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  • James Houser

August 24, 1814 - The British Burn Washington, D.C.

Updated: Jun 12, 2021

August 24, 1814. After a pathetic attempt to block their advance, a British force arrives in Washington, D.C. and proceeds to torch everything they see, including the White House and Capitol Building. Only the intervention of bureaucrats, Dolley Madison and the, um, White House slaves save most of our nation’s treasures. Not exactly our finest hour.

It occurs to me that I haven’t discoursed about the War of 1812 at length yet in my history posts, and oh boy am I excited to tell you about this. It’s one of America’s most forgotten wars, mainly because it might have been our single most humiliating one. We lost most of the battles and failed in most of the campaigns, up to and including having our capital city burned to the ground after one of the most humiliating defeats in United States military history. Somehow, though, Andrew Jackson lining his men up behind a barricade to fend off an attack on New Orleans let us spin the War of 1812 as a victory. It was not. We were lucky to get away without losing anything in the end.

The War of 1812 started for a few reasons, most of which boil down to “the British being jerks,” and to be honest that could sum up the whole 19th Century. For one thing, the British were enforcing a blockade against their enemy France – and this blockade included any American ships trying to sail to the French-controlled portions of Europe. This caused a big hit to American commerce. The Royal Navy also had a bad habit of “impressing” runaway sailors back into service on board the ships doing blockade duty. In theory, this meant finding deserters and returning them to the ranks; in practice, it meant seizing anyone who sounded kind of English, which caught a bunch of Americans in the net. Finally, the British had continued to arm and supply hostile Native Americans on the American frontier, who used British-made arms and ammunition to wreak havoc on the pioneers trying to move west. At some point the United States could no longer bear all this, and President James Madison took his country into a controversial little war.

It was controversial because big chunks of the United States had no interest in fighting Britain, and indeed resisted any efforts by the federal government to tell them what to do. States were still very independent at this point in American history, and almost all of the New England states refused to send any troops or supplies to aid in the war against their biggest trading partner. New England’s economy collapsed when the war began, and the northeast never regained its political standing in the United States. This sectionalism greatly hindered American efforts to win the war.

Even worse, the United States military was a wreck of the highest order. There was almost no standing army thanks to the libertarian-like government of Jefferson and Madison, and the belated attempts to raise one were nearly a disaster. America had to rely mostly on state militias, which refused any forms of discipline and sometimes outright refused to fight at all. The New York militia marched to the borders of Canada in 1812 but refused to march further, since their contracts only extended to defending their own state. This meant that in any real stand-up fight, the militia would almost always get rolled by British regulars.

Luckily for the Americans, British regulars were thin on the ground in British Canada. This was mainly because Britain was concerned with a much, much, much bigger problem: Napoleon’s empire and the insane danger it posed to King and country. The United Kingdom was 100% committed to the war with Napoleon and had no resources or troops to spare for some brushfire war over in the Americas. While the United States to this day sees the War of 1812 as a major struggle, for England it was on the backest of backburners. The British Army was almost entirely committed to fighting the French in Spain under Wellington, and the Royal Navy was busy as hell with blockading Europe – hence the earlier issues.

All this meant that for most of 1812 and 1813, the British played defense in Canada while the Americans repeatedly tripped over their own feet trying to invade our northern neighbor. It was seriously pretty sad how badly American forces failed over and over to overcome the handful of redcoats and desperate Canadian militia standing in our way. The U.S. had a few naval successes, but once the British dispatched some decent ships to blockade the eastern seaboard any hope of winning the war at sea dried up fast.

By 1814, though, things were about to get serious. Why? The Allies had just defeated Napoleon. With their big, big problem out of the way, the British now turned grinning to the United States, and it’s hard not to imagine a chill running down James Madison’s spine when he realized that the whole might of Britain would now be turned against America. The insanely well-trained veterans of Wellington’s army, a huge fleet of Royal Navy ships of the line, and the undivided attention of Britain’s war leaders were now available to mop up this little war with America.

