24 August 1814
On 24 August 1814, British troops burned down much of Washington D.C., including the White House, the Capitol, the bridge over the Potomac, the United States Treasury and other government and private properties. The resulting inferno, accelerated by the invaluable collection of books in the heavily timbered Library of Congress, was so vast that the glow in the night sky could be observed fifty miles away by the the crewmen of British ships anchored in the Patuxent River. It was also seen by the terrified citizens of Baltimore, where a journalist of the city’s Telegraph reported that
‘not withstanding the clear unclouded moon shone on the last evening with unusual lustre, the light of the conflagration… at Washington was clearly discernible.’1
A month earlier, British Rear Admiral George Cockburn had received instructions that he was ‘required and directed to destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find assailable.’ Cockburn had selected Washington because of its symbolic political importance, and had then delegated the task to Major General Robert Ross, who led a force of 4,500 soldiers against the town, which although America’s political capital, was of little strategic importance. The occupation itself was to last only twenty six hours, since British troops feared being cut off from their ships, but even today blackened scorch marks on some of the sandstone blocks from the original walls of the White House are still visible.
Two years earlier, in 1812, the British had bitterly condemned Napoleon for failing to stop the burning of Moscow, but that fire had been ignited by the city’s defenders. Whereas, the burning of Washington was a calculated act of deliberate vandalism by the British, designed to humiliate Americans and to remind them that they should still fear British imperial power. An editorial in the Journal de Paris, however, pointed out that Americans would be unlikely to be cowed by this ‘horrible catastrophe which has annihilated one of the finest cities in the world,’ insisting that ‘if she (Britain) believes that such conduct will frighten her enemies and conduct them by terror, she deceives herself. Injustice and barbarity revolt more than they affright.’2 The British press was naturally unrepentant. The Morning Post newspaper denied that British troops had burned down private properties, but it declared that if they had done so, the ‘arrogant (Americans) deserve such a calamity,’3 while the London Courier described the sacking of the city as ‘glorious tidings’ and a ‘Justly merited British vengeance.’4
- The Baltimore Telegraph, 26 August 1814 cited in ‘From the Baltimore Telegraph,’ the Morning Post, 29 September 1814, p. 3
- The Journal de Paris cited in ‘French Papers’ in the Morning Post, 11 October 1814, p. 6.
- ‘Capture and Destruction of the American Capital,’ The Morning Post, 28 September 1814, p. 4.
- ‘Washington Taken and Destroyed,’ The London Courier and Evening Gazette, 27 September 1814, p. 6 and ‘Description of Washington,’ The London Courier and Evening Gazette, 29 September 1814, p. 29.
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