200th Anniversary of the Burning of Washington D.C.

2014, marks a year of importance in American history. First, you have the 150th commemoration of the Civil War, which I have been writing about this year as it pertains to the 1864 Confederate Raid on Washington. This year also marks the 100th commemoration of the Great War, or World War One, which began on July 28, 1914. However, I want to concentrate on the year 1814. America had been at war for two years with Britain, which had been at war with France since 1803. Although the War of 1812 occurred during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, America’s war on Britain was not part of that war.

On June 1, 1812, President James Madison went before Congress asking for a declaration of war against England. President Madison stated that Britain had illegally boarded U.S. ships and pressed American men into British service. This was due to Britain’s war with France causing manpower on board British Naval Ships to run low. The British declared it was to find navy deserters who may have taken a job with American merchants. In 1807, the British actually fired upon an American ship and boarded it, taking three Americans and one British deserter. This became known as the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair. Another reason was for the economy. Britain forbade neutral countries to trade with European countries at war with England, and the British Navy enforced this order. Britain blockaded U.S. ports. Last but not least, tension with the Native Americans on the Western Frontier with Britain began encouraging the violence. There were other issues, but these were the four biggest, and with a 19 to13 vote, the Senate voted in favor of war on June 18, 1812.

As the war in France ended with Napoleon in 1814, the British decided to take a closer look at the war being waged against the United States. The decision was made to send more troops to America. Up until 1814, most of the fighting had taken place on the Atlantic Ocean, along the border of Canada, and the western frontier with Native Americans.  The British did control the Chesapeake Bay for almost a year, but without sufficient numbers, they were unable to launch a full scale attack. The U.S. began looking at their own defenses along the Chesapeake Bay, which resulted in some minor skirmishes.

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Cartoon of the Burning of Washington

Leading up to August 1814, attempts to defend Washington were shot down by the U.S.  Congress, and the threats of the British of attacking Washington were not taken seriously. With the exception of a new military district being created and commanded by Brigadier General William H. Winder, not much went into fortifying Washington. U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong did not believe that Washington would be targeted by the British simply because it was unimportant, both commercially and strategically. If the British were to attack any city near the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore was a more likely target.

The British commanders, Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Major General Robert Ross, and Rear Admiral George Cockburn all studied the maps of the Chesapeake Bay. Rear Admiral Cockburn was in favor of attacking Washington, whereas Ross was worried about the condition of his troops, since they had been confined on the ships for three months. But both commanders agreed, however Vice Admiral Cochrane had the final decision since he was in command of the Royal Navy American Station.

The attack on Washington was a three prong plan. While Vice Admiral Cochrane remained at Benedict, Maj. Gen. Ross would march by land, while Rear Admiral Cockburn sailed up the Patuxent River covering the British infantry’s right flank. A small squadron of the British Navy had sailed into the mouth of the Potomac River to raid Alexandria, Virginia. U.S. Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla, which was rumored to be in the area, needed to be found and destroyed. A diversion toward Baltimore would keep troops there rather than sending them to Washington.

On August 18, a massive British fleet had sailed into the Patuxent River.  A day later, the British had landed at Benedict, Maryland. By August 21, Ross’ troops had moved into Nottingham. Major General Ross wanted to keep marching until he reached Upper Marlboro, where he could threaten Baltimore or Washington, depending on the route he wanted to take.

On August 24, the route to Washington lay on two roads. The first would take the British by way of Woodyard, but if the bridges over the Potomac River were destroyed it could delay the British advance. The other way to Washington was to move east via Bladensburg. Major General Ross would start off south, by way of toward Woodyard, and then move to Bladensburg. The British force was estimated to about 4,500 men, three cannon, and sixty frames of the Congreve rockets.

By late morning, the American and British armies began their march to Bladensburg. The day was hot, and the temperature would max out at 100 degrees. Fatigue quickly sat in on the armies. Francis Scott Key and Brigadier General Walter Smith had arrived at Bladensburg ahead of the American army. There, they scouted out positions on a high piece of ground overlooking a ravine, Bladensburg, and the Eastern Branch.

Soon, the American army arrived and began taking up positions. They would eventually deploy into three lines as the British advanced from the south. Across the Eastern Branch laid a bridge, which no one destroyed. By the time that the American army would be fully concentrated, their numbers would be estimated at about 5,900 men, mostly militia, Marines, and Regulars.  The Americans, too, had about twenty-two pieces of artillery that would be positioned along the Washington and Georgetown Roads. President James Madison arrived to watch the impending battle.

