The Burning of Washington

burning of washington
Burning of Washington 1814

The Burning of Washington in 1814 was an incident during the War of 1812 between the forces of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and those of the United States of America. On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, a British force led by Major General Robert Ross occupied Washington City and set fire to many public buildings. The facilities of the U.S. government, including the White House and U.S. Capitol, were largely destroyed. The British commander’s orders to burn only public buildings and strict discipline among the British troops are credited with preserving the city’s private buildings.

This was the only time since the Revolutionary War that a foreign power captured and occupied the United States capital.

Reasons for the attack

After the defeat and exile of Napoleon Bonaparte in April 1814, the British were able to collect newly available troops and ships to prosecute the war with the United States. The Earl of Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, dispatched troops to Bermuda, from where the blockade of the American coast and occupation of coastal islands had been overseen throughout the war. It was initially intended to use these forces to distract the United States government from its campaigns against Canada. Early in 1814, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies Station. He already had plans for carrying the war to the United States by launching attacks in Virginia and at New Orleans.

Rear Admiral George Cockburn had been commanding the squadron in Chesapeake Bay since the previous year. On June 25 he wrote to Cochrane, stressing that the defenses of the region were weak, and several major cities were vulnerable to attack. Cochrane suggested attacking Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. On July 17, Cockburn recommended Washington as the target, because of the comparative ease of attack and “the greater political effect likely to result”.

An added motive for the British to attack United States towns and cities was retaliation for what they saw as the “wanton destruction of private property along the north shores of Lake Erie” by American forces in May of that year, the most notable being the Raid on Port Dover., as well as the looting and burning of Newark (now Niagara-on-the Lake) and York (now Toronto), Upper Canada, including the colony’s legislative assembly, in April of the same year. On June 2, 1814, Sir George Prévost, Governor General of The Canadas, had written to Cochrane at Admiralty House, in Bailey’s Bay, Bermuda, calling for a retaliation against American depredations against non-combatant civilians and private property, as such acts at the time were considered to be against the laws of war. On July 18, Cochrane issued orders to Cockburn informing him that to “deter the enemy from a repetition of similar outrages…You are hereby required and directed to destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find assailable”. However, Cochrane also stated “you will spare merely the lives of the unarmed inhabitants of the United States”.

Events

A force of 2,500 soldiers under Major General Robert Ross arrived in Bermuda aboard HMS Royal Oak, three frigates, three sloops, and ten other vessels.

the burning of washington
Capture of the City of Washington, engraving from The History of England by Paul de Rapin-Thoyras

Sailing up the Patuxent, the combined British naval and land forces dislodged the Maryland militia from “The Plains”, a plantation on the south side of the river that was being used as an observation post and military barracks. The actions of the British naval and land forces at “The Plains” were part of an effort to neutralize any potential resistance by the Maryland militia to the subsequent landing of British troops on 19 August 1814. British army officers landed and threatened to destroy property. Their threat effectively resulted in the hesitancy of the local Maryland militia to oppose the invaders. The farm that the Maryland militia retreated to was probably Chesley’s Hill.

After neutralizing American resistance, the Royal Marines already under Cockburn’s command and Ross landed at Benedict, Maryland on August 19. His forces routed the US Navy’s Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, a detachment of US Marines, and the inexperienced American militia at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24.

Immediately after the battle, the British sent an advance guard of soldiers to Capitol Hill. Major General Ross sent a party under a flag of truce to agree to terms, but they were attacked by partisans from a house at the corner of Maryland Avenue, Constitution Avenue, and Second Street NE. This was to be the only resistance the soldiers met within the city. The house was burned, and the British raised their Union Flag over Washington.

The buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives—construction on the central rotunda of the Capitol had not yet begun—were set ablaze not long after. The interiors of both buildings, which held the Library of Congress, were destroyed, although their thick walls and a torrential rainfall that was caused by a hurricane preserved the exteriors. Thomas Jefferson later sold his personal library of more than 6,000 volumes to the government to restock the Library of Congress.

White House

The troops turned northwest up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. After the US government officials fled, the First Lady Dolley Madison remained behind to organize the slaves and staff to save valuables from the British. Her role increased her popularity, even as it was embellished by newspapers.

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The United States Capitol after the burning of Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812. Watercolor and ink depiction from 1814, restored.

James Madison’s personal servant, the slave Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness at the age of 15. After purchasing his freedom later from the widow Dolley Madison, he published his memoir in 1865, considered the first from the White House:

It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected any moment.

Jennings said that the people who saved the painting and removed the objects were:
John Susé [Jean-Pierre Sioussat] (a Frenchman, then door-keeper, and still living) and Magraw [McGraw], the President’s gardener, took it down and sent it off on a wagon, with some large silver urns and such other valuables as could be hastily got hold of. When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President’s party.

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The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House

The soldiers burned the president’s house, and fuel was added to the fires that night to ensure they would continue burning into the next day. The smoke was reportedly visible as far away as Baltimore and the Patuxent River.

