Washington Burning: The 200th Anniversary of The War of 1812

The Capitol and the White House both lay in ruins. The president had fled. How had a foreign power occupied Washington in just one day?

By: Adam Goodheart

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.”

British rear admiral George Cockburn, with his brash swagger, promised that he could capture Washington “without difficulty or opposition of any kind.” Illustration courtesy of Library of Congress.

Disembarking with a modest force of 4,500, he was about to put his bravado to the test. Surely Cockburn, a veteran of the Chesapeake campaign, could not have seriously imagined that the Yankees would surrender the seat of their republic before firing a single shot. But hour after hour passed without a glimpse of the foe.

The only immediate enemy was the broiling midsummer heat, which took an awful toll on men in heavy wool uniforms hauling muskets and ammunition and trundling artillery pieces, with legs still wobbly after months at sea. (The Maryland climate, one Briton recalled decades later, was “little inferior to that which I have subsequently experienced in the Gulf of Guinea.”) To boost morale, drummers and buglers struck up a stirring air from Handel: “See, the Conqu’ring Hero Comes!”

The British knew that one substantial military barrier did lurk in the vicinity: an American flotilla of more than a dozen gunboats under Commodore Joshua Barney, taking shelter somewhere up the nearby Patuxent River. The invaders’ first mission was to destroy the small fleet—the sole remaining US naval presence in the Chesapeake Bay—lest it become a nuisance.

Indeed, Barney might well have offered resistance that could have pinned down the British while Americans prepared to defend the capital. As it was, it took three days to reach the point where the flotilla lay anchored far upstream. But scarcely had the British force glimpsed the vessels than they began, one by one, to explode: Barney, obeying orders from his superiors in Washington, was destroying his own fleet rather than letting it fall into enemy hands.

As for Yankee land power, the redcoats finally encountered their first armed adversaries that same morning: a lone sailor who fired unsuccessfully at one of Cockburn’s aides from behind a bush (he was quickly captured and subdued) and a few horsemen who appeared atop a bluff (they galloped off when the British fired in their direction).

As Cockburn and Ross were beginning to guess, the Americans had decided to concentrate their troops farther inland, where they could face the invaders on ground of their own choosing. The British expedition, deep into unfamiliar enemy territory with a small, heat-exhausted force, faced ever greater risk of being caught in a trap. Mindful of this, Cochrane sent a courier from his flagship with instructions to terminate the mission: In provoking the flotilla’s destruction, it had accomplished quite enough.

Ross was ready to obey, but to his chagrin, Cockburn insisted on ignoring the dispatch. The two commanders argued late into the night. Finally, as August 23 dawned, an exhausted Ross capitulated: “Well, be it so, we will proceed.” Soon their army was on the march toward the capital city.

It took another day of slow, sweltering progress before British troops spotted a large dust cloud hovering a couple of miles ahead. Drawing closer, they spied the glinting bayonets and musket barrels of an American army awaiting them, drawn up atop a hill alongside the town of Bladensburg. One of Ross’s officers, Lieutenant George Gleig, was struck by the contrast between the foes. All around him, immaculately uniformed redcoats marched in perfect cadence, “silent as the grave, and orderly as people at a funeral.”

The Yankee militiamen—though well armed and outnumbering the invaders—scarcely looked like soldiers at all, dressed in a motley assortment of uniform parts and civilian clothes. From the moment they spotted the British, they began filling the air with excited shouts. These would-be defenders, Gleig scoffed, “might have passed off very well for a crowd of spectators, come out to view the approach of the army which was to occupy Washington.”

At first, these “spectators” put up a surprisingly stiff resistance, loosing volleys of gunfire that cut down redcoats by the dozens. One bullet severed the strap of Cockburn’s stirrup, and another killed the marine who stepped in to repair the damaged leather. But then shouts of “Forward!” sounded up and down the British line, and as the veteran soldiers marched ahead in lockstep, the Yankee militiamen began to break and run.

“Never did men with arms in their hands make better use of their legs,” Gleig wrote. Less than an hour after the first shots at Bladensburg, the road to Washington lay open.

Amid the thick of the battle, a careful observer on the British side might have spied a small, scholarly-looking gentleman, who had been superintending the battle from just behind the American lines, wheel his horse around and gallop away. The black-clad figure disappeared into the dusty distance. President Madison had seen enough.

In Washington, panic already had begun to hold sway. Over the past several days, many of the District’s inhabitants had come to realize that disaster was imminent, and the streets were now choked with carriages and carts ferrying refugees and their belongings—as well as a few being used to rescue precious government property.

One valiant junior clerk, assisted by an African-American office messenger, took it upon himself to safeguard the Senate’s most important documents, including secret plans for the ongoing war. A State Department employee rolled up the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution to be stashed away outside the city. Yet many other Washingtonians still refused to believe what seemed inconceivable.

Arriving at the abandoned White House, famished British soldiers found a sumptuous feast laid out. After partaking of the food and drink, they set fire to the mansion. Illustration courtesy of Library of Congress.

