The Burning of Washington, DC

The Burning of Washington, DC

british burning washington dc
In the aftermath of the recent mob assault on the US Capitol, much was made of the fact that the failed insurrection was only the second time in more than two hundred years that the building has fallen victim to an attack. The first—an event not well-remembered by anyone other than students of American history—occurred during the War of 1812, less than fifty years after the nation’s founding.

It was a strange conflict that often gets lost between the Revolution and the Civil War. The United States, with a tiny army and navy but with a large republic to defend, declared war on what was then the world’s preeminent military power. And to make it an even stranger affair, it was a three-year war fought mainly over maritime rights.

Most historians agree that the war was poorly fought by the United States (we were, after all, a young nation). One of the only significant American victories in the war came after the war was technically over; the battle of New Orleans. It was a huge victory but concluded after the Treaty of Ghent—drafted half a world away at a time when the news traveled slowly—had already been signed.

But in a poorly understood, poorly fought war, one episode stands out as unquestionably the lowest point. In August of 1814, after defeating American volunteers at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British army moved toward the capital. The District of Columbia was a far cry from the metropolis it is today; it had a population of fewer than 10,000, with perhaps as many swamps as streets. It had only been fourteen years since the capital was moved from Philadelphia. The city possessed little strategic value to the British, but they believed that capturing the city would demoralize their American foes and weaken their war effort.

gutted remains of the us capitol building
At the President’s home, First Lady Dolley Madison was preparing for a dinner with her husband and thirty guests when they were given instructions to evacuate the city. When the British reached the District, they made short work of destroying the new capital. They set fire to the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, the Treasury, the building that housed the War Department. After finishing Mrs. Madison’s elegant dinner, they burned the Presidential Mansion. (It was only after the war when it was restored and given a coat of white paint that it came to be known as the White House.) The city became an inferno, with the flames visible some fifty miles away in Virginia, where residents recalled watching the distant fires burn for much of the night.

But amid Washington’s near destruction, a curious thing happened. The summer of 1814 had been one of the hottest and driest in memory, with no rain in weeks. As the British laid waste to the city, a massive storm developed, dumping torrential rain and extinguishing the fires set by the invading army. In the confusion created by the storm, the British abandoned the largely gutted city.

The District of Columbia, as we know, survived the British invasion and the grand government buildings were restored to their former glory or rebuilt altogether. In the aftermath of the war and the unlikely American victory, the United States was swept by a wave of national pride and patriotism and—no longer reliant on British trade—gained economic independence in addition to their already-won political autonomy. If the Revolution gave birth to the United States, it could be argued the country came of age during the War of 1812.