Tuesday, July, 12, marked the 147th anniversary of the burning of Montgomery Blair's Silver Spring mansion known as Falkland. Of the three Blair summer estates constructed in what would become downtown Silver Spring (the other two were father Francis Preston Blair's Silver Spring and brother James Blair's The Moorings) Falkland is the one most shrouded in mystery…from who really torched it at the end of the Civil War to the unknown reasons for there being so little documentation on the house itself. Montgomery Blair (1813-1883) was the eldest of Francis Preston Blair’s (1791-1876) four children.
Born in Franklin County, Kentucky, Montgomery graduated from West Point in 1835. Having studied law in St. Louis, Missouri, he became a U.S. attorney for that state and at the age of 29 became the mayor of St. Louis in 1842. Blair moved to Washington, DC in 1852, establishing his residence at Blair House, located on Pennsylvania Avenue diagonally across from the White House. In 1857 Blair served as counsel in the case of slave Dred Scott (1799-1858).
Scott wanted to sue in federal court for his freedom and that of his wife after their master had moved them to Missouri, then free territory (the case, argued before the Supreme Court, failed). Blair later served as President Abraham Lincoln’s (1809-1865) U.S. postmaster general from 1861 to 1864 and is credited with founding the Universal Postal Union. The UPN created an agreement between nations, which standardized postal rates and services. During his term Blair also originated prepaid postage, free mail delivery in cities, money orders, and railway postal cars.Two years after moving to Washington, Blair began construction of his summer estate in 1854 on land adjoining that of his father’s.
Located just over a quarter of a mile to the northwest, Blair named his mansion Falkland. Built on a tree-covered hill, the front entrance faced north towards the present-day intersection of Colesville Road and East-West Highway. About a dozen years after the house was built, tragedy struck on July 12, 1864 when, shortly after Confederate troops retreated north from the Battle of Ft. Stevens in Washington (started the previous day), the house was burned to the ground. Here is how Montgomery’s son, Gist Blair (1860-1940) in "Annals of Silver Spring," (Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Vol. XXI, 1918, p. 176) explained the fire: “(Confederate) General (Jubal) Early (1816-1894) burned my father’s house, known as ‘Falkland,’ which adjoined that of Silver Spring.
It was a total loss, because although insured it was not insured against the public enemy. General Early afterwards denied having authorized this vandalism, when it was criticized by good people everywhere.” Blair then goes on to quote from a “General Early’s interview:” “…when in front of Washington some of my troops were very determined to destroy the house of Mr. Francis P. Blair and had actually removed some furniture probably supposing it to belong to his son, a member of the Federal Cabinet. As soon as I came up I immediately stopped the proceeding and compelled the men to return every article so far as I knew and placed a guard to protect it. The house of his son, Montgomery Blair a member of the Cabinet, was subjected to a different rule for obvious reasons.” However, according to Blair Lee (1857-1944),
a nephew of Montgomery Blair, retreating Confederate troops were notto blame. Lee related that Major General John C. Breckenridge (1821-1875), a distant relative of the Blairs and participant in the Battle of Ft. Stevens, had sought shelter at Blair’s Silver Spring mansion. Breckenridge set guards around Blair’s home to protect it from the host of camp followers, civilian vandals, looters, and pillagers who had followed in the wake of the troops. Early did not take this precaution at Falkland and it was these camp followers--not Confederate troops--who set fire to Falkland.
Whoever was responsible in setting the fire, the resulting ruins were dramatic, as the accompanying image testifies. An engraving titled “Ruins of the Blair Mansion, Near Washington--From a Sketch by our Special Artist,” appeared in the August 6, 1864 Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. This publicity undoubtedly spurred tourists, seen in the foreground of the photograph, to journey out from Washington to view the ruins. No mystery surrounds who torched Falkland a second time nearly a century later…the Silver Spring Volunteer Fire Department!
On September 7, 1958, fireman from the two companies performed a “controlled burn” to test their equipment and routines. The land, owned by the Blair Management Corp., was to be developed for construction of apartments and a “modern” supermarket. Hundreds of area residents came out to watch the mansion go up in flames from the comfort of their lawn chairs. Said Mrs. Adolphus Staton, a granddaughter of Montgomery Blair’s who spent time at the house as a child, “I guess burning the mansion down to make way for progress was about as dignified a way to go as any.”
"Progress" included the felling of hundreds of pine trees that covered the hill upon which Falkland sat as well as the complete leveling of said hill, all to construct today's Blair Shops and Blair Plaza Apartments.