By noon, after seeing that Bladensburg was abandoned, Rear Admiral Cockburn and Maj. Gen. Ross debated the American defenses, and Ross quickly ordered the attack. The American battle lines appeared strong although they lacked supporting distance. With two other brigades about one to two miles behind, the British Light Infantry began to cross the Eastern Branch when the American artillery opened. The British, suffering many casualties, began to deploy their lines on the other side of the bridge and used the landscape to try and conceal themselves from the American artillery.

The British brought up the Congreve rockets and placed them into action. The sound would be enough to bring fear into the first line. President Madison even got a chance to hear these famous rockets fly through the air, although, they were not very accurate in hitting their intended target. Supported by the Congreve rockets, more British soldiers poured over the Eastern Branch from Bladensburg, causing the American front line to fall apart. Brig. Gen. Winder tried desperately to reform the battle line, but the sound of the rockets was enough to cause panic in the ranks.

As even more British troops arrived on the field, and began marching over the Eastern Branch, there, they would press the American flanks. It wasn’t long before the second battle line collapsed. As the third line of defense formed and came under attack, Commodore Barney’s artillery poured deadly fire into the British ranks. The British charged several times, but the third line would not break. They kept pouring deadly fire from artillery into their ranks, as well as volley after volley of musketry. But with the other two battle lines gone, Commodore Barney and his Marines and sailors were forced to retreat once Brig. Gen. Winder gave the order.

The British army took the field of battle, but at a deadly cost. They lost 309 men killed, wounded, or captured. The American army lost 220 men killed, wounded, or missing. The British would rest their troops, then pick up the road, and march directly to Washington.

Back at Washington, civilians were already fleeing, grabbing what they could carry. First Lady Dolly Madison began packing things up that she could take with her, when at 3:00 p.m. she received a message “to quit the city.” She left the Capital by 3:30 p.m. One of the items she managed to save was a portrait of George Washington. She would have burned it if she couldn’t take it, to keep it from the British. So she ordered one of her servants to take the painting of Washington.

Major General Ross allowed his fatigued army to rest for about two hours before moving to Washington. After seeing to the wounded, Maj. Gen. Ross formed up a brigade of able bodied men, and along with Rear Admiral Cockburn, marched for the capital six miles away. Marching at dusk, under moonlight, along Maryland Avenue, the British, under a white flag entered Washington. The advance of the British army was met by a volley of musketry, with one of the shots striking Maj. Gen. Ross’ horse, the third horse of the day for Ross. After searching a nearby house, they found it emptied. The house was set on fire, as this is where the shots came from.

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Drawing of the British Burning the White House

After waiting for an American official to come out to talk about the surrender of the capital, at about 8:20 p.m., Ross and Cockburn saw flames coming from the Naval Yard, which the Americans had burned. With no one to meet for the parley, as Washington, for the most part was abandoned, Ross and Cockburn discussed the next step. Rear Admiral Cockburn wanted to burn the entire city, but Maj. Gen. Ross settled for the destruction of firing the public buildings. The Capital building, Treasury Department, State Department, and the War Department were all set on fire. After eating a fine dinner in the White House, the British set fire to it. During the night, as Washington burned, a storm moved in, putting most of the fires out.

As the morning of August 25 dawned, Maj. Gen. Ross ordered the buildings to be re-fired. During the morning and early afternoon, the British took inventory of all the stores of supplies that were left behind. By late afternoon, another severe storm blew in. The storm battered the British army bivouacked on Capital Hill, causing many soldiers to run for cover in the near by houses. It poured for two hours. During the climax of the storm, the winds were strong enough to knock down buildings, lift roofs off, and move some houses off their foundation. The wind was violent, as one British officer recalled:  “that two pieces of cannon which stood upon the eminence were fairly lifted from the ground and borne several yards to the rear.” Some weather experts believe a tornado hit Washington during the British occupation.

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Congress Building Aftermath

With rumors of a large American force marching to Washington, Maj. Gen. Ross ordered the army to begin its withdrawal. During the night, the British kept the camp fires burning bright, and quietly marched off on the road to Bladensburg. Since his army was so fatigued from being aboard the ships that brought them to America, being exhausted from marching in the heat of summer, and fighting a battle at Bladensburg, Maj. Gen. Ross didn’t want to take the chance of meeting the American army again.

