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News reached Washington that a new and large British fleet had arrived in the Chesapeake. This was Cochrane, from Bermuda, with General Ross on board, and a division, some four thousand strong, of Wellington's late army. To this fleet Cockburn's2 blockading squadron soon joined itself, adding to Ross's force a thousand marines, and a hundred armed and disciplined negroes, deserters from the plantations bordering on the Chesapeake. As the ships passed the Potomac some of the frigates entered that river, but the main fleet, some sixty vessels in all, stood on for the Patuxent, which they ascended to Benedict, where the frith begins to narrow. There, some fifty miles from Washington, the troops were landed without a sign of opposition, the there were several detachments of Maryland militia, under State orders, at points not far distant. As Ross had no horses, his men, some four thousand five hundred in all, were organized into a light infantry corps. Three pieces of light artillery were dragged along by a hundred sailors. As many more transported munitions. The soldiers carried at their backs eighty rounds of ammunition and three days' provisions.
Enervated as the troops had been by the close confinement of the voyage, and wilting under the burning sun of that season, it was with difficulty, at first, that they staggered along. Nothing but the constant efforts of their officers prevented them from dissolving into a long train of stragglers. The falling of a few trees, where the road crossed the frequent streams and swamps, would have seriously delayed, if not effectually have stopt, them. But in that part of Maryland, a level region of cornfields and pine forests, the slave population exceeded the whites, and the frightened planters thought of little except to save their ovn throats from insurgent knives, and their human property from English seduction.
In the slaves the British had good friends and sure means of information. With the trained negroes in front, they advanced cautiously, the first day only six miles, but still without encountering the slightest opposition, feeling their way up the left bank of the Patuxent—a route which threatened Barney's squadron in front, Alexandria and Washington on the left, and Annapolis and Baltimore on the right. Cockburn accompanied the army, and from his dashing, buccaneering spirit, and long experience in that neighborhood, became the soul of the enterprise.
At the first alarm of the appearance of the British fleet Winder had sent off his requisitions for militia; but, even had the quotas of Virginia and Pennsylvania been embodied and ready to march, and had the swiftest expresses been employed instead of the slow course of the mail, it was already too late for effectual aid from that quarter. The District militia, summoned to arms, marched to a point some eight miles east of Washington, where they were joined by the regulars who fell back from a more advanced position which they had occupied for some time at Marlborough.
Stansbury's brigade of Maryland drafted militia, fourteen hundred strong, marching from the neighborhood of Baltimore, on the night of the 22d encamped, just in advance of Bladensburg, six miles north of Washington; here they were joined the next day, while the President was reviewing the District army, by a regiment esteemed the flower of the Baltimore city militia, by some companies of artillery and a battalion of city riflemen, led by Pinckney, the late ambassador to London. This Maryland army now amounted to some twentyone hundred men; but the city part, that most relied upon, had little experience in field service, having suddenly changed the comforts of their homes for the bare ground and rations of bad salt beef and musty flour, which they did not even know how to cook....
The Eastern Branch of the Potomac, deep enough opposite Washington to float a frigate, dwindles at Bladensburg to a shallow stream. A few houses occupy the eastern bank. Abandoning the village and the bridge, Stansbury had posted his men on an eminence on the Washington side of the river, with his right on the Washington road, in which were planted two pieces of artillery, tosweep the bridge Pinckney's riflemen lined the bushes which skirted the river bank. The Baltimore regiment had been originally posted nearest the bridge, but, by Monroe's orders, who rode up just before the battle began, they were thrown back behind an orchard, leaving Stansbury's drafted men to stand the first brunt of attack. As Winder reached the front, other military amateurs were busy in giving their advice, the enemy's column just then beginning to show itself on the opposite bank....
The British soldiers, by the time they reached Blandensburg, were almost ready to drop, so excessive was the heat; and so formidable was the appearance of the American army that Ross and his officers, reconnoitering from one of the highest houses of the village, were not a little uneasy as to the result. But it was now too late to hesitate. The column was again put in motion, and after a momentary check it dashed across the bridge. Some discharges of Congreve rockets put the Maryland drafted militia to flight. They were followed by the riflemen, Pinckney getting a broken arm in the tumult, and by the artillerymen, whose pieces had scarcely been twice discharged. As the British came up, the Baltimore regiment fled also, sweeping off with them the general, the President, and the Cabinet officers.
Encouraged by this easy victory, the enemy pushed rapidly forward, till Barney's artillery opened upon them with severe effect. After several vain efforts, during which many fell, to advance in face of this fire, advantage was taken of the shelter of a ravine to file off by the right and left. Those who emerged on the left encountered the Annapolis regiment, which fled after a single fire. Those on the right fell in with some detachments of regulars, forming an advanced portion of the second line. They retired with equal promptitude, as did the militia behind them; and the enemy having thus gained both flanks, the sailors and marines were obliged to fly, leaving their guns and their wounded commanders in the enemy's hands.
Such was the famous Battle of Bladensburg, in which very few Americans had the honor to be either killed or wounded, not more than fifty in all; and yet, according to the evidence subsequently given before a Congressional committee of investigation, everybody behaved with wonderful courage and coolness, and nobody retired except by orders or for want of orders. The British loss was a good deal larger, principally in the attack on the sailors and marines. Several had dropt dead with heat and fatigue and the whole force was so completely exhausted that it was necessary to allow them some hours rest before advancing on Washington.
The Maryland militia, dispersing as they fled in every direction, soon ceased to exist as an embodied force. The District militia kept more together; the Virginians had at last obtained their flints; and Winder had still at his command some two thousand men and several pieces of artillery. Two miles from Washington a momentary stand was made, but the retreating troops soon fell back to the Capitol. Armstrong wished to occupy the two massive, detached wings of that building (the central rotunda and porticos having not then been built), and to play the part of the British in Chew's house at the Battle of Germantown. But, if able to withstand an assault, how long could they hold out without provisions or water?
It was finally decided to abandon Washington, and to rally on the heights of Georgetown.
Simultaneously with this abandonment of their homes by an army that retired but did not rally, fire was put at the navy-yard to a new frigate on the stocks, to a new sloop-of-war lately launched, and to several magazines of stores and provisions, for the destruction of which ample preparations had been made. By the light of this fire, made lurid by a sudden thundergust, Ross, toward evening, advanced into Washington, at that time a straggling village of some eight thousand people, but, for the moment, almost deserted by the male part of the white inhabitants.
