An Eye-Witness Account of the Taking of Washington

August 26, 1814

“To the editors of the Baltimore Patriot, Friday evening, Aug. 26.

as reprinted by the Green Mountain Farmer, September 6, 1814

Gentlemen, Having witnessed the unhappy occurrences at Washington, I will, agreeably to your request, put them on paper, that, if necessary they may be used to correct some of the many erroneous reports which are circulating.

I arrived at Washington on Sunday the 21st inst.  at that time, the officers of the government and the citizens were very apprehensive of an attack from the British, who had landed a force on the Patuxent.  The number had not been ascertained, but reports were various, stating them from four to sixteen thousands.  Gen. Winder was stationed near the Woodyard, with about two thousand men, hourly expecting large reinforcements from every quarter, particularly from Baltimore, 3000 having been ordered to march immediately from that place.

On Sunday the public officers were all engaged in packing and sending off their books, and the citizens with their furniture.  On Monday this business was continued with great industry, and many families left the city.  The specie was removed from all the banks in the district.  Reports were very current, that Winder had received large reinforcements, so that it was believed by many well-informed persons that he would have ten thousand men embodied in the course of the week.  In the expectation that there was a very considerable force collected, the president, accompanied by the secretary of war and of the navy left the city for the camp.  They arrived there late that night, and the next morning finding but 3000 men and learning that the Baltimore troops were encamped at Bladensburgh, they returned to the city to make further arrangements.  All the books and papers were sent off, and the citizens generally left the place.

In the course of that day a scouting party from Gen. Winder’s army had a skirmish with the British advance guards, and returned with such tidings to camp, as induced Gen. Winder to retire to the city with his army, which he accomplished by nine o’clock in the evening, burnt the old bridge which crossed the Potomac, and encamped on the hill, directly above the other bridge, about one mile and a half from the navy yard, and prepared to defend that passage.  In the event of the British being too strong the bridge was to be blown up, for which he had every thing prepared.  At this post he remained the whole night expecting the enemy’s forces.  On Wednesday morning I walked through the army, and remained at the bridge until ten o’clock, when advice was received that the enemy had taken the Bladensburgh road.  The troops were immediately put in motion, and by twelve o’clock were on their march, in hope of forming a junction with the Baltimore troops, before the enemy reached Bladensburgh.  This was only partially accomplished when the battle commenced, and was contested by the Baltimore troops, and the men from the flotilla, with great spirit and gallantry, until it appeared useless for so small a force, badly supported, to stand against  6000 regulars, all picked men and well supplied.  A retreat was ordered, when the President, who had been on horseback with the army the whole day, retired from the city, on horse-back, accompanied by Gen. Mason and Mr. Carroll.  At Georgetown the President met his lady, she having left the city only half an hour before him having remained with great firmness and composure at the President’s house, until a messenger brought her the tidings that the British were within a few miles of the city, and that our army were retreating without any chance of being rallied, so as to check their march.

The President and Secretary of State went to Virginia with their families; the other officers of government went to Frederictown, where the government is to be formed, and where the President intends to meet his secretaries next week.  I remained at the President’s house until our army had passed, and ninety nine hundredths of the citizens gone, leaving nothing but empty walls.  I fell into the trail of the army, and marched about four miles on the Frederick road.  Being much fatigued I turned off into a wood, and found good quarters in a farm house on the hill back of Pearce’s.  Soon after reaching there, at 9 o’clock on Wednesday evening, a signal gun was discharged, and the President’s house, the capitol, and many other public buildings, were at the same moment in a blaze, which continued nearly all night.

On Thursday morning I proceeded on with the army to Montgomery court house, where Gen. Winder’s head quarters were established.  I had some conversation with him; he appeared to regret very much, that he had not been enabled to have made a greater resistance, although he was perfectly satisfied that a successful resistance could not have been made, with the force in the neighborhood of Washington, since, if it had been all brought together before the action, it would not have been so large as that opposed to him, and our force was principally militia, and that of the enemy all regulars and picked men.

The uncertainty on which road the enemy intended to attack the city, compelled him to keep his forces divided, and occasioned frequent marches and counter-marches, which at this hot season was quite too much for our militia, particularly as the quarter-master’s department was either shamefully neglected, or the officers unable to procure supplies; for it is a fact that our men suffered severely, not only for accommodations but for bread and meat; and after retreating to the court house at Montgomery they could not get quarters nor provisions, not even a tent to cover them from the rain.  . . .  Our army may with truth be said, to have been beaten by fatigue before they met the enemy.”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden