The Burning of Washington was a surprising British invasion of Washington, D.C., the United States’ capital, during the Chesapeake Campaign of the 1812 War. It remains the only episode since the American Revolutionary War that an international power has occupied and captured the United States’ capital.
After the American forces’ defeat at the Bladensburg battle on August 24, 1814, a British army commanded by Major General Robert Ross moved to Washington. That night, British troops set fire to multiple military and government buildings, including the Capitol Building, the White House, and other government facilities. In part, the strike was revenge for the recent American devastation of Port Dover in Upper Canada and American forces looting and burning Upper Canada’s capital the previous year. Less than twenty-four after the attack started, a heavy thunderstorm —perhaps a hurricane — and a tornado neutralized the fires. Washington’s occupation lasted for roughly 26 hours, and what the British plans were other than the damage is still a matter of debate.
The Target – Washington D.C.
The British administration, already battling the mighty Napoleonic France, chose a defensive strategy against the United States when the latter declared war in the second decade of the 1800s. The British government held reinforcements back from Canada, and trust was instead made on native allies and local militias to support the British Army in Canada. However, after the defeat and expulsion of Napoleon Bonaparte in April 1814, Britain was able to use it’s now free troops and ships to execute its conflict with the U.S. The Earl of Bathurst, Secretary of State for War, and the neighboring Colonies sent a trained army brigade and extra naval vessels to Bermuda, from where a prolonged blockade of the U.S. coast and even some coastal islands’ occupation had been overseen throughout the war. British decided to use these forces in attacks along the Atlantic seaboard to pull American forces away from Canada.
The commanders were under strict orders not to carry out operations far inland or hold territory. In the January of 1814, Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane had been elected Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s West Indies Station and North America, handling naval forces based at the Halifax Naval Yard and the new Bermuda dockyard, which were used to blockade U.S. Atlantic ports during the war. He planned to carefully carry the war into the United States by attacks in New Orleans and Virginia.
Rear Admiral George Cockburn had led the squadron in the Chesapeake Bay since the previous year. On June 25, he wrote to Cochrane, emphasizing that the defenses there were weak, and he felt that many major cities were exposed to attack. Cochrane recommended attacking Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Rear Admiral Cockburn correctly predicted that “within a short period, with sufficient force, we could easily have at our mercy the capital .”He had urged Washington as the target because of the relative ease of penetrating the national capital and “the greater political effect likely to result.”
Major General Ross led the 4,500-man army in Washington, composed of 21st (Royal North British Fusilier) Regiment of Foot, the 4th (King’s Own) Regiment of Foot, 85th Regiment of Foot, and 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot.
Many sources suggest that the attack on Washington was driven by revenge for the attack on York, now, the city of Toronto, Ontario, on Lake Ontario’s coast during the Battle of York in April 1813.
According to some contemporary travelers, the Capitol was the only building in Washington “worthy of being noticed .” Thus, it was a choice target for the British invaders for its symbolic and aesthetic value. Upon arrival into the town via Maryland Avenue, the British attacked the Capitol (the northern wing, containing the Senate, and the southern wing, comprising the House of Representatives). Before setting it aflame, the British plundered the building (which housed the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, and Congress).
After blazing the Capitol, the British moved to the northwest up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. After U.S. government officials and President Madison left the city, the First Lady Dolley Madison received a letter from her husband, asking her to be prepared to leave Washington at a moment’s notice. Dolley organized the enslaved and other staff to save valuables from the invading British. James Madison’s enslaved attendant, the fifteen-year-old boy Paul Jennings, witnessed this episode.
The soldiers torched the president’s house, and fuel was added to the fires that night to guarantee they would continue burning for a longer duration.