Washington Burns – Excerpt
24 August 1814, 2100 Hours
Dolley stood alone in the grass, atop the small knoll before Arlington house, unable to look away from the destruction of Washington City. The Dragoon sergeant had continued to the house to request lodging from Anne while Sukey took Abigail and Wally to the stables. Dolley clutched her Bible, its presence comforting as she studied the British through her telescope.
Is this how things began in Hampton? Torch the largest buildings, then the houses, and then, systematically, murder and rape those who were foolish enough to remain behind? If Captain Gates lied, and the criminals of Hampton are here, I will visit his sickbed and personally cut off his—No!
Dolley closed her eyes and concentrated on her breathing: four second inhale, hold, four second exhale, and hold. She located and relaxed each muscle, starting with her left hand’s death-grip on her Bible. Let the peace of God rule in my heart, and be thankful.
Minutes later and much calmer, Dolley again observed the city. Toward me, Captain Gates acted with nobility and honor, as has every British soldier we encountered today. These soldiers are merely doing the bidding of the King and Admiral Cockburn. Small groups of civilians are standing about, watching, but none are being attacked. Great evil may be occurring within people’s homes, but I see no evidence of such.
She studied the Capitol, two massive stone buildings linked by a short, wooden causeway until money could be found to construct the dome that would connect them. Light from the fires glinted from its many windows, but it remained otherwise unharmed. Beyond the Capitol, the light from Gallatin’s still-burning house illuminated columns of British soldiers marching down Maryland Avenue, and numerous campfires indicated a large bivouac area in the fields well to the east of the Capitol. Four thousand soldiers require acres of room. Cockburn and Ross will undoubtedly establish their headquarters in the Capitol, along with the regimental commanders. I should be able to see their colors from here, but . . . where are they? And why is no British flag fluttering in triumph from the Capitol’s flagpole?
She sat on the grass, telescope in both hands, elbows on knees for stability. There’s the British flag! In front of Doctor Ewell’s house. And the Regimental colors. Why there? Why not the Capitol? Perhaps, as a demonstration of chivalry, they’ll decline to occupy that building. Perhaps, overcome by the beauty of its architecture, they don’t wish to mar it. Perhaps—
Soldiers dashed from the House Chamber’s west-facing door, carrying torches. She studied the soldiers, expecting at any moment to see a sergeant or officer run up and chastise the group for their carelessness with fire.
Queasy, she examined the building, carefully. Not all the light coming from its windows was reflected, many seemed to glow faintly, from within. A trace of gray vapor wafted upward from the roof, at a place where there was no chimney.
The smoke thickened into a column, and traces of gray vapor now wafted up at several other places on the roof. The windows no longer glowed from within, and smoke now rose in puffs and spurts from many places on the roof, a heavy, dark smoke that rolled and billowed over the roof’s parapet before being carried away by the scant wind. The British soldiers continued to watch as the smoke grew thicker.
British soldiers ran from the Senate Chamber, the last propping open the oaken doors, revealing a brilliant red glow within. The glow was soon visible through the building’s windows, and white smoke billowed from the roof, followed by a shower of sparks and tongues of flame.
The House Chamber continued to spew thick smoke, to the consternation of the British. One man ran to the closed oaken doors and threw them open, then vanished in billowing white smoke and a gout of orange fire. The surviving British scattered, then regrouped at a safe distance. Fire exploded through the House Chamber, blowing out the windows, and then the entire building was aflame.
She watched in fascinated horror, unable to tear her eyes away from the blazing spectacle, the largest fire she’d ever seen. Not a pane of glass remained and flames roared from each blackened window, strangely silent, as they were over three miles away, brought artificially close by the magnification of her telescope. That’s why their flags remained at the bivouac site. This fire was no accident, but an intentional act, planned in advance.
Dolley lowered the telescope, slowly, as the full realization of what she’d just witnessed washed over her in a wave of nausea. The most beautiful building in America was being consumed by fire. The burning Capitol now brightened the entire city with a hellish red glow. A beacon of hopelessness, consuming itself.
She fell to her hands and knees and vomited.
The beautiful Senate Chamber, vast and ornate, dwarfing the thirty-four senators. It’s great size reflected the people’s faith in the future, for it would easily hold double that number. The equally beautiful House Chamber, draped in crimson and decorated with oaken sculptures evoking remembrance of the ideals of Athenian democracy and the Roman republic. Benjamin Latrobe had designed it to reflect the grandeur of a future America, the world’s preeminent Republic with more than just seventeen states, perhaps as many as forty, a shining beacon of truth and light. Many citizens had helped him decorate it, she had been one of them, and all thought of it as part of their legacy, their gift to the new republic, and to the world.
Dolley wiped her mouth on her sleeve and stood, numb.
Another glow, to the left and much closer, caught her attention. She tore her gaze from the Capitol and stared at the new fire.
The Presidential Mansion was burning.
She recalled the first time she entered the place, shortly after Jefferson’s inauguration. A widower, he’d asked her to organize and preside over Presidential social functions, and the first step in doing so was to furnish and decorate the mansion. What a mess! Standing water in the basement, clothes hung out to dry in the banquet room, no curtains, no furniture, no class. She’d used every contact she had, then made new ones, to raise money and turn the empty shell of a building into a glorious celebration of the Republican dream. It was not as decadently opulent as the Imperial palaces of Europe, but displayed a light, airy, American panache that citizens could be proud of and foreigners could respect. It had taken years of labor and many thousands of dollars, much of it from the Madison estate, and now . . . .
Flames roared from the windows, fed by whatever could not be loaded upon one cart and one carriage. Ball gowns. Perfumes and cosmetics. Jemmy’s suits. Paintings. Carpets, furniture, chandeliers, everything!
Flames now appeared through the windows of the Treasury Building, just to the east of the mansion, and the office building to the west. British soldiers, in column, marched away from the inferno, undoubtedly to their next target.
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