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Mordecai Booth
By John Sharp


Mordecai Booth, a Forgotten Hero of the War of 1812

On 24 August 1814, as the victorious British army rapidly advanced toward the nation’s capital, an overwhelmed American army and militia fell back from a crushing defeat at Bladensburg. News of this defeat was evident everywhere as a dazed and confused citizenry began to abandon Washington. Amongst the chaos most residents looked to protect their property and family. In that disastrous August, Mordecai Booth, was an unlikely hero and an exception in the midst of the civic chaos, for he was one of the last defenders of the capital. Booth was an improbable man of action, unprepossessing, a 51 year old navy yard clerk with a large family to support and no military training. Yet, in a perilous moment while others ran, Booth chose to stay and volunteer for a hazardous scouting mission.

Mordecai Booth was born 10 October 1765 to William Booth and Elizabeth Aylett in Brunswick, Virginia. Booth was one of nine children brought up in the wealthy Virginia family. On 6 July 1788 in Williamsburg, Virginia, he married Clara Waller, young widow with six children. Together Clara and Mordecai had eight additional children. Young Booth trained as a clerk and worked in Williamsburg for his brother-in-law Samuel Beall, a prosperous businessman. Despite skill in accountancy and clerical matters, Booth proved poorly adapted to business.

Booth was a slaveholder with five slaves, but, was crippled by debt and appeared to his friends unable to sustain his large family of 14 children. The 1810 U.S. Census enumerates Mordecai Booth as residing in Winchester, Virginia. His household that year consisted of 9 white and 5 enslaved individuals.i As his economic distress became evident, influential relatives and friends wrote to President James Madison on his behalf, requesting the President appoint Booth to a position in the new government. One family member candidly acknowledged Booth: “by bad bargains, bad management & living in too expensive a style he has reduc’d his family to absolute beggary for indeed they have been chiefly supported by the bounty of his friends for some time past.”ii On 11 January 1812, Booth’s beloved wife Clara died at the family residence in Brunswick, Virginia.

On 26 June 1811, Booth was appointed clerk to Washington Navy Yard Commandant, Commodore Thomas Tingey, at a salary of $1,000.00 per annum; over three times that of the average mechanic.iii As Tingey’s clerk, Booth acquired a heavy workload; he prepared the navy yard correspondence, and kept the accounts. In August 1814, with most of his naval officers away, Commodore Tingey turned to Booth to supervise the removal of 100 barrels of gunpowder from the Washington Navy Yard to the farm of Daniel Dulany near Falls Church, Virginia, and its subsequent return to the magazine.iv To move the gun powder, Booth had to commandeer carts and give the extremely reluctant drivers (on his own authority), certificates of impressment. Booth as a civilian toiled at great personal risk as he scouted and reconnoitered British military movements and he was shot at. Later Booth helped Navy Yard Commandant Thomas Tingey and Marine Corps Commandant Wharton set fire to the yard, the frigate USS Columbia, the USS Argus, and a new schooner Lynx, for fear they would fall into British hands. Booth later described the awesome responsibility and agony of torching his workplace and all that had been built as well as the destruction of their own livelihoods. v

In September of 1814, Booth wrote a remarkable first person report to Commodore Tingey of his scouting activities, his precarious ride, narrow escapes, the state of the city as the British advanced, and other dramatic events he witnessed. Booth’s report justifies the Commodore’s actions, and stresses that Tingey and Wharton set the navy yard ablaze on the verbal orders of the Secretary of the Navy, and did so only after they had determined the critical naval facility was liable to fall to the enemy.

Following the war Booth resumed his duties at the burned out navy yard and helped the Commodore with the slow rebuilding process. In May 1815, Booth’s house on Virginia Ave was damaged by a fire.vi On 30 June 1819, Commodore Tingey forwarded a recommendation to the Board of Navy Commissioners for an assistant to Booth. On 25 Jan 1820, Commodore Tingey requested a raise for the hard working clerk, noting that he had asked the same the year prior, however, both requests were unsuccessful.vii

Over the years Booth’s many tasks had multiplied. These varied duties now included making out the navy yard’s monthly detailed payrolls, weekly returns, and acting as a requisitioning agent for supplies. Despite Booth’s wider responsibilities, the Navy Board again denied the Commodore’s request. viii During the 1820’s, Tingey’s age and illness began to limit his activities and Booth increasingly took over many of Tingey’s contracting duties and responsibilities. ix

One comfort and a source of pride for the ageing Booth was the presence of his son Master Commandant USN Benjamin Waller Booth. Appointed a midshipman in 1806, Benjamin W. Booth fought in the War of 1812 and was commended for his courage in the USS Wasp victory over the British ship HMS Frolic. Made a Master Commandant in 1820, Benjamin was assigned in 19 March 1825 to the Washington Navy Yard.x On 18 January 1827 in the early morning, a large fire began in a cabinet making shop and quickly spread placing the entire city of Alexandria in danger. The Secretary of the Navy directed the navy yard to provide assistance. Master Commandant Booth led 300 employees over miles of frozen grounds in 13 degree temperatures, dragging fire engines and hoses into Alexandria where they worked long hours to suppress a dangerous fire. Michael Shiner a twenty one year old enslaved man was one of those assigned to fight this fire and left a vivid account.xi The same year, Benjamin W. Booth assumed command of the USS Lexington, and departed the navy yard for a three year assignment in the Mediterranean.

Mordecai Booth’s last decade was one long litany of pain. During ten difficult years four of his daughters, Elizabeth Clara, Elizabeth Aylett, Martha Hall, and Sallie Smith died of pulmonary disease. Booth knew his son Benjamin also was ill with the same dread malady. He expressed his concern and worries in a letter to Secretary of the Navy on 21 December 1827. In his communication, Booth pleaded Benjamin be allowed to return from his long deployment in the Mediterranean. He explained to the Secretary, Benjamin like his sisters suffered from consumption (tuberculosis).xii Benjamin as a career naval officer was reluctant to acknowledge his condition. The illness unfortunately had progressed too far and Master Commandant Benjamin W. Booth died on 26 July 1828, and was buried far from home in the Episcopal Church yard in Gibraltar.xiii Benjamin’s death plunged the whole Booth family into mourning and left his wife and five children in financial distress.

In his last years Booth, like many slaveholders, was increasingly conflicted about slavery. Booth’s family and friends were strongly tied economically to “the peculiar institution” yet he apparently harbored some reservations. In 1819, for example, Booth went to great lengths to recover Ann Wormely (AKA Clara), a 16 year enslaved girl belonging to his daughter (see end note for reward notice), however the U.S. Census of 1820 and 1830 enumerate Mordecai Booth’s household with no slaves.xiv What happened to his five slaves is unclear. Booth like many slaveholders could barely conceive any of his bondsmen truly desired freedom instead Booth clung to the comforting notion that Ann was enticed away by free blacks: “As not cause is known for her going off, and she being a credulous thoughtless girl, it is believed the free blacks of the place have persuaded her to elope, under the idea of obtaining her freedom by going to Pennsylvania.”

For this decade Booth made no recorded manumissions; his five slaves may have been sold, or more likely as alluded to in his reward notice for Ann, given them to his children. Booth’s possible doubts regarding slavery were on display in March 1828, for Booth signed a memorial calling for the gradual compensated abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The increased hiring of slaves especially in the upper south had convinced many white residents that slavery was on its last legs and would soon be replaced by free labor. The petitioners remedy was a gradual and compensated emancipation of the enslaved followed by transportation to Africa. This idea was not new; Thomas Jefferson, proposed colonization as early as 1787 in his, Notes on The State of Virginia, and continued to advocate it throughout his long life. James Madison also endorsed the idea.xv Many of the petition signatories were slaveholders from the navy yard. Among this group were: master mechanics, William Easby, Thomas Lyndall, Robert Armistead, and James Owner, plus senior clerk Thomas Howard, and naval constructor, William Doughty. Blacks in Washington were for most part disdainful of this whole colonization scheme.xvi

Booth died on 15 February 1831. The cause of death is listed as “paralysis.” He is buried at the Congressional Cemetery grave site R -53 S2, and his grave is located close to that of Commodore Thomas Tingey, a man he had served so well.

In the District of Columbia, as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of August 1814, there is no published biography, statue or plaque to commemorate Mordecai Booth’s heroic action. Only Mordecai Booth’s Public House, a tavern on the Washington Navy Yard, bears his name but sadly no public access.xvii

Booth’s real legacy remains his after-action report to Commodore Thomas Tingey. In his report Booth provides his readers a detailed yet vivid description of Washington DC in peril, the burning of the White House and conflagration of his beloved navy yard with a matter of fact recounting of his own daring actions and accomplishments.

John G. Sharp

Concord, California 4 October 2013

Captain’s Clerk Mordecai Booth to Commodore Thomas Tingey dated 22 August 1814xviii

In pursuance to your instructions to me of this day, to procure Waggons to remove the powder from the Naval Magazine--I proceeded fourthwith, to the execution of your order, After borrowing the Horse of Thomas Murray Master Cooper of the Yard, in consequence of your, regret, at my being obliged to ride one of the public Horses of the yard, then so much wanted. (Murrays Horse was borrowed of his Wife).--

I was aware of the demand for Waggons,--from the alarm then created by the removal of Public, as well as, private property--and my direction was, to the Turnpike road leading into the City from Baltimore.-- I met with no waggons, but left directions at Longs Hotel on Capitol hill, that from four to five Waggons should be directed to the Navy Yard to you, Should that number pass, that would be disposed to engage in public employment. I then proceeded with an intention of going to Alexandria, but seeing a Waggon on the Pensylvania Avenue, I soon overtook it, it was driven by a black Man who called himself William Barnett, say'd he was a free man, and the team of five horses (which was a very good one). was his own, that he was from Baltimore, and loaded in part with Tea for R. Monroe of Geo: town, some Boxes for the City--Molasses for Alexa. and 25 boxes Candles.-- The Tea for Monroe, I made him lodge at Mc,Keowins Tavern, deliver his boxes for the City-- Gave him a Certificate of having employed him for the service of the Navy Department, & permitted him to proceed to Alexa. to deliver his Molasses &c: ordered his return to the Navy Yard--where he arrived in the evening, deposited the Candles for safe keeping, not having found the owner, reported himself, and regularly received into Service.--

