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Mordecai Booth
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Birth: Oct. 10, 1765
Brunswick County
Virginia, USA
Death: Feb. 15, 1831
District of Columbia
District Of Columbia, USA

Commandant's Clerk. He is one of the heros of the War of 1812 as he supervised the removal of the gunpowder from the Washington Navy Yard to the farm of Daniel Dulany near Falls Church, Virginia and its subsequent return to the magazine. He scouted British military movements at great risk and helped Navy Yard Commandant Thomas Tingey set fire to the yard for fear it would fall into British hands.

Mordecai Booth
A Forgotten Hero of the War of 1812
by John Sharp
On August 24, 1814, as the victorious British army rapidly advanced toward the nation’s capital, an overwhelmed American army and militia fell back from a crushing defeat at Bladensburg. News of this defeat was evident everywhere as a dazed and confused citizenry began to abandon Washington. Amongst the chaos most residents looked to protect their property and family. In that disastrous August, Mordecai Booth, was an unlikely hero and an exception in the midst of the civic chaos, for he was one of the last defenders of the capital. Booth was an improbable man of action, unprepossessing, a 51 year old navy yard clerk with a large family to support and no military training. Yet, in a perilous moment while others ran, Booth chose to stay and volunteer for a hazardous scouting mission.

Mordecai Booth was born October 10, 1765 to William Booth and Elizabeth Aylett in Brunswick, Virginia. Booth was one of nine children brought up in the wealthy Virginia family. On July 6, 1788 in Williamsburg, Virginia, he married Clara Waller, young widow with six children. Together Clara and Mordecai had eight additional children. Young Booth trained as a clerk and worked in Williamsburg for his brother-in-law Samuel Beall, a prosperous businessman. Despite skill in accountancy and clerical matters, Booth proved poorly adapted to business.

Booth was a slaveholder with five slaves, but, was crippled by debt and appeared to his friends unable to sustain his large family of 14 children. The 1810 United States Census enumerates Mordecai Booth as residing in Winchester, Virginia. His household that year consisted of nine white and five enslaved individuals. As his economic distress became evident, influential relatives and friends wrote to President James Madison on his behalf, requesting the President appoint Booth to a position in the new government. One family member candidly acknowledged Booth: by bad bargains, bad management and living in too expensive a style he has reduced his family to absolute beggary for indeed they have been chiefly supported by the bounty of his friends for some time past. On January 11, 1812, Booth’s beloved wife Clara died at the family residence in Brunswick, Virginia.

On June 26, 1811, Booth was appointed clerk to Washington Navy Yard Commandant, Commodore Thomas Tingey, at a salary of $1,000 per annum; over three times that of the average mechanic. As Tingey’s clerk, Booth acquired a heavy workload; he prepared the navy yard correspondence and kept the accounts. In August 1814, with most of his naval officers away, Commodore Tingey turned to Booth to supervise the removal of 100 barrels of gunpowder from the Washington Navy Yard to the farm of Daniel Dulany near Falls Church, Virginia and its subsequent return to the magazine. To move the gun powder, Booth had to commandeer carts and give the extremely reluctant drivers (on his own authority), certificates of impressment. Booth as a civilian toiled at great personal risk as he scouted and reconnoitered British military movements and he was shot at. Later Booth helped Navy Yard Commandant Thomas Tingey and Marine Corps Commandant Wharton set fire to the yard, the frigate USS Columbia, the USS Argus and a new schooner Lynx, for fear they would fall into British hands. Booth later described the awesome responsibility and agony of torching his workplace and all that had been built as well as the destruction of their own livelihoods.

In September 1814, Booth wrote a remarkable first person report to Commodore Tingey of his scouting activities, his precarious ride, narrow escapes, the state of the city as the British advanced, and other dramatic events he witnessed. Booth’s report justifies the Commodore’s actions and stresses that Tingey and Wharton set the navy yard ablaze on the verbal orders of the Secretary of the Navy, and did so only after they had determined the critical naval facility was liable to fall to the enemy.

Following the war Booth resumed his duties at the burned out navy yard and helped the Commodore with the slow rebuilding process. In May 1815, Booth’s house on Virginia Ave was damaged by a fire. On June 30, 1819, Commodore Tingey forwarded a recommendation to the Board of Navy Commissioners for an assistant to Booth. On January 25, 1820, Commodore Tingey requested a raise for the hard working clerk, noting that he had asked the same the year prior, however, both requests were unsuccessful.

Over the years Booth’s many tasks had multiplied. These varied duties now included making out the navy yard’s monthly detailed payrolls, weekly returns, and acting as a requisitioning agent for supplies. Despite Booth’s wider responsibilities, the Navy Board again denied the Commodore’s request. During the 1820s, Tingey’s age and illness began to limit his activities and Booth increasingly took over many of Tingey’s contracting duties and responsibilities.

