Wednesday, August 1, 2012

12. Washington Burning: Ladies of the Capital

Medallion Quilt by Mary Thornton Posey,
Collection of Dumbarton House.
This quilt features dress fabric
 from many of Washington's society women,
 witnesses to the city's burning.

Anna Maria Thornton was one of Washington City's many residents who abandoned the town as British troops approached on Wednesday, August 24, 1814.  She fled to Tudor Place, the home of her friend Martha Custis Peter. Martha and Anna had an excellent view of the British attack from that mansion near the Georgetown Heights overlooking the Potomac. Martha described the scene to another friend, Eliza Quincy.
Tudor Place, Martha Peter's house,
was designed by
Anna Maria Thornton's husband, Dr. William Thornton

The British Army "announced their entrance into the city on Wednesday night by the flames that ascended from the Navy Yard. Next they blew up the magazine, and set fire to the Point, where there were a great many cannon."
William Thornton painted the Navy Yard afire,
probably from memory.
Americans set the fire to keep it from British hands.
The Capitol Building After the Fire by George Munger

"Then the Capitol was seen in flames; and, between eleven and twelve o'clock, the President's House and Treasury Office. They then retired to rest, I suppose; and we saw no new fires that night. Carroll's large tavern took fire from the sparks of the Capitol."
Anna's husband William Thornton remained at his post, head of the Patent Office. On Thursday morning the invaders, unopposed by American troops who had gone off in the wrong direction, continued their destruction of the capital's public buildings, leaving most private homes and businesses undisturbed.
The Burning of Washington

"The Mayor of Georgetown," wrote Martha, "and several citizens, went on Thursday to the British commander to say that we did not intend to make resistance (as well they might; for I do not believe there were twenty men in town), and they hoped that our city would be spared. Cockburn replied, that, as our President would not protect us, they would. They said it gave them pain to destroy our property; but, as long as we supported Madison, we must expect it, as their nation was resolved never to make peace with a President who was so much under the influence of Bonaparte..."
The President's House after the attack.
...About ten o'clock, the British set fire to the War Office, saying they did not suppose it to be a public building the night before, and had overlooked it. They were proceeding to burn the Patent Office; when Dr. Thornton saw them, and begged them to spare it, saying they would injure individuals, and the world generally, by the destruction of many valuable models. "

Anna Thornton's diary described her husband's efforts to save the collection of patent models.
"Dr. T. went to the City & by his exertions, save the patent office from destruction - They were on the point of setting it on fire & he represented to the officer that it was the Museum of the Arts & that it would be a loss to all the world -"

The patent office is on the right,
built for a hotel that went bankrupt.

The Patent Office survived to be photographed in the 1840s. 
Today it is the National Portrait Gallery.
If American troops could not protect the city, a gift from nature did. Anna continued,
"We had a dreadful storm & gust but fortunately accompanied with rain - the weather during all the fires fortunately was very calm, but it appears miraculous that the whole place was not consumed. - But great pains were taken by the English not to injure private property - It is feared that very little property had been saved out of the president's House."

Dolley Madison who had escaped with a few presidential treasures returned to Washington after three days, stopping at her sister Anna Cutts's house next door to the Thorntons. Margaret Bayard Smith was there and described Mrs. Madison as "much depressed, she could scarcely speak without tears. She told me she had remained in the city until a few hours before the English enter'd. She was so confident of Victory that she was calmly listening to the roar of cannons and watching the rockets in the air, when she perceived our troops rushing into the city, with the haste and dismay of a routed force...'I had a magnificent collation [meal] all prepared for 3:00 p.m. and felt confident of victory! We were to have candle in every window!' "

This silk medallion quilt is attributed to Mary Alexander Thornton Posey (1754-1837). A key to the numbered patches names donors of the various dress fabrics, one of whom is Mrs. William Thornton. We can assume this is Anna Maria Thornton although the two Thornton families do not seem to be related. Others whose dresses are pieced into the quilt include members Martha Custis Peter's family and Mary Posey's daughters.

See more about the quilt here:
Martha Custis Peter
Martha Washington's granddaughter

When you visit Washington take a tour of Tudor Place, which remained in Martha Custis Peter's family until 1983.

After official Washington was destroyed, many advocated moving the U.S. capital to a more established city, but the President's House and the other public buildings were rebuilt. Above, Rufus Porter's 1824 painting of what came to be called the White House.

In August we'll look at Washington society. Anna Maria Thornton's diaries are in the Library of Congress. Entries for 1800 have been published and can be read on Google Books. Here's a link to the Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Volume 10, 1907. See page 88.


1 comment:

WoolenSails said...

Really interesting history to go with the quilt. I do have some similar ones in my folder, things I want to reproduce in the future.