Understanding several Waggons had passed on to Geo: town, and wishing to inform Mr. Monroe of the deposit of his Tea--I shaped my Course thither, On my Way, I overtook the Honbl. Wm: Jones, Secretary of the Navy-- he enquired where I was going-- I informed him of your Order, and was on my way to Geo: town in pursuit of waggons-- he asked me if you had waggons to dispatch provisions to Comdr. Barney, I replyed I did not believe you had-- he then ordered me to impress all I could get. I very soon met with the Waggons of George Vallandingham-- he plead he was engaged to Mr. Nourse to remove public papers-- he had nothing to shew to that effect--and I impressed him, and gave him a Certificate; at the moment I did it, Mrs. Nourse came to me, and claimed the waggon as being engaged by Mr. Nourse-- The Secretary at the time drove up, when an appeal was maid to him and on Mrs. Nourse pledging her Word, it was for the public service--was instructed by the Secretary, to release it--(tho Vallandingham promised he would return to me, as soon as he delivered the load.) The Secretary then directed me to respect only, Waggons that was engaged for the public, and to impress all others I could.-- I very Soon met with two Waggons in Geo: town from Baltimore, belonging to Virginia-- them I impressed and put under charge of Nicholas Queen-- I then impressed John Anderson from Winchester Virginia, who was engaged to Daniel Renner, of the firm of Renner and Heath for the purpose of removing their Cordage-- The younger Mr. Renner appeared in a violent passion on the occasion, but Renner the Partner of Heath, behaved most politely, he regreted the occurence--but Observed, private considerations must give way to the public good-- I gave Anderson a Certificate of impressment-- He soon unloaded, and went on to you-- I have Since been informed by you and himself, that he took a load of Provisions in--and reached the Camp that Night-- I could find no other Waggon in the town except one of three horses--that was engaged by the Bank of Columbia--and the Driver missing-- Mr. Wm: Whan Cashier, Assured me,--that Waggon, would expressly take papers that the Government were particularly interested in; as that Bank, did a large proportion of the public Business--of course, I left it--and proceeding into the City--met with the Waggon of Richd. Love; it was taking in a load of furniture-- A Black man was with it, who told me, he was loading for Doctr. Sims-- the waggon was a little distance from the Doctrs. House-- I went to see the Doctr. to have the load put out-- he was from home, his Lady was at the door-- her distress was great indeed-- I returned to the Waggon to do my duty, when on examining the Waggon, I found one of the tire broke, and the Wheel ready to break down-- Mr. Renner was passing-- he examined the Waggon, and with myself concluded, it was not fit for use--consequently left it-- I soon met with another and taking it in charge, was proceeding by the Navy Department where I found the two Waggons impressed in Geo: town, and put under Charge of Mr. Queen-- they had been stop'd by Thos: Turner Esqr. Acctnt. of the Navy Deptnt. who advised me they would be wanted to remove papers of the Department--and spoke to the Secretary for his concurrance-- before he gave his assent--he enquired of me, how many Waggons I had got, on observing--three others; Then Sir, (he Say'd) let the two remain, and the three can load in the provisions; and get as many more as you can-- on returning to the opposite Side of the house--the waggon I had left, had run-- I mounted my Horse to persue it-- in passing around the Presidents Wall, I met with Seven Waggons loaded for Geo: town, from Baltimore, two only were impressed, they by Mr. Washington Booie-- the Other five I impressed-- and finding I might run the risque of loosing them, to persue the one that had run thought it the better way to go to Geo: town, and hurry their unloading.-- While they were discharging their loads, I rode through the Streets, and found three Waggons loading in private property--One of them for Rigs and Badon-- A White man was with the Waggon--who refused at the instance of Rigs, to tell his name, [n]or could lern it, the waggon was drove by a Black man-- I told the white man, I impressed the Waggon for and on account of the Navy Department--on which Rigs swore, I should not take it, at the risque of his life--

Wm. Ridgley was on the pavement, who also made use of language, Justifying & incourageing Rigs to opposition They went into the Store, I dismounted and followed them in-- When they made use of such language, as was degrading to gentlemen--I had no one with me to inforce the detention of the Waggon-- And it was hurried off, in opposition to my positive command to the contrary-- and except I had used violence, could not have prevented it--in which, I did not think myself justified.-- The second Waggon, was without a driver, he being absent--and while I was hunting him, the waggon was hurried off.-- The third, I gave a regular Certificate of impressment to, but the Waggon being without a Cover--and the Waggoner assuring me, he was only to carry the load a few miles into the Country; and as he could get his tent, & feed, by going home, and would be at the Navy Yard the Next day, by ten O'Clock; I consented to his going-- he you have since informed me, never reported himself.-- His Name is Michael Conley, and lives in Mt,Gomery County, not far from George Town. The five Waggons, to wit Thomas Wade, three Negroes under his Charge, & Thomas Cowthon, I arrived with, a little before sun set-at the Yard.--

Tuesday 23rd. To day I was in the yard before sun-rise--and proceeded to have the Teams appraised &c: and as Soon as practicable, got off Thos: Cowthon and Wm. Barnett with provisions for Commdr. Barney.-- The Other four--Wade and the three Negroes--I caused to go to the Magazine, where they were loaded with one hundred and twenty four Barrels, and two quarter Casks of Powder. Being without a Horse--and having to attend to the Securing the Powder, and understanding that Murry had objected to his Wife's lending his horse-and finding him in his Stable, I impressed him, with a Saddle and Bridle.-- Before I left the City, I impressed the Waggon & team of four horses, of John Bair an old Dutchman--to whom I gave a Certificate of impressment, and got him into the Yard. I then followed the Waggons with the powder, and overtook them before they cross'd the Potomac Bridge. On the South side, and as I was about to ascend the ridge from the Causeway, I met Colo. Minors Redgment of Fairfax Militia-- The Colo. recommended six persons as a competent guard to take charge of the powder, and that night, I reached Wrens tavern at the falls Church, late at night, within one mile of the farm of Daniel Dulany Esqr. where the powder was to be deposited.This Night a little before day, Captn. Smallwood & family, with my Daughters and Son.--reached Wrens-- The Acct: given me of the retreat of our troops, and the advance of the British, and the consternation of the Citizens--was to me truly distressing; but the Seeing my Children out of the reach of a ferocious and vandal enemy--was delight indeed.-- And Now Sir! Permit me to pause--Untill I return you the warmest thanks of a grateful Heart, for the attention you paid to my unprotected Children in my absence--on public duty.-- To your goodness, they owe their escape from a Sceen, the Most to be regreted of my life.-- you can never be rewarded, beyond, the Sensations of a pure heart, and a sound mind--the Attribute of an all wise being, so bounteously bestowed on you.-- ....

CAPTAIN'S CLERK MORDECAI BOOTH TO COMMODORE THOMAS TINGEY

[Extract]

