Congress investigated another attack on the Capitol – 200 years ago

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On September 23, 1814, Representative Richard Mentor Johnson of Kentucky, “covered with wounds and resting on crutches,” according to an 1849 account by an aide, appointed a special House committee to investigate the attack on the US Capitol by the British. Got up to propose. , Representative Charles Ingersoll of Pennsylvania.

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A military hero in the ongoing War of 1812, Mr Johnson, 33, sought an inquiry into the federal government’s failure to prevent the burning of the Capitol and other Washington buildings by British troops on August 24 and 25, 1814 – just a Select House committee As is now investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump. That committee has issued summons to top Trump administration officials to testify, saying it will seek to apprehend those who refuse to comply with criminal contempt.

If history is any guide, accountability is not assured.


The Inquisition of 1814 began with a promise. In a tentative meeting at the Blodets Hotel in Washington, a special committee of three federal and three Democratic-Republicans was approved with Mr Johnson as chairman. (Mr. Johnson later became vice president under Martin Van Buren and attracted controversy for his relationship with his common-law wife, Julia Chin, an enslaved African American at their Kentucky plantation.)

The House gave the committee “power to send persons and papers”. The panel collected written statements from more than two dozen people, as well as several documents.

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President James Madison was exempted from the honor of his office. The highest-ranking official to testify was Secretary of State and future President James Monroe.

Cabinet and military officials said that on July 1, 1814, Mr. Madison ordered military preparations for a possible attack on Washington, a modest city of about 8,000 people at the time. War Secretary John Armstrong Jr. insisted that Baltimore would be a more likely target. Armstrong, a general told the committee, treated the capital “with the idea of ​​an enemy attack” “with apathy if not indifferent”.

On August 19, British ships anchored on the Patuxent River in southern Maryland. Intelligence reports showed that British troops were moving from Bladensburg, Maryland to Washington, about six miles northeast of the Capitol. General William Henry Winder, who led Washington’s defense, said that he sent “the whole” of his troops out of the capital to meet the enemy. Most of the militia from the District of Columbia and three neighboring states were volunteers.

Mr Winder said the Maryland and Pennsylvania militia failed to provide the promised numbers of troops. Virginia’s militia, he said, did not arrive on the battlefield in time after a delay in receiving arms and ammunition by a bureaucratic army clerk, who demanded a signed receipt for every item. The committee’s report termed the mobilization of forces “a great and obvious failure”.

On the morning of 24 August, 63-year-old Mr. Madison rode on his horse to Bladensburg. He was accompanied by Mr Monroe, Mr Armstrong and Attorney General Richard Rush. Bladensburg resident William Simmons later told the committee that he was searching the area when he accidentally ran into the president and three cabinet members as they were about to ride into town.

Mr Simmons said that when he warned him that the British were already there, Mr Madison “shouted in surprise, ‘The enemy in Bladensburg!’ And at that very moment they all turned on their horses and ran swiftly towards our army.” Mr. Madison followed the US Army and saw the start of the Battle of Bladensburg just after noon before heading back to Washington.

British troops soon sent Mr Winder’s crude army into a chaotic retreat. Winder told the committee that he instructed some of the retreating soldiers to rally to the Capitol, but “when I reached the Capitol, I found that no man had passed that way.”

Mr Winder said that after Mr Monroe and Mr Armstrong climbed up, the three men agreed to send them to the heights overlooking Georgetown, rather than “low and tired” soldiers to defend the Capitol. would be strategic. The general of the DC militia strongly disagreed. “It is impossible to do justice to the anguish expressed by the soldiers”, he told the committee.

The capitol was left undefended when British forces arrived that evening. British Admiral George Cockburn ordered his men to fire a musket volley at the Capitol, which was empty because Congress was not in session.

After this the soldiers ran and started vandalizing the building. “They are in possession of the very Capitol, rioting and reveling in the hallowed halls of American law, without fear or danger,” the United States Gazette reported.

Mr Ingersoll later wrote that Mr Cockburn, “largely in a tizzy,” was rumored to be sitting in the Speaker’s chair of the House and questioned his soldiers, “Will this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned? To everyone will say yes.” The question was “unanimously done.” The soldiers piled up the furniture and Mr. Cockburn set it on fire.

The British set fire to the empty presidential mansion, which later became widely known as the White House and the Treasury Building. The next morning, soldiers burned down the War and State Departments building. After a tornado struck Washington that day, the British withdrew to their ships.

Critics were raising their fingers even before the House inquiry began. “Oh! but a scapegoat,” said one newspaper.

Mr Armstrong resigned as Secretary of War under pressure from Madison, who replaced Monroe in the post. Mr Winder was a top target. The record is clear that “the general is unfit for any important command and to him, primarily, the enemy is indebted to his success that day,” wrote the Baltimore American.

Representative Zebulon Shippard, a Unionist from New York, alleged that “the chief magistrate is specifically responsible for this shameful transaction. He, his Secretary of War, was on the battlefield, or rather than in flight. What then by his order… .

Credit: / Kentucky

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