But while our forces were thus winning laurels in the North, a great misfortune had happened farther south. The British fleet, sailing up Chesapeake Bay, landed soldiers, who suddenly appeared near Washington and defeated the raw American troops at Bladensburg. Hearing of this, and knowing the British would soon be masters of the capital, the people fled.
Beautiful Dolly Madison, the President’s wife, alone retained enough presence of mind to carry off the Declaration of Independence and a fine portrait of Washington. But she escaped only at the last minute, leaving her dinner table all decked for a party she intended to give that evening.
The British, marching into the deserted city, swarmed into the Capital, and, after breaking all the windows, seized torches and set fire to the “harbor of the democrats.” Next, they went to the White House, where they gayly ate the dinner prepared for the President’s guests. When their hunger had been satisfied, the soldiers rambled all over the house, sacking and ruining everything, and finally setting fire to the building.
Indeed, they destroyed all the public buildings except the Patent Office. They spared this place only because the man in charge convinced them that it held the records and models of inventions which had been made for the benefit of all mankind, and not for the Americans alone.
The burning of the public buildings at Washington was not approved of by the greater part of the English people, although their government praised the commanders Ross and Cockburn for what they had done. Indeed, it ordered that the former should have a monument in Westminster Abbey, where the best and greatest Englishmen are laid at rest.
It is said that the British thus destroyed our costly buildings to avenge the burning of Newark, a village in Canada. Others claim that they did it because York had been taken and ruined by the Americans some time before. However this may be, the fact remains that many priceless relics were thus lost, together with many important state papers.