The Burning of Washington, D.C. 1814

Rear Admiral Cockburn had his portrait painted in front of burning Washington

Rear Admi­ral Cock­burn had his por­trait paint­ed in front of burn­ing Wash­ing­ton

After Britain defeat­ed and impris­oned Napoleon Bona­parte in April 1814, they had the men and ships to renew attacks on the Unit­ed States. Eng­land want­ed to retal­i­ate for  the “wan­ton destruc­tion of pri­vate prop­er­ty along the north shores of Lake Erie” by Amer­i­can forces. Rear Admi­ral Cock­burn was giv­en orders to,  “deter the ene­my from a rep­e­ti­tion of sim­i­lar out­rages.…” You are here­by required and direct­ed to “destroy and lay waste such towns and dis­tricts as you may find assail­able”.

On August 24, 1814, he found Wash­ing­ton, D.C. assail­able. Most pub­lic build­ings were destroyed. Actu­al­ly, the American’s burned the fort before the British arrived to keep them from get­ting their pow­der. The British burned what was left of it in their sweep. The Library of Con­gress and all the books were burned. Cock­burn was so upset with the with the Nation­al  Intel­li­gencer news­pa­per for call­ing him a Ruf­fi­an, he intend­ed to burn their build­ing too. How­ev­er, a group of women con­vinced him a fire would burn their homes, so he had his men tear the build­ing apart, brick by brick. He also had them destroy every C in the type fonts, so they could no longer abuse his name.

At the White House, it was not Dol­ley Madi­son who saved George Washington’s por­trait. She did orga­nize the slaves and staff to car­ry valu­ables, car­ry­ing some of the sil­ver in her retic­ule, The French door­man and the president’s gar­den­er saved the por­trait. After Mrs. Madi­son and the staff left, the British came in, ate the meal and drank the wine pre­pared for the res­i­dents, then went about burn­ing the build­ing. It was dif­fi­cult. They end­ed up pil­ing fur­ni­ture and light­ing it which final­ly start­ed the build­ing burn­ing. They added fuel dur­ing the night. The only gov­ern­ment build­ing left stand­ing was U.S. Patent Office.

Less than a day after the attack start­ed, a ter­rif­ic storm hit the area from the south­east. It spawned a tor­na­do and put out the fires. Accord­ing to reports Admi­ral Cock­burn asked a woman, “Dear God! Is this the weath­er to which you are accus­tomed to in this infer­nal coun­try?” She replied, “This is a spe­cial inter­po­si­tion of Prov­i­dence to dri­ve our ene­mies from our city.” But Cock­burn insist­ed the storm helped them destroy the build­ings. Actu­al­ly, he was cor­rect. How­ev­er, the storm also dam­aged the British ships in the har­bor.

Sounds to me like they had a hur­ri­cane.


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