(Mural by Allyn Cox, U.S. Department of State)
Two hundred years ago, the United States was locked in a bitter struggle against the British Empire known as the War of 1812. For the new republic, the stakes were profoundly high. This became especially clear on August 24, 1814. Two hundred years ago to this day, the capital city of the United States of America, Washington, D.C., was captured and burned.
(Image of Royal Navy impressment via Man the Capstan)
Although some American politicians, such as Henry Clay, hoped to conquer part or all of Canada, the War of 1812 was largely unwanted by Americans. But Britain, in its efforts to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte, raided neutral American shipping to French-controlled lands. It also kidnapped American sailors and pressed them into its own navy in order to keep its warships fully manned. Years of this piracy finally provoked the United States to declare war on June 18, 1812.
(Map by P.S. Burton)
The United States anticipated that the war would be quick and easy. Former President Thomas Jefferson wrote that conquering Canada would be “a mere matter of marching.” These predictions were catastrophically wrong. The United States Army and Navy barely existed, yet these forces would be relied upon to combat the most powerful nation on earth.
(Battle of the Thames and the death of Tecumseh via Finavon)
Britain immediately threw the Royal Navy at the shipping and coastline of the United States, establishing a porous blockade for the duration of the war. US invasions of Upper and Lower Canada were largely failures, with the notable exceptions of the Battle of the Thames and the burning of modern-day Toronto in 1813. The American Fort Detroit embarrassingly fell to an inferior force led by Isaac Brock, one of early Canada’s greatest war heroes.
But neither side that advanced could hold enemy territory for long. The war in North America had become a stalemate. That might have ended in April of 1814, when Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated as Emperor of France. The United States had gone to war under the assumption that it would be fighting a Britain distracted by France. Now it would face the full fury and might of the British Empire.
(Portrait Arthur Wellesley, the First Duke of Wellington, by Thomas Lawrence)
Britain offered the Duke of Wellington, its preeminent general, command of its forces in North America. Wellington declined, but he drew up a general strategy for defeating the United States. Britain would tie down American forces in the Chesapeake Bay area and New Orleans. Then, in a fulfillment of Burgoyne’s failed 1777 campaign, it would strike south from Quebec, down the Lake Champlain/Hudson River corridor, capturing New York and severing New England from the rest of the United States.
(Map of the United States in 1812 by Golbez)
Britain had not desired a war against the United States. But now that it was engaged in one--and appeared to be winning--Britain planned to impose harsh penalties on the Americans. Various schemes included forcibly returning the Louisiana Territory to Spain, annexing eastern Maine, Vermont, and northern New York, turning the Old Northwest territory north of the Greenville Treaty line into a Native American state under British control, and ending American fishing rights off the Grand Banks.
At their broadest extent, British plans would have conquered two-thirds of American territory and permanently ended American expansion west of the Mississippi River. As I said: the stakes were very high for the United States.
To convince the American people, government, and peace negotiators then at work in Ghent, Belgium that they had lost the war, the British decided to occupy and burn the capital city of the United States.
(Portrait of Admiral Cockburn by John James Halls, c. 1817. This painting shows Cockburn standing before Washington in flames.)
(A different take on the Cockburn portrait by Jon White)
On April 4, a force under Rear Admiral George Cockburn began raiding the American coast in the Chesapeake Bay area. He ordered his forces “to destroy and lay waste such towns and districts upon the coast as you may find assailable.” This, he argued, was in retaliation for similar American actions in Canada.
Cockburn also proclaimed that slaves who reached British forces would be freed, enlisted, and settled in British dominions at the end of the war. Slaves flocked to the British lines when possible. Cockburn armed them and was using these freedmen on raids by June.
(Portrait of Major General Robert Ross by an unknown artist)
Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Cockburn’s superior, commanded the Royal Navy’s North American Station. He departed Bermuda on August 1 with a fleet and with 4,500 veteran soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Ross. They headed toward the Chesapeake. No American naval force of any consequence was available to meet it.
Cockburn and Cochrane met at the mouth of the Potomac on August 14 to discuss their options. Cockburn, who was an aggressive commander, urged an immediate attack on Washington. Cochrane was uncertain. He had only 4,500 troops. Surely the capital of a nation of 8 million people would be defended by a superior force. Further reconnaissance and testing of the American defenses was necessary.
(Map by Allen Browne)
Cochrane sent a squadron up the Potomac to scout the area. He and Ross then sailed up the Patuxent River in Maryland and landed at the town of Benedict. Both expeditions were unopposed. Ross marched to the town of Upper Marlboro on August 22, again encountering no resistance. He saw his opportunity: Washington was a mere 15 miles away and there was no sign that it was defended.
Heat and fatigue delayed Ross for a day, giving the Americans time to assemble something vaguely resembling a defense. Brig. Gen. William H. Winder, an incompetent but politically connected officer, commanded a motley assembly of 6,000 men, mostly militia and naval personnel.
(Battle of Bladensburg re-enactment by Prince George's County)
Winder arrayed them around the town of Bladensburg. Ross arrived on August 24. He was outnumbered and his men were tired from fast marching. Ross immediately attacked.
President Madison was present to witness the engagement. But when the terrifying Congreve rockets screeched over his position, he and his entourage left. It was a good decision because the American position promptly collapsed. The capture of the President of the United States during a war would surely have ended poorly for that nation.
(Dolley Madison by the Montpelier Foundation and Smithsonian)
Back in Washington, Dolley Madison frantically packed a few treasured belongings from the executive mansion, including a copy of the famous Landsdowne portrait of George Washington. She fled in a wagon across a bridge into Virginia, where she stayed at a plantation in Loudon County. President Madison soon crossed the Potomac and spent the night at the town of Salona.
Ross gave his men two hours of rest, then marched them the remaining seven miles to Washington. He and Admiral Cockburn rode white horses, which must have been an impressive sight. It was, perhaps, a bit too conspicuous. 300 militiamen were at the outskirts of the city. Before fleeing, they shot and killed General Ross’s horse.
Ross and Cockburn proceeded to the President’s House, as the White House was known at the time. They poured wine and toasted the Prince Regent. Then they burned the building down, as well as the Capitol and the Library of Congress. According to some accounts, Cockburn stood in the chair of the Speaker of the House of Representatives and joyfully asked his men, "Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?" His men shouted their affirmations.
Admiral Cockburn was particularly keen to destroy the Library of Congress, as that building housed the newspaper the National Intelligencer. That paper had been a savage critic of Cockburn, so he enjoyed personally torching the place. He noticed that the August 24 edition asserted that the city was completely safe from British attack.
British forces continued their destruction into the next day, stopped only by a terrible hurricane. On the evening of August 25, they began their march back to the fleet at Benedict, Maryland. Although Ross worried that American militia forces might seek vengeance, he encountered no resistance on his march.
The British Empire had, with impunity, burned the enemy capital. How could the young republic recover from this disaster? In the next article in this three-part series on the bicennential of the War of 1812, I’ll tell you how.
Arthur, Brian. How Britain Won the War of 1812. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2011.
Budiansky, Stephen. Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815. New York: Knopf, 2010.
Daughan, George C. 1812: The Navy's War. New York: Basic Books, 2011.
Fitz-Enz, David. The Final Invasion: Plattsburg, The War of 1812’s Most Decisive Battle. New York: Cooper Square, 2001.
Howard, Hugh. Mr. and Mrs. Madison's War: America's First Couple and the Second War of Independence. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.
Stagg, J.C.A. The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Weber, William. Neither Victor Nor Vanquished: America in the War of 1812. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 2013.