Letter dated 9 Sept 1814 from Washington Mayor James H. Blake concerning British invasion of Washington
From Daily National Intelligencer, Washington, D.C.,
9 September 1814.
To the Editors
It is disagreeable to me at all times to be under the necessity of appearing in the public prints -- but more especially at a time like the present, when every head, heart and hand in the nation should be engaged to support of our just rights.
The frequent mention made of me in a piece which appeared in your paper of yesterday, signed 'William Thornton,' as well as the manner, evidently shews that something more is meant by the author's narrative than merely to emblazon to the public his great and important services in his interviews with the British Colonels, Majors and Serjeants on that ill-fated day on which the enemy was in possession of this city.
I am willing to give Dr. Thornton all the credit he is entitled to for 'saving his instrument which cost him great labor,' and also the building, notwithstanding there are many who think the building was saved by the storm which happened that day.
Repugnant as it is to my feelings to speak of my own services in the cause of my country, I feel compelled to it; as it is evidently insinuated in said Thornton's publication that I was wanting in a discharge of my duty, and the same has been suggested by two or three other persons, like himself, disaffected to the administration of the general government.
For the falsehood of these insinuations I appeal to my fellow-citizens, who have witnessed my exertions by day and by night for its defence, weeks before the enemy entered it -- nothing in my power was left undone. Such was my zeal for its defence, that some of my friends accused me of magnifying the danger and creating an unnecessary degree of alarm. During this whole period of labor and exertion on my part, those who now would accuse me of a dereliction of duty, were indulging in ease at home, regardless of the danger that awaited them.
However, a day or two before the enemy entered the district the alarm became general. I was asked by several gentlemen what would be my conduct in the event of his success. I replied that I would exert myself to the last moment and agree to die in the streets rather than give up the city, but, if all resistance was given over, and our military abandoned it, I would then also leave it and not surrender myself a prisoner to the enemy. Several gentlemen insisted that in such an event I ought to remain -- meet the enemy with a flag and capitulate. I rejected all ideas of capitulation or negociation of any kind on my part, observing that it would be highly improper and indecorous of me; the Executive, Heads of Departments, and commanding General being here -- with them should rest a measure of so much responsibility. I consulted those I considered best informed as to the course of conduct to be pursued, and acted accordingly.
On Monday and Tuesday preceding the battle, by considerable exertions I procured about two hundred hands to work at Bladensburg, forming breastworks, etc. according to the wish of the commanding General as communicated to me. On the night preceding the battle, I visited our camp at midnight, as many of the officers can testify, and was up the whole night. On the day of the battle, I was on the field in the midst of danger -- not as a spectator, but as a volunteer in the line of my profession. I did not 'remove with my family.' My wife with four small children had to manage and make her escape as well as she could -- having no male attendant except servants; my only grown son being a volunteer on the field at the head of a company. The deplorable retreat of our army, and consequent occupancy of our city by the British, is too well known to require repetition. I returned from the field of action, visited 2 or 3 persons that had been wounded, and waited til the whole of the troops had passed thro to Georgetown and the enemy was entering. The city being surrendered my powers as Mayor of course ceased, I acted in conformity to the advice of the better capable of judging than myself, and whose opinion is entitled to the highest respect. I left the city and went in search of my family, who had fled a little before the commencement of the action without a protector, leaving everything in my house under the care of a female servant, in the full belief that the whole would be consumed. No one was wise enough to predict with certainty what the conduct of the enemy would be -- judging from his excesses at Hampton and many other places, had we not a right to suppose that neither private persons or property would be respected. But now that he has been here, and in some measure respected private property, every body is wise enough to know his principal object was the destruction of public property. Is it supposed that I, who have been a uniform opposer of British aggressions (of which there were many here ready to give information) could have arrested him in his disgraceful conflagration of the public buildings?
At that very time my hand bills were sticking up in the City, urging the citizens to the defence of their homes; my whole attention had been engaged in the discharge of my public duty and my [paper torn here, perhaps reads "other ... entirely neglected"?] -- Would it have been prudent in me to remain here, filling a public office, when my power as Mayor had ceased and could effect no good by staying?