Wednesday 24th.--Desireous of having the powder delivered and under a guard, I was on my horse at the dawn of day, and ordered the waggons to geer up, and follow me; on geting to the Farm, I found Seventy five barrels of Powder had been deposited--the Barn in which it was Open, and much out of order-- I went to the House of Mr. Dosier Bennett a respectable Citizen, recommended by Colo. Minor, in whoom I might confide, for its care; he Agreed to have my orders attended to, and to have collected, a competent guard; on my stipulating to Allow him, two dollars Pr. day for his services, and one & a half dollars, for each person employed to aid him; untill I could relieve them, by sending a guard over; which Colo: Wharton had promised me should be done-- As soon as I had completed my orders, and directed the Waggons to hasten their return to the City--I set out to attend you.-- On reaching the Navy Yard, I was told you had gone in the direction of the lower Eastern branch Bridge.-- I found on reaching the Commons, the rear of the Army in motion, but was ignorant of its Movements-- On geting in view of the door of the house lately Occupied by the Revd: A: Hunter; I saw the Gig of the Secretary of the Navy, a number of horses, and several horsemen.-- Thinking I might find you there, as from appearances the assemblage was, the heads of Departments and General Officers &c: I rode up-- I saw the President of the U:S. through the Window. I inquired for you, an officer requested my name--and went in to see if you were there, he returned & informed me, you were not, & I went on to the bridge; on reaching it--saw you on it; I dismounted, and in approaching you, Met Commodore Barney and Captn. Creighton-- receiving your orders to have the Waggons again loaded with powder, I returned to the Yard--prepaired some certificates for the Waggons--left the Office, and went to your house, to know your Commands, if you wished me to attend to any thing particularly-- The Secretary of the Navy was then in his Gig at your door-- You had no order for me, and I passed on, to get my dinner-- While Dining, was told an action was pending-- the first intimation, that one was expected-- I was scarcely up from the table, before the four Waggons arrived--And I was giving them orders to proceed direct to the Magazine, when the retreat of our Army was pronounced.--and in the direction to the Potomac Bridge; Waggons and Men; were seen flying in the utmost confusion-- those receiving my orders, waited not a moment; but fled with all precipitation-- I went to my house lock'd my doors, and ran to the Yard, where I found you, and tendered my Services-- What was my astonishment! on being informed by you, that, in the event of a retreat, or defeat, and the Yard could not be defended--You had orders to fire it.-- And as you was left without defence--I could remain & assist in the execution of the order-- I had put my Horse in the Stable, and determining he should not be lost, I went to the Stable & Saddled him, on bringing him out, I saw Mr. A: Thornton (overseer of laborers) who appeared to be leaving the yard-- to him I intended giving the charge of the Horse; but, reflecting that, my horse was a good one (before he had taken him) and thinking I might be useful in reconnoitreing; and not knowing you had received any communication from the Secretary of War, I proposed going in Serch of intelligence; At which you appeared well pleased.-- Then Colo. Wharton and Captn. Crab were in the Yard-- The British Army were momently expected--and as I mounted my horse, was told that the whistling of the balls, had been distinctly heard at the Marine Barracks; Which you heard, as well as myself-- I passed the commons, and to the turn-pike Gate; commanding a View of the Hills beyond the Gate, I saw not the Appearance of an Englishman-- But Oh! my Country--And I blush Sir! to tell you--I saw the Commons Covered with the fugitive Soldiery of our Army--runing, hobling, Creaping, & appearently pannick struck--One solitary company Only, (a) that was formed-- I was told the Army had rallied at the Capitol-- thither I intreated all I passed, that could point a Bayonet, to haste. Finding there was no persuing Army, I confess, I did believe, and that belief expressed to you, on my return to you--That there had not been a General defeat, but that, some gallent spirits had sustained the Action, and had checked our foe-- With this impression--I received your order to go to the Capitol, for intelligence.-- I went but found only men who had been dispersed, resting--Principally I concieved, Barneys Flotilla Men-- The Citizen-Militia had Chiefly taken refuge at their houses--as I saw Officers, as well as men at their doors-- It did not appear to me, that any Officer ranking a Captain, was at the Capitol; or more than from 250 to 300 Men. Captn. Bacon of Marines, and Captn. Gohagan of Barneys flotilla, were the only Officers I knew-- they seemed to be setling which should command. I was told the Army had gone to the hights of Geo: town, this I could not credit; it had in appearance, Something too dastardly, to be believed by me--And I again went in view of the turn pike Gate, and Commanding a view of the hights in every direction-- No enemy had yet Approached--and my belief being strengthened by that circumstance; that we were not entirely driven; and our Army, or that Part of it, that deserved the Name of Soldiers, was Still between the City and Bladensburg, I again returned to you to make my report.-- When on my way, I saw a portion of the Eastern Branch Bridge Blown, into Splintery fragments, in the Air-- At the Moment of my return to you, I heard a Communication Made by a Young Officer, that the British Army was in full force in the City.-- And that, they had reached the Capitol, or were approaching it-- this I knew to be incorrect, and indignant at the Communication--and my ardour and Zeal, alive to the public Good--And fearing you would fire the Yard, prematurely--Was induced to express myself in language, few Considerations but, my Countrys Honour and Welfair would have prompted me to.--- And Now Sir! be assured, it was not from disrespect to You; But from my Knowledge of you-- Which I now unhesitateingly declare in my Opinion to be, devotedly and truly attached to this, Your Country. Possessing undaunted bravery, and a Mind cooly deliberate--I can but believe that, had you been left entirely to the "Suggestions of your own Mind" and could have had the ordering the troops--or at least a part of them, the result of this Unfortunate 24th. Augst: would have been far different. Unfortunately "the Navy Yard could not be covered"-- It had not been recollected that, in the event of a retreat--Barneys Flotilla Men, could be useful in the Yard-- it was forgotten that the Argus &c: &c: had their guns expressly Mounted for the protection of this desireable depot of Public property & Wealth-- Thither they had not been ordered to repair and rally-- NO Sir! Fate had decreed that--with the Capitol it should be an Additional Monument of our Countrys disgrace and dishonour--And Alike, to exhibit one general Chaos of tumbling ruins.-- Wheather it was for want of Military Means, or military Sience and knowledge in the Commanding General--Or miscreant treachery in designing its fall, time may Never develope-- This all will agree in--that the Stain can never be blotted from the recollection of Americans.--

