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SENTRY JOURNAL » American History, British, Declaration of Independence, Stephen Pleasonton, war of 1812 » August 1814: Saving the Declaration of Independence

August 1814: Saving the Declaration of Independence

When people think of the War of 1812 two significant events of the war come to mind; the Battle of New Orleans and the burning of Washington D.C.  For the purpose of this post we will focus on the burning of Washington D.C. on 24 August 1814.

The young capital of the new nation was relatively small and held little strategic value.  However the British were determined to send a message to the young American nation.  President Madison and Secretary of State Monroe received word that the British were landing their forces near a small village named Benedict just off the Patuxent River.  They mounted their horses and rode out to Benedict.  Their fears were confirmed.  A large British force was indeed landing near Benedict and President Madison was convinced that they did not have a large enough force to stop the British from marching on Washington D.C.

Stephen Pleasonton was appointed by President Madison as head of a newly created office called the Lighthouse Establishment.  Mr. Pleasonton was responsible for Ministerial and Consular accounts.  Upon learning of the imminent invasion of Washington D.C., President Madison sent word to Mr. Pleasonton to secure books and important documents of the Department of State.

Mr. Pleasonton immediately acted on the advice of his President and bought some coarse linen to make into linen bags.  With these homemade bags he secured the secret journals of Congress, which at the time had not been published; the correspondenceS of General Washington, his commission, resigned at the end of the revolutionary war, the correspondences of General Greene and other officers, the Articles of Confederation, and numerous other books and treaties.  He carted the load to a secure location.  It was an abandoned grist mill located on the Virginia side of the Potomac.  He returned to the Department of State for a final look.  Time was running out as the British rapidly approached Washington.  As he gave the document room one last look to his amazement he notice hanging on the wall in a frame was the original Declaration of Independence.  He had completely overlooked it!  Hastily he removed the document from its frame and carefully placed it in one of the linen bags and hurried with his precious cargo to grist mill where he had taken the first load of books and documents.  Later that same evening Mr. Pleasonton became worried that the grist mill might be too tempting of a target for destruction for the British forces.  So Pleasonton moved the documents again that night to where he felt would be a safer place; Leesburg located 35 miles farther away from Washington.  Stephen Pleasonton single-handedly saved the essence of our nation with his clear and quick thinking.

The documents to include the Declaration of Independence were returned to Washington a few weeks after the British had left. You can read the source information for this post here.

We must never forget our past.  It tells us the story about us and why we must always stand for liberty and defeat tyranny in all its forms.  Today we find that Washington D.C. is threatened by a different type of force; a force that has just as much destructive power as the British forces that burned it to the ground.  Will we stand up when called upon as Stephen Pleasonton and save the essence of who we are?  I believe we will.

Liberty forever, freedom for all!


Filed under: American History, British, Declaration of Independence, Stephen Pleasonton, war of 1812

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  • Trestin August 24, 2010 at 12:21 PM

    I consider myself a small history buff, but I did not know that story. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Reaganite Republican August 24, 2010 at 1:45 PM

    Good stuff, John- thx

    Most raised in Ohio -as I was- have an above average education in the War of 1812, due to Commodore Perry's glorious victory in the Battle of Lake Erie… but I didn't know this one either

  • John Carey August 24, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    I read about this story a fews years back Trestin and I found it interesting. I felot it was something that needed to be shared. Thanks for stopping by.

  • John Carey August 24, 2010 at 6:04 PM

    Thanks RR. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  • Steve Dennis August 24, 2010 at 6:35 PM

    I hadn't heard this story either, thanks for sharing it. I hope that you are right and that we will stand up in the face of tyranny and save our Republic!

  • John Carey August 24, 2010 at 8:44 PM

    I hope I'm right too Steve. If not we could be heading down a dark path.