Given its size, it’s almost incomprehensible to think that Brookeville, with a population of 135, was the nation’s virtual capital for a day.
That day, 200 years ago, will be re-created this weekend, as about 10,000 visitors are expected to descend on the hamlet to relive and remember one of the most harrowing episodes in U.S. history, when Washington was in flames and the president was on the run.
Here’s a written account of those days by Katherine Farquhar, president of the Brookeville Commission:
It’s the steamiest part of August 1814. British soldiers have torched Washington’s high-profile public buildings, including the President’s House, as the White House was called. Disgraced, in fear for his life, separated by circumstances from his beloved Dolley, President James Madison flees to Virginia.
Accompanied by only a couple of companions, he encounters bad weather, hostile locals and angry refugees from Washington who blame him for their plight. Inns don’t want him.
If they could just find him, the British soldiers would love nothing more than to seize him as a trophy to show the king.
He stays on the run, headed for greater safety in Maryland. The Potomac River floods from a fierce storm. His small party can’t cross until the river settles down.
Soaked, hungry and tired, the party eventually arrives at Rockville only to learn that Gen. William Winder’s troops are off to the next British target, Baltimore.
Without dismounting, the President picks up a guide and more dragoons. They proceed to safety in the second-largest town in Montgomery County, the tranquil Quaker village of Brookeville.
Around 9 at night on Aug. 26, guarded by Gen. John Mason and party, the president finds secure shelter and a hot meal at Caleb and Henrietta Bentley’s home.
The frail 63-year-old overnights there, among many other refugees packing the home and the town. He sleeps in the bedroom vacated by Henrietta, six months pregnant at the time.
The next day, the British having departed Washington, Madison’s party leaves at noon with Secretary of State James Monroe. Their task: Reset a humiliated, fractured and AWOL government.
The War of 1812 has been called the “second American Revolution,” when marauding British soldiers scored quick victories over the former colonists and humiliated the young nation by burning and mocking their capital city.
“There is a second story we celebrate in Brookeville,” Farquhar said. “That is the welcome, safety and nurture offered by this 14-household Quaker village to a beaten-down president in the worst moments of his life.”
In Brookeville, Madison could stop, rest and dine, after spending 30 hours on horseback. He sent and received crucial dispatches via courier and plotted his next moves.
“Records suggest that the anti-war Quakers spoke their minds to him about the circumstances, yet he was safe and welcome among them,” Farquhar said.
Sandra Heiler is chairwoman of Brookeville’s War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission.
She agrees that there are two things to celebrate: the significant historical event, and how the town, filled with many kind, decent people, took hundreds of refugees into their homes and fed them.
“They saw God in these people, and it didn’t matter that they were soldiers on their way to fight in Baltimore,” she said. “These were extraordinary circumstances, but they were happy to help. That is worth celebrating.”
Heiler lives in Caleb Bentley’s home, now known as the Madison House.
“I am amazed that this happened at our house,” she said. “Madison was an admirable person and it makes me proud that he took refuge here and turned things around.”
Under Heiler’s leadership, the town has spent the past two years conducting research and working on recreating the occasion.
“We share this experience as our guests, all seeking to understand the significance of this event in national and local history,” Farquhar said. “Along with us, you can experience the community and early 1800s culture and architecture you are visiting. We recognize the courage and steadfast beliefs of Brookeville’s ancestors. And we welcome you to Brookeville: the town that time forgot and history remembers.”
The town’s U.S. Capital for a Day events will be held from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and from noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.
County Executive Isiah Leggett and Gov. Martin O’Malley will participate in the re-enactment, scheduled both days, of Madison’s stay in Brookeville. Leggett will portray Attorney General Richard Rush and O’Malley, Gen. Mason.
Most events are free and open to the public. Tickets, available online or at the Brookeville Academy, are required for a traditional Quaker period supper Saturday and a community barbecue Sunday.
The celebration will include historians demonstrating the crafts and technology of 1814, tours, music, children’s activities, a military encampment, period food and libations — including Brookeville Capital Ale from Heavy Seas and Brookeville Capital Hard Cider from Distillery Lane Ciderworks — and commemorative souvenirs.
A portion of Georgia Avenue will be closed to vehicular traffic this weekend.
Road closings will take place from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday at the intersections of Georgia Avenue (Md. 97) and Goldmine Road; Brookeville Road and Grayhaven Manor Road; Brookeville Road and Market Street; and Market Street and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission building near 198 Market St.
Detour routes to move traffic around town will be marked.
There will be free shuttle buses, including handicapped-accessible buses, from satellite parking lots and the Glenmont Metro station. Free parking will be available at Camp Bennett at 20501 Georgia Ave., Brookeville, and MedStar Montgomery Medical Center’s thrift shop parking lot across from 18101 Prince Phillip Drive, Olney.
Leashed dogs will be allowed in town, but not on the shuttle buses.
The bus from Camp Bennett will make an intermediate stop at Brookeville Road for those visiting Oakley Cabin.
Golf carts will take attendees who are unable to walk comfortably from the shuttle stops to activities.
Shuttle buses from MedStar Montgomery and Glenmont Metro station will stop at the Longwood Community Center at 19300 Georgia Ave. on the south side of Brookeville; shuttles from Camp Bennett will stop at a private residence with a circular driveway at 19801 Georgia Ave., Brookeville, on the north side of town.