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COMPARATIVELY little injury was done to private property while the enemy held the city. The office of the National Intelligencer, which had incensed the British by the vigor and intensity of its war articles, was entered and its types and furniture destroyed. Several private houses and rope-walks were also burned. The public buildings were, with one exception, totally destroyed.
General Ross, in his report, said that the Capitol, the Arsenal, the Dock-Yard (Navy Yard), Treasury, War Office, President's Palace, rope-walk, and the great bridge across the Potomac were “set fire to and consumed,” but the Navy Yard had previously been fired by the Americans, and the War Office, as appears by a passage in Mrs. Madison's letters, was not destroyed. More destruction would undoubtedly have been wrought but for a cyclone that burst upon the city the day after the capture. Roofs of houses,” wrote one of the invaders,
were torn off and carried up into the air like sheets of paper, while the rain which accompanied it was like the rushing of a mighty cataract rather than the dropping of a shower. This lasted for two hours without intermission, during
which time many of the houses spared by us were blown down, and thirty of our men, with as many more of the inhabitants, were buried beneath the ruins. Two cannons standing upon a bit of rising ground were fairly lifted in the air and carried several yards to the rear.”
The enemy had other sources of uneasiness besides the storm. They found it difficult to believe that the city could have been left so undefended except by design, and were continually descrying armies in buckram on the neighboring hills marshalling to attack them. And so on the evening of the 25th, having spent but one day in the city, they began their retreat. The officers were secretly told to make ready for falling back. The inhabitants were ordered to remain within doors from sunset to sunrise under pain of death, and all the horses were impressed for the transport of the artillery.
" It was about eight o'clock at night,” says an eyewitness," that a staff officer, arriving on the ground, gave directions for the corps to form in marching order. Preparatory to this step large quantities of fresh fuel were heaped upon the fires, while from every company a few men were selected, who should remain beside them till the pickets withdrew, and move about from time to time so that their figures might be seen by the light of the blaze. After this the troops stole to the rear of the fires by twos and threes ; when far enough removed to avoid observation, they took their places and in profound silence began their march. The night was very dark. Stars there were indeed in the sky, but for some time after quitting the light of the bivouac their influence was
wholly unfelt. We moved on, however, in good order. No man spoke above his breath, our steps were planted lightly, and we cleared the town without exciting observation.
Dr. Catlett, an American surgeon held a prisoner by the British, has drawn a rather more effective picture :
“ They appeared to be preparing to move ; had about forty miserable-looking horses haltered up, ten or twelve carts and wagons, one ox-cart, one coach, and several gigs, which the officers were industriously aiding to tackle up, and which were immediately sent on to Bladensburg to move off their wounded. A drove of sixty or seventy cattle preceded this cavalcade. On our arrival at Bladensburg the surgeons were ordered to select all the wounded who could walk (those with broken arms and the like) and send them off immediately. The forty horses were mounted with such as could ride, the carts and wagons loaded, and ninety odd wounded left behind.”
Thence the enemy continued his march to Benedict, and on the 29th rejoined his ships “without molestation of any sort," as Admiral Cockburn declared. The value of the public property destroyed, including the Navy Yard, was estimated by a Congressional Investigating Committee, afterward appointed, at one million dollars, by others at two millions. The private property destroyed comprised the houses built for General Washington on Capitol Hill, the house formerly occupied by Mr. Gallatin, from behind which a gun was fired at General Ross
which killed the horse he rode, the “Great Hotel,” owned by Daniel Carroll of Duddington and others, and the rope-walks of Tench, Ringgold, Heath, & Co., and John Chalmers, the whole valued at five hundred thousand dollars.
The destruction of the public buildings elicited a general burst of horror and indignation throughout the country, and did much to heighten and render ineradicable that unfriendly feeling toward England which the Revolution had created. It is proper to observe, however, that these acts caused as righteous indignation in England as in America. “Willingly," said the London Statesman, “would we throw a veil of oblivion over our transactions at Washington. The Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the capital of America”; and the Liverpool Mercury, at the close of a long denunciatory article, said :
“We will content ourselves by asking the most earnest friends of the conflagratory system, What purpose will be served by the flames of the Senate House at Washington ? If the people of the United States retain any portion of that spirit with which they successfully contended for their independence, the effect of those flames will not easily be extinguished.”
And the Annual Register of 1814: “ It cannot be concealed that the extent of devastation practised by the victors brought a heavy censure upon the British character, not only in America but on the Continent of Europe.”
It only remains to fill out the picture with some striking incidents of the occupation of the city. On
Eighth Street, between Market Space and D, lived Captain Vernon, of the Washington militia. He marched away to Bladensburg with his company that morning, but Mrs. Vernon remained and conținued in the city during the occupation. In later years she was fond of relating to her children the story of that eventful day.
“On Wednesday," she said, “ about three o'clock in the afternoon, I saw the American soldiers marching along the avenue, but could not see my husband among them, and toward night we heard that the enemy had arrived. The first intimation I had was by the firing of guns; and after dark I saw the fires caused by the burning of the Sewell House,Carroll's now and the Capitol, between which edifice and our house there were scarcely any buildings except Brown's old hotel.*
“I concluded that they were going to burn all the way down, and went to call Paul, an old black servant, who had promised to stay, but was not to be found. Kitty, his wife, had previously gone, so that I was without servants, with an infant in my arms, and felt very helpless and lonely. Mrs. Bender, my neighbor, whose husband had been also ordered off, came in, frightened almost out of her wits, with a bottle of camphor in one hand and a handkerchief in the other.
We lighted both houses and I went in and sat with her. About nine o'clock the British came down opposite the Centre Market, then called the Marsh Market.
Late in the day, on Thursday, we heard a clanking of horses, but the fog obscured our vision.
Suddenly there was an exclamation outside : 'Let 's have a pop at him!' and the report of a gun ; and immediately we heard a
* The present Metropolitan.