But to return--On offering to reconnoitre the British Army--(after giving way to my feelings) that confidence which you appeared to repose in me, by the declaration that, you would depend on the intelligence I gave you; that you would pospone the execution of your Order to the last moment--and that your life and reputation should rest on the correctness of that intelligence, induced me to determine at the hazard of my life, to assertain, where the British Army was, to assertain to a Certainty if they had not been checked--or where the American Army was, and if likely to make a stand by which the City might be saved. I had left the Yard but a few minutes before I was in view of the Turnpike Road leading from Bladensburg--(I had passed Colo. Tatum)--and scarcely in view before I saw a Man on horseback coming over the hill beyond the gate--in full speed-- A Waggon had been left about half way down the hill-- the Man came as far as the Waggon--then turned, rode to the top of the hill, and turned to the left in the Woods, I saw no other person, and pushed on, passed the gate, and at Some distance saw John Davis (brother of Shadrack) & Mr. Ivie, in the field to the right, but at the fence-- They had Seen no British pass the hill--and enquired where I was going-- as I reply'd, we saw a man pass the hill in full Speed, he was whiping his Horse at every jump-- I galloped on & met him-- he stoped and told me he had seen the British Army & where they were; that he was from Geo: town, was a Butcher, & had gone voluntarily to gain information for the People of his Town-- he Offered to turn about, and Shew me where they were--and did.-- On geting on the top of the hill, he took me along a blind road to the left, the way he had before gone into A field--(for he was the Man I had seen come over the hill to the Waggon) The ground was open for a great distance--and on a Hill to the left of the Road beyond the Farm House of Serjant-Major Forrest, he Shewed me a Column of Men--They Appeared to me to be dressed in Blue or dark cloaths-- I saw distinctly many red Coats--But took them for the drummers and fifers-- Tho Miller (for that was the name of the man with me) insisted they were the Officers-- I proposed to him to keep the ridge untill the sun, then near siting, might more distinctly favor our view, on proceeding some distance, I believed them to be American troops-- Having seen a Company file off, that I took to be the Geo: town Rifle-Men-- The Circumstance Alone of not having seen persons conveying intelligence of the Check--(if checked) of the British, made me doubt at all-- However, I determined to gain a hight that I think was within 300 Yards of them, where I expected also, to have had a distinct view of the advancing Company-- I had to pass a fence before I reached the hill, on geting to it, there was a gap, the rails scattered in every direction, Miller got down & opened it.-- I bid him remain there-- before I had reached the top of the hill, he called to me, I heard him, & looking round, he beckoned Several times; I still went on, he Mounted his Horse and Strained after me--and hallooing told me, he had seen several men run off into some bushes, that he expected, designed to pick me off-- I had gained the summit of the hill, but a Corn field being between the Hill and Road, I could See nothing of the Company that had filed off-- I saw the Men as they left the bushes, runing towards me, but Galloping off--before they Gained the hill, I was (I thought) pretty well out of their reach, I saw two assend it, and of them, one only, fired. Miller then asked me, if I did not think that proof? And thinking the Company that appeared to be advancing, might interupt our return, we kept the field, passed down the meadows, at the head of the Tiber, through Mrs. Casinaves plantation, and out near the Capitol, and then went in View of the Turnpike gate-- The British had not passed the hill, then Sundown--as I passed on, I again Saw Davis & Ivey, coming in-- I found you at the Navy Yard Gate--and told you I would make my report, if it met your approbation, before Colo. Wharton-- my reason was, that, you and the Colo. hearing My Report, if you fired the Yard, you might be justified-- The Colo. was not with you, and you having Sent Sergeant Stickney to look for him.--He returned and reported the Colo. had left the Yard.-- Captn. Haraden being present, I reported as here Stated-- You Observed that, every thing was ready--but as Captn. Creighton had gone out to assertain where the Army was, you would wait his Return-- Miller had assured me, they had passed through Geo: town--

Desireous of knowing positively myself, I proposed to you, my going as far as the Presidents House, where I expected, were the Executive--by which I might assertain by some one to be relied on, what was the fact, and if any thing was to be done--or could meet Captn. Creighton-- you assented--and when I reached the Jersey Avinue below Mr. Carrols; I met Mr. Walter Cox--Cornet in Coldwells troop of horse-- He told me he had left the Army at Tenley town--And I informed him where the British were-- he went with me as far as the Presidents House-- A Horseman in Uniform, appearantly a field officer, was at the Steps-- I ask'd him his Name-- He Seem'd much Agitated, was About to draw a pistol from his holster--when on observing--I perceived he was an American as well as myself, and requesting him, not to be flurried--that my object was to gain correct information of our Army; he informed me his Name was Tatum (who I recognized, to have seen in the evening, near the Turn-pike gate) and he returned his Pistol, on my mentioning, my wanting information to convey to you.

On Mr. Cox's coming up, (who was behind, having stop'd on meeting some acquaintance) and asking if any person was within--The Colo. reply'd he expected not; for he had Called John, and was not answered-- Mr. Cox desired his Servant to dismount and ring the Bell-- The Colo. made the Servt. hold his Horse, Dismounted--went up the steps, pulled the Bell several times with much violence--Knocked at the Door, and called John-- But all was as silent as a Church.--

