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Washington Burning

How a Frenchman's Vision for Our Nation's Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army

Washington Burning by Les Standiford
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The Riveting Story of the Federal City and the Men Who Built It

In 1814, British troops invaded Washington, consuming President Madison’s hastily abandoned dinner before setting his home and the rest of the city ablaze. The White House still bears scorch and soot marks on its foundation stones. It was only after this British lesson in “hard war,” designed to terrorize, that Americans overcame their resistance to the idea of Washington as the nation’s capital and embraced it as a symbol of American might and unity.

The dramatic story of how the capital rose from a wilderness is a vital chapter in American history, filled with intrigue and outsized characters–from George Washington to Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the eccentric, passionate, difficult architect who fell in love with his adopted country. This Frenchman–both inspired by the American cause of liberty and wounded while defending it–first endeared himself to then General Washington with a sketch drawn at Valley Forge. Designing buildings, parades, medals, and coins, L’Enfant became the creator of a new American aesthetic, but the early tastemaker had ambition and pride to match his talent. Self-serving and incapable of compromise, he was consumed with his artistic dream of the Federal City, eventually alienating even the president, his onetime champion.

Washington struggled to balance L’Enfant’s enthusiasm for his brilliant design with the strident opposition of fiscal conservatives such as Thomas Jefferson, whose counsel eventually led to L’Enfant’s dismissal. The friendships, rivalries, and conflicting ideologies of the principals in this drama–as revealed in their deceptively genteel correspondence and other historical sources–mirror the struggles of a fledgling nation to form a kind of government the world had not yet known.

In these pages, as in Last Train to Paradise and Meet You in Hell, master storyteller Les Standiford once again tells a compelling, uniquely American story of hubris and achievement, with a man of epic ambition at its center. Utterly absorbing and scrupulously researched, Washington Burning offers a fresh perspective on the birth of not just a city, but a nation.

From the Hardcover edition.
Crown/Archetype; Read online
Title: Washington Burning
Author: Les Standiford


The vantage point for this surveillance is atop a hill 571 feet above sea level, looking east from Virginia across the broad Potomac River toward the capital city of the United States. The view, shaded by a dense overhang of trees, is as striking as it is strategic. In the far distance, the dome of the Capitol Building gleams in the late afternoon sun, commanding all the storied monuments that dot the verdant landscape in between. From this spot, Washington looks anything but the locus of world-politik, not at all the picture of an ever-roiling center of intrigue. It looks almost peaceful.

Just across the river below is the Doric assemblage of the Lincoln Memorial, anchoring one end of the Reflecting Pool. At the other end is the giant stone obelisk--once the world's tallest building--that pays tribute to the founder of the city. On a line thirty degrees or so to the south of the reflecting pool is the memorial to the author of the Declaration of Independence, and at an equal angle to the north, just beyond the Federal Reserve Building, is the White House, flanked on the west by the Executive Office Building and on the east by the U.S. Treasury.

One could walk the boundary of this diamond-shaped territory in a little more than an hour: two-thirds of a mile from the Lincoln Memorial northeastward to the White House; a mile or so southeast along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol; a matching leg southwest to the Jefferson Memorial; and a final three-quarters-of-a-mile march back to Lincoln, whose impassive visage has gazed down upon a great range of human activity, from the "I have a dream" oration of Martin Luther King and the massive anti-Vietnam War demonstrations that filled the Mall, to Michael Rennie as a space invader taking a lesson in democracy from a child actor in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Within the bounds of that trek is virtually every structure of significance to the republic for which they stand--in addition to those named are the Smithsonian Castle, the National Archives, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the National Gallery, the Museum of Natural History, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the House and Senate office buildings, and on and on.

It is, by any standards, the ultimate destination--for aspirants, admirers, and enemies alike. Over the years, assassins have plied their trade there, as have cause-driven bombers and lunatics of every stripe. By many accounts, the infamous "fourth plane" of September 11, 2001, had set its sights on the Capitol or the White House, before the heroic efforts of the passengers brought it to the ground in rural Pennsylvania.

Such assaults, varied as they have been in nature and motivation, are united in one way: their perpetrators have been drawn to that stretch of territory as inevitably as lightning snaps from roiling storm clouds to the aluminum capstone atop George Washington's 555-foot monument. The various attacks might have had practical intent and woeful consequences for individuals, but they were in essence symbolic actions, meant to strike against an entire nation. In short, they were acts of terrorism.