On Friday about noon, I heard the enemy had evacuated the City the night before. The Potomac Bridge being burnt, I immediately proceeded to Mason's ferry and was among the first that returned -- it was about 3 o'clock, P.M. I found it not only left by the enemy, but also by probably nine tenths of its inhabitants. I was told that great agitation and alarm prevailed, on account of a number of arms and a quantity of ammunition having fallen into the hands of a certain population which was then most numerous. Measures were immediately taken to convene as many of the citizens as practicable at McKeowen's Hotel, in order to adopt measures for our security for that night. On my way to the meeting I met Dr. Thornton in the street, he told me his story about the saving of the General Post Office, and the arrangement he had made about a Patrole, composed in part of some of our citizens and the British soldiers left with their sick and wounded. I replied that a meeting would be held at McKeowen's at 5 o'clock and requested him to attend; but never gave my assent to the British soldiery or any part of them patrolling our streets -- on the contrary, it is well known that I contended they were our prisoners and reprobated the idea of placing ourselves under British protection -- in this opinion the meeting thought with me, and Dr. Thornton's arrangement was rejected. The first object that engaged their attention was our own personal safety, and a resolution was adopted that every white male citizen should continue up the whole night and patrole the streets, and a Captain was appointed to each ward. I patrolled the streets with my musket through the night, but at this moment of the greatest peril, when the services of every one were so peculiarly desirable, I had not the pleasure of seeing Dr. Thornton; he sought safety by retiring to the country.
Information having been communicated to the meeting, that a large number of the dead remained on the field of battle unburied; a committee was appointed from the several wards to proceed to the field the next morning with a number of labourers and bury their dead, which was accordingly done. A further resolution was also adopted, requiring me to address a letter to the President of the U. States, informing him that the enemy had evacuated the city, and that there remained sufficient buildings for the accommodation of Congress, which duty I immediately performed and dispatched an express to him. Those proceedings have been lost or mislaid, or I would publish them at length; at that time no paper was issued here -- certain I am that I have stated the substance of them.
About dusk, Capt. Caldwell and his troop came into the city and stopped at McKeowen's, where I then was -- I mentioned to him, as the highest military officer in the city at the time, the arrangement of Dr. T -- he agreed with me as to its impropriety -- observing that we would disarm the British Guard in the morning -- he also agreed to act with me in a military capacity in all manners necessary for restoring tranquility, until a superior military officer arrived. The police officers were nearly all absent on military duty.
The night passed without any disturbance and without meeting with any "British stragglers" -- Dr. T's assertion to the contrary notwithstanding. We visited next morning the wounded in this city, and understanding those of our own army and also the British in hospital at Bladensburg were in want of sundry articles, we immediately visited them also, and requested the surgeons to make out a requisition of such things as were wanting, which we sent out to them.
On the 28th I met Dr. Thornton in F street, he urged me to send a deputation to the British fleet then ascending the Potomac and reprobated the idea of resistance -- I replied, that I should not send a deputation, but would aid in making every possible resistance, and with that view was collecting a force to replace the Fort at Greenleaf's Point in a situation for defence. Several other persons urged me on the subject of a deputation, and some abused me for not yielding to their wishes -- however the next day the propriety of resistance was generally admitted -- my efforts during this whole time were unremitting to rouse and unite the inhabitants to a manly resistance.
I am certain a large majority of my fellow citizens will do me the justice to say, that, on all occasions where I could be useful, my exertions have been freely given, and that frequently at the expense of my private purse -- not like Dr. Thornton, refusing to give a cent towards furnishing our Citizen Soldiers whilst stationed at Camp Woodyard, with such refreshments as they had been in the habit of getting when at home, assigning as a reason, that he was opposed to the war, and would not give a cent toward carrying it on.
I beg pardon of you and the public for [paper at this point is torn and several words are best approximations] occupying so much of your paper, and more especially as it related to myself; [?] my apology will be found in the necessity[?] of defending my character from the vile aspersions of unprincipled detractors.
James H. Blake
Washington City, Sept 8th, 1814
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