The Burning Of Washington: When The British Attacked The White House

By Grace Taylor

Burning of Washington, Paul de Thoyras. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

The War of 1812 erupted after a series of trade disputes, thanks to Napoleon's nonstop military campaign across central Europe, which eventually left the British desperate enough to effectively kidnap American sailors and enlist them in their army. Meanwhile, Great Britain was also lending a helping hand to the Native Americans in an effort to stave off the ever-encroaching Western settlers. Obviously, this didn't please the United States, so for the first time, the young nation declared war on a foreign country.

It wasn't until 1814, however, after the defeat of Napoleon, that the English finally set their sights on the U.S. capital, desiring to punish America for looting several Canadian towns, most notably during the Battle of York. You would think the Americans would have some kind of ironclad plan to protect Washington, D.C. from invasion, but as the U.S. Army hadn't really fought any major conflict since the country gained independence, they were sloppy. They proved little more than an annoyance to the British, who all but walked into the city like they still owned the place. Seriously, at one point, the 63-year-old President James Madison rode into battle armed with two pistols but was abandoned by his militia men when the British started shooting rockets their way.

The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House. (White House/Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, Dolley Madison was setting up an extravagant dinner for what she wrongly assumed would be a celebration when she got word that the British were coming and people were abandoning the city. Officials were in a flurry, with many grabbing whatever important documents they could, namely the Declaration of Independence. Dolley left many of her own belongings behind in favor of saving the Landsdown portrait, an iconic life-size painting of George Washington, which had to be ripped out of its massive frame, as it was tightly screwed to the wall.

The First Lady lamented the fact that she was forced to flee the sacred house due to the army's choice to abandon the city, writing, "I confess that I was so unfeminine as to be free from fear and willing to remain in the castle! If I could have had a cannon through every window; but alas! Those who should have placed them there fled before me, and my whole heart mourned for my country!"

When the British made it to the White House, they were pleased to find the banquet Dolley had laid out for Madison and devoured it themselves. They stole small decorations and clothing as souvenirs before stacking the furniture in a pile and dumping massive amounts of gunpowder. They set the mansion ablaze, along with the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Capitol Building, and the Treasury. They were kind enough to leave the Patent Office untouched, because y'know, inventions are cool, but they did steal every "C" from the local newspaper printing house so they'd be unable to write unfavorable stories about the invading British General Cockburn.

Portrait of James Madison. (White House/Wikimedia Commons)

In an effort to find a safe haven for the president, Madison was taken to a Quaker village but turned away by the first home they tried (and they say the Third Amendment never comes in handy). The second home took him in, and it was there that the President learned the full extent of the havoc the English wrought on the capital city.

Soon, however, a freakish storm hit Washington, D.C. with rain and the extraordinarily rare event of a tornado. While the few remaining inhabitants took shelter quickly, the British were unaware of how serious the storm could get, with Cockburn exclaiming to an American woman, "Great God, madame! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?" The woman answered him back, "No, sir, this is a special interposition of providence to drive our enemies from our city."

Indeed, the British were unable to keep up their fires as their cannons went flying and the rocky ruins of the city were sent hurling through the air, crushing and killing several soldiers. After only 26 hours, the British army gave up their occupation and went back to their ships. The unusual weather event became known as the "Storm That Saved Washington," though it did do a number on the already banged-up town. Washington, D.C. was slowly rebuilt, with the Capitol Building taking a whopping 12 years to complete, and has not been attacked by a foreign adversary since.

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Grace Taylor

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