"Security and peace": Refugees in Brookeville

The President spent the morning of August 24 on a hilltop observing the American troops prepare to engage the British at Bladensburg. When it became clear over the course of the battle that the Americans would have to retreat and the capital city would be vulnerable to the British enemies, the President's advisors convinced him to leave the battlefield. His party returned to the city, but eventually crossed the Potomac River into Virginia. Madison spent the night near Great Falls, Virginia. On the morning of the twenty sixth he crossed the Potomac River by way of Conn's Ferry and continued in Maryland to Rockville, where he hoped to rendezvous with General William H. Winder and James Monroe, then Secretary of State. The President arrived too late to meet Winder's party in Rockville. With night approaching, The President and his men proceeded to Brookeville, easily accessible on the road the Washington, D.C., safe from the British, and home to some of the Presidents' social and political acquaintances.

    The British Are Coming

Three days before the President arrived in Brookeville, Margaret Bayard Smith was roused from sleep by a sharp rapping on the door of her family's home just outside Washington, D.C.[1] At the door, the Smiths discovered a family friend who, speaking in "a voice of agony," warned that the capital city was in danger of a British attack. Margaret's family had good reason to heed their friend's warning— Margaret's husband, Samuel Harrison Smith, was an early proprietor of the National Intelligencer, a newspaper which was avidly pro-war and a specific target of the British invaders.[2] The family wasted no time and fled their home at three o'clock Wednesday morning with a carriage and a wagon to carry their possessions. Almost ten hours later, the Smiths arrived in Brookeville, where they would find shelter for the next four days. Though Smith and her daughters at first found their flight to be a novel adventure, somberness soon set in as they began to understand the extent of the damage caused to the capital city on the night of August 24, 1814.[3]

Madison House
The house of Henrietta and Caleb Bentley, where President Madison spent the night in Brookeville, still stands today. Courtesy of Sandra Heiler.

Margaret Bayard Smith's family was just one of many that fled from Washington, D.C. to Brookeville, Maryland as the British army advanced upon the capital and the American troops, unprepared to defend Washington, retreated in haste. But unlike most of the people that camped around Brookeville in the summer of 1814, Smith penned a vivid account of her time in the town, providing a window for posterity to peer into this troubling time in America's history.

    Refuge in Brookeville

The Smiths found lodging at one of the largest homes in Brookeville- that belonging to Caleb Bentley and his wife, Henrietta. Caleb likely knew Samuel Smith and his family through business. The family "received a most kind reception... and excellent accommodations." Margaret found the town "romantic and beautiful... situated in a little valley totally embosom'd in woody hills, with a stream flowing at the bottom on which are mills." Smith quickly noticed something more important about Brookeville than its idyllic scenery: "in this secluded spot one might hope the noise, or rumour of war would never reach. Here all seems security and peace!"[4] Margaret and her family were not the only ones to receive advanced warning of the British threat to the capital city. In an effort to preserve valuable documents detailing our nation's earliest history, two Senate clerks hastily packaged invaluable Senate documents and carried them by wagon to Brookeville for safe-keeping days before the Battle of Bladensburg.[5]

On Wednesday, August 24, while Margaret and her family were enjoying Brookeville's beauty, chaos and panic were unfolding just twenty miles southeast. In an engagement near the town of Bladensburg, the American troops who stood between invading British forces and Washington retreated in confusion, leaving the nation's capital vulnerable to the enemy.[6] The peacefulness of Brookeville which Margaret so admired would shortly be broken as refugees from the city flooded into the town ahead of British vengeance. By nightfall, the victorious enemy had marched into the city and set fire to the Capitol building, the President's mansion, and other public buildings.[7]

Read about the history of the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington, D.C.

    Other Refugees Arrive

Brookeville was the first major town on the road that led directly to Washington D.C. Twenty-two miles away from the capital and situated on a well-kept post road, Brookeville was both safe and easy to reach.[8] Even public officials chose to shelter irreplaceable Senate documents in Brookeville until Washington was safe again.[9] Though the total number of families that passed through or stayed the night in Brookeville is impossible to determine, Margaret Bayard Smith noted on the night of August 25 that "the street of this quiet village, which never before witnessed confusion, is now fill'd with carriages bringing out citizens, and Baggage waggons [sic] and troops. Mrs. Bently's house is now crowded... I suppose every house in the village is equally full."[10]

Brookeville was also a convenient wayside stop for American soldiers and militiamen called to Baltimore to fend off the British there. Brookeville was located near the intersection of two roads which connected Rockville and western areas of the state with Baltimore. By August 25, a near-constant trickle of ragged soldiers and militiamen traveling in groups of two or three passed through Brookeville on their way to Baltimore. Smith observed the soldiers' passage: "every hour the poor wearied and terrified creatures are passing by the door. Mrs. Bentley kindly invites them in to rest and refresh."[11] One militia cavalry unit, which had been present at the battle of Bladensburg, stopped to rest in Brookeville on their journey north: Smith writes that "Major Ridgely's troop of horse all breakfasted in town, that not a man was left to breakfast in the tavern..."[12] Another company of cavalry even spent the night in town, pitching their tents near Richard Thomas Jr.'s mill, at the east end of town. The onslaught of soldiers in Brookeville was unusual for the peaceable Quakers in town. Henrietta Bentley explained to Smith that 'it is against our principles... to have anything to do with war, but we receive and relieve all who come to us.'"[13]

    The President Comes to Brookeville

President Madison
"James Madison - 4th President of the United States." A. Newsam, c. 1846. Library of Congress.

