Monday, 30 July 2012

The Burning of Washington - War of 1812

Despite the fact that the Burning of Washington took place on August 24, 1814, it was part of the War of 1812, which lasted until February of 1815.

Following what many American historians consider the "Greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms" at the hands of the British troops at the Battle of Bladensburg, the British became the only foreign power ever to capture the Washington, D.C. the capital of the United States.

MG Robert Ross.jpg
The British troops, led by Major General Robert Ross occupied Washington. British commanders were ordered to only destroy public buildings. This was perhaps a ploy to gain American followers, but led to the survival of many of the cities heritage private buildings. It has also been suggested that the attack on public buildings was retaliation for the massive damage dealt to private dwellings along Lake Erie from the famous Raid on Port Dover by American troops.

The main focus of the British attack on Washington, the U.S. government buildings, including, but not limited to, The White House and the U.S. Capitol were heavily damaged.

Had it not been for the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte in April of 1814 in Europe, the British might not have won the Battle of Bladensburg, but the British were able to recruit fresh troops to the American theatre of war.

The British attack on Washington was ordered in July, and was to deter any repetition of similar outrages as the Raid on Port Dover.

Quickly after the US Marines defeat, Ross and his troops arrived in Washinton, and attempted to force a truce in the war. After being attacked from a house at the corner of Maryland Ave. and Constitution St. the troops burned the house, and began their destruction of the city, while raising the Union Flag over Washington.

The buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives were burned almost to the ground. The Library of Congress  was destroyed. Its exterior walls were preserved thanks to the rainfall, but its interior and stocks of books were lost.  It would not be re-stocked until Thomas Jefferson sold his personal collection of more than 6,000 volumes to the U.S. government.

British troops then turned to the President's house, the White House, and began burning it, adding fuel to the flames to keep it burning as long as possible.

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Library of Congress - Remains of the U.S. Capitol Building - Munger, George

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Library of Congress - Remains of the Presidents House (White House) - Munger, George
The Only public building to be saved from the British flames was the U.S. Patent Office, which was saved by William Thornton, a former architect of the Capital, who gained British support to save the building.

American forces themselves would burn almost all of the famous Washington Naval Yard to the ground to prevent the capture of the port and its munitions storage. This was an early example of the scorched earth policy. Had the British been able to capture the Naval Yard intact, the War of 1812, might not have ended in return to the Status Quo situation.

After 26 hours of occupation, the British troops withdrew, and President Madison and other government officials were able to return to the city and begin rebuilding.

The Presidents House, is said to have become known as The White House, after it was white washed to hide the fire damage from the British Burning of Washington in 1814.

Remembering History - The Burning of Washington