The British and Canadians Burn Washington, DC, 1814
August of 1814 was one of the hottest in the memory of the approximately 8,000 residents of America's new capital. The sweltering, humid heat turned the stagnate marshes surrounding the city into thriving hatcheries for disease-carrying mosquitoes. To make matters worse, the city found itself the target of an invading British army slowly making its way from the Chesapeake Bay.
America had been at war with the British Empire since 1812, but the action so far had consisted of a series of indeterminate skirmishes along the Great Lakes region. With the defeat of Napoleon, the Empire turned its full attention to its former colony sending its battle-hardened troops to squash the up-start Americans. Washington had little strategic value - the thriving port of Baltimore was much more important. However, as capital of the nation, the British hoped that its burning would have a psychological impact on the will of the Americans to continue the conflict.
As the British army of approximately 4,000 approached, the majority of Washington residents fled the city. On August 24th American defenders, with President James Madison in attendance, were quickly routed by the invaders in a battle at Blandesburg a few miles from the city. A messenger was dispatched to the White House to warn First Lady Dolly Madison of the impeding arrival of the British. She and her staff fled by carriage across the Potomac - taking with her the full-length portrait of George Washington that had been torn from a White House wall.
That evening, the vanguard of the British army reached Capitol Hill and began its systematic destruction of all public buildings in the city. (reprinted from Eyewitness to History.com)
And though this Manifest Destiny concept of the US Empire that has since grown up to replace the old British Empire is still very much with us, and now extended itself to the entire world, and grown even much more dangerous, and poses its danger still to this country along many fronts. economic and political as well as military, it is important that we remember that it is far from infallible and unbeatable. The Veterans of this war of 1812 to 1814 defeated them once, and now come down to us as a legacy worth remembering and taking pride in. It is part of the history of this country, and the continent.
It is important that we honour the memory of the veterans of this war. For it is a primary historical event, probably most important in the history of this country, which still speaks to us today-, if we are paying attention.
The War in Outline (From Wikipedia)
At the time, Washington was a minor port with only about 8,000 inhabitants — about 1,300 of whom were slaves. What it lacked in strategic value, however, it made up in symbolic value. The British and Canadians sought revenge on the United States for the destruction they had caused on the capital of Upper Canada (now Ontario) at York (now Toronto) after the Battle of York in 1813. Naval commander George Cockburn wrote that he hoped the destruction of the new republic's capital might demoralize the enemy as well.
On Wednesday, August 24, 1814, British General Robert Ross defeated the American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg, laying open the path to the capital. Ross had landed in Maryland after the Peninsular War had ended, as part of a three-way invasion scheme by the British aimed at Baltimore, New Orleans, and New York.
During the American retreat, President James Madison sought out Secretary of War John Armstrong to see what the plan was for the defense of the capital. Armstrong reported that there was none; he had expected the British to turn next to Baltimore. The President, his cabinet and many other government officials fled to the mountains of Virginia. Most residents of Washington had already abandoned the city; preservation of the government's documents and records had been largely left to clerks and slaves.
Occupation and burning
On August 25, the advance guard of British troops marched to Capitol Hill; they were too few in number to occupy the city, so Ross intended to destroy as much of it as possible. He 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. The house was burned, but the soldiers were infuriated, and the Union Flag was raised above Washington.
The buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives — construction on the trademark central rotunda of the Capitol had not yet begun — were set ablaze not long after. The interiors of both buildings, including the Library of Congress, were destroyed, although the thick walls and a torrential rainfall preserved their exteriors. (Thomas Jefferson later sold his library to the government to restock the Library of Congress, and British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized for the burning of the Library of Congress 189 years later on July 17, 2003). The next day Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the D.C newpaper, National Intelligencer, intending to burn it down; however, a group of neighborhood women persuaded him not to because they were afraid the fire would spread to their neighboring houses. Cockburn wanted to destroy the newspaper because they had written so many negative items about him, branding him as "The Ruffian." Instead he ordered his troops to tear the building down brick by brick making sure that they destroyed all the "C" type so that no more pieces mentioning his name could be printed.
The troops then turned north down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the President's House. First Lady Dolley Madison remained there after many of the government officials — and her own bodyguard — had already left, gathering valuables, documents and other items of importance, notably the Lansdowne Portrait, a full-length painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. She was finally persuaded to leave moments before British soldiers entered the building. Once inside, the soldiers found the dining hall set for a dinner for 40 people. After eating all the food they took souvenirs then set the building on fire.
Fuel was added to the fires that night to ensure they would continue burning into the next day; the flames were reportedly visible as far away as Baltimore and the Patuxent River.
The British also burned the United States Treasury building and other public buildings. The historic Washington Navy Yard, founded by Thomas Jefferson and the first federal installation in the United States, was burned by the Americans to prevent capture of stores and ammunition, as well as the 44-gun frigate Columbia which was then being built. The United States Patent Office building was saved by the efforts of William Thornton—architect of the Capitol and then superintendent of patents—who convinced the British of the importance of its preservation.
During the occupation, a hurricane which included a tornado passed through, damaging both the invaders and the city, but it quickly dissipated and helped put out the fires. The occupation of Washington lasted about 26 hours, and within a week the British troops were dispatched to their next target, Baltimore. President Madison and the rest of the government returned to the city but were in such disarray that they were unable to prosecute the war effectively.