Little Bits of History

Going Up in Flames

Posted in History by patriciahysell on August 24, 2014
The White House after the fire

The White House after the fire

August 24, 1814: The burning of Washington takes place. During the War of 1812, Britain and the US were once again at war. As part of that engagement, British troops entered what was then called Washington City led by Major General Robert Ross. US troops had just been defeated at the Battle of Bladensburg in Maryland. British troops had been freed up after their conquest of Napoleon and now 2,500 soldiers were available to fight in the US. Ross had arrived in Bermuda aboard HMS Royal Oak with three frigates, three sloops, and ten other vessels. These ships sailed up the Patuxent and troops were offloaded in Maryland on August 19, 1814.

The British leaders threatened to destroy property which led to hesitancy of a military response. They moved on inexperienced troops and won the battle at Bladensburg before an advance contingent moved on to the capital city. The men arrived under a flag of truce but were attacked by partisans from a house on the corner of Maryland Avenue, Constitution Avenue, and Second Street NE. This was the only resistance the British met within the city. The men burned down the house their attackers had occupied.

They went on to set fire to the Capitol building although the central rotunda had not yet been built. The buildings which housed the Senate and the House of Representatives along with Library of Congress all suffered damage. The interiors of the buildings were damaged but due to thick wall construction and torrential rains falling secondary to an offshore hurricane, the exteriors were not damaged. The loss of books in the library would spur Thomas Jefferson to donate his personal library to replace the books lost in the blaze. The arsonists moved up Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House and also set fire to that building. President Madison and his wife Dolley, along with other slaves and servants fled, saving some of the more important and portable pieces from inside the house.

All the buildings burned were public building (except for the house of the attackers) and the British were quite adamant that no private buildings should be lost. Rear Admiral George Cockburn entered the city the next day and arrived at the National Intelligencer, the local newspaper office and threatened to burn it down. When the ladies present explained their fear of the fire spreading to their houses, the building was spared from fire, but it was destroyed by soldiers tearing it down. The paper had not been kind to Cockburn in the past. The US Treasury building was burned, but the Patent Office was saved – the only government building spared – due to William Thorton’s cooperating with the British. Leaders in Europe were appalled by the attack, but most British supported the sacking of the capital city as a retaliatory move from an attack on a Canadian city earlier in the year.

Washington is a city of Southern efficiency and Northern charm. – John F. Kennedy

Bad as political fiction can be, there is always a politician prepared to make it look artistic by comparison. – Christopher Hitchens

Many a time I have seen my mother leap up from the dinner table to engage the swarming flies with an improvised punkah, and heard her rejoice and give humble thanks simultaneously that Baltimore was not the sinkhole that Washington was. – H.L. Mencken

Washington isn’t a city, it’s an abstraction.  – Dylan Thomas

Also on this day: Pompeii Disappears – In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius erupts.
Waffling – In 1869, a waffle iron was patented.
George Crum – In 1853, George Crum invents potato chips.
Not a Black Hole – Yet – In 1690, Calcutta is founded.

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