From Gallatin's late residence, one of the first considerable houses which the column reached, a shot was fired which killed Ross's horse, and which was instantly revenged by putting fire to the house. After three or four volleys at the Capitol, the two detached wings were set on fire. The massive walls defied the flames, but all the interior was destroyed, with many valuable papers, and the library of Congressâ€”a piece of vandalism alleged to be in revenge for the burning of the Parliament House at York. An encampment was formed on Capitol Hill; but meanwhile a detachment marched along Pennsylvania Avenue to the President's house, of which the great hall had been converted into a military magazine, and before which some cannon had been placed. Thesecannon, however, had been carried off. Mrs. Madison had fled also with her plate and valuables loaded into a cart obtained not without difficulty having first stript from its frame and provided for the safety of a valuable portrait of Washington, which ornamented the principal room.
The President's house, and the offices of the Treasury and State Departments near by, were set on fire; Ross and Cockburn, who had forced themselves as unwelcome guests upon a neighboring boardinghouse woman, supping by the light of the blazing buildings. Fortunately by the precaution of Monroe, the most valuable papers of the State Department had been previously removed; yet here, too, some important records were destroyed. The next morning the War Office was burned. The office of the National Intelligencer was ransacked, and the types thrown into the street, Cockburn himself presiding with gusto over this operation, thus revenging himself for its severe strictures on his proceedings in the Chesapeake. The arsenal at Greenleaf's Point was fired, as were some rope-walks near by. Several private houses were burned, and some private warehouses broken open and plundered; but, in general, private property was respected, the plundering being less on the part of the British soldiers than of the low inhabitants, black and white, who took advantage of the terror and confusion to help themselves.
The only public building that escaped was the General Post Office and Patent Office, both under the same roof, of which the burning was delayed by the entreaties and remonstrances of the superintendent, and finally prevented by a tremendous tornado which passed over the city and for a while completely dispersed the British column, the soldiers seeking refuge where they could, and several being buried in the ruins of the falling buildings.
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Dolley Madison's Flight
After seeing to the safety of the full-length portrait of George Washington, Dolley Madison left the President's House, making her way to Bellevue (Dumbarton House) to await the arrival of her husband. She received word that his plans had changed and that he would not be able to join her, but would simply meet her on the other side of the Potomac. After a failed attempt to link up with him at the Georgetown Ferry, the first lady traveled north to the Chain Bridge near the Little Falls and crossed into Virginia. She traveled up the very steep Falls Road and turned off for Rokeby where she spent the fiery night of August 24. The following morning Dolley stopped briefly at Salona before making her way further inland to Wiley's Tavern on the Alexandria & Leesburg Road, where she spent the night. On August 26, Dolley headed back toward the still smoldering capital city, but remained in Virginia at Minor's Hill, the highest point in the area. She spent two nights there, before leaving the morning of the 28th, to return to Washington City. The President's House was totally destroyed by the fires, so she went to the home of her sister Anna and her husband, former Congressman Richard Cutts, on F Street.
The “Life of Washington” Murals Explained
Victor Arnautoff was one of the most prolific artists of the New Deal. Born in Russia in 1896, he served as a Calvary officer in WWI, and later in one of the White armies during the Russian Civil War. He arrived in San Francisco in 1925 to study art. When his student visa expired, he spent two years in Mexico as an assistant to the muralist Diego Rivera. In 1931, Arnautoff and his family returned to San Francisco, where he began to produce buon fresco murals, a technique in which the artist paints on wet plaster. The paint penetrates and becomes part of the wall, making frescoes very difficult to move.
Working for the WPA in 1936, Arnautoff created thirteen fresco murals at George Washington High School. Entitled the “Life of Washington,” the murals cover 1,600 square feet of the walls and ceilings of the school’s entry and main hallway. Arnautoff did extensive research for the murals. He wrote in his memoirs that he wanted to show two things: the life of George Washington and what he called the “spirit of his times.” He also said, “The artist must be a critic of his society.” Arnautoff, who would soon join the Communist Party, called himself a social realist. He thought his paintings should show realistic people rather than abstract imagery, and felt an obligation to be a social critic.
The first mural chronologically in Washington’s life is divided by an image of a tree.
On one side of this mural Arnautoff portrays Washington’s early life, including as a surveyor. On the other side he shows the French and Indian War, Washington’s first military experience.
Instead of placing Washington in the middle of this scene, Arnautoff put American Indians in the center, surrounded on all sides by the British, the French, and the American colonials.
Here Arnautoff depicted the origins of the American Revolution—the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the burning of the tax stamps. Again, Arnautoff did not put Washington in the center. Washington is in the upper right, arriving to take command of the army. In the middle, Arnautoff painted several working-class men raising the new flag.
This mural depicts the first winter at Valley Forge. The usual depiction of this event is a portrait of Washington praying in the snow. Arnautoff did something quite different. He shows Washington and three members of the Continental Congress warmly dressed in winter clothing and the enlisted men dressed in rags, their feet wrapped in bandages. Washington is pointing out the poor condition of his troops as a way of persuading Congress to give him more financial support. To me, this is Arnautoff’s social commentary on class privilege at the time of the American Revolution.
Arnautoff’s sketches for the mural suggest that this is a Hessian mercenary surrendering at Yorktown. Washington is absent from this mural. It is enlisted troops doing their duty.
This mural shows Washington at the end of the Revolutionary War bidding farewell to his officers, including Lafayette and Von Steuben, perhaps Arnautoff’s way of emphasizing that the American revolutionaries needed assistance from abroad to win their war of independence.
Opposite that mural, Arnautoff depicted Washington as president, mediating between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson over the new Constitution.
At the entrance to that alcove, Arnautoff put this banner with a quotation from Washington about the importance of educational institutions.
In the final alcove, Arnautoff presented two more scenes related to Washington’s presidency. This one shows him bidding farewell to his dying mother. By some accounts, Washington was reluctant to leave her, but she encouraged him to go because of the importance of the work facing him as the first president.
Arnautoff learned through his research that Washington had tried to create a national university.
Now controversial, this mural shows Washington at his Mount Vernon plantation. Once again, Washington is on the margins. Arnautoff put enslaved African Americans at in the center of this mural. This was his comment on the fact— all too often ignored in the 1930s—that the same men who signed the Declaration of Independence, declaring “all men are created equal,” owned other people as property. For Arnautoff this was one of the great contradictions of Washington’s time, and he makes clear in this mural that Washington was dependent on enslaved labor for his wealth. Arnautoff was clearly using his art to provide social criticism.
Arnautoff said that, in his research for the mural, he looked for ways to connect Washington to the West. This would have been difficult because at the time the nation ended at the Mississippi River. But he found a reference to Washington making a statement about the significance of the West.
Arnautoff divided this now-controversial mural into three separate stories. Washington is on the left side, pointing west. In the center, Arnautoff’s social criticism is seen in what the artist called “the march of the white race from the Atlantic to the Pacific.” Arnautoff’s murals are all painted in color, but these westward marching pioneers are shown in a ghastly grey scale—a technique he learned from Diego Rivera. Arnautoff’s pioneers are marching past a dead Indian warrior, his commentary on the settlement of the West.
