Let’s pick up where we left off the other day with President Madison’s return to (what was left of) Washington, D.C. The next day (the 28th of August if you’re following the chronology), the Commander-in-Chief got his first look at the devastation. He described the White House as “in ashes, not an inch but its cracked and blackened walls remained.” The Capitol was in a similar condition. “Those beautiful pillars in that Representatives Hall were cracked and broken, the roof, that noble dome, painted and carved with such beauty and skill, lay in ashes in the cellars beneath the smouldering ruins…”
Madison spent the day encouraging the troops and the citizens, telling them to put off despair and gloom. There was even an impromptu parade of sorts when Dolley returned to town in a borrowed carriage.
Such was not the welcome for War Secretary John Armstrong. His handling of the city’s defense had been abyssmal. He had insisted that the British would be targeting Baltimore, which he (correctly) felt was a far more important military target. But the President (and others) believed that D.C. was the symbolic target the British would seek. Even when the British came ashore just 35 miles from the capital, still Armstrong insisted that they would make for Baltimore.
For weeks, Armstrong did almost nothing to provide for the capitol’s defense. In his biography of Madison, Ralph Ketcham writes that “The Secretary of War argued with state militia officers and attended to every detail except the defense of Washington…”
But the issues with Armstrong ran deeper. In a year filled with bad military news, the War Secretary’s actions were worse still. Ketcham summarizes it as the “accumulating evidence of Armstrong’s deceit, insubordination, and incompetence.” He continues, “In May 1814, when Madison was at Montpelier, Armstrong had kept news from the President and had written inaccurate and unauthorized dispatches to insure the retirement of General Harrison, and, aat the same time, make it seem that Madison had tried to block the promotion of Andrew Jackson.” He had usurped the President’s authority numerous times on military matters, displayed terrible communication skills, and generally poor leadership.
The citizens of Washington blamed Armstrong for its sacking and numerous officers and enlisted men refused to serve with the War Secretary any longer. His departure was imminent, and the President made it official on August 29, 1814, when he forced John Armstrong’s retirement, essentially firing him.
Our nation’s fourth President would replace him with our nation’s eventual fifth President – James Monroe.