The history of such attacks extends well beyond the range of memory. The first, in fact, took place long before much of what is now visible from this spot in Virginia was even built. To be sure, there was a White House, a Capitol, a Patent Office, a Navy Yard, and a War Department. But all that had been built over fierce opposition, and controversy still swirled over Washington's status as the nation's capital.

To the invaders, however, the utter obliteration of the Federal City of the United States was a goal of great significance, far more important for its psychological impact than for any tactical value. They understood exactly the sentiments of Peter Charles L'Enfant, the man who designed the city of Washington, when he reasoned that its construction should be accomplished in such a fashion "as to give an idea of the greatness of the empire, as well as to engrave in every mind that sense of respect due to a place which is the seat of a supreme sovereignty."

L'Enfant, born the son of Pierre Lenfant, a painter employed by the courts of Louis XV and XVI at Versailles, was something of an enthusiast. But he did give up a life of relative ease to travel across the Atlantic with Lafayette and join his alliance with the Continental Army in its fight for independence. L'Enfant spent time as a prisoner of the British during the Revolutionary War, and afterward opted to remain in the former colonies, even anglicizing his given name of Pierre as a sign of his affection for his new home.

Making use of talents inherited from his father, he worked as an artist and architect and would eventually design the first seat of Congress at Federal Hall in New York City. In time he was appointed by George Washington to draw the plans for the controversial new Federal City on the Potomac.

To L'Enfant, Paris was a wonder, and Versailles grand, but the blank canvas that existed at the bend of the "Potowmack" in 1789 offered the possibility for even more. "No nation has ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their Capital City should be fixed," he pointed out. And while he acknowledged that "the means now within the power of the Country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extent," he argued that "the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote."

L'Enfant's acknowledgment of the difficulties that lay in the path of the development of Washington turned out to be a model of understatement. It was, after all, nearly a hundred years before so much as the placement of a monument to the city's founder could be resolved. In the interim, critics complained mightily of the city's isolated nature, of its torrid summer weather, of a lack of everything from firewood to theater to sidewalks.

When Abigail Smith Adams and her husband, John, became the first residents of the President's Home in November 1800, she described her approach in dramatic terms: "You find nothing but a forest and woods on the way for 16 or 18 miles. Not a village. Here and there a thatched cottage without a single pane of glass."

To her sister Mary Cranch she spoke of Washington itself as "a quagmire after every rain . . . and always the chill and the dampness." They were sentiments shared by many--Northerners dismayed by its geographic setting and Southern opponents of anything that smacked of expansiveness in government--but even Adams's successor Jefferson, who opposed the choice of Washington as capital, realized that the die was cast. This rawboned Federal City would become the indisputable seat of the United States government, and in 1812 it was the spot from which James Madison, the nation's fourth president, proclaimed a second war against the British, aiming to settle, once and for all, issues that had dragged on from the end of the Revolution nearly thirty years before.

The War of 1812 was a ragged conflict, crippled in the States by a lack of resolve among the decidedly less-than-united former colonies, and in Britain by a parliament and populace weary from fending off the relentless advances of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was full of indecisive battles, bloody Indian raids on frontier outposts, and desultory interference, on the part of the British, with American shipping interests. During the summer of 1814, there were reports of a significant massing of British naval forces off the Maryland shores, but there had been regular depredations up and down that part of the American coastline, and most conjectured that the target would be the port of Baltimore.

Certainly, little thought was given to Washington. The unfortified city had next to no commercial trading, and its tactical value was nil. Not much was changed from the days when Abigail Adams described the area as "romantic . . . but a wilderness." When Congress was out of session, the place became a ghost town, and there was still the occasional proposal being floated around Congress to move the seat of government back to Philadelphia.

But on the morning of August 24, 1814, pandemonium erupted when an elite force of British infantrymen was discovered to be marching on Washington City with the intent of teaching the upstart Americans a lesson in "hard war" and reducing their capital to ashes.

History is silent as to the exact whereabouts that day of L'Enfant, whose influence and circumstances had considerably diminished. "In Washington, though not living on the streets, I hope," offers the noted historian and L'Enfant biographer Kenneth R. Bowling. L'Enfant had refused to leave the city that shunned him, frequenting its streets in eccentric garb, trailed by a faithful hound. Whatever his feelings as British troops poured across the ill-defended bridge at Bladensburg, astonishment could not have been among them, however. If he had overheard Secretary of War John Armstrong dismiss the designs of the British for "this sheep walk," L'Enfant would have very heatedly begged to differ. Had he still held the ear of the commander-in-chief and his advisers, the magnitude of the disaster might not have been so great.

