By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communications and Outreach Division
It was bad enough the men of the Washington Navy Yard were ordered to set fire to the compound as the British broke through American army lines into Washington, D.C.
But what likely burned the backside of the Yard’s commander, Commodore Thomas Tingey, even more was the discovery upon his return Aug. 26 that his house on the compound (known then as Quarters A, and known today as Tingey House, home of the Chief of Naval Operations) had been thoroughly looted and stripped of all hardware as well as doors and windows… not by the invading Brits, but rather by his D.C. neighbors outside the then short, wooden fence that marked and obviously inadequately protected the base’s perimeter.
Shortly thereafter Tingey ordered the fence around the Navy Yard to be fortified and increased in height to 10 feet.
Saturday is the 200th anniversary of the burning of the Washington Navy Yard. It was the morning of Wednesday, Aug. 24, 1814 when Tingey, the Yard’s superintendent, was told by the Secretary of the Navy to burn the yard and the three ships in various stages of completion, including two that were within a couple of weeks of launching, to prevent them from falling into enemy hands.
Your visit to the Navy Yard will include a look at where those ships would have been berthed, some remnants from the ships and other artifacts of the time. Dr. Ed Furgol, historian, will also tell you about:
- Commandant Thomas Tingey — Imagine putting your heart and soul into building a shipyard from its inception, guiding it along each step of the way for 14 years as the yard produced or overhauled one ship after another, where the then-15-year-old frigate USS Constitution was refitted for battle in the War of 1812. Still he had his orders directly from the Secretary of the Navy, and Tingey was a man of duty. As the longest-serving Superintendent of the Yard, Tingey’s decisions are still visible today, from the placement of Quarters A, to deciding right after its burning to increase the height of the wall surrounding the yard to 10 feet.
- Quarters A & B — It’s called the Tingey House by those at the Navy Yard, in honor of the man who lived in it the longest, but since 1978 it’s been the home of the Chief of Naval Operations. Quarters B was the home of the second in charge, which incorporated Washington, D.C.’s oldest structure when it was built with the wall as the yard’s eastern perimeter. The buildings, both on the National Register for Historic Homes, survived the fires set by the Americans, but were never under threat by the invaders. While the British were eager to burn down state houses that represented the upstart government, they were polite blokes in their plundering — they didn’t feel the need to burn what clearly were private residences. Tingey returned to the Yard the following morning, apparently minutes after the British left the premises. He was relieved to see his home standing, along with Quarters B. After squirreling away his personal belongings to trusted neighbors, Tingey was urged to leave the area because the British were still roaming the district. When he returned Friday morning, Tingey discovered both his home and Quarters B had been looted by nearby neighbors. Ironically, these were the same neighbors who had begged Tingey to not set the yard ablaze earlier Wednesday afternoon because the southwesterly wind most certainly would have pushed the fire into their neighborhood. Tingey held off as long as he could, waiting until he had confirmation the British had broken through the defense. The winds had died down, so at 8:20 p.m., Tingey gave the order to burn the yard.
- Latrobe Gate — This historical gate warrants a close look for any visitor to the Washington Navy Yard. Built by Benjamin H. Latrobe, the architect of public buildings for Washington, D.C., it was a masonry structure at the time of the fire. “The design of the main gate of entrance to the navy-yard has been made with a view to the greatest economy compatible with permanence and appearance worthy of the situation. This gate will fall exactly into the range of the Georgia Avenue as well as of the Eighth Street east of the Capitol, one of the principal streets of this part of the city,” stated an 1804-05 report to the Secretary of the Navy. After the fire, increasing the height of the gate’s fencing to 10 feet was the first item on Tingey’s “to-do” list. Alterations in 1880 and 1881 added two stories across the gate and three stories on either side of it, to improve housing for the Marines who continue to man the gate today.
Tripoli Monument — Commissioned by Commodore David Porter and paid for personally by navy sailors and officers, the Naval Monument was originally erected at the Navy Yard in 1808. The nation’s oldest military monument is a tribute to the six naval officers who died in the Barbary War, including Lt. James Decatur, brother of famed naval officer Adm. Stephen Decatur. The infamously anti-British Adm. David Porter blamed the Brits for the monument’s mutilation during their brief occupation of the Washington Navy Yard. But others have suggested the “mutilations” could more accurately be described as pilfering. What went missing were the gilded bronze objects held by the marble figures: a pen held by the figurine History; a palm held by Fame; the standard emblem of Commerce described as a winged staff entwined by two serpents, and the forefinger and thumb of the scantily-clad Native American figurine representing America. Just the items someone might grab if they were, oh, taking hardware out of a nearby house or two. The monument was relocated to the Capitol grounds in 1831 and then permanently moved to the Naval Academy campus a few years later. The items that were stolen from the monument were never replaced. The monument was featured in the series “A History of the Navy in 100 Objects:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tJK1YeZiMYo
- Water, water everywhere…..Back in 1814, most of the Navy Yard as it is today was underwater. At the time, the west border ended along Adm. Leutze Park. Take an opportunity to follow the slope (old ramp) from the Naval History and Heritage Command headquarters (Building 57), down to where Building 36 now sits. All of that would have been the timber pond at the WNY in 1814. Furgol will discuss how the waterfront has changed and how the Anacostia River eventually forced the once-thriving shipyard to change directions to become the place to go for weapons and ordnance experimentation and now as the location for headquarters of dozens of commands.
- BONUS! Of the three ships left to burn in the Navy Yard, only one survived both the Americans and the British, the nearly completed schooner Lynx. Other ships not so lucky: the 74-gun frigate Columbia was within a few weeks of being launched, while gunboat Argus was in the final stages. One of the artifacts held by NHHC’s Collection Management Division is a piece of Columbia. This is on display at the National Museum of the U.S. Navy. The frigate was one of four 74-gun warships and six 44-gun frigates the shipyard had been tasked to build. Another artifact that survived the burning of the yard was a little French 4-pound gun taken during the Quasi War by Capt. Stephen Decatur. It was on display at the Navy Yard in some Tripoli gunboats Decatur had taken during the Barbary Wars. Speculation has the British weren’t interested in taking it because the French typically used 4-8 pound balls, while the British used 3-6 pound shot.
NOTE TO MEDIA: For additional information about naval history or the history of the Washington Navy Yard, please contact the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Communication and Outreach division at 202-433-7880 or via email at [email protected]