The third story in this mural is on the right, where a white man and an American Indian chief are sitting down together with a peace pipe. Over their heads, however, is a broken branch, apparently Arnautoff’s way of depicting broken promises and treaties.
For Arnautoff, the “spirit of the times” of early American history involved its greatest injustices: slavery and the killing and dispossession of America’s First People.
On the ceiling of the first alcove, Arnautoff placed the moon, a symbol of war, and above the second, a sun and rainbow, symbols for peace. On the ceiling of the third alcove is Liberty putting thirteen new stars onto a blue field.
If things go truly tits-up in November, what books do you think they will put on the pyre first? Leave you choice in the commebnt section, ta!
If things go truly tits-up in November, what books do you think they will put on the pyre first? Leave you choice in the commebnt section, ta! . more
The title “Burning the Books” is what attracted me to this book. However, it could more aptly be called a “History of Libraries”.
Unfortunately it turned out not to be quite what I expected. It is written with an academic slant.
For the most part it tells of the history of libraries dating back to the ancient Greeks as well as reminding us of the importance of preserving the written word.
The two chapters that I found most interesting were:
Chapter 6 – How to Disobey Kafka
Chapter 8 - The Paper Brig The title “Burning the Books” is what attracted me to this book. However, it could more aptly be called a “History of Libraries”.
Unfortunately it turned out not to be quite what I expected. It is written with an academic slant.
For the most part it tells of the history of libraries dating back to the ancient Greeks as well as reminding us of the importance of preserving the written word.
The two chapters that I found most interesting were:
Chapter 6 – How to Disobey Kafka
Chapter 8 - The Paper Brigade
Chapter 13 – The Digital Deluge was mostly alarming even as we are already aware of how information is handled in the digital age.
I was most surprised at the number of writers who themselves demand that their works be destroyed after their death.
The Introduction, the Coda (Chapter 15), Acknowledgements, Picture credits, Notes, Bibliography and Index are perhaps as long as the body of the actual book and I can only imagine would be of interest to academics. I skipped all of it.
We often underestimate the importance of knowledge and its power. Ovenden’s book is a stark reminder focused on the history of how people seek to control or destroy knowledge.
Most chilling is the present day. Ovenden highlights, ‘Knowledge in digital form is increasingly created by a relatively small number of very large companies, which are so powerful that the future of cultural memory is under their control, most unwittingly, with consequences and implications that we are only just waking up We often underestimate the importance of knowledge and its power. Ovenden’s book is a stark reminder focused on the history of how people seek to control or destroy knowledge.
Most chilling is the present day. Ovenden highlights, ‘Knowledge in digital form is increasingly created by a relatively small number of very large companies, which are so powerful that the future of cultural memory is under their control, most unwittingly, with consequences and implications that we are only just waking up to.’
This was BBC Radio 4’s book of the week (1 September 2020) and an abridged version is available on the BBC Sounds app.
‘We are drowning in information, but are starved of knowledge.’ John Naisbitt . more
Libraries, those repositories of human knowledge, have become a popular subject for writers. Collections built, sacked and resurrected feature in books by Stuart Kells (The Library), Joshua Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), and Susan Orlean (The Library Book). Richard Ovendon revisits many of these stories in Burning the Books, and makes a thoughtful and readable addition to the oeuvre.
https://newtownreviewofbooks.com.au/r. Libraries, those repositories of human knowledge, have become a popular subject for writers. Collections built, sacked and resurrected feature in books by Stuart Kells (The Library), Joshua Hammer (The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu), and Susan Orlean (The Library Book). Richard Ovendon revisits many of these stories in Burning the Books, and makes a thoughtful and readable addition to the oeuvre.
These words were not only prescient (more than a hundred years after they were spoken the Nazis would be murdering Jews and destroying their works) but they described the past. Knowledge is power, they say, and nowhere is this more evident in the desire to destroy it.
In his book, "Burning the Books, A History of Knowledge Under Attack", the director of Oxford University&aposs Bodleian Libraries, Rich
"Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings." - Heinrich Heine (1823)
These words were not only prescient (more than a hundred years after they were spoken the Nazis would be murdering Jews and destroying their works) but they described the past. Knowledge is power, they say, and nowhere is this more evident in the desire to destroy it.
In his book, "Burning the Books, A History of Knowledge Under Attack", the director of Oxford University's Bodleian Libraries, Richard Ovenden, traces the origins of books and the persistent attempts to eradicate them over a period of 3,000 years. Clay tablets that survive of a great library in Mesopotamia, millennia ago, show how the thirst for knowledge and need to record it, is an ancient one.
Ovenden talks about the annihilation of the great library of Alexandra, arguably the most famous in history. He believes it was due to neglect and underfunding that the library likely came to an end, rather than just pillaging me Roman soldiers. This, a warning to future governments to protect their own.
Destroying books is not only an attempt to prevent knowledge and understanding from spreading, it's about the sabotage of entire cultures and peoples. That's why, when books by Jews and other 'undesirables' like Communists and those accused of homosexuality were burned by the Nazis, the significance was immense. Here was an attempt at erasure, a cultural genocide.
There are also other ways to harm the spread of knowledge. Take the writer, Franz Kafka, who didn't manage to sell his works before he died. In fact, he had asked a friend to destroy all his writing after his death. Luckily, his friend capitulated and, posthumously, Kafka became enshrined in the history books for famous novels like "The Trial" and "Metamorphosis". But, was this an ethical decision?
Ovenden also discusses the danger of digitisation of knowledge such as issues around privacy but also how (un)safe this information is from destruction. There's a need for example, to archive all websites so the knowledge isn't lost when someone decides to lets their web hosting lapse, for example. This means plenty of funding and support for libraries, which have been subject to budgets cuts around the world for years.
I found this book fascinating. I'm a sucker for books about books. Usually, that's in fiction but when I saw the title of this one, I knew I had to read it. For those who'd love to know more about why libraries and the preservation of knowledge is so important.
Rating: 3 stars - I liked it
In this book, Richard Ovenden, Director of the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, describes the deliberate destruction of knowledge held in libraries and archives from ancient Alexandria till now. While I expected this book to only talk about the destruction throughout history, the title is slightly misleading. This book spends more time discussing the preservation and organization of collections and how they can be at risk using the destruction of certain libraries and co Rating: 3 stars - I liked it
In this book, Richard Ovenden, Director of the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, describes the deliberate destruction of knowledge held in libraries and archives from ancient Alexandria till now. While I expected this book to only talk about the destruction throughout history, the title is slightly misleading. This book spends more time discussing the preservation and organization of collections and how they can be at risk using the destruction of certain libraries and collections as examples, especially cultural documents to minority groups.
