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.