Dearborn Birthday Recalls Burning of U.S. Capital

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Union-Sun and Journal, Lockport, N.Y.,
Tuesday, February 23, 1971

CHICAGO (UPI) -- For American history buffs today might well be "Dearborn Day," in honor of an old general who maybe should have quit when he was ahead.

Because he didn't, the nation got a boost in national vigor just when it was needed most. But it took the burning of the nation's capital to do it.

Henry Dearborn was born 220 years ago today at Hampton, N.H., according to Encyclopedia Britannica. A city in Michigan and a street in Chicago are named for him. After heroic Revolutionary War activity, Dearborn served two terms in Congress and was for eight years President Jefferson's secretary of war.

Then three years after he left the Cabinet the old soldier returned to the harness and, as the Army's senior major general, undertook an extensive campaign in the War of 1812, including a multi-pronged invasion of Canada.

In 1813 the general, 62 years old and in poor health, arrived in York -- now Toronto -- with a force of 1,700 men. The British garrison was overwhelmed. Just as the Americans pushed toward the town, a powder magazine exploded, killing or disabling many of Dearborn's men.

The explosion enraged the American troops. They got out of hand, set fires and began looting the town, which was the capital of upper Canada. The invaders held York for about a week then recrossed the lake to Niagara.

The British were outraged but had to wait 16 months to repay the deed. They did this by capturing the capital of the United States.

Overcoming token opposition, the British marched triumphantly into Washington. Then, in retaliation for the vandalism at York, they set fire to all of the public buildings, including the Capitol and the White House. Many public records were destroyed, as were works of art. For good measure the British also set fire to a newspaper office.

President Madison fled with his wife and hid in nearby woods, Dolly bringing along her parrot. They left their supper on the table. It was eaten by the British.

The invaders soon returned to their ships, leaving in flames the first city in the world that had been planned exclusively as a seat of government.

It was more than an ordinary act of war. Back home the British, with centuries of! combat behind them, were; shocked. An historian of the time called the burning of Washington "an outrage inconsistent with civilized warfare."

The Washington burning well may have infused a new spirit into the United States. The Americans fought with renewed vigor thereafter and the war, ended a few months later.

Dearborn, meanwhile, had been relieved of command. A few years later he was named minister to Portugal. He died in Roxbury, Mass., at the age of 78, in 1829. At that time there were the beginnings of a settlement around the little fort he ordered built near Lake Michigan at "Chikago".

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