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Virginia county to honor clerk who saved Declaration of Independence

November 15, 2011 |  6:00 am

An early draft of the Declaration of Independence.
As the country gears up for the bicentennial commemoration of the War of 1812, Arlington County, Va., is calling attention to a little-known footnote in U.S. history: the place where a government clerk saved the Declaration of Independence as British troops marched on Washington.

On Tuesday, Arlington County will dedicate a historic marker on the site where Stephen Pleasonton brought the declaration and other precious documents for safekeeping in 1814, the day before British troops burned the U.S. Capitol, White House and other buildings.

"During the War of 1812, a mill at Pimmit Run was used in the heroic effort to save the Declaration of Independence and other prominent government documents,'' says the marker.

Far less known than Dolley Madison’s rescue of Gilbert Stuart’s priceless portrait of George Washington from British torches, Pleasonton hastily gathered the documents in linen bags after being alerted by Secretary of State James Monroe of the British advance on Washington.

Had Pleasonton not acted, the declaration probably would have been burned, Anthony S. Pitch, author of "The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814,’’ said in an interview.

Pitch said that while Pleasonton was gathering the documents, "the secretary of war came by and rebuked him for being an alarmist for thinking the British were on their way to Washington. Fortunately, this young clerk stood up to him."

Pleasonton rushed the documents across the Potomac to an abandoned grist mill in Virginia about two miles up the river from Georgetown. The documents were there for only a short time before Pleasonton thought it safer to take the them about 35 miles farther into Virginia.

Pitch last year led a fundraising drive to restore Pleasonton’s gravesite in Congressional Cemetery in Washington.

"He’s finally getting the credit that’s due to him," Pitch said.


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--Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: An early draft of the Declaration of Independence. Credit: Associated Press/Library of Congress