In 2009 President Barack Obama held a ceremony at the White House to honor Jennings as a representative of slaves’ contributions to saving the Gilbert Stuart painting and other valuables. “A dozen descendants of Jennings came to Washington, to visit the White House. For a few precious minutes, they were able to look at the painting their relative helped save”. In an interview given to NPR, Jennings’ great-great-grandson Hugh Alexander said, “We were able to take a family portrait in front of the painting, which was for me one of the high points.” He confirmed that Jennings purchased his freedom later from the widow Dolley Madison.

Other property in Washington

burning of washington other property
The burning of Washington forms the background to this portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn

The day after the destruction of the White House, Rear Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the D.C. newspaper, the National Intelligencer, intending to burn it down. However, several women persuaded him not to because they were afraid the fire would spread to their neighboring houses. Cockburn wanted to destroy the newspaper because its reporters had written so negatively about him, branding him as “The Ruffian.” Instead, he ordered his troops to tear the building down brick by brick, ordering all the “C” type destroyed “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name”.

The British also burned the United States Treasury and other public buildings. The First U.S. Patent Office Building was saved by the efforts of William Thornton, the former Architect of the Capitol and then the Superintendent of Patents, who gained British cooperation to preserve it. “When the smoke cleared from the dreadful attack, the Patent Office was the only Government building . . . left untouched” in Washington.

The Americans already had burned much of the historic Washington Navy Yard, founded by Thomas Jefferson, to prevent capture of stores and ammunition, as well as the 44-gun frigate USS Columbia and the 18 gun USS Argus both new vessels nearing completion. The Navy Yard’s Latrobe Gate, Quarters A, and Quarters B were the only buildings to escape destruction. Also spared were the Marine Barracks and Commandant’s House, which Marine legend attributes to a gesture of respect for their conduct at Bladensburg.

In the afternoon of August 25, General Ross sent two hundred men to secure a fort on Greenleaf’s Point. The fort, later known as Fort McNair, had already been destroyed by the Americans, but 150 barrels of gunpowder remained. While the British were trying to destroy it by dropping the barrels into a well, the powder ignited. As many as thirty men were killed in the explosion, and many others were maimed.

Less than a day after the attack began, a sudden heavy thunderstorm put out most of the fires. It also spun off a tornado that passed through the center of the capital, lifting two cannon before dropping them several yards away and killing British troops and American civilians alike. The storm forced the British troops to return to their ships, many of which were badly damaged; the occupation of Washington lasted only about 26 hours. The Royal Navy reported that in the attack, it lost one man killed and six wounded, of whom the fatality and three of the wounded were from the Corps of Colonial Marines.

A separate British force captured Alexandria, on the south side of the Potomac River, while Ross’s troops were leaving Washington. The mayor of Alexandria made a deal and the British refrained from burning the town.

President Madison returned to Washington by September 1, on which date he issued as proclamation calling on citizens to defend the District of Columbia. Congress returned and assembled in special session on September 19. Due to the destruction of the Capitol and other public buildings, they initially met in the Post and Patent Office building.

Aftermath

Most contemporary American observers, including newspapers representing anti-war Federalists, condemned the destruction of the public buildings as needless vandalism. Many of the British public were shocked by the burning of the Capitol and other buildings at Washington; such actions were denounced by most leaders of continental Europe. According to the The Annual Register, the burning had “..brought a heavy censure on the British character..”, with some members of Parliament, including the anti-establishment MP Samuel Whitbread, joining in the criticism.

The majority of British opinion believed that the burnings were justified following the damage that United States forces had done with its incursions into Canada. In addition, they noted that the United States had been the aggressor, declaring war and initiating it. Several commentators regarded the damages as just revenge for the American destruction of the Parliament buildings and other public buildings in York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada, early in 1813. Sir George Prévost wrote that “as a just retribution, the proud capital at Washington has experienced a similar fate”. The Reverend John Strachan, who as Rector of York had witnessed the American acts there, wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the damage to Washington “was a small retaliation after redress had been refused for burnings and depredations, not only of public but private property, committed by them in Canada”.

When they ultimately returned to Bermuda, the British forces took two portraits, of King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte Sophia, which had been discovered in one of the public buildings. Since then, they have hung in the Parliament of Bermuda.

Reconstruction

The thick sandstone walls of the White House and Capitol survived, although scarred with smoke and scorch marks. There was a strong movement in Congress to relocate the nation’s capital with many northern Congressmen pushing for a city north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Philadelphia was quick to volunteer as a temporary home as did Georgetown, where Mayor Thomas Corcoran offered Georgetown College as a temporary home for Congress. Ultimately, a bill to relocate the capital was defeated in Congress and Washington remained the seat of government.

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The Old Brick Capitol serving as a prison during the Civil War.

Fearful that there might be pressure to relocate the capital altogether, Washington businessmen financed the construction of the Old Brick Capitol, where Congress met while the Capitol was reconstructed from 1815 to 1819. Madison resided in The Octagon House for the remainder of his term. Reconstruction of the White House began in early 1815 and was finished in time for President James Monroe’s inauguration in 1817.

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