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« "Oh say, can you see?" | Main | Run for it! »
Thursday
Aug272009

"a most magnificant ruin"


As the British marched down Baldensburg Pike (now US 1) and turned south on North Capitol Street they entered a largely deserted "City" of Washington. Most of it's 8,000 inhabitants had either run off or were in hiding. Except for small scale looting, the British troops were largely unhindered as they went about their tasks by the light of the burning Navy Yard.

Largely, but not entirely, unhindered, that is. As the column of Redcoats approached the Capitol, shots rang out from what is now none as the Sewall-Belmont House (above), on the corner of Maryland Ave, Constitution Ave, and 2nd St NE. Ironically, the target was the British commanders, General Ross and Admiral Cockburn, heading in under a flag of truce to provide a guarantee against the destruction of private property of "all those who remained quiet in their homes". One British soldier was killed, as well as General Ross's horse. The mysterious gunman of the Sewall home most certainly not remaining quiet, the British set fire to the house.

Like so many visitors after them, the British felt that having come so far, it wouldn't be a trip to DC if they didn't see the Capitol. The Capitol Building, not even envisioned as the grand edifice you see today, was at that time two unfinished buildings; a Senate and House chamber connected by a wooden walkway. As difficult as it was to destroy a stone building with an iron clad roof, British soldiers showed considerable ingenuity in attempting to do so, piling up, among other things, the books of the new Library of Congress, to build their fires. Had it not been for a fierce rainstorm, they might have succeeded completely. As it was, it was left as "a most magnificent ruin" in the words of Architect of the Capitol Benjamin Latrobe.

General Ross and Admiral Cockburn sent detachments out to destroy other public buildings and military works, such as the Arsenal at Greenleef's point (now Ft. McNair), the Navy Yard, and, of course, the White House. Ross and Cockburn personally led the detachment to the White House, sitting down at the table that had been set earlier that day when it was still considered doubtful that the British would enter the capital. Toasting the health of "Jemmy" Madison, Admiral Cockburn took as a memento, Dolley Madison's seat cushion, so as to "remember her seat". Once a sailor, always a sailor.

The British officers then ordered the mansion torched and withdrew across the street to a nearby tavern to dine by the light of the burning White House. Following the fire, the fire-weakened east and west walls were taken down to the basement level, as was all but the center section of the north side. Rebuilt to it's original specifications by original architect James Hoban, some of the original ornamentation was re-used, scorch marks and all.

We'll leave you here today, with Washington on fire. Join us tomorrow as we bid our British guests adieu and clean up from the party.

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