Colo. Tatum made some observations of having had it in his power, to have taken the British General, got hold of Mr. Coxes hand, and wished to detain him in conversation, but on my observing we must not be detained; he left the Colo. and we wrode off.-- Then, and not untill then, was my mind fully impressed that, the Matropelis of our Country was abandoned to it's horrid fate. We had not proceeded far on the Pensylvania Avinue, before we Overtook Captn. Creighton, when I lernt that, no further Opposition was to be expected. At the Tiber Bridge we met William Smith of Coldwells Troop; Mr. Cox turned him back, on telling him, they would return together to the Camp; after going to the Navy Yard. Mr. Cox proposed on our geting to Capitol hill, to pass to the North end of the Capitol, that we might see if anyone was there; we saw not One Soul. We went on in the direction of Tomblinsons Hotel--When about midway between that and Longs, Mr. Cox (we being in front) laid himself on his horses neck (it being sometime in the Night) as if observing something; I thought, he was looking at, what I took to be Cows; He observed he saw the Cows, but he also saw men advancing: they were riseing from the Hollow direct in front of Longs-- we advanced untill within forty yards or less, when they began to display-- I gave the reins to my Horse, and Captn. Creighton followed me-- Cox & Smith & Cox's Servant, came to the right about-- We were fired on by the party-- I passed Carrols long row of Buildings--turned by the Revd. A: M'Cormicks--and with the Jersey Avenue, to the Virginia Avenue & to the Navy Yard--Captn. Creighton keeping with Me-- We Made a report Accordingly You then determined to fire the Yard--And Asked Captn. Creighton and Myself, if we would keep our horses, or take a Seat with you in your Boat-- Captn. Creighton determined on going with you-- My Horse was too good a One to be lost, I obtained your permission to relye on him When you told me to take care of Myself & horse, and bade me farewell; turned yourself to the Lanthorn, drew out your watch, & observed it was Twenty minutes after eight.-- I left you only to return to my Children-- I passed from the Yard by the 20 Buildings, and by Mrs. Younge to the Potomac Bridge-- The South draw was up-- I had it put down--and was scarcely over, before I saw the flames of the Yard--and had but reached the levil beyond the Causeway, before I saw a Considerable explosion, which I conceived was the Ordnance Store-- But possibly, was the one at Greenleafs Point--as I Saw very Soon after the flames at the Fort, at that Place-and by the time I reached the Hill which did not exceed fifteen Minutes--I saw the Capitol in flames--(tho I had seen lights within, while on the Bridge.) This I had no doubt, was the work of the British.-- A sight, so repugnant to my feelings, so dishonourable; so degrading to the American Character, and at the Same time, so Awful--Almost palsied my facultyes.--

Finding many of the Citizens at Owin's on the hill, of Which a large portion were Women and Children--I remained from--two and a half, to three hours--viewing the tumbling Ruins--and about Midnight reach'd Wren-- where I found my Children-- ....xix

Captains Clerk Mordecai Booth writes to Secretary of the Navy, Samuel L. Southard to plea for the return of his son Master Commandant Benjamin Waller Booth to the United States.

On 21 October 1827, Mordecai Booth (1765-1831) wrote Secretary of the Navy Samuel L. Southard pleading for the early return of his son, Master Commandant Benjamin Waller Booth (1790-1828) to the United States.i The writer was a hero of the War of 1812, and longtime resident of the District Columbia. Since 1809 Booth had been clerk to Commodore Thomas Tingey at the Washington Navy Yard. His son Benjamin W. Booth was appointed a Midshipman in 1806, and fought in the War of 1812 where young Booth was commended for his courage in the USS Wasp victory over the British ship HMS Frolic. After the war Booth remained in the service and was made a Master Commandant in 1820. On 19 March 1825 he was reassigned from duty in the Mediterranean to the Washington Navy Yard, (probably for reason of health) where he was able to work near his father.ii On 18 January 1827 in the early morning, a large fire began in a cabinet making shop and quickly spread placing the entire city of Alexandria in danger. The Secretary of the Navy directed the navy yard to provide assistance. Master Commandant Booth successfully led 300 employees over miles of frozen grounds in 13 degree temperatures, dragging fire engines and hoses into Alexandria where they worked long hours to suppress a dangerous fire. Michael Shiner, a twenty-one year old enslaved man was one of those assigned to fight this fire and left a vivid account of Booth’s leadership.iii The same year, Benjamin W. Booth assumed command of the USS Lexington, and departed the navy yard for a three year assignment in the Mediterranean.

Benjamin’s departure for the Mediterranean left the elder Booth gravely concerned because for over ten difficult years, four of Booth’s daughters: Elizabeth Clara, Elizabeth Aylett, Martha Hall, and Sallie Smith, had all died of pulmonary disease. Booth knew his son Benjamin also was ill with the same dread malady. He expressed his concern and worries in this letter to Southard. He explained that Benjamin, like his sisters, suffered from “pulmonary affliction” or what is today tuberculosis.iv Tuberculosis was a cause of widespread public concern in early Washington, D.C. It was commonly thought of as a disease of the urban poor, yet about 25% of all deaths were caused by this dreaded malady.v The physicians of the day did their best but simply had a limited knowledge of the disease and no cure.vi Early medical treatments for tuberculosis consisted of frequent bloodletting, cupping, and administration of laudanum which for the most part only weakened the patient.vii Benjamin Waller Booth as a career naval officer, was probably reluctant to acknowledge his condition to his superiors, and it is unclear if he ever officially requested relief and return to the United States. Sadly his illness had progressed too far and Master Commandant Benjamin W. Booth died on 26 July 1828. He was buried far from home in the British Episcopal Church yard in Gibraltar.viii Benjamin’s death plunged his father and the entire Booth family into mourning. His early death left his wife and five children in financial distress.

Transcription: This transcription was made of a digital image from the National Archives and Records Administration. In transcribing I have striven to adhere as closely as possible to Booth’s original in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and abbreviation, including the retention of dashes and underlining. My thanks and appreciation goes once again to Archives Specialist, Chis Killillay for his help and assistance in locating this document.

Source: Mordecai Booth to Secretary of the Navy dated 21 May 1827 RG 45 NARA.


John G. Sharp Concord California

November 21, 2013

==============================================================

Navy yard Washington 21st Dec 1827

Sir

 

The information derived from the receipt of the enclosed letter from Doctr. John Denny, of the 11th Oct. last, from the Gulph of Smyrna; induces me address you feeling It a duty as a Father, and which I deem a sufficient apology for my letter.

When my son was in the Mediterranean last in the command of his health became so bad to get to leave that station, & return to the United States - and on getting home , was so reduced & his breast so weak, that there was much doubt, weather he would ever recover well. Here he appeared to have regained his health and with pleasure and promptitude he received & obeyed the Order of the Department, to take Command of the U. States Sloop of War Lexington for the Mediterranean Service - Again I fear he is threatened with a pulmonary affliction - And having lost four Daughters with that dead disease; you may easily imagine, the alarm of a parent, on receipt of a letter, such as the one enclosed.