The battle for the city had been lost here as much as on the field at Bladensburg—over the course of months and even years. It was lost during session after session of Congress, when legislators refused to fund an adequate army, relying instead on haphazardly trained militia. It was lost when Madison chose an inexperienced political appointee to command the region’s military defenses a few months before the invasion. It was lost when Secretary of War John Armstrong refused to believe that the nearby British fleet posed any danger to Washington. It was lost when the Secretary of the Navy, sending urgent orders for reinforcements to Philadelphia, inexplicably consigned them to the regular mail. (His letter reached the post office on a Sunday.) It was lost when troops rushing to join the army at Bladensburg were detained for hours in the capital while a detail-oriented supply clerk made their colonel sign receipts for every last gunflint. (They arrived after the battle was over.)

Last-ditch plans to defend the city on August 24 came to nothing. Secretary Armstrong reluctantly let go of a scheme to conceal heavy artillery and 5,000 infantrymen inside the Capitol. Deeds of valor in the city that day would be civilian, not military.

That afternoon, as defeated troops from Bladensburg streamed toward the capital, a 15-year-old slave named Paul Jennings was helping set the table at the White House. Dolley Madison had requested places for 40 guests, as she expected her husband to return with his Cabinet members and military commanders for a leisurely meal. Jennings put out fine silver and china. As he and the other servants awaited the presidential party’s arrival, hoofbeats sounded through the open window. Instead of the distinguished guests, it was a messenger bearing news of the rout.

More than any other Americans in 1814, James and Dolley Madison could have claimed Washington as a place of their own creation. As father of the Constitution, the President himself had devised the federal system that provided—and still provides—its raison d’ĂȘtre. He had been among the earliest advocates of the capital’s location on the Potomac River, and he and his wife had been among its first prominent residents. Dolley Madison, during eight years as frequent White House hostess under the widowed Jefferson, then five years as First Lady, had brought to life the capital’s social ecosystem. James Madison stands as founding father of one version of Washington: the city of House, Senate, and Supreme Court. Dolley’s spirit presides over another: the city of power lunches, lobbyists’ receptions, and embassy parties.

Now the couple presided over Washington’s destruction, the result of a war that the President had advocated and an invasion he had done little to guard against. With her husband nowhere to be found, the First Lady did all she could. She stuffed some White House silverware into her handbag, grabbed her copy of the Declaration of Independence, and asked Jennings and another slave to remove Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington from its frame for easier transport. Then she locked the front door and climbed aboard a waiting carriage. Among the last refugees to leave the White House was her beloved pet macaw, carried out in the arms of a slave.

An enduring myth of that day is that Dolley Madison cut the Stuart portrait out of its frame. The painting shows no evidence of this. Other oft-told stories about the burning of Washington rest on similarly shaky foundations, including an anecdote about Cockburn and his officers play-acting a legislative session in the abandoned House chamber, with the admiral proposing from the speaker’s chair, “Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?” I’ve found no firsthand British accounts of that scene.

Much better documented is the banquet hosted at the White House not long after Dolley Madison’s precipitous departure. Arriving at the mansion, famished British soldiers were delighted to find the sumptuous repast still laid out. After partaking generously of the food and—especially—drink, they finished, in Lieutenant Gleig’s words, “by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.” First, many grabbed souvenirs, including the President’s cocked hat and dress sword and his wife’s portrait. Cockburn joined in the fun with lewd jokes at the First Lady’s expense. The cleanest one was when he grabbed the cushion from her chair, quipping that he wished to “warmly recall Mrs. Madison’s seat.”

Truth be told, more eyewitness accounts attest that the redcoats’ behavior was restrained, even chivalrous—at least as much as could be hoped of an invading army. With few exceptions—such as the offices of a leading pro-war newspaper—Cockburn and Ross enforced a rule that no private property should be harmed. Besides the White House, the only residence deliberately burned was a house on Capitol Hill from which some stray shots were fired, killing Ross’s horse from beneath him. Officers torched the Treasury building but spared the Patent Office and banks. Americans themselves burned the Navy Yard to keep its vessels and supplies from falling into enemy hands; its storehouses full of lumber, cloth, oil, and tar made an inferno rivaling that at the Capitol. A detachment of redcoats followed up the next morning to demolish what the first blaze had missed, and several dozen were killed and wounded after accidentally igniting a cache of gunpowder.

Then, almost as suddenly as the British had arrived, they vanished. Just after dark on August 25, barely 24 hours after they had torched the Capitol, the invaders withdrew back toward Bladensburg and the safety of Admiral Cochrane’s ships.

For those few inhabitants who had remained in the city, the past two days’ events would linger as a set of surreal images, vivid in color and blurry in outline. Almost 200 years later, despite all the history the capital has seen since, their descriptions of the invaders still possess the quality of lucid dreams.

One of the Washingtonians who recorded his memories was Michael Shiner, a young slave apprentice at the Navy Yard. “As son as we got a sight of British armmy raising that hill they looked like flames of fier,” he wrote, “all red coats and the stoks of ther guns painted with red ver Milon and the iron work shind like a spanish dollar . . . .” Shiner was one of the last living witnesses to the tragedy of August 1814, surviving for nearly another seven decades. He would carry those terrible days with him for many long years, through emancipation, the Civil War, and beyond, into a Washington vastly altered from the fledgling capital that the redcoats had burned.

Adam Goodheart, director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, is the author of “1861: The Civil War Awakening.”

This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.