Burning of Washington
The Burning of Washington in 1814 was an attack during the War of 1812 between British forces 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, including the White House (known as the presidential mansion at the time), and the Capitol, as well as other facilities of the U.S. government. The attack was in part a retaliation to American actions in the Raid on Port Dover and the Battle of York.
Throughout the history of the United States, the United Kingdom is the only country to have ever burned the capital city of Washington, D.C., and this was the only time since the American 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, Britain was able to use its now available troops and ships to prosecute the war with the United States. The Earl of Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, dispatched troops to Bermuda, from where a blockade of the American coast and even the occupation of some coastal islands had been overseen from throughout the war. It was decided to use these forces to prevent further campaigns by the United States 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, controlling naval forces based at the new Bermuda dockyard and the Halifax Naval Yard which were used to blockade American Atlantic ports throughout the war. He planned to carry the war into the United States by attacks in Virginia and against New Orleans.
Rear Admiral George Cockburn had commanded the squadron in Chesapeake Bay since the previous year. On June 25 he wrote to Cochrane, stressing that the defenses there were weak, and he felt that 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 attacking the national capital and "the greater political effect likely to result".
An added motive was retaliation for what Britain saw as the "wanton destruction of private property along the north shores of Lake Erie" by American forces under Col. John Campbell in May 1814, the most notable being the Raid on Port Dover. On June 2, 1814, Sir George Prévost, Governor General of The Canadas, wrote to Cochrane at Admiralty House, in Bailey's Bay, Bermuda, calling for a retaliation against the American destruction of private property in violation of the laws of war. Prévost argued that,
...in consequence of the late disgraceful conduct of the American troops in the wanton destruction of private property on the north shores of Lake Erie, in order that if the war with the United States continues you may, should you judge it advisable, assist in inflicting that measure of retaliation which shall deter the enemy from a repetition of similar outrages.
On July 18, Cochrane ordered Cockburn 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". Cochrane instructed, "You will spare merely the lives of the unarmed inhabitants of the United States". Ross and Cockburn were confronted a number of times while on horseback surveying the torching of the President's Home during the time which a great storm arose unexpectedly out of the southeast. These were older women from around Washington City, along with some elderly Clergy (Southern Presbyterian and Southern Baptist) who with women and children who had been hiding in homes and churches. These religious leaders requested protection from abuse, and robbery by certain enlisted personnel from the British Expeditionary Forces who had tried to ransack private homes and other buildings. MG Ross had two British soldiers put in chains for violation of his general order. Throughout the events of that day, a severe storm blew into the city, worsening on the night of 24 August 1814.
President James Madison and members of the military and his government fled the city in the wake of the British attack. They eventually found refuge for the night in Brookeville, a small town in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is known today as the United States Capital for a Day. President Madison spent the night in the house of Caleb Bentley, a Quaker who lived and worked in Brookeville. Bentley's house, known today as the Madison House, still stands in Brookeville.
The Capitol was noted by many contemporary travelers to be the only building in Washington "worthy to be noticed." Thus, it was a prime target for the invaders, both for its aesthetic and symbolic value. After looting the building, the British found it difficult to set the structure on fire, owing to its sturdy stone construction. Soldiers eventually gathered furniture into a heap and ignited it with rocket powder, which successfully set the building ablaze. Among the casualties of the destruction of the Capitol was the Library of Congress, the entire 3,000 volume collection of which was destroyed. Several surrounding buildings in Capitol Heights also caught fire. After the war, Thomas Jefferson sold his own personal library to the government in order to pay personal debts, re-establishing Congress' library.
After torching the Capitol, the troops turned northwest up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. After US government officials and President Madison fled the city, the First Lady Dolley Madison received a letter from her husband, urging her to be prepared to leave Washington at a moment's notice. Dolley organized the slaves and staff to save valuables from the British. James Madison's personal slave, the fifteen-year-old boy Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness. After later buying his freedom from the widow Dolley Madison, Jennings 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 the people who saved the painting and removed the objects actually 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.
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.
In 2009, President Barack Obama held a ceremony at the White House to honor Jennings as a representative of his 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 with National Public Radio, 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 later purchased his freedom from the widowed Dolley Madison.
Other property in Washington
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 sought out the United States Treasury in hopes of finding money or items of worth, but the British Army only found old records. The British 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.[A] "When the smoke cleared from the dreadful attack, the Patent Office was the only Government building . . . left untouched" in Washington.
On the way to burn the War Office shots rang out of seemingly nowhere and a horseman charged firing his pistols at the British. He was a U.S. seaman named John Lewis on a suicidal mission of revenge against the British. Lewis, the nephew of George Washington himself had been impressed by the Royal Navy and forced to fight against his own country, the United States. He had escaped British custody and was now bent on getting retribution against the British, he was burning with resentment. He continued galloping at the British troops and right into a hail of fire from his would be victims. Said musketry knocked Lewis from his horse and onto the road. The nephew of George Washington himself now lay in the middle of the road for hours on end, slowly dying of his mortal wounds, while the British continued their advance where they salvaged trophies and flags captured from the British during the American war of Independence.
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 cannons 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. Despite this, the "Storm that saved Washington" as it became known, did the opposite. The rains sizzled and cracked the already charred walls of the White House and ripped away at structures the British had no plans to destroy (such as the Patent Office). The storm exacerbated an already dire situation for Washington DC. An encounter was noted between (Cockburn) and a female resident of Washington. " Dear God! Is this the weather to which you are accustomed to in this infernal country?" Enquired the Admiral. "This is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city,” the woman allegedly called out to Cockburn.
“Not so, Madam,” Cockburn retorted. “It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.", before riding off on horseback. 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 a 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.
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 pairs of portraits of King George III and his wife, Queen Charlotte Sophia, which had been discovered in one of the public buildings. One pair currently hangs in the House of Assembly of the Parliament of Bermuda, and the other in the Cabinet Building, both in the City of Hamilton.
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.
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.
- Brief History of the United States Patent Office from its foundation—1790 to 1886—with an outline of laws, growth, publications, office routine, etc. Washington, D.C.: R. Beresford, Printer. 1886. Retrieved 16 December 2011. It is written that a loaded cannon was aimed at the Patent Office to destroy it. Thornton "put himself before the gun, and in a frenzy of excitement exclaimed: 'Are you Englishmen or only Goths and Vandals? This is the Patent Office, a depository of the ingenuity of the American nation, in which the whole civilized world is interested. Would you destroy it? If so, fire away, and let the charge pass through my body.' The effect is said to have been magical upon the soldiers, and to have saved the Patent Office from destruction."
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