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Burning of Washington – When the Brits Attacked White House

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Events Leading to the Burning of Washington

The War of 1812 began because of a series of commercial conflicts, aggravated by Napoleon’s continuous military assault throughout central Europe, which ultimately drove the British to essentially abduct and recruit American seamen. Simultaneously, Great Britain was assisting Native Americans in their fight against invading Western settlers. Clearly, this did not sit well with the United States, and for the first time in its history, the new nation waged war on another country.

However, it was not until 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat, that the English set their eyes on the United States capital, wishing to punish America for plundering numerous Canadian towns, most famously during the Battle of York. You’d think the Americans had an airtight strategy to defend Washington, D.C. against invasion, but they were disorganized, since the US Army had not fought a significant war since the nation won independence.

They were just a nuisance to the British, who almost strolled into the city as if they still owned it. Seriously, President James Madison, then 63, went into combat with two handguns but was ditched by his militia men when the British began firing rockets their way.

burning of washington
The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House. (White House/Wikimedia Commons)

Dolley Madison in the White House

Meantime, Dolley Madison was preparing an elaborate supper for what she mistook for a celebration when she received news that the British were approaching, and many were fleeing. Officials were in a frenzy, with many collecting whatever vital papers they could get their hands on, including the Declaration of Independence.

Dolley abandoned many of her possessions to save the Landsdown picture, a famous life-size portrait of George Washington that had to be torn from its enormous frame due to its tight screwed-to-the-wall attachment.

The First Lady regretted her forced evacuation from the holy home because of the army’s decision to leave the city, saying, “I admit that I was so unladylike that I was fearless and ready to stay in the castle! If only I could have inserted a gun through each window; but alas! Those responsible for their placement fled before me, and my whole heart ached for my nation!”

The Burning of Washington

When the British arrived at the White House, they were delighted to see Dolley’s feast for Madison and promptly devoured everything. They took mementos such as tiny decorations and clothes before piling the furniture and pouring huge quantities of gunpowder. They set fire to the house, as well as the Capitol Building, the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress, and the Treasury.

They were gracious enough to leave the Patent Office alone, since innovations are great, but they did take every “C” from the local newspaper printing business, preventing them from writing negative articles about the British General Cockburn who spearheaded the invasion.

Madison was brought to a Quaker hamlet in search of a haven for the president but was refused away by the first house they attempted. The second house accepted him, and it was then that the President discovered the entire extent of the English’s devastation of the capital city.

Soon after, a bizarre storm struck Washington, D.C., bringing rain and the very unusual occurrence of a tornado. While the few surviving residents immediately sought cover, the British were ignorant of the severity of the storm, with Cockburn telling an American lady, “Excellent God, madame! Is this the type of storm to which you seem to have become used in this hellish land?” “No, sir,” the lady said, “this is a divine intervention to remove our foes from our city.”

Indeed, the British were unable to maintain their flames when their guns erupted and the city’s stony remains were launched into the air, crushing, and killing many troops. After just 26 hours, the British troops withdrew and returned to their ships.

The extraordinary weather phenomenon earned the moniker “The Storm That Saved Washington,” but it did do considerable damage to the already battered town. Washington, D.C. was gradually rebuilt, with the Capitol Building taking an incredible 12 years to finish and has not been attacked since.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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