"Christ! Let me in! Oh, please, open the door!" wailed Lucy Bennett. The dishevelled young woman banged on the stout wooden panels of the locked door of the large house adjacent to the printers. Four of her companions, equally distressed, clustered around her. Three of them clutched carpet bags. The navy yard was burning and one of the ships was alight. Evening was approaching and most of Washington's remaining inhabitants were desperately trying to flee south. Two of the young women raised their tear-stained faces to the window above the doorway where they hoped to see the owner of the establishment, and their recently abandoned employer, Mistress Katherine Du Barrie.
Lucy held her breath as she heard the rattle of a chain and the noise of the door bolts being withdrawn. She was relieved as the door opened, and delighted to see the familiar face of Jessie, one of the two mulatto slaves who served the ladies (and on busy nights, some of the ladies' beaus), of the Du Barrie establishment, commonly known as, "Kitty's Cathouse". Behind Jessie, calm and stately as ever, stood Madam Du Barrie. The forty-year-old matriarch was tastefully dressed in pale blue silk, gathered below her imposing bosom with a thin gold cord. Her second best string of pearls adorned her throat.
"What happened?" asked Madam Kitty when all the young ladies were safely inside the large hallway and the door once again securely fastened.
"They burned the bridge! It was awful! We were on it, trying to cross, when they set fire to the bridge!" sobbed Lucy.
"No! The fire started on the south bank. It must have been an accident," Said Miriam setting down her bag.
"Or god-damned cowardice!" snarled Rebecca, forgetting for the moment Madam Kitty's detestation of strong language. "That rotten cunt-struck gutless s.o.b. we call a pres..."
"Enough!" snapped the madam. "Rebecca, you know I will not tolerate that sort of talk! And in particular you know how much I abominate the use of the 'C' word!"
Rebecca bit her tongue and muttered an apology which the madam gracefully accepted.
"I doubt we'll be working tonight ladies. But should the British remain in our fair capital we may be obliged to open our doors tomorrow under what could be trying circumstances. I suggest you return to your rooms, freshen up then join me in the parlour for a glass of wine and a cold collation before retiring."
So saying the statuesque red headed madam left her young coquettes (a "c" word she did approve of) to compose themselves after what had been a frightening experience.
"Come on! Give us a song, Corporal!" called Rifleman George Smith of Flank Company 85th (Buckinghamshire Volunteers) Light Infantry. "'Bout how we made those rascals run!" He was red faced and bog eyed and as cocky as any eighteen-year-old virgin soldier who had survived his first brush with a real live enemy without showing the terror he had felt.
It was midnight and the small group of light infantrymen sat around a candle-lit table in the kitchen of the residence of the President of the United States. Outside, the city - such as it was - was wreathed in smoke. "I'll drink to that!" said Rifleman Goss. The big rifleman, heavyweight champion of the regiment, raised a pewter mug of watered wine. It was the strongest tipple Sergeant King would permit the handful of men remaining under his command. He needed them sober for the incendiary tasks ahead.
Grimy, sweat-stained, tired beyond sleep, the group was now happily devouring a large ham, a wheel of cheese and several fresh loaves. The bread had been baked that morning, August 24th, 1814, in anticipation of the victory celebration planned by President Madison.
The detachment had been whittled down steadily throughout the long, hot, August day and now only Sergeant King and four green-uniformed soldiers remained from the original detail of thirty men from the 85th. They had been attached to the Admiral's party of 200 for special duties. In addition to their normal equipment every two men had been given one Congreve "Carcass" rocket to carry. Just the sharply pointed warhead, not the 15 foot stick which slotted into the three metal loops on the side before ignition. The cylinders were about a yard in length and weighed more than 30 pounds. Both the propellant and warhead were highly combustible. When Rifleman Evans asked why they were carrying, "these abominations of Satan that belong to the godforsaken navy" (strong language for "Chapel" Evans) as well as his Baker rifle, 80 rounds of ammunition and three days rations, he was told they were Admiral Cockburn's bed pans. If he wished, Sergeant King informed him, he could complain to the Admiral himself or to General Robert Ross. Evans, a stunted miner's son from the Rhonda, still grumbling, declined.
Lieutenant Stanwix, a young cousin of the Colonel's, had been one of the first casualties. One of six who had succumbed to the heat. There had been no rain for three weeks, according to the locals. Everyone in the invading force had felt the sun's power during their seven-hour forced march from the overnight bivouac to where the enemy waited, in his prepared position, overlooking the eastern branch of the Potomac. The 85th, plus three battalions of line infantry and two of Royal Marines, had made short work of the defenders, most of whom had fled after the first exchange of fire. A few rounds of Congreve rockets fired by Cockburn's sailors had started the rout.
Some must have stayed and fought thought Sergeant King. He had been standing close to the Admiral when a staff officer gave his report, and heard that the butcher's bill was close on sixty dead and nearly 200 wounded. He had been glad to wade across the river just after midday. The cooling effect of the water was worth the discomfort of wet trousers. He was also glad when he heard that they had only six more miles to march to reach Washington from the battlefield of Bladensburg.