Even though Brookeville's homes, yards, and streets were saturated with refugees by sundown on Friday, August 26, the town's residents would need to make room for one more special visitor: the President of the United States.[14] The President arrived in Brookeville accompanied by General Mason, Attorney General Richard Rush, and American dragoons tasked with guarding the chief executive. Caleb and Henrietta Bentley welcomed Madison into their home. Margaret Bayard Smith's daughters witnessed the Presidents' arrival: "just at bedtime the Presd. had arrived and all hands went to work to prepare supper and lodgings for him, his companions and guards, - beds were spread in the parlour, the house was filled and guards placed round the house during the night." 

The officers traveling with the President were given Mrs. Bentley's private room. President Madison himself reportedly sat up all night in an armchair writing letters and conducting business.[15] Henrietta Bentley's granddaughter later recollected that the Sentinels guarding the President "had tramped around the dwelling all night and ruined rose bushes and       vegetables."[16] The President's presence in Brookeville was greeted with fascination from the residents and the refugees: "all the villagers, gentlemen and ladies, young and old, throng'd to see the President." Their chance to see Madison was brief. Just as hastily as he arrived, the President left around noon on Saturday for Washington, leaving Brookeville with a legacy that it would not soon forget.[17]

With Washington free of the British, Brookeville slowly emptied of its visitors. The Smith family left on Sunday morning, not knowing what state the British might have left their home and farm. Margaret was sad to leave her temporary home and the calm of Brookeville for the war-torn city. "All the inhabitants of this peaceful village sleep in peace. How silent! How serene! ... Oh my God, what a contrast is this repose of nature, to the turbulence of society."[18]

Megan O'Hern, 2014

  ← Return to Meet the People of Brookeville


  1. ^ The Smith family lived on a farm that was then about 3 miles outside Washington, D.C. Today, the Smith's property is part of present-day Catholic University. See C. Joseph Nuesse, The Catholic University of America: A Centennial History (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1990), p. 36.

  2. ^ Margaret Bayard Smith, The First Forty Years of Washington Society (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1906), 98-99.

  3. ^ Smith, The First Forty Years, 98-99.

  4. ^ Smith, The First Forty Years, 100.

  5. ^ Anthony S. Pitch, The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814 (Annapolis: Naval Institution Press, 1998), 45-46.

  6. ^ Joseph A. Whitehorne, The Battle for Baltimore 1814 (Baltimore: The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America, Inc., 1997), 127.

  7. ^ Pitch, The Burning of Washington, 99.

  8. ^ "Map of the United States: exhibiting the post-roads, the situations, connexions & distances of the post-offices, stage roads, counties & principal rivers," Abraham Bradley, Library of Congress, online, accessed 13 January 2014.

  9. ^ Pitch, The Burning of Washington, 46.

  10. ^ Smith, The First Forty Years, 104.

  11. ^ Smith, The First Forty Years, 101.

  12. ^ Smith is likely referring to Major Charles Sterret Ridgely of the 3rd District Cavalry of the Maryland Militia. He and a company of his horsemen were called to Annapolis and then to Bladensburg where they were likely in attendance. The cavalry did not actually fight at Bladensburg because the American infantry retreated quickly. After retreating from Bladensburg, Major Ridgely and his men might have first gone to Washington. From there they likely traveled to Brookeville. After resting in Brookeville, they traveled to a tavern in present-day College Park where they awaited orders. Smith, The First Forty Years, 101; "Battle of Bladensburg," Maryland Historical Magazine 5, no. 4 (1910): 341-349. MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Series A) Levin Winder to Maj. Charles Ridgely, 20 August 1814, Update about enemy's position and order to bring squadron to Annapolis [MSA S1004-132-213, MdHR 6636-98-213]; MARYLAND STATE PAPERS (Series A) Maj. Samuel Maynard to Levin Winder, 28 August 1814, Letter voicing concerns about Maj. Ridgely's squadron [MSA S1004-130-4, MdHR 6636-97-4]; Whitehorne, The Battle for Baltimore 1814, 135.

  13. ^ Smith, The First Forty Years, 104.

  14. ^ Whitehorne, The Battle for Baltimore 1814, 137-138.

  15. ^ J.D. Warfield, "President Madison's Retreat," The American Historical Register, Charles Henry Browning, ed., pp. 857-861.

  16. ^ "Centennial of the Sandy Spring Meeting House," p. 57 [MSA SC 5642-1-78].

  17. ^ Smith, The First Forty Years, 107-108.

  18. ^ Smith, The First Forty Years, 108.