Throughout the history of the United States, the United Kingdom is the only country to have ever burned the White House or 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.
In the final summer of the War of 1812, the British presence in the Chesapeake region was strengthened by the large numbers of troops arriving after the Napoleonic wars in Europe ended. This diverted the American forces from the frontiers of Upper and Lower Canada, but despite Britain’s strong naval presence in the region, very little was done to protect the small town of Washington. The American secretary of war, John Armstrong, was convinced that Baltimore was the target, and he was half-right as one British attack came there.
The taking of the city of Washington, wood engraving by G. Thompson, c. 1814 (courtesy Library of Congress/ LC-USZC4-4555)
However, British forces led by Major General Robert Ross raided the Chesapeake Bay and after defeating the hastily arrayed Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British occupied Washington City on August 24, 1814 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 U.S Government facilities including the treasury building, and the navy yard. This action was taken as retaliation against the American destruction of private property in violation of the laws of war, including the Burning of York [present day Toronto] on April 27, 1813, and the Raid on Port Dover.
President James Madison and members of the military and his government fled the city in the wake of the British attack. The Americans’ quick retreat later earned the nickname the “Bladensburg races.”
First Lady Dolley Madison
Before leaving, later, the First Lady Dolley Madison and the staff managed to save many of the cabinet records and White House treasures. Nevertheless, the extent of the damages was extreme. James Madison’s personal slave, the fifteen-year-old boy Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness and published his memoir in 1865, considered the first from the White House..
Most contemporary American observers 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. However, 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.
PREVIOUS A TO Z POSTS
Details on my 2015 A to Z theme and a linked list of posts can be found on my A to Z Challenge page, which also has a linked list of my 2014 posts.
The brainchild of Arlee Bird, at Tossing it Out, the A to Z Challenge is posting every day in April except Sundays (we get those off for good behaviour.) And since there are 26 days, that matches the 26 letters of the alphabet. On April 1, we blog about something that begins with the letter “A.” April 2 is “B,” April 3 is “C,” and so on. Please visit other challenge writers.
My theme is ‘The War of 1812’, a military conflict, lasting for two-and-a-half years, fought by the United States of America against the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, its North American colonies, and its American Indian allies. The Memoirs of a British naval officer from the war is central to my novel “Seeking A Knife” – part of the Snowdon Shadows series.
Further reading on The War of 1812: