The battle for the city had been lost here as much as on the field at Bladensburg—over the course of months and even years. It was lost during session after session of Congress, when legislators refused to fund an adequate army, relying instead on haphazardly trained militia. It was lost when Madison chose an inexperienced political appointee to command the region’s military defenses a few months before the invasion. It was lost when Secretary of War John Armstrong refused to believe that the nearby British fleet posed any danger to Washington. It was lost when the Secretary of the Navy, sending urgent orders for reinforcements to Philadelphia, inexplicably consigned them to the regular mail. (His letter reached the post office on a Sunday.) It was lost when troops rushing to join the army at Bladensburg were detained for hours in the capital while a detail-oriented supply clerk made their colonel sign receipts for every last gunflint. (They arrived after the battle was over.)
Last-ditch plans to defend the city on August 24 came to nothing. Secretary Armstrong reluctantly let go of a scheme to conceal heavy artillery and 5,000 infantrymen inside the Capitol. Deeds of valor in the city that day would be civilian, not military.
That afternoon, as defeated troops from Bladensburg streamed toward the capital, a 15-year-old slave named Paul Jennings was helping set the table at the White House. Dolley Madison had requested places for 40 guests, as she expected her husband to return with his Cabinet members and military commanders for a leisurely meal. Jennings put out fine silver and china. As he and the other servants awaited the presidential party’s arrival, hoofbeats sounded through the open window. Instead of the distinguished guests, it was a messenger bearing news of the rout.
More than any other Americans in 1814, James and Dolley Madison could have claimed Washington as a place of their own creation. As father of the Constitution, the President himself had devised the federal system that provided—and still provides—its raison d’être. He had been among the earliest advocates of the capital’s location on the Potomac River, and he and his wife had been among its first prominent residents. Dolley Madison, during eight years as frequent White House hostess under the widowed Jefferson, then five years as First Lady, had brought to life the capital’s social ecosystem. James Madison stands as founding father of one version of Washington: the city of House, Senate, and Supreme Court. Dolley’s spirit presides over another: the city of power lunches, lobbyists’ receptions, and embassy parties.
Now the couple presided over Washington’s destruction, the result of a war that the President had advocated and an invasion he had done little to guard against. With her husband nowhere to be found, the First Lady did all she could. She stuffed some White House silverware into her handbag, grabbed her copy of the Declaration of Independence, and asked Jennings and another slave to remove Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from its frame for easier transport. Then she locked the front door and climbed aboard a waiting carriage. Among the last refugees to leave the White House was her beloved pet macaw, carried out in the arms of a slave.
An enduring myth of that day is that Dolley Madison cut the Stuart portrait out of its frame. The painting shows no evidence of this. Other oft-told stories about the burning of Washington rest on similarly shaky foundations, including an anecdote about Cockburn and his officers play-acting a legislative session in the abandoned House chamber, with the admiral proposing from the speaker’s chair, “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?” I’ve found no firsthand British accounts of that scene.
Much better documented is the banquet hosted at the White House not long after Dolley Madison’s precipitous departure. Arriving at the mansion, famished British soldiers were delighted to find the sumptuous repast still laid out. After partaking generously of the food and—especially—drink, they finished, in Lieutenant Gleig’s words, “by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.” First, many grabbed souvenirs, including the President’s cocked hat and dress sword and his wife’s portrait. Cockburn joined in the fun with lewd jokes at the First Lady’s expense. The cleanest one was when he grabbed the cushion from her chair, quipping that he wished to “warmly recall Mrs. Madison’s seat.”
Truth be told, more eyewitness accounts attest that the redcoats’ behavior was restrained, even chivalrous—at least as much as could be hoped of an invading army. With few exceptions—such as the offices of a leading pro-war newspaper—Cockburn and Ross enforced a rule that no private property should be harmed. Besides the White House, the only residence deliberately burned was a house on Capitol Hill from which some stray shots were fired, killing Ross’s horse from beneath him. Officers torched the Treasury building but spared the Patent Office and banks. Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep its vessels and supplies from falling into enemy hands; its storehouses full of lumber, cloth, oil, and tar made an inferno rivaling that at the Capitol. A detachment of redcoats followed up the next morning to demolish what the first blaze had missed, and several dozen were killed and wounded after accidentally igniting a cache of gunpowder.
Then, almost as suddenly as the British had arrived, they vanished. Just after dark on August 25, barely 24 hours after they had torched the Capitol, the invaders withdrew back toward Bladensburg and the safety of Admiral Cochrane’s ships.
For those few inhabitants who had remained in the city, the past two days’ events would linger as a set of surreal images, vivid in color and blurry in outline. Almost 200 years later, despite all the history the capital has seen since, their descriptions of the invaders still possess the quality of lucid dreams.
One of the Washingtonians who recorded his memories was Michael Shiner, a young slave apprentice at the Navy Yard. “As son as we got a sight of British armmy raising that hill they looked like flames of fier,” he wrote, “all red coats and the stoks of ther guns painted with red ver Milon and the iron work shind like a spanish dollar . . . .” Shiner was one of the last living witnesses to the tragedy of August 1814, surviving for nearly another seven decades. He would carry those terrible days with him for many long years, through emancipation, the Civil War, and beyond, into a Washington vastly altered from the fledgling capital that the redcoats had burned.
Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, is the author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening.”
This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.