While the title is misleading, I did learn a lot of interesting facts about the destruction of libraries and collections that, most of which, were new to me. As an archivist myself I am always fascinated by why collections were destroyed and what can be done to prevent that from happening to collections now. This book also spends a lot of time discussing digital archiving and the problems related to it, which while interesting, it felt was unnecessary for this book because this book should have been just about destruction of collections.
The biggest issue with this book though was the writing style. It was chaotic. Some chapters felt all over the place with information about different collections while trying to get the point of that chapter across. This made it hard at times to understand how it all related together and what the point of some chapters really were. Also I know the author is Director of the Bodleian but it felt like he used any excuse to reference it and its collections throughout this book.
So while I did learn a lot from this book, it wasn’t exactly a fun read. I don’t regret reading it, I did learn a lot like I said, I just think the title of this book is misleading and people need to be prepared for that.
In 1814, British forces burned the U.S. Capitol
The day began like so many days in Washington, with a painfully long meeting marked by confusion, misinformation and indecision.
The British were coming. They were on the march in the general direction of Washington. The precise target of the invaders remained unclear, but their intentions were surely malign.
James Madison, the fourth president of these young United States, had raced to a private home near the Navy Yard for an emergency war council with top generals and members of his Cabinet. The secretary of war, John Armstrong — conspicuously late for the meeting — had argued in recent days that the British would not possibly attack Washington, because it was too unimportant, with just 8,000 inhabitants and a few grandiose government buildings scattered at a great distance from one another.
“They certainly will not come here. What the devil will they do here? No! No! Baltimore is the place, sir. That is of so much more consequence,” Armstrong had declared.
The British had landed five days earlier near the head of navigable waters on the Patuxent River, southeast of Washington. There were about 4,500 of them — hardened fighters fresh from the Napoleonic wars.
The American forces called out to meet the invaders and defend the capital numbered about 5,500, but most were local militia — farmers and tradesmen with minimal training.
The war council proceeded in a desultory fashion until finally a bulletin arrived reporting that the Enemy was most definitely headed straight for Bladensburg, a town just six miles northeast of the Capitol. This provoked a convulsion of activity. Generals prepared to dash to the field of battle. Madison decided he should go, too. Someone handed him two pistols that he strapped around his waist.
The gunslinging 5-foot-4-inch president galloped on the pike toward Bladensburg.
It had been a brutally hot, dry August, and the sun was beating down again. This day was shaping up as a real scorcher.
The war no one remembers
In recounting this inauspicious chapter in our history it might behoove us to acknowledge that few Americans care about this strange little war. It was fought beyond the tall ridgeline in American memory of the Civil War. In the far distance we see the misty peak that is the Revolution. But the War of 1812? We don’t know why it happened, or where the battles were fought. We are a little vague on the question of who won.
(We have a decent idea of when it happened, because of the name, but given the critical events of August 1814, the conflict possibly should be called “the War of Approximately 1812.”)
Still, the bicentennial has incited some local celebrations (including a major event Saturday in Bladensburg), and it has given rise in recent years to new historical accounts, including “Through the Perilous Fight,” a book by Steve Vogel, a former Washington Post military affairs reporter who agreed to be conscripted as a guide for this retelling of the momentous events.
With Vogel, we ventured to the Navy Yard, the Marine Barracks, the Sewall-Belmont House (burned after snipers fired on the British), the Octagon House — which sheltered the Madisons for many months after the great debacle — and the battlefield at Bladensburg. A trained eye sees only the faint palimpsest of the war beneath layers of urbanization, expansion, suburbanization and all the lacquer that an affluent and busy society slathers on the past.
At the White House, curator William Allman can point a visitor to fire-blackened stones atop an old entrance to the mansion beneath the North Portico. You might walk through that doorway for years and never notice the scorch marks unless someone pointed them out.
A brief history lesson: The United States had declared war on Britain in June 1812. One of the central incitements had been the practice in the Royal Navy of “impressing” American sailors, many of them wrongly accused of being wayward British subjects, into service on British warships. The British interfered with American trade with the French, aligning themselves with Native American tribes on the frontier.
Critics called the conflict “Mr. Madison’s War.” Later historians would sometimes call it the Second War of American Independence. In Canada, the war looms larger in memory, as part of the founding mythology of the nation (“Canada” being a plausible answer to the who-won question).
What everyone seems to agree on is that the United States chose to wage a war for which it was spectacularly unprepared. The young republic had a vast territory and a miniature army and navy. Madison was a Republican (sometimes called a Democratic-Republican), like his predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, who came to power by promising tax cuts and a small federal government. This proved problematic when the United States declared war on the mighty British Empire.
Most of the action was initially in Canada and the Great Lakes, but then in 1813 the British launched the Chesapeake campaign, raiding towns and bringing on board African Americans who had been in bondage and who viewed them not as invaders but as liberators.
Charged with the defense of Washington was Brig. Gen. William Winder, a lawyer with an undistinguished military background but good political connections. On the 24th of August he clearly didn’t know what to do, or how to do it, or even where he ought to be. The best that can be said of him is that when he finally rode to Bladensburg, he had a keen perception that events would go badly.
Madison arrived at Bladensburg and went a little too far, nearly riding into the British lines before reversing course and finding a spot to watch the suddenly erupting battle.
Busybody Secretary of State James Monroe, hardly in the chain of command, took it upon himself to rearrange the second line of the American defense, moving the soldiers too far back to be of much help.
Leading the British invasion were Gen. Robert Ross and Adm. George Cockburn. The British officers detected the cockeyed American defensive positioning and decided to press ahead with light infantry even before their stragglers, who had been marching for seven hours in brutal heat, had caught up.
The Americans had mysteriously failed to destroy the bridge at Bladensburg that spanned the Eastern Branch of the Potomac — the Anacostia River. The silted-up river was shallow enough to cross on foot, anyway, but the intact bridge hastened the British assault.
Some of the Americans on hand had dressed inappropriately for the occasion.
“People arrived on the field of the battle of Bladensburg in winter wear, many of them. They had no boots, they had no flints for their muskets. They were totally unprepared,” says historian Anthony Pitch, author of “The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814.”
“They have one training day a year, which is mostly spent drinking rather than drilling,” University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor, author of two books that deal with the War of 1812, says of the militiamen. “Whoever was elected captain would take them down to the local tavern and they’d get blasted.”
The British fired newly developed rockets that could not be aimed accurately, which added to their terrifying effect. Several screamed over the head of Madison — the first time a sitting U.S. president had been under fire.
The man known as the Father of the Constitution turned to Cabinet secretaries Monroe and Armstrong and observed that it “would be proper to withdraw to a position in the rear.”
Many of the militia men broke ranks and fled, some never slowing down until they reached home.
Two hundred years ago this week, British forces stormed Washington and burned it.
There would be significant American heroism on this day — particularly on the part of the men under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney, who was himself wounded and captured and then immediately paroled by Ross and Cockburn as a gesture of respect for his gallantry. But Winder’s forces retreated in disarray and failed to concentrate into another defensive line. The pell-mell retreat of the Americans led to gibes later about the so-called “Bladensburg Races.”
