James Madison came out of the Brookeville, Maryland house in which he’d spent the night of August 26, 1814 and walked up to the child standing next to me on the lawn.
“Good afternoon, young man,” said Madison.
“I’m the great, great, great, great grandson of Caleb Bentley,” the child replied, referencing the man who had owned the house in 1814.
Madison looked started, then collected himself. “I didn’t know that he was so copious.”
From Bladensburg, Madison fled first into DC, then into Virginia. He spent two days headed northwest before crossing the Potomac into Maryland and ending up Brookeville, a small Quaker town 20 miles north of DC. A lot of other DC people had fled to the areas and the first place Madison tried to stay in Brookeville was already full. He ended up across the street instead, at the home of farmer and town postmaster, Caleb Bentley, and his wife Henrietta. He spent one night in the Bentley house, then went back to DC.
Madison had a small retinue and conducted some Presidential business while in Brookeville. For that reason, Brookeville has named itself “Capital for a Day.” At the end of August, Brookeville celebrated the 200th anniversary of being Capital for a Day with a weekend festival of reenactors, crafts, and tours.
I was there on the first day of the celebration, in time to see James Madison riding into town, escorted by the Maryland Dragoons who, in 1814, he picked up somewhere between Virginia and Brookeville. This Madison apparently couldn’t ride — there was a handler walking his horse.
“Did you see the guy in the red uniform?” asked the guy next to me on the parade route. I hadn’t. “It was Martin O’Malley.” O’Malley is Maryland’s governor and he has a fondness for participating in 1812 reenactments. In this instance, he was portraying General John Mason, the dragoon commander.
They rode to the house where the real Madison had spent the night and was greeted by Sandra Heiler, the current owner. She’s an architectural historian and the house won a historic home contest run by the Washington Post several years ago. Madison, his retinue (local politicians, I’m guessing, from the glad handing that went on) and photographers went in and the rest of us were left to amuse ourselves outside.
They reappeared about an hour later. After speaking with a couple of other children, Madison wandered his way to the top of some stairs leading down to the road. It looked as though he was poised to say a few words to the crowd below when, suddenly, a woman from the crowd jumped up beside him.
“Take a picture. Take a picture,” she shouted to someone in the crowd. The crowd tittered. The object of her demand — I’m assuming it was her husband — was obvious by the chagrined look on his face. He ignored her, but she was not to be denied. “Take a picture,” she said again, louder this time, in case he hadn’t heard. He’d heard alright. He was only a few feet away and was looking straight at her. But he was not about to admit to being associated with this crazy woman, who’d inserted herself into the middle of the reenactment scene. The woman eventually gave up.
I was standing directly in front of her but no, I didn’t take a photo of her. Though I admit I was tempted.
Meanwhile, the Madison reenactor had stood frozen, as if her presence had interrupted a universal continuum and he was suspended in time. Once she left, he reanimated. A not-particularly-presidential buckwagon pulled up and Madison and retinue got in. In 1814, Madison had come and gone on a horse but I guess the handler had taken her horse and gone home.