BROOKEVILLE- Every day, thousands of commuters and tourists pass through Brookeville on their way to and from Washington, D.C., unaware they are visiting a town which briefly served as the country’s capital.
In late August 1814, during the war of 1812, British troops attacked and occupied Washington and set fire to several federal properties, including the White House. President James Madison, his wife Dolley and several members of his cabinet were forced to flee the city. After first traveling to Virginia, where they encountered a hostile reception, Madison and his entourage turned north, arriving in Brookeville on the evening of Aug. 26.
Madison stayed the night in the home of Caleb Bentley, the town’s postmaster. The event led to Brookeville being referred to as the “Capital for a Day.” The town also offered sanctuary to many other citizens who fled the violence in Washington. During Labor Day weekend Brookeville hosted a series of events designed to bring this episode of history to life.
On Saturday, the organizers staged a re-enactment of Madison’s arrival on horseback, followed on Sunday by a re-enactment of his departure to return to Washington along with Secretary of State James Monroe, who would succeed Madison as President. Robert Urban, a nationally-recognized re-enactor, hosted an event illustrating medical procedures of the time and was joined by several other re-enactors illustrating various aspects of life in 1814. The town also hosted a reunion for descendants of citizens of Brookeville in 1814.
Brookeville mayor Katherine Farquhar is a descendant of Isaac Briggs, a prominent land surveyor in Revolutionary times who was employed by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Pierre L’Enfant before settling in Brookeville. Many other descendants of citizens of the time live in the town itself or in the nearby Olney, Laytonsville or Ashton areas.
“There’s a strong kinship network, and most of us are Quakers,” said Farquhar, who participated in the re-enactment, donning period attire and answering questions from visitors. “This was the 9/11 of 1814. The British came, they nastily destroyed the public buildings in Washington, and so the President had to flee…he was in Virginia for a couple of nights, but had to get out of there, because people hated him for getting them into the war…they went to Rockville, but the troops that were supposed to meet them there had already left for Baltimore. They came here because they knew some people in this area, and because the residents were neutral. They might give him a piece of their mind, but they weren’t going to harm him.”
Farquhar said she was glad to see widespread interest in the weekend’s festivities and grateful for the opportunity to share Brookeville’s history with the public.
“I call it the quaint town that time forgot but history remembers,” Farquhar said.
“We wanted to get together for an educational activity,” said Lara Radley of Chevy Chase, who attended both days of the celebration along with her best friend and their children. “We didn’t know the history of the town, so it was very interesting.” Radley said she especially enjoyed watching the re-enactment of Monroe’s arrival.
The Brookeville festivities are one of several events being held in Maryland this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Francis Scott Key composing the Star Spangled Banner.