Burning of Washington DC - War of 1812

Burning of Washington DC

Did you know: Thomas Jefferson later sold his personal library of more than 6,000 volumes to the government to restock the Library of Congress?

Napoleon’s forces were defeated in June 1814, so the British were ready to devote more resources to their other war- across the pond against the United States. After troops under the command of Zebulon Pike attacked the city of York, the capital of Upper Canada and set fire to their Parliament building, the British were ready for revenge against the Americans. They would vent their anger against the seat of their government. Royal Marines under British Rear Admiral George Cockburn's command along with troops under General Robert Ross landed at Benedict, Maryland on August 19th. The British forces routed the US Navy's Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, a detachment of US Marines and American militia at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24. This skirmish made it into the history books due to the apparent cowardice of many of the Americans, who turned and ran without firing a shot, giving rise to the pejorative “the Bladensburg Races”.

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 citizens from a house at the corner of Maryland and Constitution Avenue. This was the only resistance the soldiers met within the city. The house was burned and the British raised their Union Flag over Washington. They then turned their sights on the buildings housing the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Library of Congress- which were set on fire and destroyed.

The soldiers burned the President's house (then called the Executive Mansion, later the White House). British troops added fuel 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. The day after the destruction of the White House, Rear Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the newspaper- the National Intelligencer- intending to burn it down. Cockburn wanted to destroy the operation because its reporters had written so negatively about him. Some local women persuaded him to stop because they were concerned the fire would spread to their neighboring houses. Cockburn relented, but ordered his troops to tear the structure down brick by brick, ordering all the "C" letters in the 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 U.S. Patent Office was saved by the efforts of William Thornton, the architect of the Capitol, who pleaded for British cooperation to preserve it. With major portions of the city in flames, it seemed only a miracle could save the metropolis and its desperate citizens. It seems the good Lord heard their cries. A drenching rain doused the Capitol that night, saving the remainder of the area from ruin, but leaving the town a smoldering ruin.

Today the White House stands as a new building.