Yesterday an earthquake measuring 5.8 on the Richter scale rattled Washington, DC. This Sunday Hurricane Irene threatens to bring damaging winds and torrential rain to the nation’s capital. All in all, not a great week for the city. But nowhere near as bad as the one it endured one hundred and ninety seven years ago when the British army set much of Washington on fire.
The British attack on August 24, 1814 came during the War of 1812. Washington was more a town than a city back then. It had fewer than 8,000 residents, and it lacked any military value. It wasn’t a major seaport or merchant center, and it didn’t host a major fort or arsenal. But the British wanted revenge for the American burning of York, now Toronto, a year earlier. And they calculated that sacking Washington would inflict a deep psychological blow and possibly compel the United States to concede to their wider political demands.
The Americans sought to stop the approaching British force on the morning of August 24 at Bladensburg, Maryland, a village some seven miles east of the White house. President James Madison and many senior U.S. government officials went to watch the battle. The Americans were quickly routed. The nation’s capital was open to attack, and the British seized the opportunity.
First Lady Dolley Madison received word that the British were coming. She wasn’t a person to panic. As her servants gathered White House valuables, she took time to write a note to her sister:
Three o’clock.—Will you believe it, my sister? we have had a battle, or skirmish, near Bladensburg, and here I am still, within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us! Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but here I mean to wait for him… At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging to the house.
Among the valuables saved from the torch was Gilbert Sullivan’s famous portrait of George Washington.
As the British tell the story, they sacked Washington in retaliation for American perfidy. George Gleig, one of the British soldiers that day, later wrote:
Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent in with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard, for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, than they were fired upon from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied them, killed. You will easily believe that conduct so unjustifiable, so direct a breach of the law of nations, roused the indignation of every individual, from the General himself down to the private soldier.
All thoughts of accommodation were instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town, and having first put to the sword all who were found in the house from which the shots were fired, and reduced it to ashes, they proceeded, without ‘a moment’s delay, to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with government.
When British troops reached the White House they found a pleasant surprise: President Madison’s servants had laid out a fine dinner in expectation that he would return that evening. Again, Mr. Gleig:
Several kinds of wine, in handsome cut glass decanters, were cooling on the sideboard; plate holders stood by the fireplace, filled with dishes and plates; knives, forks, and spoons were arranged for immediate use; in short, everything was ready for the entertainment of a ceremonious party. Such were the arrangements in the dining room, whilst in the kitchen were others answerable to them in every respect. Spits, loaded with joints of various sorts, turned before the fire; pots, saucepans, and other culinary utensils stood upon the grate; and all the other requisites for an elegant and substantial repast were exactly in a state which indicated that they had been lately and precipitately abandoned.
You will readily imagine that these preparations were beheld by a party of hungry soldiers with no indifferent eye. An elegant dinner, even though considerably overdressed, was a luxury to which few of them, at least for some time back, had been accustomed, and which, after the dangers and fatigues of the day, appeared peculiarly inviting. They sat down to it, therefore, not indeed in the most orderly manner, but with countenances which would not have disgraced a party of aldermen at a civic feast, and, having satisfied their appetites with fewer complaints than would have probably escaped their rival gourmands, and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them.
Besides burning down the White House, the British torched the U.S. Capitol, the Library of Congress, and the Treasury Building. They did not, however, capture anyone of political significance. Much like any August today, Congress was in recess. So lawmakers had long before returned to their home states and districts.
The British had no interest in occupying Washington. After all, it had no strategic value, and in the days before air conditioning it was undoubtedly a miserable place to be in August. So on the morning of August 25 they marched off.
President Madison returned to Washington on August 27 to survey the damage. The fire had gutted the White House, though its walls still stood. Some members of Congress proposed relocating the president’s home to another city. Madison, however, insisted that the White House be rebuilt in its original location. His presidency ended before the reconstruction was completed.
The other federal buildings were also rebuilt on their original sites. In 1815, Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library, which was the largest one in the United States at the time, to the U.S. government for $23,950 so it could restock the Library of Congress. In an irony of history, nearly two-thirds of Jefferson’s books were burned when the Library of Congress caught fire on Christmas Eve in 1851.
Three weeks after the sack of Washington, British troops turned their guns on the fort protecting the more strategically significant port city of Baltimore. Fort McHenry survived the onslaught, though, prompting a young lawyer held captive on a British warship to pen the lyrics of what would become the American national anthem.