See, the United States had spent most of 1812 to 1814 trying to take over Canada. The defense of the East Coast was in the hands of gunboat squadrons, a horde of little flatboats with small guns that were supposed to be manned by militia in the event of war. This was Thomas Jefferson’s genius idea: something cheap and easy to use, instead of those expensive fortresses or battleships. Well, the flatboats were worse than useless, because they granted a false sense of security to an East Coast that was really, really not secure.

From 1813 onwards, the British had dispatched raiding parties into the Chesapeake Bay, and small bands of British Marines and ships raided up and down the coasts of Virginia and Maryland. They had help from an unexpected source. See, people don’t like being slaves (shocking) so a whole heaping ton of Southern plantation slaves saw their chance to gain their freedom – and bring a little hell back to their masters in the process. The result was that across the Virginia Tidewater, runaway slaves would escape the major plantations and bring British forces back on secret routes to avoid militia patrols. In exchange, the British would grant the slaves and their families freedom and safe harbor.

This interesting little war in the Chesapeake from 1813 to 1814 is exquisitely detailed in Alan Taylor’s truly excellent “The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832”. Virginia whites were TERRIFIED of slave revolts in general, and it got even more terrifying for them when the British began to form their escaped slaves into units, put them in uniform as the “Colonial Marines,” and have them take part in raids as well. The British began to advertise to the slaves of Virginia and Maryland that they would free them from bondage. To the slaveholding south, this looked like nothing less than racial revolution, and the combination of fear from these events and increased awareness of how vulnerable the white elites really were caused Virginia southerners to double down on slavery until the Civil War.

Since 1813, the man commanding the squadron in Chesapeake Bay had been Rear Admiral George Cockburn, based out of a series of small islands off the Virginia Eastern Shore. Before 1814, he had been limited to raiding and skirmishing all along the Bay, burning plantations and towns, and had earned an evil reputation in American papers for freeing slaves and setting them against their masters. With the arrival of more ships and veteran regiments from Europe, Cockburn started to dream bigger.

By July 1814, Cockburn proposed a raid on Washington itself. He knew its defenses were minimal – no fortresses, no serious fleet, just a handful of puny gunboats – and that attacking the American capital would have a maximum political effect. Thanks to the many Maryland slaves rescued by his forces, he had an abundance of guides who could take him to the best landing site, then move his troops quickly to the capital through backroads. Finally, the American burning of Port Dover, Canada earlier in 1814 had enraged the Canadians and they called for reprisals. Cockburn thought that sacking Washington would be a suitable act of vengeance.

Cockburn’s expeditionary force landed in Maryland on August 19, 1814. The land force consisted of 4,400 British redcoats under General Robert Ross. Cockburn’s fleet, meanwhile, sought out the Chesapeake flatboat flotilla, and watched in amusement as the Americans blew the unmanned boats up to prevent their “capture” on August 21. (Who would want them?) While the British made diversionary moves up the Potomac and towards Pennsylvania to distract the Americans, Cockburn and Ross led the British regulars into the Maryland heartland, guided by detachments of formerly enslaved Colonial Marines.

The United States rapidly assembled a force of almost 7,000 to face the British, mostly consisting of Virginia and Maryland militia under General John Winder. They were stiffened by a small force of about 500 Regular Army troops and had a few cannons, but this was only what could be scraped together at the last minute. Winder decided to defend Washington from the junction of Bladensburg, which commanded the roads between Washington to the west and Baltimore/Annapolis to the east. On August 23, Winder had his troops at Bladensburg as the British approached.

Ross only had about 2,000 troops when he arrived at Bladensburg on August 23. The 1800 men of the Naval Brigade – the Royal Marines, the black Colonial Marines, and armed Navy seamen – were still on the way, so all Ross had were the Army redcoats. Cockburn urged him to attack immediately, but Ross was 50 miles into enemy territory and heavily outnumbered. The least he could do was to let his men sleep. Ross’ delay probably saved most of Washington’s treasures, since had he pressed on he could have taken Washington that night.

