Not long after sundown, as night fell on the streets of the nearly abandoned city, the sky above Washington flared suddenly alight again. It looked at first like flashes of sheet lightning breaking the muggy August air. But then an orange glow settled over Capitol Hill, shining brighter and brighter, a beacon of catastrophe.
From Maryland hilltops, eastward across the Anacostia River and northward on the heights of Tenleytown, soldiers and officers of the American army looked on in stunned silence, watching flames rise above the halls of Congress. President James Madison and members of his Cabinet, fleeing on horseback deep into Virginia, kept stopping to gape at the conflagration each time it became newly visible at a rise or a bend in the road, unable to turn their backs fully on the disaster they were leaving behind. At a house on the far bank of the Potomac, the First Lady kept a silent vigil, hour after long hour. Many thousands of ordinary citizens watched as well. In an era before electric lights, the fire on the horizon could be seen from 40 miles away.
At the Capitol building, the enemy had been brutal in its efficiency, well trained as it was in the art of war. Initially the edifice, as if possessed of its own stubborn will to survive, had resisted the onslaught, its thick pinewood roof failing to ignite as Congreve rockets—weapons only recently developed—were fired at it from below. But red-coated soldiers tore the spectators’ gallery from the walls of the House chamber and hacked fine woodwork into kindling with their hatchets, tossing mahogany desks, chairs, and tables atop the wreckage to form an enormous pyre at the center of the room. They smeared gunpowder paste on the walls before firing more rockets, this time directly into the heaped debris.
Now the flames roared to life, caught, and spread. Tendrils of fire climbed the heavy silk curtains lining the hall and consumed the crimson canopy above the speaker’s chair. As the pyre became an immense bonfire, chandeliers crashed from the ceiling and plate-glass skylights shattered and melted.
Eerie figures of animals and humans seemed to circle the inferno like dancers in a nightmare: the immense sandstone eagle beneath the ceiling; the godlike allegorical figures of Agriculture, Art, Science, and Commerce; the marble statue of Liberty clutching a scrolled Constitution, her foot treading on the fallen crown of despotism. Then the sculpted stonework began cracking under the intense heat. Faces and wings blackened and fell away; goddess, crown, and Constitution powdered into lime.
Elsewhere in the building, invaders continued their relentless obliteration, smashing furniture in the Supreme Court chamber—at the time housed inside the Capitol—before setting it, too, ablaze. No such efforts were required to destroy the Senate, where the wind drove in the flames to consume the elegant hall. Upstairs in the Library of Congress, thousands of handsome, leather-bound volumes, fine colored engravings, and rare maps—many selected personally by former President Thomas Jefferson—were reduced to ashes.
At the height of the blaze, the ravaged roof beams finally gave way and the ceiling of the House chamber collapsed with a thunderous whoosh, sending a geyser of sparks into the night sky. To distant observers, it must have seemed as if Capitol Hill had erupted like a volcano. Downwind, neighboring houses began to catch fire.
For Washingtonians that day—August 24, 1814, two years into the War of 1812—the devastation of their city was a blow that went beyond the physical loss. In retrospect, and by the standards of more recent urban disasters, this one might seem mild: In the final reckoning, no American lives were lost and little private property was destroyed. Washington’s population at the time was just 10,000 or so, fewer than half the number of inhabitants of DC’s Cleveland Park today.
But that relatively small community had built the federal city with its own hands. Hardly a soul within its boundaries—from African-American slaves and Irish immigrant laborers to congressmen and Cabinet secretaries—had not participated somehow in the effort that, in barely 20 years, had begun transforming a landscape of tobacco fields, pine flats, and muddy farm lanes into the capital of a rising world power.
Foreign visitors may have mocked what Charles Dickens called the “city of magnificent intentions,” with its Grecian edifices rising alongside ramshackle taverns. Yet at a time when most Americans lived in simple wooden houses and public art was almost unknown, the Capitol’s rich adornments—the silk brocade and polished mahogany, the sculptures carved of Virginia stone by artists from Italy—were national treasures, the property of every citizen. In its rudimentary state, Washington was a promissory note against future greatness.
Watching the Capitol burn, a middle-aged clerk from the Navy Yard—old enough to remember the revolution that had won the nation its freedom from Britain some three decades earlier—felt physically sickened at “a sight, so repugnant to my feelings, so dishonorable; so degrading to the American Character.”
Worst of all was that the disaster had not needed to happen. It had occurred because of Americans’ ineptitude and cowardice in the face of a longtime enemy and because of their leaders’ imprudence. The national government that had seemed so solid just a week earlier had, like the Capitol, crumbled in an instant. This, more than anything, made the tragedy almost impossible to bear.
In the dark early hours of August 19, a hawk-nosed, sunburned British officer peered from his longboat toward the alien shore ahead. Rear Admiral George Cockburn was taking one of the biggest gambles of his career. Now 42, he had faithfully served the Royal Navy since going to sea at age 14, not long after the last American war. He had battled the Spanish and the French in the East Indies and the Mediterranean and learned the ploys and tactics of a fighting captain under Lord Nelson himself.
With his brash swagger and weatherbeaten hat trimmed in gold braid, Cockburn (pronounced “co-burn,” the admiral would thank you to remember) was the very model of a British naval commander. Despite his imperious manner, his subordinates worshiped him as an officer who—in the words of one teenage midshipman—“never spared himself, either night or day, but shared on every occasion, the same toil, danger, and privation of the [lowliest] man under his command.”
Yet Cockburn had faced considerable skepticism over the past several months in pushing for an attack on Washington. His superior, the vacillating Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, chief of British naval operations in North America, had at first favored the plan but then turned his attention to the less risky strategy of freeing and arming African-American slaves. Major General Robert Ross, the Army officer who would have to command the land operations, was similarly hesitant.
Back in Great Britain, however, civilian opinion was clamoring for the impudent Yankees to be taught a lesson. “Now that the tyrant Bonaparte has been consigned to infamy”—which was to say the island of Elba—“there is no public feeling in this country stronger than that of indignation against the Americans,” the Times of London had editorialized a few months earlier.
Perhaps the origins of the War of 1812 were, in most Britons’ and Americans’ minds, half lost in a tangle of mutual affronts: trade disputes, insults to sovereignty, and the multiple contusions caused by an upstart power jostling against an established one. In any case, the battles already fought on land and sea had afforded ample fodder for mutual hatred. British commanders had burned villages and plantations along America’s shoreline and allied with Indian tribes in ravaging the frontiers. Americans had sunk British frigates and burned legislative buildings in the Canadian provincial headquarters of York (now Toronto).
So Cockburn had argued for the capture of the enemy capital, “always so great a blow to the government of a country,” more for its psychological value than its strategic importance. No more than 48 hours after landing troops near the Maryland village of Benedict, he promised Cochrane, he and Ross could take Washington “without difficulty or opposition of any kind.”