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The Burning of Washington – the only time in US History that Washington DC was occupied by a foreign force

Tijana Radeska
Washington

Encouraged by the victory at the Battle of Bladensburg in 1814, the British forces led by Major General Robert Ross headed for Washington DC and occupied the city. They burned many public buildings including the Capitol and the White House, which was known as the Presidential Mansion at the time.

Major-General Robert Ross (1766 – 1814) was an Anglo-Irish officer in the British Army who served in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. He is mostly known for the Burning of Washington (1814)

Major-General Robert Ross (1766 – 1814) was an Anglo-Irish officer in the British Army who served in the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. He is mostly known for the Burning of Washington (1814)

Most of the congressmen, military officials as well as the President, James Madison, managed to escape to Maryland and find a shelter in Brookeville, which later became famous as the “United States’ Capital for a Day.”

The 4th President of the United States - James Madison

The 4th President of the United States – James Madison

It is interesting that just the day before, President Madison was present at the Battle of Bladensburg with a pair of pistols borrowed from his treasury secretary, taking the command of one of the American batteries. This made him the first and only president to exercise his authority as Commander-in-chief in a real battle.

Following their victory, at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British entered Washington D.C. and burned many U.S. government and military buildings, from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras.

Following their victory, at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British entered Washington D.C. and burned many U.S. government and military buildings, from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras.

The first target of the British invaders was the Capitol, which according to many travelers at the time was the most beautiful building in the city and hence the only one worth saving. However, the Capitol was destroyed along with the building of the Library of Congress, which contained a 3,000 volume collection.

The United States Capitol after the burning of Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812. Watercolor and ink depiction from 1814, restored.

The United States Capitol after the burning of Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812. Watercolor and ink depiction from 1814, restored.

The next target of the British forces was the White House. The First Lady at the time, Dolley Madison, organized the slaves and workers in the House to save the most worthy objects before their escape. Among the objects that she managed to save from the British fire was the portrait of the President George Washington.

The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House

The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House

The next day, Rear Admiral Cockburn aimed to burn the building of the National Intelligencer newspaper as personal revenge for the newspaper’s staff branding him as “The Ruffian.” However, there were a few women who explained to him that the fire would easily spread to the local houses and asked him not to burn the building. And he didn’t. Instead, he ordered his soldiers to demolish the building brick by brick and to destroy all “C” types so that the staff wouldn’t be able to slander his name anymore.

The burning of Washington forms the background to this portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn. At background right is the burning of the US Treasury Building and the Capitol Building

The burning of Washington forms the background to this portrait of Rear Admiral George Cockburn. At background right is the burning of the US Treasury Building and the Capitol Building

 

Burning of Washington 1814

Burning of Washington 1814

All in all, the British forces managed to keep Washington DC occupied for barely 26 hours. But they certainly managed to do all the damage possible in that time. In the middle of the destruction, they were interrupted by a sudden, very heavy thunderstorm, possibly a hurricane which dampened the flames. Even though they kept on destroying government buildings, the British were forced to go back to their ships and leave the city behind.