Gateway to the Classics: American History Stories, Volume III by Mara L. Pratt
American History Stories, Volume III by  Mara L. Pratt

Our Capital Taken by the English

For some time the British ships had been blockading our coasts, and the name of their commander had come to be a word of terror in every home along the Atlantic shore. Here, there, and everywhere, his fleet had drawn up, and landed soldiers who would march up into the quiet, harmless little villages, set them on fire, and then march coolly away.

There was in England at this time a great general, the Duke of Wellington. He had just defeated the wonderful Napoleon Bonaparte in a great battle; and, as this Napoleon had been looked upon as a most wonderful being, never to be overcome by any army living, you can imagine with what respect and awe Wellington and his army were now looked upon. A general who had conquered Napoleon Bonaparte! Why, Franklin conquering the lightning was nothing compared with it!

And now it was reported that Wellington's army had joined the British fleet and was planning to lay waste the whole Atlantic coast. Indeed, the ships were already sailing up the Potomac. Think of it! the army that had defeated Napoleon! now marching straight to attack the capitol at Washington!

There were forty-five hundred men in all; but before they had reached the city, report said there were six, then seven, even eight thousand of them. Gen. Winder hastily got together a force of seven thousand men and some cavalry. They took their station outside the city and awaited the approach of this dreaded foe.

Three days later, the English marched up, tired and hot, ready to drop from the intensity of the heat. O, if the Americans could only have known this, if they could have known, too, that their own number was nearly twice that of the advancing foe!

But they knew only what report had told them; and so entered into the battle with little courage or hope of success.

The English army came up to them, drawn up in line just above a bridge, over which ran the road to the Capital. One charge from these Wellington troops across the bridge, and back they fell before the volley poured forth from the American lines! Another charge, quicker, fiercer, more determined! but this time the English won the bridge.

Another and another charge, and in less than four hours, the American lines were broken, and the men fled into the forests to escape the pursuit of the enemy. By evening, the English had entered our national capital. President Madison had been all day upon the battlefield; and when he saw that the defeat of the American army was sure, he rushed back to the city to warn the people of the advancing enemy. Mrs. Madison had already gathered together all that could be easily carried away, and was herself ready to leave the city.

At night, the army came into the deserted city. I suppose they expected to find much wealth and grandeur in this capital of the nation; but when you think that only fourteen years before the city had been but dense forests, you can easily understand that the seizing of this city wasn't, after all, so very great a gain to the English, nor yet so very great a loss to the country.

When the English officers entered the White House, it is said that they found the tables spread for a dinner, just as it had been prepared for the president and his party. These Englishmen sat down with a very good appetite, probably, after their hard day's work, and ate heartily. It is said that men are apt to be much better natured after having eaten a good dinner; but I am afraid it made very little difference with these officers, for they went at once to their soldiers, and ordered them to set fire to the city; then, fearing lest the Americans might return in numbers too strong for them, they marched back to their ships and sailed away.

Their next move was to attack Baltimore; but by the time they had reached that city, the people had learned how small a number they had, and so had lost their fear for them. They received here a strong repulse, and retired quite crestfallen.

There is a little incident connected with this attack upon Baltimore that is of interest to you all. While the soldiers were attacking the city, the English vessels lying in the bay were bombarding Fort McHenry. Just before the firing began, Francis Scott Key, an American soldier, had gone on board an English vessel to ask the commander to release certain prisoners that had been taken at Washington.

Key was kept on board during the entire bombardment. At midnight the firing ceased. What does the silence mean?

Have the forts surrendered, or are the English driven back? Hour after hour the brave soldier peered through the darkness, longing to catch one glimpse of the stars and stripes, which the day before had floated so proudly over the fort. Of course, if the English had taken the fort, they would at once have torn down the flag. It was during this night of anxious watching that he composed the good old song which very likely you and your schoolmates can sing. It is not so common perhaps as "Yankee Doodle," but it has become one of our national songs; and sometime when you hear the bands playing it on our national holidays, you will be glad to remember how it came to be written.

"Oh say, can you see, by the dawns' early light,

What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming,

Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,

O'er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming;—

And the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.


Oh, say, does the star spangled banner yet wave

O'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave?"

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