Largely forgotten, the burning of Washington 200 years ago

Wow.  It occurred to me that today is the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington, D.C. by a British invasion force.  I am struck by how such a historic event has largely been forgotten.

Perhaps it is overshadowed by the events that led to the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner a few weeks later, and by the overwhelming victory at New Orleans a few months later.  But it was a terrible event in the history of our country.  The city had been left almost undefended by the Secretary of War, a man who disregarded any concerns about a British attack on the capital.  When everyone realized that Washington was in danger, an improvised force made up of a mere 120 cavalry and some 300 infantry, plus several thousand green and poorly trained militia, went out to confront the British near Bladensburg, Maryland.  The force was handily defeated and it retreated in a panic that become known as the Bladensburg Races.  Many members of the government had seen the battle and fled as well when the troops came through the city.

When the British arrived in Washington, they proceeded to burn the Capitol building, the Executive Mansion, the Treasury Building, and every other major government building with the exception of the Patent Office.   The items destroyed included the entire 3,000 volumes of the Library of Congress.  The British also wrecked the National Intelligencer newspaper office, which had singled out British commander Rear Admiral George Cockburn for much criticism in its pages.  Supposedly Cockburn specifically had all of the “C”‘s in the paper’s type destroyed so they could no longer spell his name.

The burned U.S. Capitol building, from a contemporary watercolor and ink drawing by George Munger.
The Executive Mansion (now known as the White House) as it looked in 1814 after the British burned it. Ink and watercolor by George Munger.

An interesting side note to the burning of the Executive Mansion is the story of Paul Jennings, a slave owned by President James Madison.  When word came that the British were approaching, First Lady Dolley Madison tried to save some of the valuables, but the Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington was saved by Jennings and several other servants.  The actions of these servants were recognized in a ceremony at the White House a few years ago by President Barack Obama.


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