Canadians wanted revenge for outrages committed by the United States armies during 1813. After the Battle of York in April, American soldiers torched the Parliament and other government buildings of Upper Canada. In December, they burned the town of Newark to the ground. Sir George Prevost, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces in Canada, petitioned the British government for help. Their response was to send an invasion force of veteran soldiers to Washington, D.C.
Panicked Flight from Washington as the British Army Nears
When the British invasion force landed at Benedict, Maryland on August 20, they were less than 50 miles from Washington. As the enemy approached the town over the next three days, panicked residents fled across the river to Virginia. By August 24, the day the British army dispersed the last Washington defenders at the Battle of Bladensburg, only 10% of the town’s population remained. Most of the prominent citizens and politicians were gone. All that remained in Washington were a few homeowners, slaves, servants, government clerks, and the President’s wife, Dolley Madison.
Those left behind managed to save important Capitol documents, including Congressional and Senate papers, the original Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. The White House staff, at the First Lady’s direction, rescued the famous portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Dolley Madison was one of the last people to leave Washington before the British arrived.
A British Raiding Party Enters the Town
At 8 o’clock on August 24, Major General Robert Ross, Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, and a raiding party of 200 British soldiers entered Washington’s outskirts. The town was undefended. The only resistance was a single volley of musket fire from behind a house that killed one soldier and General Ross’s horse. During the resulting chaos, the shooters ran away. The troopers torched the house in retaliation.
Soon the British Union Jack was flying over Capitol Hill. Upon entering the U. S. Capitol, the enemy soldiers marveled at the stateliness of the building and its furnishings. Despite their admiration, the raiding party followed their orders and set fires using explosive charges from Congreve rockets. The Capitol, including the Library of Congress and three thousand books, burned brightly.
The British Burn Washington
Admiral Cockburn gleefully supervised destruction of the National Intelligencer, a government newspaper that had printed sensationalistic articles denouncing his exploits. The Treasury buildings, the War Office, the Arsenal, and military barracks were set alight. The British destroyed every government building except for the U. S. Patent Office. Even the U. S. Navy yard and its military stores were on fire, torched by American sailors with orders to prevent their capture.
Nearing midnight, General Ross, Admiral Cockburn, and other officers entered the White House, at that time called the President’s House. They were delighted to find a banquet of food and wine sitting untouched in the dining room. Servants had prepared the feast for one of Dolley Madison’s famous parties, but instead, the victorious enemy gorged on the meal. After dinner, her uninvited guests looted Mrs. Madison’s home and set it ablaze.
The government buildings continued to burn until the early afternoon, when a severe lightening storm drenched Washington. For two hours, torrential rains soaked the area and extinguished most of the fires. The thundershower spawned a tornado that plowed through the town and killed several British occupiers. Shocked by the severity of the storm, General Ross and his raiding party withdrew a few hours after the rain stopped. They had occupied Washington for twenty-six hours. By August 29, the army was back aboard their transports in Benedict.
Aftermath of the Burning of Washington, D. C.
The raid resulted in the destruction of approximately $2 million of property. All that remained of the U. S. Capitol and the President’s House were blackened sandstone walls. The government eventually rebuilt both structures using these original walls.
Americans and Europeans, including British subjects, denounced the destruction of Washington as needlessly cruel and unnecessary to the war effort. Like so many events in United States history, rather than demoralizing its citizens, the burning of Washington energized Americans to double their efforts against Britain.
America had lost confidence in John Armstrong, the Secretary of War, for leaving the nation’s capital without defenses. He resigned on September 3, 1814, and President Madison replaced him with James Monroe, formerly the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, the British invaders were preparing for a combined land and sea assault on the city of Baltimore, Maryland.