The British reached Bladensburg around midnight on August 26, where Maj. Gen. Ross halted for an hour. The dead still littered the ground from the battlefield that occurred there two days prior. Major General Ross would leave the dead for the Americans to bury, and those wounded who were able to travel on carts and wagons were loaded up to move with the column. Those men who were critical would remain behind.

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Burning of the Naval Yard

The British moved onward toward upper Marlboro and by 7:00 a.m., another halt was ordered. Back on the march, Upper Marlboro was reached by noon. The soldiers quickly broke ranks and rested. Some of others went about town plundering, and taking anything of value such as food that would fit into a knapsack. Doctor William Beanes and some locals had placed a few British stragglers in jail when they moved through the town earlier on the march to Washington. The British learned about these arrests and went to Doctor Beanes’ house, and arrested him and two others.

While the British were in Upper Marlboro, the Presidential party returned to Washington. It was important for the President to begin the rebuilding process of the town. But then an alarm was heard, cannonading coming from the direction of the Potomac River. At 6:00 p.m., a squadron of British vessels under the command of Captain James Gordon, was making its way up the Potomac River, to the community of Alexandria.

Approaching Fort Warburton (later renamed Fort Washington), the British cannons opened fire, bombarding the fort for nearly two and a half hours before a massive explosion occurred, destroying the fort. The fort however was vacant. The Americans had over 3,000 pounds of black powder in the powder magazine with trails of black powder leading from it. When one of the British bombs landed near it, a spark sat it ablaze and it blew.

The next morning, Maj. Gen. Ross marched out of Upper Marlboro, and would continue his movements until he reached Benedict at around noon on August 28, encamping there for the night. By August 30, Maj. Gen. Ross’ soldiers had boarded their ships.

Meanwhile, on August 28, the Common Council of Alexandria greeted the British vessels on the Potomac River, after sailing down the Potomac River for about six miles. Captain Gordon offered no terms to the councilmen, but stated that as long as no harm came to his ships, no harm would come to the town. Meanwhile, back at Washington and at Georgetown, panic once again set in. But if they must fall under the British flag, they will follow Alexandria’s example. After the British invasion, many communities would brand Alexandria as cowards.

By 10:00 a.m., on August 29, Alexandria was given terms of surrender by Captain Gordon. He gave the council one hour to review the terms ordering all supplies to be handed over such as armaments, merchandise and ships. After that time, Alexandria surrendered. The British took 21 vessels, 15,000 barrels of flour, 800 hogshead of tobacco, and thousands of dollars of other merchandise.

On August 31, another British vessel arrived at Alexandria with orders for Gordon to withdrawal. The British vessel came under attack at various points along the way including a makeshift battery at White House Bluffs. Gordon sent two vessels ahead to attack the battery at the White House Bluffs, with hopes of dislodging the battery. For four days, the British bombarded the position while Gordon waited for the winds to change direction to hurry down the Potomac River.

On September 5, as Gordon’s ships made their way back down the Potomac River, they attacked the American position of White House Bluffs. After slipping by with little damage, the British sailed toward Indian Head. They were again attacked, but sailed right on through with very little damage. By September 9, Gordon’s Expedition had ended right where it had started at the Chesapeake Bay. From there, the British would turn to attack Baltimore, Maryland.

Resources:

Browne, Patrick. Historical Digression, “A Tornado Saves Washington during the War of 1812.” Accessed July 11, 2014. http://historicaldigression.com/2012/03/26/a-tornado-saves-washington-during-the-war-of-1812/.

Gleig, George Robert (1827), The Campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, 1814-1815, London: J. Murray,

Herrick, Carole. August 24, 1814 Washington in Flames. Falls Church, VA: Higher Education Publishing, 2005.

Ingraham, Edward D. A Sketch of the Events Which Preceded the Capture of Washington by the British on the Twenty Fourth of August, 1814. Philadelphia, PA: 1849.

Lord, Walter. The Dawn’s Early Light. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1972.

Muller, Charles C. The Darkest Day. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003.

Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Sheads, Scott S. The Chesapeake Campaigns 1813-1815. Oxford OX, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2014.

Snow, Peter. When the Britain Burned The White House. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2014. 

Vogel, Steve. Through the Perilous Flight Six Weeks that Saved a Antion. New York: Random House, 2013.

Whittehorne, Joesph.  The Battle for Baltimore 1814. Baltimore: The National & Aviation Publishing Company of America, 1997.

The Navy Department Library, “The Defenses and Burning of Washington in 1814: Naval Documents of the War of 1812.” Accessed July 11, 2014. http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/burning_washington.html.

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