Washington is Burning

Graeme Garrard describes the events that led to the torching of the new US capital by British troops in August 1814 and considers the impact of the ‘greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’ on the US, Britain and Canada.

Washington in flames, August 24th 1814, a contemporary English engraving.

When James Madison, fourth President of the United States and ‘Father of the Constitution’, signed a declaration of war against Britain on June 18th, 1812 he could scarcely have imagined that two years later he would be fleeing from his burning capital before the invading enemy. At the start of the ‘War of 1812’, the first the US had declared on another nation, his friend and predecessor as president, Thomas Jefferson, had smugly declared that the war against Britain’s colonies in what is today Canada would be ‘a mere matter of marching’. As Madison abandoned the White House on horseback with his entourage and raced towards Virginia on August 24th, 1814 he stopped and looked back as he beheld the ruined city of Washington. The smoke from flames that engulfed it could be seen as far away as Baltimore, Maryland. Although he left no personal account of his feelings about these shattering events, the normally imperturbable president must have been deeply shaken by the turn they had taken, as were most Americans. What his many domestic critics had derisively branded ‘Mr Madison’s War’ had led to the only foreign occupation of the US capital in its history. Soldiers and marines under Major-General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn put Washington’s public buildings, including the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Library of Congress, the Treasury building, the State and War Departments, the historic Navy Yard and the President’s House (as the White House was then known), to the torch. Exactly two centuries later, few people in the United States or Britain are aware of this national humiliation, the ‘greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms’.

The War of 1812 began when a series of provocations by the British outraged segments of American opinion during the wars with Napoleon. Many Americans saw an irresistible opportunity to grab large tracts of the vast, sparsely populated British colonies to their north while Britain was distracted fighting the French in Europe. Some even believed that it was their ‘manifest destiny’ to unite the entire continent, from the Arctic to the Rio Grande, under one (US) flag. On the eve of the war John Quincy Adams wrote that the ‘whole continent of North America appears to be destined by Divine Providence to be peopled by one nation, speaking one language, professing one general system of religious and political principles’. When they failed to take British North America, they turned south and invaded Mexico instead. Yet Americans were deeply divided on the desirability of a second war of independence with Britain. The Congressional vote that sanctioned it was the closest formally to lead to a declaration of war in American history. None of the 39 opposition Federalists in Congress voted in favour. The House of Representatives backed Madison’s call to arms by 79 votes to 49, while the Senate narrowly voted 19 to 13 in favour. There were serious threats of disunion from New England, where the war was deeply unpopular.

After two years of fighting neither side had much to show for its efforts and bloodshed. However, with the defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in France early in 1814, large numbers of British forces became available to take on the Americans. A small force of seasoned British troops from the Duke of Wellington’s army was sent to Bermuda under General Ross, a decorated Irish veteran of the Peninsular War, who was given overall command of British soldiers on the east coast of the US. They sailed towards Washington and anchored at the town of Benedict, Maryland on the Patuxent River, 45 miles to the south of Washington, on August 19th, 1814. Here they joined forces with a battalion of Royal Marines under Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who commanded a modest fleet of Royal Navy ships that had harassed and plundered the isolated settlements along the shores of Chesapeake Bay. As a result a reward was offered in the US of $1,000 for his head and $500 for each of his ears.

Both Ross and Cockburn reported to Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s North America and West Indies Station. The energetic and headstrong Cockburn, who had fought with Nelson at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, wrote to Cochrane on July 17th recommending an immediate attack on the poorly defended American capital for ‘the greater political effect likely to result’. On July 18th Cochrane ordered his eager subordinate ‘to destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find assailable’. Ross and Cockburn joined forces and agreed to march on Washington under the former’s command. When the cautious Cochrane ordered them to return, Cockburn defiantly refused. ‘There is now no choice left us. We must go on’. Ross agreed. ‘Well, be it so! We will proceed!’, the general declared.


A short distance away in Washington, the US Secretary of War, John Armstrong, scoffed at the idea that the British would be foolish enough to attack the American capital, which was virtually undefended. He was sure that they would turn towards Baltimore instead. ‘They will certainly not come here!’, he confidently predicted to the president. ‘What the devil will they do here? No! No! Baltimore is the place, Sir. That is of so much more consequence.’ He further anticipated (also wrongly) that, if the British dared to move against Washington, their attack would end as ‘a mere Cossack hurrah, a rapid march and hasty retreat’. Militarily, Armstrong’s view was not unreasonable. Washington at the time was little more than a dusty village of 13,000 citizens and slaves, built on swamps with few houses. Pennsylvania Avenue, which would later become ‘America’s Main Street’, running between the Capitol Building and the President’s House, was then unpaved and ‘always in an awful condition from either mud or dust’. But Armstrong seriously misjudged the massive symbolic significance of the capture and burning of the young nation’s capital and the effect this would have on American morale.