May I be favored with Information from the Department Whether, any communications have been received Capt. Benj. W. Booth, requesting to be relieved from Command of the Lexington, & permitted to return home as suggested by Doctr. Denny - & whether if there has,, what is the decision of the Department - for I fear that , if he does not speedily return from those seas – A little while , and I shall have no son in the Navy, one lost, the pride of his Father, the other threatened with a most alarming complaint , the main stay of a Parents hopes -

If Sir, you have not already recalled him, suffer a Father to plead for the life of a son, and ask you to it forthwith or a short delay away be for too late to save a life so dear to his aged parent – to a beloved wife & Children -& I trust is of some importance to his County - whose honor, he has faithfully endeavored to maintain –


I have the honor to be

Be pleased to cause

the enclosed to be returned

M. B. Very respectfully

Sir your Obedt. Servt.

Mordecai Booth [signed]


Hon. Saml. L. Southard

Secretary of the Navy

================================================================

End Notes

iMy thanks to the Captains Clerk A Library of Congress online historical collection for alerting me to the existence of this letter http://www.captainsclerk.info/archives/nams/letters_docs/m0124.html

ii Officers of the Continental and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps 1775 -1900 Naval History and Heritage Command http://www.history.navy.mil/books/callahan/reg-usn-c.htm

iii Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard ,editor John G. Sharp pp.18-19, http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/shinerdiary.html

Orders came from the navy Department the same moring from Honable secatary of the navy samul southard to the commanding officer of the Washinton navy yard comerder thomas tingey to send every Mercanic and labors and engines out of the yard and every man that were Wher able to travel and orders Wher obeied promptly by comander tin say and the men Wher dispatched in Double quick time and the people of Washington and george town Went hand to hand to assist them in putting fiers out the mecanics Wanted to put the engines over By the shears and take them down on the ice but Captin Walter Booth stop them and taken a round over the long Bridge by horse and hand they [had] one engine in the yard now that broke down 2 Befor We got ther and they wher no time DeladeWhat ever for the oficers caried us in a half canter and a dog trot Comerder thomas Tinray [Thomas Tingey] Commandeid Washington Navy yard Went Down to alexdrania that day Captin Walter Booth sectiond in command went Down to alxdrania that day colal archable henderson Went down that day Which wher a commander of the united Staets Merines Core Lieutenant Henry R Tyler caried down that day a Detachment of the united States Merines down to alex drania (He) carid them Down in Double quick time Purser Mr timothy Wind Went down to alexanria that day Colnal Wiliam Doughty the naval contractor went Down that day the master Builder James owner sr went Down and sailing master edward Barry went down that day Boats swain David eaton Went down that day to alexdranina and Mr William Speedon went down that day which at that time was clerk to Mr Wind the purser all the Master Workmen and Mechanics and Laborers of all classes went down that day a circumstance accrued between sailing master edward Barry and a colled man by the name thomas pen ton [penton] didnt conduct himseve so Well When we wher a coming home and Mr Barry gave him a repramand and it apears that tom pen gave him some insolents and Mr Barry when got home he reported him to captin Booth friday the 19 day of January 1827


iv Mordecai Booth to Secretary of the Navy 21 May 1827 NARA microfilm roll 112 Vol. 3 (July 2  December 31, 1827).

v Bower, Paul S. editor The Oxford Companion to United States History, Oxford University Press: New York 2001, p.786.

vi Howe, Daniel Walker, What Hath God Wrought The Transformation of America , 1815 -1848, Oxford University Press: New York, 2007, p.473.

vii Byer, Carol A. Biographies of Disease Tuberculosis, Greenwood Press: Santa Barbara, 2010

viii Alexandria Gazette, p.3 13 September 1828

i ENDNOTES

Issac Hite to James Madison 22 February 1809 http://founders.archives.gov/?q=Mordecai%20Booth&s=1111311111&sa=&r=1&sr=

Bell Grove Feb 22, 1809

Dr. Sir

This will be handed to you by Mr. Mordecai Booth whose object in his present visit to Washington city is to obtain some appointment under the government from the proceeds of which to support his family which consists of a wife & eight chldren. Waller his eldest child fortunately is provided for in the navy. Mr. Booth married a widow Travis who was daughter to Ben Waller Esqr. decd.

They set out in life in very independent circumstances & altho’ Mr. Booth was always a very sober man & far from gambling or other dissipated courses yet by bad bargains, bad management & living in too expensive a style he has reduc’d his family to absolute beggary for indeed they have been chiefly supported by the bounty of his friends for sometime past.

He was bred up in Saml. Beall’s counting house at Wmsburg. & from that circumstance I suppose he is acquainted with accts.

To be made acquainted with these facts will I am sure be a sufficient inducement with you to lend him your aid in obtaining some appointment to relieve him & a worthy family from a most distressful situation.

Offer my kindest respects to Mrs. Madison in which you will include Mrs. H & Nelly’s, & accept yourself the best wishes of yr. friend

Also se letter Ludwell Lee to James Madison dated 24 June 1811 http://founders.archives.gov/?q=Mordecai%20Booth&s=1111311111&sa=&r=2&sr=

A relation & friend of mine, Mr. Mordecai Booth of Winchester, wishing to get a place now vacant in the department of war; in the disposal, as he says, of Mr. Simmons; has requested of me to mention his wishes to you.… I hope I do not presume, too much on our acquaintanceship, to ask this favor of you.” Adds that Booth is qualified for the position.

ii Washington Navy Yard Payroll May 1819 http://genealogytrails.com/washdc/WNY/wny1819payroll.html

iii 1810 U.S. Census enumerates Mordecai Booth as residing in Winchester Virginia family consists of 9 white and 5 enslaved individuals.

iv Brown, Gordon, The Captain Who Burned His Ships: Captain Thomas Tingey, USN, 1750-1829, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis 2011, p.128.

v Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington the British Invasion of 1814, Naval Institute Press: Annapolis, 1998, pp.101 -10.

