August 24, 1814: Burning of Washington

One of the more humiliating events in American history, the burning of Washington was the low point in American fortunes during the War of 1812.


After the British landed an army to attack Washington, Captain Johsua Barney, a Catholic and Revolutionary War hero, go here to read about him, and 500 of his sailors and marines, joined the American army seeking to stop the invaders.  At the battle of Bladensburg on August 24, 1814, Barney and his men put up a spirited defense, with cutlasses and bayonets against the advancing British, and throughout it all Barney rallying his men with cries of “Board ‘em!  Board ‘em!” Ultimately the Americans retreated, and Barney, seriously wounded, was captured one last time in his career by the British.  After being paroled by his captors, he spent the rest of the War recuperating at his farm in Maryland.  The heroic stand of Barney and his men had given enough time for Washington to be evacuated, and after the war the grateful citizens of Washington presented a sword to the old sailor for the land fight which ended his naval career.

The Brits occupied Washington, plundered it, and burned the public buildings.   President James Madison was with the army and First Lady Dolley Madison took charge at the White House, organizing the evacutation of valuables from the White House just prior to the arrival of the Brits, escaping herself in a carriage, clutching an original copy of the Declaration of Independence.  The British occupation of Washington lasted only twenty-six hours, a huge storm striking Washington, with a tornado going through the center of the capital, killing both British troops and American civilians.  The Brits retreated to their ships, many of which were damaged by the storm.   The heavy rains that accompanied the storm extinguished the fires that had been set by the Brits.

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  1. There were times when I worked there…that I wished the British had succeeded in razing the place.

    My favorite view of Our Nation’s Capital…is in my rearview mirror as I am leaving.

  2. I would have thought that the low point in American fortunes was the failure to take Canada. By August 1814 Britain was in a position to commit substantial forces to the conflict (Bonaparte had abdicated on 11 April) but the Americans were also in a better position militarily. The burning of Washington was humiliating but was a reprisal for the American burning of York (Toronto) and was of no strategic significance. Within a few weeks the Americans had won an important victory at Plattsburgh and the British had failed to take Baltimore. This meant that the British negotiators at Ghent could not insist on territorial concessions and the treaty of 24 December simply restored the status quo ante bellum.

    Of course the US, which had declared war in the first place, did not achieve her war aims and incurred significantly higher casualties than the British, so on any fair assessment lost the war; except that the war was to a large extent about national honour, and the Americans did vindicate theirs. It was also a defining moment in the history of British North America (Canada), not to mention the aboriginal inhabitants of the continent.

    I see that the British Embassy in Washington has had to tweet an apology for producing a commemorative cake showing the White House surrounded by sparklers. Someone has obviously had a sense of humour failure.

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