Winder pulled back in a series of retreats all the way to Tenleytown, leaving the city exposed and his men so disheartened that they began to desert in droves.
The British advanced into the defenseless capital.
“Ross couldn’t believe that they’d actually be able to pull this off,” Vogel says.
Now comes the most famous part of the story: Dolley Madison and the painting.
The popular first lady had set a table for 40 people in the White House, expecting the president and his top officials for dinner at the customary hour of 3 p.m. She instructed 15-year-old family slave Paul Jennings to get cider and ale from the cellar, Jennings recalled in a memoir published decades later.
But then a free black man named James Smith came riding up to the White House, shouting, “Clear out! Clear out! General Armstrong has ordered a retreat!”
The first lady finished a letter to her sister, and then, before fleeing in a carriage, ordered workers to break the frame of Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington and save the canvas.
“Save that picture if possible!” she said. “If not possible, destroy it. Under no circumstances allow it to fall into the hands of the British!”
Thus the famous painting wound up at a farm in Montgomery County that night, preserved for White House tourists to see for centuries to come.
Less well known is that local vagrants ran amok in the White House.
“A rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over the White House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on,” Jennings reported.
The British knew how to build a bonfire. You just stacked the furniture, sprinkled it with gunpowder and put a torch to it.
They built multiple fires inside the Capitol, immolating the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the splendid chambers of the House and Senate.
Later in the evening, Ross and Cockburn made their way to the White House and helped themselves, amid hearty toasts, to the fabulous meal and adult beverages left by Mrs. Madison and her staff. They took a few souvenirs, and one filthy lieutenant ventured into the president’s dressing room and put on one of the president’s clean linen shirts.
Then they set the fires. Up in flames went some of the most beautiful furniture in the country, including pieces obtained by Jefferson in Paris and the private possessions of the Madisons. The fires left the mansion a gutted, smoldering shell.
The British also burned the Treasury building, and the building housing the War and State departments. They ransacked the National Intelligencer newspaper office, with Cockburn ordering the seizure of all the letter C’s from the presses so that the editor could no longer write nasty things about him. The Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep the ships and stores out of British hands.
The invaders spared private dwellings. This was to be a civilized sacking no rapes, no murders, minimal plundering. They even spared the Patent Office after being persuaded that patents were private property.
From Tenleytown, and the heights in Virginia, and from all points of the compass, the fleeing leaders of the U.S. government and its ineffectual military could look back toward the federal town and see fires everywhere. The glow of the fires could be seen 50 miles away. Vogel’s book recounts a letter from Mary Hunter, a resident on Capitol Hill:
“You never saw a drawing room so brilliantly lighted as the whole city was that night. Few thought of going to bed — they spent the night in gazing on the fires, and lamenting the disgrace of the city.”
The flight of the Madisons
Madison, with no guards and only a small entourage, fled into Virginia. He wandered the dark roads. Refugees from Washington clogged the taverns and many of the private homes.
The president apparently stayed at an estate called Salona, in McLean, and failed to reunite with Mrs. Madison, who had crossed the bridge at Little Falls and wound up not far away at a farmhouse called Rokeby.
The citizenry by now had turned against the Madisons. The president and his wife were targets of insults as they roamed the Virginia byways.
Storms blew in. The fiercest, on the afternoon of the 25th, has been described as a tornado or hurricane, and it might have been a derecho, for it ripped off the roofs of houses and helped squelch the fires in the city.
Madison went to a tavern the night of the 25th, but there were rumors that the British were coming to capture him, and he was evacuated to what has been called a “hovel in the woods,” possibly a shack belonging to a ferryman just above Great Falls.
One might pause here to flag this as a remarkably low point in the history of the American presidency.
The next afternoon, Madison managed to cross the swollen Potomac and, still searching for his army, he arrived exhausted and hungry in Brookeville, Md., a Quaker settlement of just 14 homes.
A member of his party knocked on the door of the biggest house in town and, without mentioning the president, asked for refuge, but the owners said they had no more space. The second house took them in. Then came the surprise announcement: Here’s President Madison!
Sandy Heiler, who owns that house today, and keeps it exquisitely preserved in period style, said Madison showed his resilience that night. He didn’t despair.
Still, she said, “Every now and then he would become very quiet and ask questions. At one point he said, ‘Do you think they burned my library?’ Someone in the group said, ‘Your Excellency, they burned your whole palace.’”
Word came that the British had left the city and returned to their ships. Madison decided on Saturday, Aug. 27, to ride back to Washington, despite a new threat from British warships heading up the Potomac to Alexandria.
Madison and Monroe ordered cannons to the banks of the river to prepare to repel the next wave of invaders. The British, however, settled for the capitulation of Alexandria, and made off with a trove of ships and other plunder as they sailed back down the Potomac.
On Sunday the 28th, Richard Rush, the attorney general, having contemplated the enormousness of the disaster of recent days, argued that there was only one sensible move left: Spin the results.
He wrote a long memo to Monroe describing the need to put out a government statement quickly, thus seizing the narrative and putting the most positive light on the debacle rather than letting the British control the story.
“Such a proclamation should reach Europe contemporaneously with the account of the entry of the capital, thereby at once repelling the idea, so prevalent there, that it carries with it the reduction of the country,” Rush wrote. He suggested a statement with “a high and manly tone,” one that “might serve to inform, to balm, and to rouse.”
The Burning of Washington was not permitted to live in infamy. Instead, the Americans turned their humiliation into a mere act of vandalism, and in the nation’s memory it would become little more than a quirky prelude to the uplifting story of the victory at Baltimore three weeks later, when the light of glaring rockets and bursting bombs gave proof that our flag was still there.
“The losers are writing the history as if they were victors,” the historian Taylor says. “It’s the essence of American politics. You’ve got to be able to control the narrative and persuade the public that you have led the nation on to great and glorious things.”
The war, in fact, soon petered out. The British were exhausted by years of fighting in Europe and had tired of the American sideshow. By December, negotiators had finished crafting the Treaty of Ghent, in which the two sides (spoiler alert!) agreed to a draw, keeping everything the way it had been before the war started. In January 1815, as yet unaware of the peace treaty, Gen. Andrew Jackson led the Americans to one last, morale-boosting victory in the Battle of New Orleans. Madison soon signed the treaty at the Octagon House and the country erupted in celebration.
The Burning of Washington created an existential crisis for a city that had been through a number of them already. Every few years, certain lawmakers demanded that the seat of government move somewhere more congenial. Now, with most of the government buildings destroyed, Congress again debated a relocation.
But something had changed. The U.S. experienced a surge of nationalism, and became something more than a loose collection of states. The capital took on new significance in the national psyche.
