Burning of Washington

Date 8/24/1814 - 8/24/1814

The Burning of Washington took place on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812 between the British Empire and the United States of America. The British occupied Washington, D.C. and set fire to many public buildings following the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg. The facilities of the U.S. government, including the White House, were largely destroyed, though strict discipline and the British commander's orders to burn only public buildings are credited with preserving the city's private buildings. This is the only time since 1783 in United States history that a foreign power has captured and occupied the United States capital (Philadelphia was captured by British forces in 1777 during the American Revolutionary War).

Reasons for the attack

Historians assert that the attack was in retaliation for the American looting of York, Upper Canada (now Toronto) after the Battle of York in 1813, and the burning down of the Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada. The British Army commanders said they chose to attack Washington "on account of the greater political effect likely to result,".

Governor-General Sir George Prevost of Canada wrote to the Admirals in Bermuda calling for a retaliation for the American sacking of York and requested their permission and support in the form the provision of naval resources. At the time, it was considered against the civilized laws of war to burn a non-military facility and the Americans had not only burned the Parliament but also looted and burned the Governor's mansion, private homes and warehouses.

Further proof of the intention was that after the limited British burning of some public facilities, the British left. There was no territory that they wanted to occupy, no military facility that they had planned to attack, and the attack caused no American casualties.


On August 24, 1814, the advance guard of British troops made a march to Capitol Hill. General Robert Ross sent a party under a flag of truce to agree to terms, but they were attacked by partisans from a house at the corner of Maryland Avenue, Constitution Avenue, and Second Street NE. This was to be the only resistance the soldiers met. The house was burned, and the Union Flag raised over Washington.

The buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives—construction on the central rotunda of the Capitol had not yet begun—were set ablaze not long after. The interiors of both buildings, including the Library of Congress, were destroyed, although the thick walls and a torrential rainfall preserved their exteriors. (Thomas Jefferson later sold his library to the government to restock the Library of Congress.) The next day Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the D.C. newspaper, National Intelligencer, intending to burn it down; however, a group of neighborhood women persuaded him not to because they were afraid the fire would spread to their neighboring houses. Cockburn wanted to destroy the newspaper because they had written so many negative items about him, branding him as "The Ruffian." Instead he ordered his troops to tear the building down brick by brick making sure that they destroyed all the "C" type so that no more pieces mentioning his name could be printed.

The troops then turned north down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. After many of the government officials — and her own bodyguard — had already fled, First Lady Dolley Madison remained, gathering valuables, documents and other items of importance. She, or perhaps members of the house staff, rescued the Lansdowne Portrait, a full-length painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Mrs. Madison was finally persuaded to leave moments before invading soldiers entered the building. Once inside, the soldiers found the dining hall set for a dinner for 40 people. After eating all the food, they took souvenirs (e.g., one of the president's hats) and then set the building on fire.

Fuel was added to the fires that night to ensure they would continue burning into the next day; the smoke was reportedly visible as far away as Baltimore and the Patuxent River.

The British also burned the United States Treasury Building and other public buildings. Much of the historic Washington Navy Yard, founded by Thomas Jefferson and the first federal installation in the United States, was burned by the Americans to prevent capture of stores and ammunition, as well as the 44-gun frigate USS Columbia which was then being built. The Navy Yard's Latrobe Gate, Quarters A, and Quarters B were the only buildings to escape destruction. The United States Patent Office building was saved by the efforts of William Thornton—Architect of the Capitol and then superintendent of patents—who convinced the British of the importance of its preservation. Also spared were the Marine Barracks, which some attribute as a gesture of respect for their conduct at Bladensburg. However, Alexandria was raided by the British, although a deal with the mayor kept that town from being burnt. In the afternoon of August 25, General Ross sent two hundred men to secure a fort on Greenleaf's Point. The fort, later know as Fort McNair, had already been destroyed by the Americans, but 150 barrels of gunpowder remained. While the British were attempting to destroy the powder by dropping the barrels into a well, the powder ignited. As many as thirty men were killed in the explosion, and many others were maimed.

Less than a day after the attack began, a tornado passed through, killing more British than American guns, tossing cannons, and putting out fires. This forced the British troops to return to their ships, many of which were badly damaged by the storm, and so the actual occupation of Washington lasted about 26 hours. President Madison and the rest of the government quickly returned to the city.


Damage to the White House

The White House had been set ablaze causing extensive damage; only the exterior walls remained, and they had to be torn down and mostly reconstructed due to weakening from the fire and subsequent exposure to the elements, except for portions of the southwall. A legend emerged that during the rebuilding of the structure white paint was applied to mask the burn damage it had suffered, giving the building its namesake hue. This is unfounded as the building had been painted white since its construction in 1798. A certain jewelry box, one of the many spoils taken from the White House when it was ransacked by British troops, was returned to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1939 by an elderly man who said his grandfather had taken it from Washington.

Political effects

The British raid on Washington successfully diverted the attention of the government, and was designed to land a humiliating blow to the Americans. Indeed, John Armstrong, Jr. was dismissed as United States Secretary of War as a result of the incident.

American historians contend the attack was not as demoralizing as Cockburn intended, for it caused outrage among many previously neutral or anti-war Americans, and diverted forces the British needed in their failed invasion of New York state.


The thick sandstone walls of the White House and Capitol survived, although scarred with smoke and scorch marks. The inland frontier town of Cincinnati, Ohio was a proposed location for the rebuilding of the White House fearing any more sea raids by Britain.[citation needed] Fearful of the loss of the capital, Washington businessmen financed the construction of the Old Brick Capitol, where Congress met while the Capitol was reconstructed from 1815 to 1819. Reconstruction of the White House also began in early 1815 and was finished in time for President James Monroe's inauguration in 1817. Madison resided in The Octagon House for the remainder of his term.