L'Enfant still keeps watch over his city, though the vigil is a symbolic one. His resting place--moved from a Maryland pasture nearly a century after his death--sits here, atop the highest point in Arlington National Cemetery, a hundred yards or so uphill from the grave of John F. Kennedy and in the shadow of the formidable Arlington House, once the residence of Robert E. Lee and taken by the Union during the Civil War.

Crowds are guided by park rangers through Arlington House every hour on the hour, and--no news--there is a steady flow of visitors to the Kennedy graves. Few are drawn to disturb L'Enfant's quiet contemplation, however.

His monument is a simple, table-shaped sculpture that reverts his name to "Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant," and bears a carved likeness of his 1791 blueprint for the city, which has finally come to exist in the shimmering distance beyond.

We do not know what L'Enfant thought of the irony that it took the devastation of the city by an invading army to bring his countrymen around to an appreciation of what Washington could become. Still, gazing out across the Potomac at the "idea of the greatness of empire" that has taken shape, it is tempting to speculate. He would feel pride, unquestionably. As for the events of days such as September 11, 2001, and August 24, 1814, grim resignation, too.


If You Build It, They Will Come

Even by the cruel standards of Washington summers, the late-August day was shaping up as a scorcher. By noon the temperature was nearing 100 degrees and the humidity nearly matched it. It was weather that sapped energy, frayed tempers, and threatened to tip the already desperate mood of the populace--which had never expected that war would come so close to the American capital--into full-fledged panic.

The president had already fled Washington, and the commanders of three separate military defense teams struggled to bring their forces into a tenable position at the northeastern fringes of a rapidly emptying city. As they scrambled about, an invading army headed by two of the world's most feared military leaders--one a cool tactician, the other a brutal master of force--advanced steadily from their beachhead on Chesapeake Bay.

It was no dream, no drill, no fanciful scenario from the pages of a doomsday novel. An ill-prepared and fractured army, crippled by partisan wrangling over whether a need for military preparedness truly existed, was the only obstacle to the obliteration of the seat of the world's premier experiment in democratic rule.

Last-minute efforts to mount a defense proved futile. Communication between the president--driven to ground somewhere in the tangled forests of Virginia or Maryland--and U.S. commanding general William Winder had broken down, and the only forces with significant combat experience (fewer than two thousand) were routed when the invaders loosed a barrage of experimental rockets upon their positions. By midnight, all U.S. forces were in full retreat, and their commanders--save for one able captain of privateers--were discredited and disgraced.

The Capitol Building was destroyed, and with it the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. The U.S. Treasury lay in ashes. Also in ruins were the War Department and the State Department and the Navy Yard. The nation's capital lay lit by the flames of its own demise.

As for the ultimate symbol of the city, the president's home: "We found a supper there all ready," one of the invading officers reported, "which many of us speedily consumed . . . and drank some very good wine also." After they had eaten the president's dinner and upended the table where they had sat, they set a torch to that building and, as it burned, stumbled out into the Washington night, drunk not only with wine but also with the ease with which they had routed the American defenders.

They were a small but seasoned group of operatives, well skilled in this sort of mission. It was no classic military undertaking, this assault on Washington, but a carefully calculated guerrilla strike, meant to bring "hard war" to America, to instill fear in the hearts of the populace and deliver an unequivocal message: Submit or die.

And by all appearances, this first terrorist attack launched on American soil had succeeded beyond all expectations. The operation had been carried out with the loss of only sixty-four men, and in the space of one afternoon and evening. Every hallowed institution of the American capital had been obliterated, and the remnants of the citizenry cowered as the boot heels of foreign invaders cracked on the District pavement.


The Winds of a War

The devastation of the new capital city was as much a shock to the young nation as it was an outrage. Few had seen it coming, but then that is the very aim of terrorist operations. As for the roots of the assault, however, the perspective of history suggests that the thirty years that had passed since the end of the Revolutionary War constituted a temporary pause in battle between the two sides rather than a cessation and a new beginning.

Military historians have only recently begun to reconsider the importance of what was once dismissed as "Mr. Madison's War." In his 1989 book, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, Donald R. Hickey began a process of reevaluation that continues to this day, arguing that the true end of the American Revolution came with the resolution of the War of 1812, formalized by the Treaty of Ghent in 1815.

From the Hardcover edition.

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