August 24 dawned, and the American force was soon joined by almost the whole Federal Government, including President James Madison and Secretary of State James Monroe. This was not exactly helpful, since Monroe fancied himself a great general and interfered with tactical dispositions. Madison had only come after warning his wife Dolley to be prepared to evacuate within 24 hours; he would soon regret coming to Bladensburg at all.

The American commanders made incredibly poor tactical decisions, and Robert Ross had fought for years against Napoleon’s troops under Wellington. This was hardly a fair fight, even when you take numbers into account. The British assaulted across a bridge with exceptional discipline, while Ross sent one battalion to ford a stream and encircle the American left flank. British Congreve rockets shrieked into the American ranks, causing panic and flight among the militia. Even if American units held in several places, all along the line the American militia soon disintegrated, and the handful of U.S. regulars and Marines could not help but be swept up in the tide.

President Madison and the rest of the government barely escaped the Battle of Bladensburg, which has to be the single most humiliating episode in the history of the United States Armed Forces. The only bright point was the heroic but futile stand by a handful of Marines and the former personnel of the gunboat flotilla.

The humiliation didn’t end there. As Madison and his Cabinet scattered throughout Maryland and Virginia, the British marched on Washington unopposed. The capital swarmed with refugees, and most of the population fled in the face of the feared Redcoats. As the British approached, people saved what they could. State Department clerk Stephen Pleasanton gathered up the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, various treaties, and George Washington’s correspondence before fleeing the city. Dolley Madison and the household slaves of the White House saved paintings, treasures, and artifacts. 15-year-old slave Paul Jennings, Madison’s personal attendant, helped to rescue the famous Lansdowne Portrait of Washington before the British arrived. In 2009, President Barack Obama held a ceremony honoring Jennings’ courage in saving the portrait, and invited many of Jennings’ descendants to witness the event.

It honestly touches me in some way that the White House slaves saved the artifacts of a country that to them only meant chains and slavery, while their potential liberators – with liberated slaves in uniform in tow – marched to burn it. Maybe they saw a promise in America that could one day be fulfilled. And we still have so far to go. ANYWAY…

The British entered Washington as the sun was setting on August 24, 1814. The Corps of Royal Engineers soon set to work destroying every government building they could find – but under Cockburn’s orders, no civilian property would be touched and no civilians harmed. The engineers entered the White House, and were happy to enjoy the dinner that Paul Jennings had prepared for his master before they burned it to the ground. The British looted the Capitol Building before burning it too, along with the original 3,000-volume Library of Congress. (Thomas Jefferson donated his personal library after the war to reestablish the Library; none of the original Library survived the burning.) Cockburn confiscated one of the President’s ledgers, which eventually made its way to Bermuda and was returned to the Library of Congress in 1940. The wooden ceilings and floors of the Capitol burned nicely, and the Library of Congress added tinder that consumed the whole building.

Admiral Cockburn himself had a special target in mind. He wanted to destroy the building of the D.C. National Intelligencer newspaper, which had given him the nickname “The Ruffian” for his raiding of the Chesapeake. Some local ladies pleaded with him not to burn it since it was so close to their houses, so Cockburn settled for tearing the building down by hand and having all the “C” type destroyed “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.” In addition to the White House and Capitol, the British burned the Treasury, Department of War, and the Washington Navy Yard. Only the Patent Office, of all things, survived the British wholesale destruction of American government property.

The destruction would undoubtedly have been much worse, had not fate intervened. A storm blew in at 1:00am, August 25, that put out many of the fires and saved the capital from total immolation. What had happened was already bad enough; the people of Baltimore, 40 miles away, had seen the glow of the burning. The storm left the British deluged and windswept, though, and by daylight on August 25 the British marched back to their landing site, taking their wounded and hordes of escaped slaves with them. They had done what they came to do.

On August 27, the President and First Lady arrived to find the White House in ruins. NOT exactly America’s finest hour, here.

But there was a light in the darkness. As Ross’ troops and Cockburn’s ships set off, they had a new target in mind: Baltimore. But Baltimore was not to suffer the fate of Washington.

Because on September 14, after the rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air, the Star-Spangled Banner yet waved.

See you then.

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