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Chaos Reigned During the 1814 Burning of Washington

The storming of the capital during the War of 1812 led to destruction.

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The War of 1812 officially began in June of its titular year. Also known as the Second War of Independence, this struggle saw fighting take place primarily between the fledgling United States and Great Britain, who didn't see eye to eye on matters of trade and maritime activity. Both nations enlisted the help of their indigenous allies, with the British also persuading Spain to their side and making use of their Canadian colonies. It was during this drawn-out conflict that the British set fire to Washington, D.C., with flames consuming the White House and the Capitol Building.

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From the beginning of the war, the British hit American forces hard. Though the United States was able to claim some victories throughout the course of the war, their successes were few in comparison to their enemy's. And when the tide of the Napoleonic Wars began to turn in favor of the British in the spring of 1814, British troops there were redirected to the efforts against America. In August of that year, Britain would carry out an aggressive assault that would have a significant impact on America's history.

The Burning of Washington happened on August 24th, 1814. Coming off a victory at the Battle of Bladensburg, British Major General Robert Ross marched a force to Washington. With him on the 50 mile trek was an army of 3,500 soldiers reinforced by another 1,000 marines. With no cavalry and little artillery, Ross was skeptical about his chances of taking the young nation's capital.

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So why try? It was a move largely motivated by American destruction of property in Canada. During a raid in Port Dover, Ontario, American forces destroyed grain stocks and mills that provided flour to British troops. In York, then the capital of Upper Canada, Americans had also looted and set the town ablaze. These actions were seen as a violation of the laws of war, and the British called for retaliation.

Rear Admiral George Cockburn, who had commanded a squadron in Chesapeake Bay, recommended to Ross that he raze the entirety of Washington, D.C. to the ground. However, Ross ignored this suggestion. Almost all of the private property in Washington was spared during the 26 hours that the British occupied the nation's capital. Ross focused instead on setting fire to a smattering of government and military buildings, including the White House and the Capitol Building.

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As far as targets go, the Capitol Building was ideal both in terms of aesthetics and symbolism. It was widely considered the most beautiful building in Washington, and at the time it housed Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Library of Congress.

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Starting with the southern wing, which was home to the House of Representatives, British forces descended on the Capitol Building. The northern wing, which housed the Senate, came next. Before the arson, the British looted the building.

Once the fire was set, the flames grew so quickly that the soldiers had to retreat before they could manage to gather enough wood to completely burn the stone walls. However, the documents within the Library of Congress did their part to stoke the fire. Thousands of documents perished in the blaze, as did countless works of art adorning the halls.

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The burning of the White House—then referred to as the Presidential Mansion—followed shortly after. President James Madison and other government officials had already fled the city, and Madison left word to his wife Dolly that she should also be prepared for a speedy departure if necessary. She rallied staff, including slaves, to help gather valuables to save from British aggression. Among the items save from the fire was a large portrait of George Washington, which is still on display at the National Portrait Gallery.

The British took their time with the burning of the Presidential Mansion, adding fuel to the fire so that it would burn through the night. The United States Treasury and the United States Department of War buildings were also set ablaze. The building of the local newspaper, the National Intelligencer, was pulled apart brick by brick so as to avoid damage to surrounding homes.

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Shortly after the attacks on Washington began, a dangerous storm blew in. The heavy rains that came extinguished the flames of the falling buildings. It was these rains that saved a portion of the Capitol from complete destruction—the House rotunda, the east lobby, the staircases, and Latrobe's famous Corn-Cob Columns in the Senate entrance hall were all spared. A tornado followed the storm, killing both British soldiers and American civilians alike as canons were lifted and dropped by the winds. The storm destroyed some British ships, but it also made an already dire situation in Washington even worse, as buildings that were left unharmed by the invasion were then battered by the force of this natural disaster.

The British retreated after the storm. Whether it was their intention to only occupy the capital for a day all along or they were driven out by the rains is a matter of great debate. Regardless, the nation's capital was left in shambles despite the brevity of the occupation. President Madison and other officials returned to the capital on September 1st, when Madison asked that the citizens of the District of Columbia unite to defend and rebuild the city. 

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Some members of Congress indicated they would support relocating the capital, but all such proposals were struck down. To ensure the capital would remain where it was, construction of the Old Brick Capitol began in early 1815, funded by Washington property owners. It took five months to complete and would serve as the temporary capitol until 1819. Over the next few years, the Capitol Building and the White House were rebuilt on the same grounds where they had once stood unscathed.

British opinion on the burnings were divided. While some felt it was a justified act of revenge for the American destruction wrought in Canada, others were horrified by the troops' actions, which were largely denounced by European leaders. To this day, the Burning of Washington remains the only time since the Revolutionary War that the U.S. capital has been captured and occupied by a foreign power.