Thursday, May 3, 2012

Everything I Know I Learned from Mordecai Booth

I've been spending the past year with my head stuck in 1814. As I explained before, it's a system that works for me when I'm working on a new book, even if it's a little OCD. And besides, you meet the most interesting people when you focus in on a new place and time.

Take Mordecai Booth. Booth was a senior clerk at the Washington Navy Yard in August 1814, a working man with a house and a family. Washington itself was still in its infancy, having become the seat of the federal government of the United States only fourteen years earlier, and it still showed. Its roads were famous for being dusty in hot weather, muddy in wet weather, and almost impassibly rutted all year round. It was still as much swamp as city.

But swampy or not, Washington was still the capital, and as such, a target of the British during the War of 1812. British Admiral George Cockburn knew that a blow against the capital would be far more demoralizing than an attack against even so valuable a port city as Baltimore. And so, in August 1814, 4500 British troops were landed in Benedict, Maryland and began the march toward Washington.

Booth and Thomas Tingey, commandant of the Navy Yard, knew that the yard would be a primary target. Secretary of the Navy William Jones had ordered that, no matter what, the yard must not fall into the hands of the British. As the invasion began at dusk on August 24th, 1814, Booth and Tingey faced a horrible task. They had to set fire to the yard, the pride of the US Navy and of Washington. At great risk, Booth volunteered to scout the city first to see if all really was lost. Only when he knocked on the White House door and realized that even the president had fled did he realize how awful the situation was. Shortly afterward he spied, in the dimming light of dusk, the British enter the city. He returned to tell Tingey that there was indeed no option. They would have to fire the yard.

The men apparently said little to each other. They had a duty to do and they did it. That night the British torched the White House and the Capitol, as well as other public buildings. But the first fires set during the burning of Washington were set by Booth and Tingey.

Booth later gave his account of the burning of the capital. As he left for safety, he looked back at a city in flames. He was so transfixed that he could not move from the spot for three hours. His words as he described the sight were raw with grief and horror.

It was a night nearly two hundred years ago, and yet his words painted a vivid living picture of one of the most tragic events in American history. I feel so honored to have met him and been able to write about his story.

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