Before marching on Washington, Ross and Cockburn led their troops against a hastily organised American force assembled near the quiet little village of Bladensburg, Maryland, a few miles from downtown Washington. During the fighting, Cockburn charged recklessly across the battlefield on his white horse, his large, gold-laced hat conspicuous in the August sun. When a bullet struck his saddle and another killed a nearby marine, an aide pleaded with him to take cover. ‘Poh! Poh! Nonsense!’, the admiral blustered. The US defenders were routed by the British on August 24th at the Battle of Bladensburg, thereby removing the last significant obstacle to the capital.

Ross and Cockburn led a small advance guard to Capitol Hill in Washington under a flag of truce to agree terms. Both commanders were in complete agreement that looting and the wanton destruction of private property would under no circumstances be tolerated by their troops and this was made clear to the dejected Americans. In the end seven soldiers would be flogged for disobeying this order. But they saw the destruction of public buildings as fair game. Indeed, it was at the heart of the expedition. As Ross and Cockburn rode up to the Capitol Building a group of diehards fired a volley at them from a nearby house, killing a British soldier. The general’s horse fell dead beneath him. The house was promptly burned down and the Union Jack raised over the American Capitol.

The invaders were impressed by the grandeur of the Senate and House of Representatives with their elegant interiors, which at the time were temporarily separated by a makeshift wooden structure joining the two wings of the still-unfinished Capitol Building, where the distinctive central rotunda would later be constructed. The whole building was set alight with rockets and flares, gutting both wings, which burned fiercely. The Library of Congress (then housed in the offices of the Senate majority leader) was consumed by the fires, taking its 3,000 volumes with it. But the thick stone walls of the Capitol survived, leaving an empty, burned-out shell. Cockburn on horseback then led the British troops down Pennsylvania Avenue to the President’s House. The ‘great little Madison’ (who stood just 5’ 4” tall) and his wife Dolley had fled, separately, just hours before. Ross and Cockburn found an elegant, deserted, 23-room building that had been tastefully furnished by Thomas Jefferson during his presidency. A large dining table was carefully laid for 40 guests; Dolley Madison had been expecting the cabinet for lunch at 3pm that very afternoon. Cockburn, Ross and their troops feasted on the food and toasted the health of the Prince Regent in London before they set about gathering furniture together in the oval drawing room to start a fire. The President’s House burned furiously until the following day. Like the Capitol Building, the heavy outer walls, survived while the interior and its furnishings were completely gutted.

Spared from this conflagration was a copy of the large ‘Lansdowne’ portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart and named after the Marquess of Lansdowne, the British prime minister who had negotiated peace with the American colonists in 1783. It depicts the retiring Washington nobly renouncing a third term as president. The US government bought a Stuart-painted replica of the painting for the President’s House in 1800. On August 24th, 1814 it hung in the large dining room. Credit for saving the painting was claimed by and has usually been ascribed to, Dolley Madison, who remained behind in the house after her husband and officials had departed, supervising the loading of personal affects into a wagon before she escaped shortly before the arrival of the British. Pointing to the Washington painting, she is supposed to have ordered ‘Save that picture! Save that picture if possible. If not possible, destroy it. Under no circumstances is it to fall into the hands of the British!’ The canvas was cut from its frame and removed for safe-keeping. This account was later challenged by Madison’s 15-year-old slave and manservant, Paul Jennings, who wrote a short memoir, A Colored Man’s Reminiscences of James Madison, many years later, which flatly contradicts the First Lady:

It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected any moment.

Jennings identified the French doorkeeper John Susé (Jean-Pierre Soiussat) and the president’s gardener Magraw (McGraw) as the people who actually rescued the Washington portrait, which today hangs in the East Room of the White House – the only object to remain on display since the building was completed in the 1820s. In 2009, descendants of Jennings were invited to the White House by President Obama ‘to look at the painting their relative helped save’. It must have been a strange moment as the descendants of Madison’s slave beheld the famous portrait of the slave-owning first president of the United States during the first term of America’s first black president.


Most of the other prominent public buildings in Washington were systematically fired by the British, with few exceptions, such as the Patent Office, where the members of Congress later convened when they returned to the devastated city. A ‘great fire in the direction of Washington’ was observed from Cockburn’s flagship on the River Patuxent. Ross’s deputy recorded that the events of the last ten days, culminating in the burning of the US capital, were ‘as fine a thing as any done during this war, and a rub to the Americans that can never be forgotten’. Cochrane agreed, boasting that the war-making President Madison had been ‘hurled from his throne’.

Cockburn was initially determined to burn down the offices of the Washington newspaper the National Intelligencer, which was an enthusiastic supporter of Madison and had roundly denounced and abused the admiral as a ‘Ruffian’ for his campaign of destruction in Chesapeake Bay. He was persuaded not to by neighbours, who feared that the fire would engulf their homes as well. Instead he compromised and ordered the building to be torn down brick by brick, decreeing that all the letters ‘C’ of its metal type be destroyed on the presses ‘so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name’.

