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Library of Congress
“Capture and Burning of Washington by the British, in 1814,” an 1876 wood engraving.

On This Day: British Troops Burn White House and Capitol

August 25, 2007 02:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On Aug. 24, 1814, British forces set the White House, Capitol, and much of Washington, D.C., ablaze during the War of 1812.

British Burn Washington, D.C.

In 1814, as part of the War of 1812, the British planned to attack the U.S. city of Baltimore, an important city on the Chesapeake Bay. Near Baltimore was Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital since 1800. Washington, which had been mostly uninhabited swampland prior to 1790, was still a sparsely populated city in 1814. (Library of Congress)

Washington had little strategic importance for the British, but they believed that seizing the capital would have a “psychological impact on the will of the Americans to continue the conflict,” says EyeWitness to History. (EyeWitness to History)

In August 1814, British forces, numbering about 4,000, moved north from Virginia toward Washington. On Aug. 24, with President Madison and some of his cabinet members watching, the British defeated U.S. troops in Bladensburg, Md., located just a few miles outside Washington. (Emittsburg Area Historical Society)

After receiving news of the battle, the residents of Washington raced out of the city before the British could arrive. In the White House, first lady Dolly Madison grabbed important Cabinet documents to take with her. A young slave saved a portrait of George Washington, while a clerk took the Declaration of Independence. (White House Historical Association)

The British arrived that evening. EyeWitness to History provides the account of British soldier George Gleig, who describes that his leaders ate dinner in the White House and then ordered that the public building be burned. Troops set fire to the White House, the Treasury, and public buildings throughout the capital. (EyeWitness to History)

The burning of the capital did not demoralize the Americans, however. Three weeks later, U.S. forces withstood the British assault on Baltimore, and the war ended in stalemate later that year. (Library of Congress)

Background: War of 1812

The War of 1812 was started after Britain imposed trade restrictions on the U.S. and began forcibly recruiting American sailors into the British Royal Navy, a practice known as impressment. These policies angered Congress and President Madison, who decided to declare war. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

The war was fought between 1812 and 1815 in North America., mostly near the U.S.-Canada border. The burning of Washington occurred near the end of the war. On Dec. 24, 1814, the two sides signed a peace treaty in present-day Belgium that returned relations to “status quo ante bellum,” meaning the way they were before the war. News of the treaty was slow to reach North America, so fighting actually continued until February. (U.S. Army Center of Military History)

Later Developments: Washington rebuilt

After the war, congressmen debated moving the capital to another city, but decided to rebuild Washington instead. (Library of Congress)

President Madison had James Hoban, the architect of the White House, restore the building after the British destroyed the inside. Originally light gray in color, the building’s exterior was painted white during the restoration, which took three years to complete. (U.S. National Park Service)

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