“Because the buildings were burned and it was such a national insult, Americans rose to the defense of Washington, D.C., as a seat of government,” says historian Kenneth Bowling. “There was never another bill introduced in Congress to remove the seat of government until 1869.”
So perhaps Washington’s worst day was one of the best things that ever happened to the city. It was the stake that pinned the capital forever to this patch of land on the Potomac.
Burning of Washington
Summary of the Burning of Washington
Summary of the Burning of Washington DC: The Burning of Washington DC was perpetrated by the British during the War of 1812 on August 24, 1814. British forces, under General Robert Ross, captured the nation's capital and ordered the burning of Washington in revenge of the crushing defeat for the British in the Battle of York in which Americans sacked the capital of Upper Canada, York (Toronto). The British hoped that the retaliatory burning of Washington would embarrass and demoralize the American nation.
Burning of Washington for kids: Retaliation for the Sacking of York
During the Sacking of York, in the War of 1812, American troops set fire to the Parliament, Government House, and several other public buildings in the Upper Canadian capital. The Sacking of York was an embarrassment to the British and the burning of Washington DC was an act of retaliation.
Burning of Washington for kids: Sir George Prevost orders Retaliation
In the summer of 1814 the British strengthened their forces in the Chesapeake in an attempt to divert the US forces from the frontiers of Upper and Lower Canada during the War of 1812. Sir George Prevost was Governor-in-Chief of British North America (the Governor of Canada) was in charge throughout the campaigns of the War of 1812. Frustrated and furious at the American sacking of York (Totonto) he ordered his three commanders, General Robert Ross, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, and Admiral George Cockburn to retaliate and "deter the enemy from repetition of similar outrages".
Burning of Washington for kids: Capital Unprotected
Despite the increasing military presence of the British in the Chesapeake, no special precautions or measures taken to protect the nation's new capital in Washington D.C. The American secretary of war, John Armstrong, was convinced that Baltimore was the prime target of the British and political leaders agreed. No barricades were built, the militia was not put on alert and President Madison appointed his political ally, General William Winder, to defend the region. General William Winder was a part time soldier and inexperienced in the field of battle. His troops were undisciplined who were later described as a "motley rabble".
The Burning of Washington for kids: The Battle at Bladensburg
On August 24, 1814 an uncoordinated force of 6000 US troops, led by General William Winder, faced 4000 British troops led by General Robert Ross. The fight took place at Bladensburg, Maryland, located less than 9 miles from Washington DC. The American troops, watched by President Madison and some of his cabinet, were easily defeated and beat a hasty retreat from the scene of the battle. A jubilant force of 4000 British soldiers headed for the undefended Washington DC, intent on its destruction.
The Burning of Washington for kids: The Evacuation of Washington
Learning of the imminent danger the inhabitants of Washington DC had no alternative but evacuate the city. The population of the city was quite small and there were only a few private residences. A messenger was dispatched to the White House (then referred to as the Executive Mansion) to warn the First Lady Dolley Madison of the impeding arrival of the British.
The Burning of Washington for kids: Dolley Madison
There was real fear for the safety of Dolley Madison. The British had once boasted that if she was captured, they would parade Dolley Madison through the streets of London as a prisoner of war. Dolley Madison was made of stern stuff and had the presence of mind to take a full length Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington with her and directed the servants to collect any other treasures. A Senior clerk called Stephen Pleasonton saved the Declaration of Independence. Dolley Madison fled Washington by carriage and crossed the Potomac to safety. Dolley Madison and her servants then met up with President James Madison who had fled to safety in Virginia. (Washington DC was reconstructed from 1815 to 1819. Dolley Madison and President Madison resided in the Octagon House for the remainder of his term in office. Dolley Madison made significant contributions to the decoration of the White House as it was rebuilt.)
The Burning of Washington for kids
On the evening of August 24, 1814 British officers ate dinner at the White House (then referred to as the Executive Mansion). The orders were then given to set Washington ablaze. The British set fire to the White House, the Treasury Department building, the docks and all the public buildings in the capital including the Library of Congress. The few private houses were pretty much left alone. The thick sandstone walls of the White House and some other public buildings in the Capitol survived.
Significance of the Burning of Washington
Washington had little strategic value but the Burning of Washington was significant as the capitol the city held symbolic value for the young nation and its enemies. The occupation of Washington had lasted for just 26 hours but the burning of the capital had significant impact on events.
● Americans were shocked at the burning of Washington, but they were not demoralized
● The freak storm seemed like 'divine providence' and convinced Americans that God was on their side
● A new wave of determination swept across the country
● Renewed efforts were made to end the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent was signed less just five months after the burning of Washington
● The British were strongly criticized across Europe, and also in Britain, for the wanton act of the burning of Washington
● The following battles fought with the British saw a surge of American Patriotism and the Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Lee following the US victory at the Battle of Baltimore and defence of Fort Henry
Burning of Washington for kids
The info about the Burning of Washington provides interesting facts and important information about this important event that occured during the presidency of the 4th President of the United States of America.
Burning of Washington for kids - President James Madison Video
The article on the Burning of Washington provides an overview of one of the Important issues of his presidential term in office. The following James Madison video will give you additional important facts and dates about the political events experienced by the 4th American President whose presidency spanned from March 4, 1809 to March 4, 1817.
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The Burning of Washington - War of 1812
Despite the fact that the Burning of Washington took place on August 24, 1814, it was part of the War of 1812, which lasted until February of 1815.
Following what many American historians consider the "Greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms" at the hands of the British troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British became the only foreign power ever to capture the Washington, D.C. the capital of the United States.
The British troops, led by Major General Robert Ross occupied Washington. British commanders were ordered to only destroy public buildings. This was perhaps a ploy to gain American followers, but led to the survival of many of the cities heritage private buildings. It has also been suggested that the attack on public buildings was retaliation for the massive damage dealt to private dwellings along Lake Erie from the famous Raid on Port Dover by American troops.
The main focus of the British attack on Washington, the U.S. government buildings, including, but not limited to, The White House and the U.S. Capitol were heavily damaged.
Had it not been for the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in April of 1814 in Europe, the British might not have won the Battle of Bladensburg, but the British were able to recruit fresh troops to the American theatre of war.
The British attack on Washington was ordered in July, and was to deter any repetition of similar outrages as the Raid on Port Dover.
Quickly after the US Marines defeat, Ross and his troops arrived in Washinton, and attempted to force a truce in the war. After being attacked from a house at the corner of Maryland Ave. and Constitution St. the troops burned the house, and began their destruction of the city, while raising the Union Flag over Washington.
The buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives were burned almost to the ground. The Library of Congress was destroyed. Its exterior walls were preserved thanks to the rainfall, but its interior and stocks of books were lost. It would not be re-stocked until Thomas Jefferson sold his personal collection of more than 6,000 volumes to the U.S. government.