The detail lost another soldier (and General Ross, a second horse) at sunset as the 200 entered the city. The house from which the sniper had taken the fatal shot was burned. Powder from one of Colonel Congreve's rockets served to get the fire going.
"So that's what we're carrying these unholy things for, is it?" said Evans at the time. While orders were being given for groups to set about razing various government buildings, Sergeant King overheard General Ross express his disapproval of the activity to Admiral Cockburn. The NCO edged closer to hear the exchange. The Admiral had few qualms about the task. He made it clear to General Ross, in no uncertain terms, that the Commander in Chief of the North American Station himself, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, had ordered the destruction. "... in revenge for what the scoundrels did to the city of York. Teach the rogues a lesson. Damn their eyes!"
As General Ross rode away with a small escort the Admiral spotted Sergeant King, "You, Sergeant, stay by me. I'm going to pay a call on Mr Madison. You may have the pleasure of reducing his house to ashes. You may even take a souvenir! Nothing valuable mind! No! Anything of value must be burned. Come along!" He kicked his horse into a trot and Sergeant King and his four remaining riflemen jogged along behind.
For two hours now they had been waiting for further orders, while a larger group from Headquarters made merry in the banqueting hall where a dinner for forty officers had been planned by Dolley Madison, the President's wife.
"Yes, Geordie, give us a song!" the sergeant echoed. He and Corporal Bates had been with the battalion since it had returned from Jamaica six years ago. The then line battalion had been called back to Shorncliffe to be retrained as light infantry. The two friends had shared the misery of the Walcheren expedition but had luckily avoided the ague that had downed so many of their comrades. Both were present at the fall of Fuentes d'Onor in Portugal where Charlie King gained his promotion. King and Bates were two of the Regiment's most popular "old soldiers". Both were fit, unwounded and just turned thirty. Geordie had a good voice and a sharp wit. He cleared his throat, grinned, and began to sing, to the tune of a well known north country song.
"Oh, me lads, tha should av seen us gannin, Gannin along the Washin'ton Road, leavin' the buggers stannin, T'were all t' lads an' lassies there, all wi' gloomy faces, Gannin along the Washin'ton Road, T' see Bladensburg' races!
His audience, small though it was, reacted noisily and with unrestrained glee. All joined in the encore, even "Chapel" Evans who was a purist who would normally have baulked at the poor scansion and the foul language.
"That deserves another drink, Sergeant?" queried Goss, hopefully.
"You should stick to the milk, Gossie, like me!" interjected Evans, "You could drink as much as you like then, see."
Before Evans could get started on one of his favourite sermons the door leading to the banqueting hall opened and the Admiral himself strolled in.
"Squad!" barked King automatically. The riflemen struggled to their feet.
"Sit down! Sit down!" said the great man. "I like your song, Sergeant King!" The Admiral was flushed and slightly unsteady on his feet
"Not mine, Sir! Corporal Bates is the poet, Sir!"
"Well, Corporal, my congratulations on 'The Bladensburg Races'. Very droll! Mind if I use it in my dispatches?"
"'Course not, Sir!" Bates' grin could not have been broader.
The Admiral turned to Sergeant King. "I seem to have enough willing hands in the banqueting hall to deal with Mr Madison's residence, Sergeant. So I won't require your detachment further this evening. What I want you to do, however, is go to this address," he handed King a scarp of paper, "... and burn the place down!".
King read the address, scribbled in pencil. "The 'National Intelligencer', Sir? A newspaper?"
"A scurrilous enemy rag which has defamed not only me but also Admiral Cochrane! I would not grace it with the title 'newspaper'!"
The Sergeant hesitated. "I understood from my officer that we were only to destroy government property, Sir."
"Yes! Yes!" said the Admiral testily. "It is a government facility. It is to be burned. You are to destroy it, Sergeant. Understood?"
"Good. Rendevous with the main body at Widow Suter's house up the street by mid morning. You can't miss it. Er, and leave one of those contraptions," - the Admiral indicated the pair of Congreve rockets propped against the kitchen wall - "for this place."
"You can have mine, Admiral!" said Evans to the Admiral's back as he left the kitchen, but too quietly to be heard.
"Tell me, Jessie, what did you discover?" said Katherine to the young slave.
Jessie, still wrapped in her hooded cloak set down her lantern on the hall floor before replying.
"You were right, Ma'am, there was someone breaking in to the print works. Soldiers! Five of them. One as big as Sam Cassidy and one no bigger than me." Jessie giggled.
Katherine frowned. "Did they see you, Jessie?"
"Not at first Ma'am. They was too busy searching the place. I heard the officer say they could bed down there for the rest of the night but the big one said it would be best if they burned it now and got back to the President's House before the animal ate, drank and burned the lot!"
"That's what he said, Miss Kitty. Leastwise that's what I heard."
"What else, girl?"
"The little one had this... thing." Jessie giggled again."Only it can't have been. It was too big and pointed!"
"Yes, M'. A big dildo. Like you keep for your 'special' gentlemen. Mr Ar..."
"I understand, Jessie!" Katherine interrupted.