride. War fever spread, encouraged by the fiery rhetoric of a new generation of leaders, such as Henry Clay of Kentucky and South Carolina's George C. Calhoun. A divided Congress voted a declaration of war, which President Madison signed on June 12, 1812.
In the summer of 1814, Washington was a rustic town with 8,000 residents, one-sixth of them slaves. The seat of government since 1800, it possessed more swamp than boarding houses, and scant strategic importance. Hostilities during the first two years of the war were limited to America's northern border with British Canada. A Royal Naval squadron, under the command of Adm. George Cockburn, operated in the Chesapeake, but without a major infantry force.
Two events combined to make feasible the daring strike against the weakly defended capital. The motivation, said Mr. Pitch, came from American excesses in the burning of York, the capital of Upper Canada, during the previous year. The means arrived in the form of several thousand seasoned troops, veterans of the Peninsula campaign, who were transferred for service in the New World after Napoleon's abdication.
President James Madison called an emergency meeting of his Cabinet on July 1 to plan the defense of Washington from the new threat. Secretary of War John Armstrong, an incompetent whom Mr. Pitch describes as "infatuated with himself," assured Madison that Washington was not at risk, insisting that the British meant to attack Baltimore. The contumacious Armstrong all but abandoned the defense of the capital to Gen. William Winder, a Baltimore lawyer and sometime soldier that Mr. Pitch calls a "transparent political appointee."
Unfortunately for the city of Washington, the British military was in more capable hands. Cockburn, a man cited by Adm. Horatio Nelson for his "zeal, ability and courage," planned the attack on the city and advocated its approval to Alexander Cochrane, the British commander-in-chief of the North American station. Seizing Washington would position the British to attack Baltimore from the rear, capture important national documents and employ the talents of army Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, a popular and decorated veteran of the Napoleonic wars. But demoralizing Americans was the paramount objective, since, as Cockburn reasoned, the fall of a capital is "always so great a blow to the government of a country."
The British advance achieved complete tactical surprise. Landing Aug. 19 at Benedict, on the mouth of the Patuxent River, Ross moved north by rapid marches, camping in Upper Marlborough on Aug. 22. Meanwhile, Cockburn's fleet trapped and destroyed the small American flotilla commanded by Revolutionary War hero Commodore Joshua Barney. Two days later, Ross's troops defeated Winder's disorganized militia at the Battle of Bladensburg, crossed the East Branch of the Potomac (today called the Anacostia) and marched against Washington, then unguarded and practically deserted.
In that fateful hour, clerks and servants rushed to do what generals and politicians had not. Dolley Madison, among the last to flee the city, gathered and removed important Cabinet papers, forsaking the Madisons' valuables in the process. Paul Jennings, a 15-year-old slave, labored to save Gilbert Sullivan's full-length portrait of George Washington. It was cut from its frame and taken by two visiting New Yorkers to a farm outside the city. Mordecai Booth, a navy yard clerk, assumed the dangerous task of burning ships and stores to prevent their capture. Acting in the absence of Secretary of State James Monroe, Stephen Pleasonton, a senior clerk, hastily packed rare documents, including the Declaration of Independence and George Washington's correspondence. The national heirlooms were removed and hidden in an old gristmill two miles above Georgetown.
The British, nonetheless, found plenty left to burn. After a sumptuous dinner with his senior staff in the president's mansion (the first lady had planned a banquet that very night), Cockburn ordered the torching of all public buildings. A few officers protested the wanton destruction. Benjamin Latrobe's architecture, said Mr. Pitch, had impressed the victors. "Expecting to find Republican rusticism, they found buildings of monarchial splendor." But Cockburn was implacable and the British arsonists went to work. By midnight, most of monumental Washington was engulfed in flame.
While the heavy exterior walls of the White House and the Capitol withstood the blaze, the magnificent interiors suffered irreparable loss. Much of the original ornamentation perished, including a marble eagle that adorned a frieze over the Speaker's canopy in the House chamber. The first Library of Congress, located in the present Senate majority leader's suite, was a large, heavily timbered room with a double row of windows that burned completely.
"When Americans returned to the ruined Capitol," said Mr. Pitch, "their melancholy and lamentation was almost biblical."
The ruthless destruction of Washington, contrary to Cockburn's intentions, galvanized American resistance. By September, more than 15,000 volunteers converged on Baltimore and repelled the British. Observing that battle from a British hostage ship, Francis Scott Key, a Georgetown lawyer captured at Bladensburg, wrote the lines that would become the national anthem.
At war's end, Congress met in one of the few surviving public buildings, the Patent Office -- now the National Museum of American Art -- and debated the removal of the capital to more defensible territory. A congressman from New York suggested it be moved closer to Wall Street, so government might be nearer to its creditors. But Congress decided not to budge, accepting the wisdom of a Southern delegate who declared, "If the seat of government is once set on wheels, there is no saying where it will stop."
Anthony Pitch is the author of several biographies and travel guides. A former journalist in England, Africa and Israel, Mr. Pitch was also Associated Press broadcast editor for Pennsylvania and a senior writer in the books division of U.S. News and World Report.
Mr. Martin is an examiner in the Copyright Office.