On This Day

british burn white house, white house fire, british burn washington
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 24, 2011 05:00 AM
by Josh Katz
On Aug. 24, 1814, British forces set the White House, Capitol, and much of Washington, D.C., ablaze during the War of 1812, aiming to demoralize America and then take Baltimore.

Burning D.C.

In 1814, as part of the War of 1812, the British planned to attack Baltimore, an important city on the Chesapeake Bay. Near Baltimore was Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States since 1800. Washington, which had been mostly uninhabited swampland prior to 1790, was still a sparsely populated city in 1814.

Washington had limited strategic importance for the British, but it had great symbolic importance. A year earlier, American forces had burned many buildings in York, the capital of Upper Canada. Anthony S. Pitch, author of “The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814,” cites the incident as the motivation for the British torching of Washington. The British also hoped that the burning of the capital would demoralize the Americans.

President James Madison and his advisors debated how to protect the capital during an emergency July 1 Cabinet meeting, but Secretary of War John Armstrong said that D.C. was not a worry because the British were focused on Baltimore.

British Adm. George Cockburn, commander of a Royal Navy squadron in the Chesapeake, called for the attack on D.C. in order to gain a strategic position for an offensive against Baltimore. He organized a two-thronged strike on Washington along with the forces of Maj. Gen. Robert Ross, who were sailing from Europe after taking part in the defeat of Napoleon.

Ross’ men, numbering around 4,000, landed at Benedict, Va., on Aug. 19 and quickly moved north toward Washington. On Aug. 24, they were met by 6,000 U.S. troops under Brig. Gen William Winder, a lawyer and part-time soldier, in Bladensburg, Md., located just a few miles outside Washington. With President Madison and some of his cabinet members watching, the British easily vanquished the uncoordinated U.S. forces and marched toward the unguarded capital.

After receiving news of the battle, the residents of Washington raced out of the city before the British could arrive. First lady Dolly Madison escaped the city at the last moment after securing vital Cabinet documents. Paul Jennings, a 15-year-old slave, was able to salvage a famous portrait of George Washington. Senior clerk Stephen Pleasonton saved the Declaration of Independence, which would be placed in a gristmill near Georgetown.

“Only two objects of art that were in the President’s House before the conflagration of August 1814 remain in the White House today,” according to Pitch’s account for the White House Historical Association: the portrait and a “small wooden medicine chest” saved before the fires.

British leaders ate dinner in the White House, known as the Executive Mansion or President’s House at the time. British soldier George Gleig wrote of his fellow soldiers, “[H]aving satisfied their appetites … and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them. … Of the Senate house, the President's palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins.”

The British set fire to the White House, the Treasury, and public buildings throughout the capital. Americans were left in the dark as to the fate of their president and other U.S. officials because news at the time was slow in coming.

The Battle of Baltimore

The burning of Washington did not defeat American morale, however. Instead, the “only time that an enemy force has ever entered the city” strengthened U.S. resolve, says John Miller for the Emmitsburg Area Historical Society.

More than 15,000 volunteers helped to defeat the British in Baltimore by September. Francis Scott Key, who was held prisoner on a British ship, would witness the battle at Baltimore’s Fort McHenry and compose “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Historical Context: The War of 1812

The War of 1812 was a conflict between the United States and Great Britain that began in 1812 and lasted until early 1815. Congress, backed by President James Madison, declared war on Britain after a series of economic sanctions that nearly crippled U.S. trade, and because of national outrage over the impressment of U.S. Navy sailors.

By 1814, the war was dragging on and had cost both countries massive amounts of resources. The Treaty of Ghent was signed on Dec. 24, 1814, officially ending the war. It returned relations between the United States and Britain to their original status before the war.

News of the treaty did not reach America for two weeks, however, and the war continued in the interim. On Jan. 8, 1815, Gen. Andrew Jackson led American troops to victory at New Orleans, the last major conflict of the War of 1812.

Background: The White House

Irish-born immigrant and architect James Hoban designed the building after winning a contest initiated by President George Washington. Second President John Adams was the first to reside at the mansion, despite complaints from his wife Abigail about its incomplete construction.

After the burning of Washington, there was contention over the future of the capital: one congressman, for example, suggested moving it to New York. Congress opted to keep it in Washington. A Southern delegate remarked, “If the seat of government is once set on wheels, there is no saying where it will stop.”

President Madison had Hoban 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. President Theodore Roosevelt would officially call it the White House, although the name had been informally used before.

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