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The Burning Of Washington [1814] By Richard Hildreth

 

News reached Washington that a new and large British fleet had arrived in the Chesapeake. This was Cochrane, from Bermuda, with General Ross on board, and a division, some four thousand strong, of Wellington's late army. To this fleet Cockburn's2 blockading squadron soon joined itself, adding to Ross's force a thousand marines, and a hundred armed and disciplined negroes, deserters from the plantations bordering on the Chesapeake. As the ships passed the Potomac some of the frigates entered that river, but the main fleet, some sixty vessels in all, stood on for the Patuxent, which they ascended to Benedict, where the frith begins to narrow. There, some fifty miles from Washington, the troops were landed without a sign of opposition, the there were several detachments of Maryland militia, under State orders, at points not far distant. As Ross had no horses, his men, some four thousand five hundred in all, were organized into a light infantry corps. Three pieces of light artillery were dragged along by a hundred sailors. As many more transported munitions. The soldiers carried at their backs eighty rounds of ammunition and three days' provisions.

Enervated as the troops had been by the close confinement of the voyage, and wilting under the burning sun of that season, it was with difficulty, at first, that they staggered along. Nothing but the constant efforts of their officers prevented them from dissolving into a long train of stragglers. The falling of a few trees, where the road crossed the frequent streams and swamps, would have seriously delayed, if not effectually have stopt, them. But in that part of Maryland, a level region of cornfields and pine forests, the slave population exceeded the whites, and the frightened planters thought of little except to save their ovn throats from insurgent knives, and their human property from English seduction.

In the slaves the British had good friends and sure means of information. With the trained negroes in front, they advanced cautiously, the first day only six miles, but still without encountering the slightest opposition, feeling their way up the left bank of the Patuxent—a route which threatened Barney's squadron in front, Alexandria and Washington on the left, and Annapolis and Baltimore on the right. Cockburn accompanied the army, and from his dashing, buccaneering spirit, and long experience in that neighborhood, became the soul of the enterprise.

At the first alarm of the appearance of the British fleet Winder had sent off his requisitions for militia; but, even had the quotas of Virginia and Pennsylvania been embodied and ready to march, and had the swiftest expresses been employed instead of the slow course of the mail, it was already too late for effectual aid from that quarter. The District militia, summoned to arms, marched to a point some eight miles east of Washington, where they were joined by the regulars who fell back from a more advanced position which they had occupied for some time at Marlborough.

Stansbury's brigade of Maryland drafted militia, fourteen hundred strong, marching from the neighborhood of Baltimore, on the night of the 22d encamped, just in advance of Bladensburg, six miles north of Washington; here they were joined the next day, while the President was reviewing the District army, by a regiment esteemed the flower of the Baltimore city militia, by some companies of artillery and a battalion of city riflemen, led by Pinckney, the late ambassador to London. This Maryland army now amounted to some twentyone hundred men; but the city part, that most relied upon, had little experience in field service, having suddenly changed the comforts of their homes for the bare ground and rations of bad salt beef and musty flour, which they did not even know how to cook....

The Eastern Branch of the Potomac, deep enough opposite Washington to float a frigate, dwindles at Bladensburg to a shallow stream. A few houses occupy the eastern bank. Abandoning the village and the bridge, Stansbury had posted his men on an eminence on the Washington side of the river, with his right on the Washington road, in which were planted two pieces of artillery, tosweep the bridge Pinckney's riflemen lined the bushes which skirted the river bank. The Baltimore regiment had been originally posted nearest the bridge, but, by Monroe's orders, who rode up just before the battle began, they were thrown back behind an orchard, leaving Stansbury's drafted men to stand the first brunt of attack. As Winder reached the front, other military amateurs were busy in giving their advice, the enemy's column just then beginning to show itself on the opposite bank....

The British soldiers, by the time they reached Blandensburg, were almost ready to drop, so excessive was the heat; and so formidable was the appearance of the American army that Ross and his officers, reconnoitering from one of the highest houses of the village, were not a little uneasy as to the result. But it was now too late to hesitate. The column was again put in motion, and after a momentary check it dashed across the bridge. Some discharges of Congreve rockets put the Maryland drafted militia to flight. They were followed by the riflemen, Pinckney getting a broken arm in the tumult, and by the artillerymen, whose pieces had scarcely been twice discharged. As the British came up, the Baltimore regiment fled also, sweeping off with them the general, the President, and the Cabinet officers.

