To the first Capital Chronicler, Margaret Bayard Smith, is owed thanks for a firsthand view of the city's devastation during the War of 1812.
The newlywed Mrs. Smith and her husband, Samuel Harrison Smith, were among the new capital's first residents. They arrived in Washington in September 1800 to establish the National Intelligencer, the country's first national newspaper. Mrs. Smith was a prolific writer of columns for the paper, as well as books and frank and fascinating letters, such as this one to her sister after the United States declared war on Britain in June 1812:
"Until the late alarm I have never been able to realize our being in a state of war," Mrs. Smith wrote. "There is so little apprehension of danger in the city, that not a single removal of person or goods has taken place. Now the affair of Hampton [a Virginia village sacked by British Adm. George Cockburn] . . . inspires us with a terror we should not otherwise have felt."
In August 1814, British troops debarked not far from the capital. "We were roused on Tuesday night by a loud knocking," Mrs. Smith wrote. "Willie Bradley called to us, 'The enemy are advancing, our own troops are giving away on all sides and are retreating to the city. Go for Gods sake go.' We loaded a wagon with what goods remained. About 3 o'clock we left our house with all our servants. The women we sent to some private farmhouses at a safe distance, while we pursued our course." They headed for Sidney, their country house, located where Catholic University and the Soldiers' Home are now.
On Thursday morning, Mrs. Smith had worse news to report: Despite U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney's cannon, the invading British forces "never halted one moment, but marched on in solid mass--disregarding the dead bodies that fell before them."
As a result, "our city was taken, the bridges and public buildings burnt, our troops flying in every direction. . . . Just as we were going to dinner, a tremendous gust arose . . . in the midst of it, a wagon came to the door with a family going they knew not whither. Poor wanderers. I do not suppose the Government will ever return to Washington. All those whose property was invested in that place, will be reduced to poverty."
The Smiths left their country home, though word had come from the British that they would destroy deserted houses. Mrs. Smith worried because "our house in the city too is unprotected and contains our most valuable furniture. A week more and we may be penniless."
President James Madison sought refuge in Brookville, Va., where the Smiths later stayed. Villagers reported that he was "tranquil as usual . . . and advised Mr. Smith to return to the city," his wife wrote.
The Smiths did return to their farm to find U.S. soldiers picking apples. A heavy wind had blown down fences and trees. Dead horses were plentiful. In "the poor capital," Mrs. Smith wrote her sister, "nothing but blackened walls remained."
"We looked at the public buildings, but none were so thoroughly destroyed as the President's House. Those beautiful pillars in the Representatives Hall were crack'd and broken. The roof, that noble dome, painted and carved with such beauty and skill, lay in ashes in the cellars beneath smoldering ruins, yet smoking."
The Smiths visited President and Dolley Madison at her brother's house. To Mrs. Smith, "Mrs. M. seem'd much depress'd, she could scarcely speak without tears."
The first lady (the first president's wife to be so nicknamed) said she'd stayed in the city until the English came. "She was so confident of Victory that she calmly listened to the roar of cannon," Mrs. Smith wrote, until "she perceived our troops rushing into the city, with the haste and dismay of a routed force. Friends hurried her away."
The White House's wine stock, "the only thing in great quantity being saved, was consumed by our own soldiers," said Mrs. Madison. Anna Maria Thornton, the wife of Capitol architect William Thornton, said Cockburn went to the White House, ate the supper Mrs. Madison had left on the table, and took as trophies her chair cushion and Madison's hat.
On Sept. 11, 1814, two days before the British began their failed bombardment of Fort McHenry, Mrs. Smith wrote of families wandering in search of shelter. Nine families with 18 children and little to eat crowded into an old church. Wounded invaders were left to perish; British stragglers stripped women and children of their clothes; 500 black loyalists were kidnapped by the British.
Fortunately the war was soon to end, and Margaret Bayard Smith went on to more cheerful chronicles offering vivid glimpses of secrets, scandals and socialites in the restored capital. Her letters, carefully hoarded family treasures, were published 93 years ago and eventually became the later Chronicler's favorite book, "The First Forty Years of Washington Society."