British troops then turned to the President's house, the White House, and began burning it, adding fuel to the flames to keep it burning as long as possible.
American forces themselves would burn almost all of the famous Washington Naval Yard to the ground to prevent the capture of the port and its munitions storage. This was an early example of the scorched earth policy. Had the British been able to capture the Naval Yard intact, the War of 1812, might not have ended in return to the Status Quo situation.
After 26 hours of occupation, the British troops withdrew, and President Madison and other government officials were able to return to the city and begin rebuilding.
The Presidents House, is said to have become known as The White House, after it was white washed to hide the fire damage from the British Burning of Washington in 1814.
The 1814 burning of Washington, D.C.
Two hundred years ago this month, 4,000 British soldiers lay siege to Washington, D.C., and set fire to the U.S. Capitol and the White House.
A drawing of the White House after the fire of 1814. Library of Congress
And the burn marks on the White House walls are still there.
"We now have evidence of the char marks, the scorching that would have happened when flames were drawn out through open windows and doors and licked up around the tops of the stone," said William Allman, the White House curator.
It is, as far as we know, the best evidence the one time enemy's forces were in our nation's capital, said Allman.
The burning of Washington was the darkest moment for the United States and President James Madison in the War of 1812 -- a sort of second war of American independence.
The British had been interfering with American trade at sea and kidnapping sailors. American efforts to expand westward and north into Canada were being thwarted by the British. Two years into the war, with the Americans in retreat, British forces reached the nation's capital.
Rocca asked, "What was Washington like in 1814?"
"Miserable," said William Allen, historian emeritus for the Architect of the Capitol. "Tiny, small, strung out."
200 year later, the White House still bears the burn marks of the fire. CBS News
It was basically, he said, a construction site: "There were stone yards and brick yards and kilns. It was just a mishmash of this and that."
The Capitol dome hadn't yet been built, but the original House chamber -- located on the site of today's Statuary Hall -- was an architectural masterpiece.
"Many people described it as the most beautiful room in America," said Allen. "It had this glorious ceiling with 100 skylights."
Allen said the room was fireproof, except for the ceiling. "And that, of course, was the Achilles' heel of the room. The ceiling was wooden, and all they had to do, of course, is to catch the ceiling on fire. When it fell down, the rest of the room would be destroyed.
"The heat was intense. The glass in the skylights melted, became molten, and fell down in large chunks."
The Capitol's stone walls survived, as well as the Senate vestibule, with its distinctive corn cob columns.
Allen said the corn cob was significant as "the American plant, in a classical way. Sort of thinking the way classical architects would have thought, using this very important staple of the American diet and the American economy."
Fighting with the British that night were former American slaves:
"The British brilliantly exposed a real weak side in American society, and that was slavery and our dependence on slaves," said historian Steve Vogel, author of "Through the Perilous Fight," a blow-by-blow account of Washington's capture. "They offered freedom to slaves in this region, the Chesapeake. Said, you know, 'Come over to our side. We promise you freedom. And if you want to, by the way, you can fight against your former masters.'"
Moving from the Capitol, British Navy Rear Admiral George Cockburn, Army Major General Robert Ross, and 150 redcoats marched to the White House.
Rocca asked Allman what the Britons' impression of the White House would have been as they walked in the door: "I think that it was a pretty good-sized house, but not a palatial one. No Buckingham Palace. No Versailles. That it was, you know, reasonably well decorated."
The biggest surprise? A dinner set for 40. So the British feasted in the White House dining room before burning the mansion down.
Here, too, the walls survived. But little remains of what was once inside -- what does is an American icon.
The East Room, the largest room in the house, and where Teddy Roosevelt's kids used to roller-skate where Susan Ford had her senior prom and more importantly, the room with the great full-length portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
"This is the one that Dolley Madison rather famously saved before leaving the White House. She had already packed up state papers, the red velvet drapes that she had had put in the Oval Room. Then, kind of as a last-minute thing, she said, 'Oh, we've got to save General Washington.'"
"And she gave the instructions to get it off the wall. It was bolted on. So they had to pretty much cut the frame open and then lift the canvas out on its stretcher."
As Dolley Madison was busy cramming silverware into her purse, White House servants -- the maitre d' and one of the family's slaves -- rescued the painting. "She was trying to save everything she could," said Allman. "She was leaving her personal things."
As a rule the British invaders didn't loot, but one soldier grabbed Madison's personal traveling medicine chest. "That was taken from the White House by one of the British troops, later passed to a member of one of the naval forces, and then descended in his family until it was given to Franklin Roosevelt in 1939," said Allman.
After torching the White House, the redcoats burned the buildings housing the Departments of State, Treasury and War, concluding one of the most devastating days in American history.
Rear Admiral George Cockburn (1772-1853), by John James Halls. Royal Museums Greenwich
"Can you imagine the scene after the British have departed Washington?" said Vogel. "The Capitol and the White House are smoldering shells. The American Army has abandoned the city. Nobody knows where President Madison or the cabinet are. It's really impossible to think of many more despondent, desperate moments in American history."
As a Union Jack flew over the city, Vogel said, "A lot of people felt that, you know, the young republic was coming to its end, that the American experiment was dying in its infancy."
Fearing an American counterattack, the British occupation of Washington lasted only a day.
Among its overlooked heroes: State Department clerk Stephen Pleasonton, who hid the Declaration of Independence in a Virginia mansion.
Six months later, the war ended in a virtual stalemate, and British leader George Cockburn returned home, where his portrait features Washington blazing in the background.
Archaeological evidence indicates American Indians settled in the area at least 4,000 years ago, around the Anacostia River.  Early European exploration of the region took place early in the 17th century, including explorations by Captain John Smith in 1608.  At the time, the Patawomeck (loosely affiliated with the Powhatan) and the Doeg lived on the Virginia side, as well as on Theodore Roosevelt Island, while the Piscataway (also known as Conoy) tribe of Algonquians resided on the Maryland side.  : 23 Native inhabitants within the present-day District of Columbia included the Nacotchtank, at Anacostia, who were affiliated with the Conoy.  Another village was located between Little Falls and Georgetown,  : 23 and English fur trader Henry Fleet documented a Nacotchtank village called Tohoga on the site of present-day Georgetown. 