One comfort and a source of pride for the ageing Booth was the presence of his son Master Commandant United States Navy, Benjamin Waller Booth. Appointed a midshipman in 1806, Benjamin W. Booth fought in the War of 1812 and was commended for his courage in the USS Wasp victory over the British ship HMS Frolic. Made a Master Commandant in 1820, Benjamin was assigned on March 19, 1825 to the Washington Navy Yard. On January 18, 1827 in the early morning, a large fire began in a cabinet making shop and quickly spread placing the entire city of Alexandria in danger. The Secretary of the Navy directed the navy yard to provide assistance. Master Commandant Booth led 300 employees over miles of frozen grounds in 13 degree temperatures, dragging fire engines and hoses into Alexandria where they worked long hours to suppress a dangerous fire. Michael Shiner a 21 year old enslaved man was one of those assigned to fight this fire and left a vivid account. The same year, Benjamin W. Booth assumed command of the USS Lexington and departed the navy yard for a three year assignment in the Mediterranean.

Mordecai Booth’s last decade was one long litany of pain. During ten difficult years four of his daughters, Elizabeth Clara, Elizabeth Aylett, Martha Hall and Sallie Smith died of pulmonary disease. Booth knew his son Benjamin also was ill with the same dread malady. He expressed his concern and worries in a letter to Secretary of the Navy on December 21, 1827. In his communication, Booth pleaded Benjamin be allowed to return from his long deployment in the Mediterranean. He explained to the Secretary, Benjamin like his sisters suffered from consumption (tuberculosis). Benjamin as a career naval officer was reluctant to acknowledge his condition. The illness unfortunately had progressed too far and Master Commandant Benjamin W. Booth died on July 26, 1828, and was buried far from home in the Episcopal Church yard in Gibraltar. Benjamin’s death plunged the whole Booth family into mourning and left his wife and five children in financial distress.

In his last years Booth, like many slaveholders, was increasingly conflicted about slavery. Booth’s family and friends were strongly tied economically to the peculiar institution yet he apparently harbored some reservations. In 1819, for example, Booth went to great lengths to recover Ann Wormely (also known as Clara), a 16 year enslaved girl belonging to his daughter (reward notice is at end of this paragraph), however the United States Census of 1820 and 1830 enumerate Mordecai Booth’s household with no slaves. What happened to his five slaves is unclear. Booth like many slaveholders could barely conceive any of his bondsmen truly desired freedom instead Booth clung to the comforting notion that Ann was enticed away by free blacks: As not cause is known for her going off, and she being a credulous thoughtless girl, it is believed the free blacks of the place have persuaded her to elope, under the idea of obtaining her freedom by going to Pennsylvania.

For this decade Booth made no recorded manumissions; his five slaves may have been sold or more likely as alluded to in his reward notice for Ann, given them to his children. Booth’s possible doubts regarding slavery were on display in March 1828, for Booth signed a memorial calling for the gradual compensated abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The increased hiring of slaves especially in the upper south had convinced many white residents that slavery was on its last legs and would soon be replaced by free labor. The petitioners remedy was a gradual and compensated emancipation of the enslaved followed by transportation to Africa. This idea was not new; Thomas Jefferson, proposed colonization as early as 1787 in his Notes on The State of Virginia and continued to advocate it throughout his long life. James Madison also endorsed the idea. Many of the petition signatories were slaveholders from the navy yard. Among this group were: master mechanics, William Easby, Thomas Lyndall, Robert Armistead and James Owner, plus senior clerk Thomas Howard, and naval constructor, William Doughty. Blacks in Washington were for most part disdainful of this whole colonization scheme.

Booth died on February 15, 1831. The cause of death is listed as paralysis. He is buried at the Congressional Cemetery Range 53, Site 2 and his grave is located close to that of Commodore Thomas Tingey, a man he had served so well.

In the District of Columbia, as we approach the two hundredth anniversary of August 1814, there is no published biography, statue or plaque to commemorate Mordecai Booth’s heroic action. Only Mordecai Booth’s Public House, a tavern on the Washington Navy Yard, bears his name but sadly no public access.

Booth’s real legacy remains his after-action report to Commodore Thomas Tingey. In his report Booth provides his readers a detailed yet vivid description of Washington D.C. in peril, the burning of the White House and conflagration of his beloved navy yard with a matter of fact recounting of his own daring actions and accomplishments. 
 
Burial:
Congressional Cemetery
Washington
District of Columbia
District Of Columbia, USA
Plot: Range 53, Site 2. Unmarked burial.
 
Created by: SLGMSD
Record added: May 25, 2009
Find A Grave Memorial# 37485644
Mordecai Booth
Added by: John & Gene Sharp
 
 
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- SLGMSD
 Added: Jun. 29, 2016
War of 1812
- SLGMSD
 Added: Jun. 9, 2015
Rest in Peace
- John & Gene Sharp
 Added: Sep. 23, 2013
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