vi The Washington Directory, editor Judah Delano , William Duncan: Washington, 1822,p.18. re fire Evening Star, July 11, 1911, p. 9. Article by James Crogan

vii Thomas Tingey to Secretary of the Navy, 25 Jan 1820 M125

viii Thomas Tingey to Board of Navy Commissioners 30 June 1819 E314 vol 73

ix Tingey to BNC 28 Sept 1825 “ Booth has been busy doing this in addition to his usual duties due to my late indisposition.” (E314 v 79)

x Officers of the Continental and U.S. Navy and Marine Corps 1775 -1900 Naval History and Heritage Command http://www.history.navy.mil/books/callahan/reg-usn-c.htm

xi Diary of Michael Shiner Relating to the History of the Washington Navy Yard ,editor John G. Sharp pp.18-19, http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/shinerdiary.html

Orders came from the navy Department the same moring from Honable secatary of the navy samul southard to the commanding officer of the Washinton navy yard comerder thomas tingey to send every Mercanic and labors and engines out of the yard and every man that were Wher able to travel and orders Wher obeied promptly by comander tin say and the men Wher dispatched in Double quick time and the people of Washington and george town Went hand to hand to assist them in putting fiers out the mecanics Wanted to put the engines over By the shears and take them down on the ice but Captin Walter Booth stop them and taken a round over the long Bridge19 by horse and hand they [had] one engine in the yard now that broke down 2 Befor We got ther and they wher no time DeladeWhat ever for the oficers caried us in a half canter and a dog trot Comerder thomas Tinray [Thomas Tingey] Commandeid Washington Navy yard Went Down to alexdrania that day Captin Walter Booth sectiond in command went Down to alxdrania that day colal archable henderson Went down that day Which wher a commander of the united Staets Merines Core Lieutenant Henry R Tyler caried down that day a Detachment of the united States Merines down to alex drania (He) carid them Down in Double quick time Purser Mr timothy Wind Went down to alexanria that day Colnal Wiliam Doughty the naval contractor went Down that day the master Builder James owner sr went Down and sailing master edward Barry went down that day Boats swain David eaton Went down that day to alexdranina and Mr William Speedon went down that day which at that time was clerk to Mr Wind the purser all the Master Workmen and Mechanics and Laborers of all classes went down that day a circumstance accrued between sailing master edward Barry and a colled man by the name thomas pen ton [penton] didnt conduct himseve so Well When we wher a coming home and Mr Barry gave him a repramand and it apears that tom pen gave him some insolents and Mr Barry when got home he reported him to captin Booth friday the 19 day of January 1827

xii Mordecai Booth to Secretary of the Navy 21 May 1827 NARA microfilm roll 112 Vol. 3 (July 2  December 31, 1827).

xiii Alexandria Gazette, p.3 13 September 1828

xiv American and Commercial Advertiser Baltimore 21 January 1819

100 Dollar Reward

Absconded from the possession of the Subscriber, Tuesday night the 6th inst., a likely mullato girl, about 16 years of age, whose name was CLARA, the property of a daughter. It is possible she may change her name, and call herself Ann or Anna Wormely, as it is understood she has caused herself to be christened a second time and taken that name. She is stout made of ordinary height full face with bushy hair, which she puts up with a comb, has no marks, about her that are recollected by which she can be particularly described. She took with her a variety of clothing consisting of domestic cotton gingham, cambric and muslin, a cloth dyed rather a dingy or muddy purple and a green silk bonnet.

As not cause is known for her going off, and she being a credulous thoughtless girl, it is believed the free blacks of the place have persuaded her to elope, under the idea of obtaining her freedom by going to Pennsylvania, she having been heard to ask questions leading to the suspicion. All persons are cautioned against harboring her as the law will be rigidly enforced against anyone who does. It is probable she has gone to Baltimore, in hope of reaching Pennsylvania as it is believed she has acquaintances who sometimes reside there. Whoever takes up said girl, and has her committed to any jail within 30 miles of Washington 30 dollars – If taken in Baltimore or any greater distance than 30 miles within the State of Maryland 50 dollars and if within Philadelphia or in any state in the Union a distance of over 100 miles from Washington and committed to jail so that she can had the reward of 100 dollars.

MORECAI BOOTH

xvThomas Jefferson, Writings ed. Merrill D. Peterson., New York: The Library of America, 1984, p.264, and see Jefferson to Jared Sparks, 4 February 1824, p.1484and James Madison, Writings ed. Jack N. Rackove., New York: The Library of America, 1999, p.728-733 Madison to Robert J. Evans 15 June 1819. Madison provides encouragement to Evans re a proposed colonization project, but cautions not to publically refer to his name. Like Presidents, Jefferson and Madison, Senator Henry Clay also a slaveholder, championed the idea and briefly served as President of the African Colonization Society, see Henry Clay, The Essential American New York: Random House, 2010, p.131 -132.

xviJournal: 1st-13th Congress. Repr. 14th Congress, 1st Session - 50th, United State. Congress, December 1, 1834. Gale and Seaton: Washington DC, p. 344.

Hibben, Henry B. Navy-yard, Washington: History from Organization, 1799, to Present Date Washington: Government Printing Office, 1890, p.71.

xviii Crawford, Michael J., Christine F. Hughes, Charles E. Brodine, Jr., and Carolyn M. Stallings eds. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Vol. III, 1814-1815, Chesapeake Bay, Northern Lakes, and Pacific Ocean, Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2002 pp. 202 -205 and 208 -214. NARA citation: Mordecai Booth Captain’s Clerk to Commodore Thomas Tingey, 22 August 1814; ALS, DNA , RG 45, Naval Shore Establishments, 1814 -1911; PC -30, Entry 350; Washington Navy yard; Reports on the Removal of Powder from the Yard at the Time of the British Invasion of Washington, August – September 1814.

xixCrawford, Michael J., Christine F. Hughes, Charles E. Brodine, Jr., and Carolyn M. Stallings eds. The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History, Vol. III, 1814-1815, Chesapeake Bay, Northern Lakes, and Pacific Ocean, Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2002, pp. 202 -205 and 208 -214. NARA citation: Mordecai Booth Captain’s Clerk to Commodore Thomas Tingey, 22 August 1814; ALS, DNA , RG 45, Naval Shore Establishments, 1814 -1911; PC -30, Entry 350; Washington Navy yard; Reports on the Removal of Powder from the Yard at the Time of the British Invasion of Washington, August – September 1814.

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