“If Mr. Madison attempts to move from this house in case of an attack, they will stop him and… he shall fall with it.” These were not the words of a British General in the War of 1812 but those of Dolley Madison describing the sentiments of her fellow Washingtonians. Her fellow citizens intended that the President would stay and defend their homes, and would ensure it by force, if necessary!
The Redcoats had come calling for a second time in thirty years with the intent of settling a rankling old score. The folks of this “meager village” of little more than 8000 inhabitants did not follow the logic of Madison’s cabinet, which was that there were other towns such as Annapolis, Maryland with more strategic importance to the British invaders, and therefore more likely to be attacked than the American capital.
For his part, Madison was more in accord with his fellow citizens than his own cabinet and had instructed his gaunt-faced Secretary of War, John Armstrong, to fortify the city back in early July. For some inexplicable reason Armstrong chose not to, even when it became clear to most that the city of Washington was the British objective.
Baltimore is the Place
Armstrong maintained to the last that Baltimore and Annapolis were the likely targets , telling the president, “Baltimore is the place, sir. That is of so much more consequence.” Today one might diagnose him as suffering from the “curse of knowledge.” It seems that his experience as a soldier, going back to his noble service in the Revolutionary War, inhibited his ability to see that the British wanted to destroy the American Capital as a symbolic move not as part of some martial strategy.
James Monroe, the Secretary of State, also a tested veteran of the Revolutionary War, was urging action on the part of the government. He was quite familiar with the need for bold decisions in situations such as these, having been with George Washington at the crossing of the Delaware and the subsequent Battle of Trenton.
As a nineteen-year-old Lieutenant, Monroe was severely wounded in the neck when charging a Hessian artillery position. He would have bled to death in mere moments were it not for the efforts of a surgeon standing nearby, one he, himself, had recruited that very morning! Quick, decisive action was something with which he was quite familiar.
Secretary Monroe, after seeking and being granted the approval of the President, joined a troop of Cavalry officers on a scouting mission to try to ascertain the intentions of the British. He arrived at Benedict, Maryland and observed the redcoat troops as they landed. A mass call for militia was issued and as they assembled, Monroe fell in with them.
Take Care of Yourself
On the evening of August 22nd, the president and some of the members of his cabinet addressed the troops some eight miles southeast of the city. The First Lady, Dolley Madison was still in the White House, peering out the windows, watching the panicked citizens scurrying to leave the city. When he had left the day before, the president had told her to take care of herself and “the cabinet papers, public and private.”
The President did his best to put on a cheery face as he reviewed the soldiers but it was mostly for show. He wrote to Dolley that they were “in high spirits,” and they were, but it was optimism likely born of inexperience. Their militia commander was a bit less sanguine when he stated rather dejectedly that they were, “not three days from their homes, without organization or any practical knowledge of service on the part of their officers.” The commanders opinion was a little closer to the mark.
What made matters worse was that the soldiers were even less well-equipped. Armstrong had given them old muskets instead of rifles owing to his stubborn insistence that they would never have to be used. When a militia captain complained, he was told that he was to have the muskets or nothing. The captain had requested 1000 flints to fire the guns and yet received only 200. Even the cavalry horses, though sufficient in number, had not been trained for use in battle.
Secretary Armstrong did at least have the courage of his convictions; he was with the army the day before the attack. When a scout rode up with two British deserters to report that the British intended to attack their current position, Armstrong, standing next to the president replied, “They have no such intention… If an attack is mediated by them upon anyplace, it is Annapolis.” Annapolis remained un-accosted throughout the war.
Armstrong, though he made a string of bad decisions in the months leading up to the attack on Washington, most of them inexcusable, deserves at least a fair hearing on the question of whether the British had the capital city as their main objective. While he should have defended the city regardless, even the British themselves did not know what their plans were.
Last Minute Decision
As late as the early morning of the day of the attack, the British General and the Admiral in charge of the expedition both received orders to re-board their ships and await further orders. British Rear Admiral Cockburn, leading the naval forces, spent the better part of the pre-dawn hours trying to convince the reticent Major General Robert Ross, in charge of British land forces, to ignore their orders and attack the capital.
Whether it was the Admiral’s charm, persistence or the sheer force of his argument which convinced the General, is not known, but on the morning of August 24th 1814, the British marched toward Washington.
James Monroe, as Secretary of State, gave a young clerk named Stephen Pleasanton what turned out to be a monumentally important task. He was to secure and protect the important papers on file with the State Department. Young Pleasanton, obtained several coarse linen bags and began to hurriedly stuff into them what were then, and so remain, the seminal documents in American history.
Hastily placed in the bags were George Washington’s commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, all of Washington’s correspondence, The Articles of Confederation and the various laws, treaties and correspondence accumulated since the beginning of the republic.
Undoubtedly though, the most important and valuable instruments packed away were the original Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. For these hallowed documents to fall into the hands of an invading army, a British one, no less, was unthinkable.
Pleasanton, first hid the documents in a gristmill just two miles beyond Georgetown. But after a near sleepless night, during which he worried that the British might attempt to destroy a nearby cannon foundry and perhaps the mill, he moved the rare and valuable cargo thirty-five miles away to an empty stone house in Leesburg, Virginia wherein they remained safe and intact, all thanks to a young obscure clerk named Stephen Pleasanton, largely unknown to posterity, who should be credited with saving the works of some of the greatest men in all of history.
Dolley Madison, would secure her place in history too, staying in the White House right up until the last moment, and directing “two gentlemen from New York” to spirit away the iconic painting of George Washington for safe keeping. She and her attendants, with their wagon load of republican valuables, stole away mere moments before the marauding redcoats entered the city.
White House Blackened
In the end a hastily cobbled together militia, though they fought bravely, could not save the capital city of the young nation. The White House and Capitol Building, together with the Library of Congress, would all burn, along with a great deal of other public edifices. It was only the providential arrival of a fierce summer downpour that doused the flames.
More often than not, it is in trying times that we learn what is most important. This has been true throughout time. A diverse set of characters, from a lowly clerk to the First Lady of the United States, instantly knew what was imperative to preserve in that moment of crisis. At great risk to their persons, each of them chose to protect the American ideal in its most magnificent forms.
The British would sit down and dine on the meal which had been intended for Dolley. After they had pillaged the grand home they set it to flames believing that burning the President’s house and the capital would dispirit the surely fragile devotion her citizens felt for the American ideal. They were wrong.
America would cast out the British a second time and rebuild the White House. President Madison and Dolley would stay in the Octagon House nearby. James Monroe would go on to be elected the next President of the United States and have the honor of once again occupying the Great House of the Republic. A republic that stands to this day.
America has endured attacks to her Capital in 1814, at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and again on 9/11. And each time her enemy would fail to understand what every patriotic and liberty loving American stores deep in the recesses of his or her heart:
You may destroy our buildings, our ships, our towns; but your victories shall be hollow; for we don’t just live in America, America lives in us.