The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

May 10, 2013

No Washington, D.C.?

What if there was no Lincoln Memorial, no Washington Monument, no Capitol building, no White House?

Many Americans, on occasion, probably have wished there was no Washington, D.C.

We rail and we whine and we gnash our teeth at some of the Capitol Hill goings on, wondering if they even know we’re out here — from the far right conservative to the far left liberal to the vast sea of the rest of us in between.

Well, many years ago, in the opening decades of this nation’s existence, that very nearly occurred.

Since we are enmeshed in the month of May during the heightened days of tornado awareness in Oklahoma — when 60,000-foot-plus thunderstorms often tower menacingly in the distance — a visit by a tornadic storm very well may have saved this young country and its Capitol.

It was in a brutally hot and muggy August of 1814, and the peculiar and mostly undramatic War of 1812 threatened American shores, as Great Britain made one last attempt to bring former wayward colonies back into its empire fold.

Napoleon Bonaparte had been vanquished in Europe, and England turned its military eyes back to the young and still struggling United States, greedy to once again reclaim all the vast wealth and resources of a virtually untaped continent.

There had been very little land fighting in the war, but a British invading army was moving up the Virginia coast from Chesapeake Bay, with its sights set on the new American seat of government.

While Washington was known as a swampy area called Foggy Bottom, with little or no military import, the British hoped to sack and burn the city and extinguish the memory of the Capitol’s namesake, one George Washington, who was the major player in sending England packing in the first place.

It was to be a psychological ploy to crush the will of an American people still thinking in terms of states and not a nation, and not as united as it would become.

Routing the American Army at Bladensburg a few miles from Washington, a 4,000-man British army forced Washingtonians to flee, including President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison, who was able to save the famous full-length Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, that had hastily been pulled from a White House wall — a soon to be most-symbolic act.

President Madison, while commanding an American artillery battery in battle, became the first and only president to exercise his authority as commander in chief on a battlefield.

And, the evening of Aug. 24, 1814, soon was to become a date woven into the fabric of our nation’s history.

A Scot who served as a British soldier, George Gleig was one of the foremost chroniclers of the War of 1812, and wrote of his observations as the English vanguard moved into Washington.

As Gleig told it, the British had sent a flag of truce forward into the city with terms. The Americans immediately disregarded the flag, firing upon the truce party from a house’s windows, killing the horse of advancing Maj. Gen. Robert Ross.

The act enraged the British, and soldiers at once were instructed to put to the sword anyone found who had fired upon the truce party, and burn the house.

The order then extended to burn and destroy any and all buildings connected to the U.S. government, including the still uncompleted Capitol building, the Library of Congress and the White House.

“ ... the blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs informed them, as they proceeded, of what was going forward. ... The sky was brilliantly illuminated by the different conflagrations, and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face,” wrote Gleig of the burning of Washington.

But, at the height of the burning and looting — and in Hollywood-script fashion — a sudden and violent thunderstorm erupted.

The skies darkened, torrential rains and hail began extinguishing flames and scattering British troops, who soon withdrew from the city.

While knowledge of tornadoes was relatively unknown at the time, it was thought a tornado may have visited the city and the British army. To this day, it still is looked upon as the hand of Providence saving this young nation.

In the mid-1980s, while visiting the Capitol, I watched near the Potomac River from an Arlington, Va., motel lobby, as heavy greenish-black clouds moved toward Washington, telling the desk clerk it was going to hail. He said I must be from Texas or Oklahoma, and laughed dismissively.

“It never hails here,” he had said as the storm approached.

Within 10 minutes, it was hailing for all it was worth, and I thought back to 1814 and just smiled back.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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