Invasion of Washington D.C.

A black and white wood engraving of the burning of Washington.
Capture and burning of Washington by the British, in 1814, Library of Congress

“The spectators stood in awful silence, the city was light and the heavens redden’d with the blaze.”
-Author and Washington Chronicler Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844) describes the burning of the U.S. capital, August 24, 1814

On August 24, 1814, Washington had heard the distant thunder of battle at Bladensburg all afternoon. When legions of exhausted and retreating American soldiers appeared, concern turned to chaos.

Hundreds of terrified citizens of America’s brand-new capital city followed the fleeing president and first lady. They packed up what they could and hastened out of town, many crossing the new Potomac River “Long Bridge” (now the 14th St. Bridge) stretching a mile to Virginia. Many who stayed behind feared death and destruction. The capital’s defenders were nowhere to be seen, government officials were leaving the Federal City, and the entire British Army was only a few miles away.

For their part, the invaders were exhausted. On the road at 3 a.m., the British Army had marched ten miles in sweltering heat, fought a pitched battle for three hours, and now faced another five-mile trek to the American capital. Major General Robert Ross rested his men for two hours after the battle, then, in the gathering dusk, led his brigades to what became Washington’s “Old Circus Grounds” (15th St. and Bladensburg Road, N.E.). Leaving two brigades there as backup, the general and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn rode into the city with the other brigade and a flag of truce. The British may have been looking for ransom money rather than revenge.

Any chance for negotiation evaporated as the invaders climbed Capitol Hill and approached the Capitol building. Heavy musketry suddenly rang out from nearby buildings. Several soldiers went down and General Ross’s horse was shot out from under him. A local enslaved person, Michael Shiner, later vividly described what happened, “The British army . . . looked like flames of fier all red coats . . . in a twinkle of the eye the house [the Sewall-Belmont House, now rebuilt on 144 Constitution Ave., N.E.] wer sorounded by the British army and search all through upstairs an downstairs . . . but no man whar found . . . They put a globe match to the house and then stood oft a sertin distance . . . and those rockets burst until . . . they made the rafters fly East and West.”

 
Illustration of soldiers stacking furniture in a pile while one soldier, standing above the pile, sprinkles black powder over the heap.
Initially the British tried to fire Congreve rockets into the ceiling of the Capitol Senate Chamber, not realizing it was covered by sheet metal. When that failed to start a blaze, combustibles, such as furniture and curtains, were piled in the middle of the chamber and sprinkled with rocket fuel.

A rocket fired into the heap provided ignition and resulted in a substantial fire. NPS/(c) Gerry Embleton

The British Ensign Flies Over Capitol Hill

The British took on the U.S. Capitol next. After a long, grueling, dangerous day, the suddenly bushwhacked Englishmen were in no mood for compassion.

Margaret Bayard Smith, married to the president of the Bank of Washington and founder of the Washington Daily National Intelligencer, saw the British approach the Capitol. “50 men, sailors and marines were marched by an officer, silently thro’ the avenue . . . when arrived at the building. Each man was stationed at a window, with his pole and machine of wild-fire . . . the windows were broken and this wild fire was thrown in, so that an instantaneous conflagration took place and the whole building was wrapt in flames and smoke.”

The conflagration soon turned into a smolder. With ceilings covered in sheet iron, the Capitol proved a challenge to burn down. The British fired Congreve rockets through the windows with little effect. They finally entered the large chambers, piled up tables, desks chairs, and curtains, heaped on rocket powder, then fired rockets into the pile. The subsequent blaze was so intense it was reported the glass lighting globes were melted. A giant plume of fiery embers flew up into the night and set a nearby boardinghouse, built for George Washington, aflame. This successful and unorthodox fire-starting technique was used on both houses of Congress then on other public buildings, including the President’s House (White House).

 
A color illustration of two officers toasting.
Cockburn and Ross must have been in a celebratory mood when they occupied the President's House, possibly even toasting their success before they ordered it torched.  NPS/(c) Gerry Embleton

With the burning Capitol lighting up the sky behind them, General Ross and Admiral Cockburn rode down the wide expanse of Pennsylvania Avenue. They were leading one hundred fifty men through the heart of the city. The President’s House was about a mile ahead.

The President’s House, hurriedly deserted in late afternoon, was an easy target. It was 11 p.m. when the invaders picked through the furnishings and food left in the empty building. It was soon set ablaze and, by morning, was a roofless shell.

Much has been written about the British partaking of a “victory dinner” set out in the President’s House. There is no doubt that food and drink were available. Whatever was on hand, British officers, even possibly Ross and Cockburn, took full advantage of the spread. British officer James Scott certainly enjoyed it. “Never was nectar more grateful to the palates of the gods than the crystal goblets of Madeira and water I quaffed off at [James] Madison’s expense.”

While the British bivouacked on Capitol Hill they raised the Union Jack, the national ensign of Great Britain, at the heart of Washington City.

After some rest, the marauders were at it again on the morning of August 25. The Treasury Building was already burning when at about 8 a.m. enemy soldiers attacked the Southwest Executive Building, offices for the secretaries of state and war. Luckily, through heroic efforts, the records had been carted to safety along with the prized colors and standards seized from the British during the Revolutionary War.

The Cost of War

British vengeance was aimed at Washington’s major public buildings and military headquarters. The Capitol, President’s House, and Treasury and Executive Buildings were the main targets, although some nearby buildings were damaged and destroyed in the confusion. General Ross and even Admiral Cockburn often heeded the pleas of locals trying to save their dwellings and businesses, but three private rope walks were burned because they produced supplies that could potentially be used by the navy.

Much of the damage occurred at the hands of the Americans themselves. Two bridges were burned on the Eastern Branch (Anacostia) and the Navy Yard was put to the torch to keep it out of enemy hands. A great glow in the sky, visible from as far away as Baltimore and Leesburg, Virginia, thirty-five miles away, was the result of these fires as well as the buildings burned by the British.

One of the embarrassments for Americans was the amount of damage caused by local looters. Paul Jennings, President Madison’s enslaved body servant, reported that “a rabble, taking advantage of the confusion, ran all over the White House, and stole lots of silver and whatever they could lay their hands on.” The British were not above joining in this behavior. British officers attempted to prevent looting by their troops and some British soldiers were flogged, or even shot, for theft.

excerpt from "In Full Glory Reflected: Discovering the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake" by Ralph E. Eshelman and Burton K. Kummerow

 

People

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    George Cockburn

    Rear Admiral George Cockburn organized the raids along the Chesapeake under Alexander Cochrane’s orders.

  • Paul Jennings

    Paul Jennings

    Paul Jennings, enslaved to James Madison, wrote one of the first memoirs about life at the White House.

  • Dolley Madison was the first lady during the War of 1812.

    Dolley Madison

    Dolley Madison was the first lady during the War of 1812.

  • James Madison

    James Madison

    James Madison was president of the United States during the War of 1812.

  • Robert Ross

    Robert Ross

    In 1814, Major General Robert Ross lead the Royal Army in the Chesapeake region.

  • A lithograph with boats sailing in the foreground and buildings and smokestack in the background.

    Michael Shiner

    Michael Shiner was a Black dock worker on the Washington Navy Yard and witnessed the Burning of Washington D.C. as a child.

  • Text on a white newspaper page from the mid-1800s.

    Sukey

    Sukey was a Black woman enslaved to Dolley Madison as a maid.

Last updated: January 13, 2022

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