Most of the fires that engulfed the city were doused by a huge thunderstorm and hurricane, which swept through Washington while the British were still present. ‘Great God, Madam!’, Cockburn exclaimed to a resident. ‘Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?’ The admiral then headed out of the city, very pleased with the devastation he left in his wake after an occupation that had lasted barely 24 hours.

The Americans were as dejected and enraged as the British were elated by the effects of the occupation. The reserved and stoical Madison returned to Washington as soon as the British had departed. Unable to live in the President’s House, he took up residence at the home of his brother-in-law. His wife soon joined him, exclaiming when she saw the ruined capital: ‘Such destruction, such devastation!’ The secretary of state James Monroe, Madison’s successor as president, cursed the British troops as ‘all damn’d rascals from highest to lowest’ for torching the capital. He seems to have forgotten that American troops had done much the same in 1813 when they occupied the undefended city of York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada (now the province of Ontario). Then they had burned the colony’s legislative and judicial buildings, plundered its public library and destroyed private property. Indeed, the Governor General and military Commander-in-Chief of British North America during the war, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prévost, wrote that, as a ‘just retribution, the proud capital at Washington has experienced a similar fate’. When the news reached London a month later of the British retaliation, guns outside Parliament and the Tower of London boomed a joyous salute, a reaction echoed throughout the colonies of British North America, particularly in York.

In the wake of the British attack, many Americans favoured moving the capital north to Philadelphia, which had been a meeting place for the Founding Fathers of the United States and where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both drafted. It had also been the capital during the Revolutionary War. Afraid that this suggestion might be taken up, Washington property owners paid for the construction of a temporary brick building where Congress met from December 1815 until 1819, while the gutted Capitol Building was rebuilt. Ultimately, a bill to relocate the capital was defeated and Washington remained the seat of government. The White House was restored in time for James Monroe’s inauguration as president in 1817.


For the Americans the summer of 1814 presented few silver linings in the dark cloud of their national humiliation. General Ross reluctantly agreed to lead a joint attack on Baltimore with Admiral Cockburn. He landed his troops just over 10 miles from the city at North Point on September 12th. During the ensuing battle, Ross was shot dead by an American sniper. When told of his death, Cockburn exclaimed: ‘It is impossible! I parted with him this moment.’ Cockburn mourned his friend’s death: ‘Our country, sir, has lost in him one of its best and bravest soldiers, and those who knew him, as I did, a friend honoured and beloved.’ Admiral Cochrane lamented the loss of ‘one of the brightest ornaments’ in the British Army. Ross’s body was preserved in a hogshead of Jamaican rum and shipped to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he was interred in the city’s Old Burying Ground of St Paul’s Church. A monument to Ross was erected in St Paul’s Cathedral in London and at his Irish birthplace, Rostrevor, County Down, on the spot where he had planned to build a home for his retirement after the war. Surprisingly, a painting of Ross by an unknown artist now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in the city.

The Americans repelled the attacking British forces at the Battle of Baltimore immediately after Ross’s death. Famously, the siege of the city’s Fort McHenry inspired the lawyer and poet Francis Scott Key to compose the poem ‘Defence of Fort McHenry’, which later provided the lyrics for ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Set to the tune of the 18th-century drinking song ‘To Anacreon in Heaven’, the reference to ‘the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air’ in the future national anthem were references to the attack on Fort McHenry witnessed by Key.

On Christmas Eve, 1814 delegations from Britain and the United States (including the future sixth president John Quincy Adams) met in a former monastery in the Belgian city of Ghent to sign a ‘Treaty of Peace and Amity’ between the two states. This news did not reach America in time to stop Major-General Andrew Jackson inflicting a heavy defeat on British troops at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815. The Prince Regent later confirmed the treaty for Britain with his signature, as did Madison for the US on February 17th, 1815. Neither side had gained any territory and both claimed victory after over two years of war that left deep national scars for many decades to come.

For Britain the war was a minor sideshow of its imperial saga that is now almost wholly forgotten, completely eclipsed by the victories of Wolfe at Quebec, Wellington at Waterloo and Nelson at Trafalgar. For the US it proved to be a sobering lesson in the weaknesses of its military preparation and leadership and it exposed some ominous internal political divisions in the young state. For Canada, by contrast, the War of 1812 was a turning point in the formation of English-Canadian identity. It was a decisive crucible out of which the remaining English-speaking British colonies in North America forged a new sense of self-confidence and solidarity with themselves and with Britain. This may explain why there have been major celebrations and commemorations of the war in Canada, particularly Ontario, many more than in the US, and none at all in Britain.

Graeme Garrard is a reader in history at the School of European Studies, Cardiff University.