The first colonial landowners in the present-day District of Columbia were George Thompson and Thomas Gerrard, who were granted the Blue Plains tract in 1662, along with Saint Elizabeth, and other tracts in Anacostia, Capitol Hill, and other areas down to the Potomac River in the following years. Thompson sold his Capitol Hill properties in 1670, including Duddington Manor, to Thomas Notley The Duddington property was handed down over the generations to Daniel Carroll of Duddington.  As European settlers arrived, they clashed with the Native Americans over grazing rights. In 1697, Maryland authorities built a fort within what is now the District of Columbia. In that same year, the Conoy relocated to the west, near what is now The Plains, Virginia, and in 1699 they moved again to Conoy Island near Point of Rocks, Maryland.   : 27
Georgetown was established in 1751 when the Maryland legislature purchased sixty acres of land for the town from George Gordon and George Beall at the price of £280,  while Alexandria, Virginia was founded in 1749. Situated on the fall line, Georgetown was the farthest point upstream to which oceangoing boats could navigate the Potomac River. The strong flow of the Potomac kept a navigable channel clear year-round and, the daily tidal lift of the Chesapeake Bay, raised the Potomac's elevation in its lower reach such that fully laden ocean-going ships could navigate easily, all the way to the Bay. Gordon had constructed a tobacco inspection house along the Potomac in approximately 1745. Warehouses, wharves, and other buildings were added, and the settlement rapidly grew. The Old Stone House, located in Georgetown, was built in 1765 and is the oldest standing building in the District. It did not take long before Georgetown grew into a thriving port, facilitating trade and shipments of tobacco and other goods from colonial Maryland.  With the economic and population growth of Georgetown also came the founding of Georgetown University in 1789, at its founding drawing students from as far away as the West Indies. 
The United States capital was originally located in Philadelphia, beginning with the First and Second Continental Congress, followed by the Congress of the Confederation upon gaining independence. In June 1783, a mob of angry soldiers converged upon Independence Hall to demand payment for their service during the American Revolutionary War. Congress requested that John Dickinson, the governor of Pennsylvania, call up the militia to defend Congress from attacks by the protesters. In what became known as the Pennsylvania Mutiny of 1783, Dickinson sympathized with the protesters and refused to remove them from Philadelphia. As a result, Congress was forced to flee to Princeton, New Jersey on June 21, 1783.  Dickinson's failure to protect the institutions of the national government was discussed at the Philadelphia Convention in 1787 [ citation needed ] . The delegates, therefore, agreed in Article One, Section 8, of the United States Constitution to give the Congress the power:
To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of Particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards and other needful Buildings 
James Madison, writing in Federalist No. 43, also argued that the national capital needed to be distinct from the states, in order to provide for its own maintenance and safety.  The Constitution, however, does not select a specific site for the location of the new District. Proposals from the legislatures of Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia all offered territory for the national capital location. Northern states preferred a capital located in one of the nation's prominent cities, unsurprisingly, almost all of which were in the north. Conversely, Southern states preferred that the capital be located closer to their agricultural and slave-holding interests.  The selection of the area around the Potomac River, which was the boundary between Maryland and Virginia, both slave states, was agreed upon between James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton had a proposal for the new federal government to take over debts accrued by the states during the Revolutionary War. However, by 1790, Southern states had largely repaid their overseas debts. Hamilton's proposal would require Southern states to assume a share of Northern debt. Jefferson and Madison agreed to this proposal and, in return, secured a Southern location for the federal capital. 
On December 23, 1788, the Maryland General Assembly passed an act, allowing it to cede land for the federal district. The Virginia General Assembly followed suit on December 3, 1789.  The signing of the federal Residence Act on July 16, 1790, mandated that the site for the permanent seat of government, "not exceeding ten miles square" (100 square miles), be located on the "river Potomack, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern-Branch and Connogochegue".   The "Eastern-Branch" is known today as the Anacostia River. The Connogocheque (Conococheague Creek) empties into the Potomac River upstream near Williamsport and Hagerstown, Maryland. The Residence Act limited to the Maryland side of the Potomac River the location of land that commissioners appointed by the President could acquire for federal use. 
The Residence Act authorized the President to select the actual location of the site.  However, President George Washington wished to include the town of Alexandria, Virginia, within the federal district. To accomplish this, the boundaries of the federal district would need to encompass an area on the Potomac that was downstream of the mouth of the Eastern Branch.
The U.S. Congress amended the Residence Act in 1791 to permit Alexandria's inclusion in the federal district. However, some members of Congress had recognized that Washington, and his family, owned property in and near Alexandria, which was just seven miles (11 km) upstream from Mount Vernon, Washington's home and plantation. The amendment, therefore, contained a provision that prohibited the "erection of the public buildings otherwise than on the Maryland side of the river Potomac".  
The final site was just below the fall line on the Potomac, the furthest inland point navigable by boats (see: Atlantic Seaboard fall line). It included the ports of Georgetown and Alexandria. The process of establishing the federal district, however, faced other challenges in the form of strong objections from landowners such as David Burns who owned a large, 650-acre (260 ha) tract of land in the heart of the district.  On March 30, 1791, Burns and eighteen other key landowners relented and signed an agreement with Washington, where they would be compensated for any land taken for public use, half of the remaining land would be distributed among the proprietors, and the other half to the public. 
Pursuant to the Residence Act, President Washington appointed three commissioners (Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll, and David Stuart) in 1791 to supervise the planning, design and acquisition of property in the federal district and capital city.  In September 1791, using the toponym Columbia and the name of the president, the three commissioners agreed to name the federal district as the Territory of Columbia, and the federal city as the City of Washington.  
On March 30, 1791, Washington issued a presidential proclamation that established "Jones's point, the upper cape of Hunting Creek in Virginia" as the starting point for the federal district's boundary survey. The proclamation also described the method by which the survey should determine the district's boundaries.  Working under the general supervision of the three commissioners and at the direction of President Washington, Major Andrew Ellicott, assisted by his brothers Benjamin and Joseph Ellicott, Isaac Roberdeau, Isaac Briggs, George Fenwick, and, initially, an African American astronomer, Benjamin Banneker, then proceeded to survey the borders of the Territory of Columbia with Virginia and Maryland during 1791 and 1792. 
The survey team enclosed within a square an area containing the full 100 square miles (260 km 2 ) that the Residence Act had authorized. Each side of the square was 10 miles (16 km) long. The axes between the corners of the square ran north–south and east–west.  The center of the square is within the grounds of the Organization of American States headquarters west of the Ellipse. 
The survey team placed forty sandstone boundary markers at or near every mile point along the sides of the square (see: Boundary markers of the original District of Columbia). Thirty-six of these markers still remain. The south cornerstone is at Jones Point.  The west cornerstone is at the west corner of Arlington County, Virginia.  The north cornerstone is south of East-West Highway near Silver Spring, Maryland, west of 16th Street.  The east cornerstone is east of the intersection of Southern Avenue and Eastern Avenue. 
On January 1, 1793, Andrew Ellicott submitted to the commissioners a report that stated that the boundary survey had been completed and that all of the boundary marker stones had been set in place. Ellicott's report described the marker stones and contained a map that showed the boundaries and topographical features of the Territory of Columbia. The map identified the locations within the Territory of the planned City of Washington and its major streets and the location of each boundary marker stone.