Encouraged by this easy victory, the enemy pushed rapidly forward, till Barney's artillery opened upon them with severe effect. After several vain efforts, during which many fell, to advance in face of this fire, advantage was taken of the shelter of a ravine to file off by the right and left. Those who emerged on the left encountered the Annapolis regiment, which fled after a single fire. Those on the right fell in with some detachments of regulars, forming an advanced portion of the second line. They retired with equal promptitude, as did the militia behind them; and the enemy having thus gained both flanks, the sailors and marines were obliged to fly, leaving their guns and their wounded commanders in the enemy's hands.

Such was the famous Battle of Bladensburg, in which very few Americans had the honor to be either killed or wounded, not more than fifty in all; and yet, according to the evidence subsequently given before a Congressional committee of investigation, everybody behaved with wonderful courage and coolness, and nobody retired except by orders or for want of orders. The British loss was a good deal larger, principally in the attack on the sailors and marines. Several had dropt dead with heat and fatigue and the whole force was so completely exhausted that it was necessary to allow them some hours rest before advancing on Washington.

The Maryland militia, dispersing as they fled in every direction, soon ceased to exist as an embodied force. The District militia kept more together; the Virginians had at last obtained their flints; and Winder had still at his command some two thousand men and several pieces of artillery. Two miles from Washington a momentary stand was made, but the retreating troops soon fell back to the Capitol. Armstrong wished to occupy the two massive, detached wings of that building (the central rotunda and porticos having not then been built), and to play the part of the British in Chew's house at the Battle of Germantown. But, if able to withstand an assault, how long could they hold out without provisions or water?

It was finally decided to abandon Washington, and to rally on the heights of Georgetown.

Simultaneously with this abandonment of their homes by an army that retired but did not rally, fire was put at the navy-yard to a new frigate on the stocks, to a new sloop-of-war lately launched, and to several magazines of stores and provisions, for the destruction of which ample preparations had been made. By the light of this fire, made lurid by a sudden thundergust, Ross, toward evening, advanced into Washington, at that time a straggling village of some eight thousand people, but, for the moment, almost deserted by the male part of the white inhabitants.

From Gallatin's late residence, one of the first considerable houses which the column reached, a shot was fired which killed Ross's horse, and which was instantly revenged by putting fire to the house. After three or four volleys at the Capitol, the two detached wings were set on fire. The massive walls defied the flames, but all the interior was destroyed, with many valuable papers, and the library of Congress—a piece of vandalism alleged to be in revenge for the burning of the Parliament House at York. An encampment was formed on Capitol Hill; but meanwhile a detachment marched along Pennsylvania Avenue to the President's house, of which the great hall had been converted into a military magazine, and before which some cannon had been placed. Thesecannon, however, had been carried off. Mrs. Madison had fled also with her plate and valuables loaded into a cart obtained not without difficulty having first stript from its frame and provided for the safety of a valuable portrait of Washington, which ornamented the principal room.

The President's house, and the offices of the Treasury and State Departments near by, were set on fire; Ross and Cockburn, who had forced themselves as unwelcome guests upon a neighboring boardinghouse woman, supping by the light of the blazing buildings. Fortunately by the precaution of Monroe, the most valuable papers of the State Department had been previously removed; yet here, too, some important records were destroyed. The next morning the War Office was burned. The office of the National Intelligencer was ransacked, and the types thrown into the street, Cockburn himself presiding with gusto over this operation, thus revenging himself for its severe strictures on his proceedings in the Chesapeake. The arsenal at Greenleaf's Point was fired, as were some rope-walks near by.
Several private houses were burned, and some private warehouses broken open and plundered; but, in general, private property was respected, the plundering being less on the part of the British soldiers than of the low inhabitants, black and white, who took advantage of the terror and confusion to help themselves.

The only public building that escaped was the General Post Office and Patent Office, both under the same roof, of which the burning was delayed by the entreaties and remonstrances of the superintendent, and finally prevented by a tremendous tornado which passed over the city and for a while completely dispersed the British column, the soldiers seeking refuge where they could, and several being buried in the ruins of the falling buildings.