Institutional memory is a funny thing. It expands and contracts through generations of staff changes. Some things are passed on to the next cohort; some things are forgotten; and from time to time forgotten things resurface. Most people at the Library of Congress know, for instance, that the original library of the United States Congress was consumed in the fire that destroyed the Capitol Building on August 24, 1814. The event was part of one of the major traumas of the War of 1812, the capture of Washington, DC. The British had just defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg. When a British force entered Washington City, it set fire to the government buildings, destroying in the course of the night the White House, the U.S. Treasury and the Capitol (spared were the U.S. Patent Office, the offices of the National Intelligencer – a Republican party daily – and the house of the Commandant of the Marines). The Library, which was a small collection of about 3,000 books, mostly on the subject of Law, was incinerated in the blaze.
Less than a month after the fire, Thomas Jefferson came forward and proposed that the United States purchase his collection of 6,487 books to replace the library that was lost. Congress eventually agreed to the purchase, although not without controversy; and in 1815 Jefferson’s library became the foundation of the modern collection of the Library of Congress.
What is rarely remembered, however, is that in the immediate aftermath of the fire, there were conflicting reports about the extent of the damage that was inflicted on the original collection. Writing in 1905, Library of Congress historian William Dawson Johnston cited documents preserved in the Annals of Congress that indicate that much of the first library had in fact been preserved.
The Annals of Congress for September 22, 1814, for example, contains a letter written by the staff members of the Library who were assigned the task of removing the collection to safety in the days before the invasion of Washington: S. Burch (who was furloughed from his post in the militia on August 22 – two days before the fire – so that he might resume his duties at the Library) and the Under-Librarian of Congress, J.T. Frost (who was too old for militia duty). These were the only staff members involved in the evacuation of the Library. The letter was their report to the Librarian of Congress, Patrick Magruder, about the events at the Library leading up to the fire. They write:
“[On Monday, August 22] We immediately went to packing up, and Mr. Burch went out in search of wagons or other carriages, for the transportation of the books and papers; every wagon, and almost every cart, belonging to the city, had been previously impressed into the service of the United States, for the transportation of the baggage of the army; the few he was able to find were loaded with the private effects of individuals, who were moving without the city; those he attempted to hire, but not succeeding, he claimed a right to impress them; but, having no legal authority, or military force to aid him, he, of course, did not succeed. He sent off three messengers into the country, one of whom obtained from Mr. John Wilson, whose residence is six miles from the city, the use of a cart and four oxen; it did not arrive at the office, until after dark on Monday night, when it was immediately laden with the most valuable records and papers, which were taken, on the same night, nine miles, to a safe and secret place in the country. We continued to remove as many of the most valuable books and papers, having removed the manuscript records, as we were able to do with our one cart, until the morning of the day of the battle of Bladensburg, after which we were unable to take away anything further.”
Thus far: two oxcarts were taken away to safety – one full of records and papers, and another containing books and papers. The records and papers appear (in another passage) to have been destroyed in a later fire, one that took place in the safe house; but as for the printed books, Burch and Frost state later in the letter, “a number of the printed books were consumed [in the Capitol fire], but they were all duplicates of those which have been preserved.” In other words, the better part of the Library had been removed to safety before the fire, including the most valuable books. Frost mentions the successful rescue of the print book collection again in another letter on December 17, 1814, which he wrote in response to public statements made by the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress. The Committee had claimed that the collection was completely destroyed because no preparatory measures had been taken to expedite its removal. Frost writes, “The several loads [of books] that were saved, were taken from the shelves on which they were placed and deposited in the carts by which they were taken away; they have suffered no injury…”
On the other hand, already on September 9, 1814, the National Intelligencer printed this comment in an editorial by a leading military figure, Brigadier General Duncan McArthur:
“It is stated in some of the papers, we observe, that the congressional library was saved. We are sorry to contradict this statement. The Vandals destroyed without remorse this collection of valuable and scarce books, the loss of which is irreparable. If his incendiary hands were not to be arrested by the monument of art exhibited in the South Wing of the Capitol, it could not be expected the enemy would respect what none but heathens and barbarians ever before wantonly destroyed, a Public Repository of History, Science and Law.”
The December 12, 1814 statement of the committee on the Library headed by Joseph Pearson seems to be the last time Congress dealt with the question of whether the original collection of the Library of Congress escaped the fire. It contained the following report:
“They [Patrick Magruder and his staff] have satisfactory evidence that the library of Congress, consisting of volumes agreeably to the catalogue herewith submitted was destroyed by the enemy on the 24th of August last; and, also, the manuscript records, papers, and secret journals of Congress, mentioned in the communication submitted to this committee.”
If Burch and Frost did in fact manage to rescue the best parts of the Library’s original collection, it is unknown what became of the books. William Dawson Johnston didn’t speculate in his History of the Library of Congress on whether there might exist somewhere a lost collection from the Library’s earliest days. Of course it is generally assumed to have been destroyed. But the story bears repeating every century or so.