When last we left them, our fearless American's were scampering down the Bladensburg Pike (now US 1) as fast as their little feet could take them. Naturally, upon their arrival in DC, those few residents who hadn't succumbed to full fledged panic felt this was a good moment to begin to do so.
But before we delve deeper into that panic, let's take a minute to discuss why our British friends decided to drop in for tea. Traditionally, in so far as the subject was even taught in school, we learn that the British were admonishing a brash young Republic, letting us know that we'll impress your seaman when and where we see fit and stir up Indians so your bold frontiersmen will live in fear. While not untrue, the full story, is, as is almost always the case, both more complex and more interesting.
It's not my intent to rehash the entire war here, but for a fascinating look at the origins of the war from the other side, take a look here. Specifically, two years into the poorly named War of 1812, the invasion of the mid-Atlantic region had several goals in mind, from diverting the Americans while operations were conducted in the north to attacking targets of opportunity. But in no small way, it was in direct retaliation for our burning of York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada (now Ontario). And this is what I find interesting. As much as our history pits the United States as the underdog against the world-bestriding British Empire, the Canadians view it as standing up to the mighty Americans threating them from the south, perhaps even making them pronounce the letter O.
Anyway, back to Washington, DC. Having initially dismissed an attack on Washington as unlikely, President Madison and several members of the Cabinet were in the unfortunate position of getting personally refuted by Admiral Cockburn and the British. Having poorly prepared to defend the Capital, certainly the Americans were not ready to evacuate it in an orderly fashion.
The most famous tale of the retreat has infused itself so deeply into American History that even school groups that look at me blankly when I mention the War of 1812, respond immediately and enthusiastically when I mention this story. It is, of course, the story of Dolley Madison and the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. You know the one on the one dollar bill? Anyway, I don't need to recount to the whole story to you (pdf), but suffice it to say, thanks to Dolley, who almost alone seemed immune to the prevailing panic, the original White House Gilbert Stuart hangs in the East Room, not that you will be allowed to see it while you're here. However, if you do want to see a Stuart painting of Washington, just stroll down F St.
So where did Dolley go? Like many residents, she initially fled to Georgetown. Then a separate town within the District of Columbia, Georgetown was on the high ground across Rock Creek to the West. Easily defensible, it was where Gen. Winder was attempting to rally his militia, with all the leadership and command presence he had displayed at Bladensburg. Dolley initially stopped at Dumbarton Oaks, the residence of Declaration signer Charles Carroll. Dumbarton still stands and is well worth the visit in your time here in Washington. In fact, if you're here this weekend, they're hosting Dolley herself to help commemorate the War of 1812.
But by far the most visible sign of the retreating Americans was the burning of the Washington Navy Yard. Desperate not to let the supplies stored there fall into the hands of the British, English-born Commodore Thomas Tingey waited until word came of the American defeat at Bladensburg came, and ordered the Yard burned. Over half a million dollars of buildings, supplies, and ships caught fire, most notably the 32 gun frigate Columbia, due to be launched in ten days. No doubt due to the large amounts of pitch and tar laden supplies, the glow of the fire that night was reported to be seen as far east at the British warships on the Patuxant River and as far west as Leesburg, Virginia. As destructive as it was, some buildings survived, most notably the Latrobe Gate, shown above. The Navy Yard, or at the very least the Navy Museum, is near the top of my list of under appreciated sites in Washington, DC.
Coming tomorrow, the British!