Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Library of America: War of 1812

From the weekly emails I get from the Library of America, here's what I've gleamed from the journal of British soldier George R. Gleig, who assisted in the burning of the White House, the treasury, and the Capitol.

For this entry, we'll focus on what British soldier Gleig wrote about what he saw when he helped burn D.C.

--First, this was not mentioned in either account, but was in the summary: When British Admiral George Cockburn arrived in the city, he searched for the offices of the National Intelligencer, which had long been insulting and taunting him, and oversaw personally the destruction of the pressroom. Spectators overheard him denouncing the publisher “with much of the peculiar slang of the Common Sewer.” The Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 mentions a contemporary report claiming that the admiral instructed soldiers to “take special effort to obliterate all of the c’s in the newspaper’s type racks” so that the publisher could no longer spell Cockburn’s name.  Amusing.  If the Admiral was that thin-skinned dealing with a foreign newspaper, how could he have been with the papers, politicians and brass in his own country?

From Gleig:

--The inhabitants of D.C. were so sure of victory over the British that they didn't leave the city--until the British troops were actually in it.  This includes Madison, the President, too.

--The withdrawal of the President was so quick and last-second that he left a gourmet dinner for 40 still hot on his table, with many bottles of wine open and ready.  All of this was enjoyed by the British troops before they torched the White House.  "[After speaking to the troops, President Jackson] hurried back to his own house, that he might prepare a feast for the entertainment of his officers, when they should return victorious. For the truth of these details I will not be answerable; but this much I know, that the feast was actually prepared, though, instead of being devoured by
American officers, it went to satisfy the less delicate appetites of a party of English soldiers."

--The British were surprisingly humane.  Though they burned the White House, the Capitol and the Treasury (and "a noble library"), they let all of the other houses stand--except the home of the guy who killed the General's horse.

--All of the citizens of D.C. were still there when the troops arrived because Madison had just crossed the only bridge that spanned the Potomac--and immediately ordered it burned:  "...the rest were obliged to return, and to trust to the clemency of the victors."  Thanks, Mr. President.

--All the National Archives were burned.  Can you imagine the historical stuff that must've been in there?  Things from the Pilgrims to the Revolutionary War--all lost.

--Greig wrote that the American forces vastly outnumbered his own--but they didn't (or couldn't) fight.  He says the American forces should've been successful, no problem, but that the generals and soldiers didn't know what they were doing.  Reminds me of the Northern generals defending D.C. in the beginning of the Civil War, just 49 years later.

--The Government section of D.C. was completely destroyed--and the awesome, mile-long wooden bridge, the National Archives, the White House (and all of the historically relevant things in it) and all of the early buildings, all built just 25-30 years before--if that.  Devastating.

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