The British Army burns structures in Washington, D.C. the night of August 24, 1814
One of the more curious nights in American history occurred on the evening of August 24, 1814. The United States had been at war with Great Britain since June of 1812 when the U.S. felt it needed to stop the British practice of “impressing” American sailors on the high sees into service on British warships and to stop British interference with American trade with France. Historians declared the conflict as the War of 1812. For at least one night, the war with the British had disastrous consequences. The British Army made landfall, defeated a poorly trained American force and then proceeded to burn structures such as the White House and Capitol building.
After making landfall near Benedict, Maryland, a British force of approximately 4,500 soldiers under the command of Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross disembarked and began a march towards Washington, D.C. The Americans, apparently believing the British would target Baltimore and not Washington D.C, began scrambling for a defense of the nation’s capital.
The two sides met at Bladensburg, Maryland, about 6 miles northeast of the Capitol building. The Americans numbered about 6,000 but consisted mostly of militiamen rather than the professional British soldiers. The seriousness of the situation began to set in as Washington, D.C. residents began to flee the city. President James Madison and much of his cabinet rode out to witness the battle. It did not go well. Despite individual heroism from Americans such as Commodore Joshua Barney who tried gallantly to stop the British advance, most of the American forces became quickly disorganized and retreated. There was nobody to stop the British.
That afternoon, word got back to the White House or the President’s House as it was commonly referred to at the time, that the city needed to be evacuated. First Lady Dolly Madison began making arrangements to leave. However, she refused to do so without the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington that hung in the White House. Workers could not get the frame with the painting off the wall so Madison ordered the frame broken and the painting cut out. It eventually made its way to a farm in Virginia. Other national documents, including the Declaration of Independence had already been packed in linen bags and sent to an empty house in Virginia.
The painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
The British entered Washington D.C. just after sunset. They burned both the House and Senate chambers of the Capitol building as well as the Library of Congress and Supreme Court located inside. The Washington Navy Yard, including two warships, had been ordered set ablaze by an American captain so they would not fall into enemy hands.
The enemy force then proceeded to the White House. Much to their astonishment, they found the White House dinning room set for dinner for about 40 people with food and drink ready for consumption. Dolly Madison had made the arrangement earlier in the day for an expected cabinet meeting that never occurred. The British enjoyed the meal and after taking a few souvenirs, including personal items of the Madison’s, burned the White House into a shell. They went on to burn down the Treasury building and the building that housed the War and State departments. The British did keep their burning and pillaging to government buildings, choosing to spare private property.
As bad as things were for the Americans, they could have been much worse. The British abandoned their occupation of the capital after about 26 hours. Why? As had occurred at other moments in American history, fortune or the Hand of Providence looked down upon the United States. A fierce thunderstorm and rare tornado struck the area and forced the unprepared British to flee back to their ships. The storm was so violent, it tossed British cannons into the air and some British soldiers were killed by flying debris. The rain doused the flames of the city.
President Madison returned to the city on August 27 after spending the prior few days in Virginia. Although there was some discussion of moving the U.S. capital to Philadelphia, this never came to pass and the city was rebuilt. On December 24, 1814, the Treaty of Ghent was signed between the U.S. and Britain, ending the War of 1812.
Although there have been other attacks on the United States such as those at Pearl Harbor and 9/11, this was the only time in American history the capital fell into enemy hands. It remains a reminder that America needs to be forever vigilant.