August 24, 2014, marks the 200th anniversary of the British burning of Washington during the War of 1812.
In August 1814, British forces occupying the Chesapeake Bay began to sail up the Patuxent River in Maryland. Fearing an attack on the capital, Secretary of State James Monroe offered to scout the British position and report back to President James Madison. Monroe, accompanied by cavalry, left Washington and rode into southern Maryland.
On August 19 and 20, the British landed troops at the port town of Benedict, Maryland, and started advancing north. By August 22, it became clear to Monroe that the British intended to invade Washington. He quickly dispatched a messenger with a note to Madison, saying: “The enemy are advanced six miles on the road to the Woodyard, and our troops retiring. Our troops were on the march to meet them, but in too small a body to engage. . . . The enemy are in full march for Washington. Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges.”
In the postscript, Monroe added: “You had better remove the records.”
Before Congress created the National Archives, it required each executive department to keep its own archives. Congress gave the Department of State the important task of safeguarding the nation’s early state papers—treasured documents including the records of the Confederation and Continental Congresses, George Washington’s papers as Commander of the Continental Army, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution.
When word of the invasion reached the Department of State, clerks John Graham, Stephen Pleasonton, and Josias King took up the task of saving the valuable archives in the department’s custody. The clerks bought coarse linen to make bags into which they stuffed the archives and loaded them into carts. The documents they packed included the books and papers of the State Department; unpublished secret journals of Congress; General George Washington’s correspondence; the Articles of Confederation; and the papers of the Continental Congress.
Along with these early records, the clerks also bagged up the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and Bill of Rights.
According to Pleasonton, whose account was taken 34 years afterwards, the clerks first took several document-loaded carts to a vacant gristmill on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, located a couple of miles above Georgetown. The mill, however, sat near a foundry that made munitions for the war, and the clerks feared it might become a British target.
Pleasonton decided to find another location. After obtaining wagons from nearby farmers, the clerks moved the documents to Leesburg, Virginia, about 35 miles outside of Washington. There, they locked the valuable documents into a cellar vault of an abandoned house and gave the keys to Leesburg’s sheriff for safekeeping.
While the state papers were being carted to safety, the British forces advanced to Bladensburg, Maryland. The Americans’ feeble attempt to hold back British troops at the Battle of Bladensburg ended in swift defeat. The British invaders then marched, unimpeded, into the city from the northeast, intent on destroying as many public buildings as possible.
In the near-vacant city, British troops vandalized and set fire to the unfinished Capitol Building. British troops then marched up Pennsylvania Avenue, burning and looting the White House and nearby government buildings including those housing the Departments of State, War, Navy, and the Treasury. A few miles southeast, over at the Navy Yard, the commandant had ordered clerks to torch ships and ammunition to prevent the British from procuring them. The collective blaze could reportedly be seen as far away as Baltimore.
The attack, coupled with a devastating storm on August 25, destroyed most of Washington’s public buildings. In addition to the extensive physical damage, the attack struck a great emotional blow to the nascent city. Government officials questioned whether Washington should remain the capital and called to abandon the remote outpost.
In Congress, members debated whether the capital should move to someplace “with greater security and less inconvenience” than Washington. Ultimately, Congress decided to remain in the city and appropriated funds to repair and rebuild the White House, Capitol, and public offices on their present sites.
Even though the British occupation destroyed some of our nation’s most important documentary heritage, Congress’s plans to rebuild the city did not include provisions for a national archives. Over the next hundred years, many of the nation’s most valuable state papers continued to endure poor storage conditions, lack of suitable space, constant shuffling around the city, and a near-constant threat of fire.
Miraculously, many of the state papers survived until their eventual transfer to the National Archives, where the records are now properly preserved and accessible to the American public.
The National Archives will exhibit a charred remnant of the White House and a letter regarding the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the East Rotunda Gallery from September 11 – November 3, 2014.