The Burning of Washington City in 1814 by the British + the Release of “Captain Stanwick’s Bride”

After their first capture of Napoleon, the British turned their sights on the American front and what was known as the War of 1812. Up until that time, the British had been too busy with Napoleon to address fully the goings on in the United States. However, thinking the war on the Continent was finished, the British had more than enough time and men to do the job proper.

The Smithsonian Magazine tells us, “In the 19th century, the Canadian historian William Kingsford was only half-joking when he commented, ‘The events of the War of 1812 have not been forgotten in England for they have never been known there.'” This was not exactly true. [War of Words] “In the 20th, another Canadian historian remarked that the War of 1812 is ‘an episode in history that makes everybody happy, because everybody interprets it differently…the English are happiest of all, because they don’t even know it happened.’

“The truth is, the British were never happy. In fact, their feelings ranged from disbelief and betrayal at the beginning of the war to outright fury and resentment at the end. They regarded the U.S. protests against Royal Navy impressment of American seamen as exaggerated whining at best, and a transparent pretext for an attempt on Canada at worst. It was widely known that Thomas Jefferson coveted all of North America for the United States. When the war started, he wrote to a friend: ‘The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.’ Moreover, British critics interpreted Washington’s willingness to go to war as proof that America only paid lip service to the ideals of freedom, civil rights and constitutional government. In short, the British dismissed the United States as a haven for blackguards and hypocrites.”

Therefore, as the British Navy took up positions along the Eastern seaboard of the United States, on 24 August 1814, British troops marched on Washington City (now referred to as Washington, D. C.).

Prior to the British entrance into the U. S.’s center of government, the Battle of Bladensburg was fought in Maryland on August 24, 1814, and this British victory left Washington City perilously unguarded. The embarrassing defeat of American forces under General William Winder allowed British Army Officer Robert Ross’s men to march into nearby Washington City and set fire to public buildings, including the presidential mansion (later to be rebuilt and renamed as the White House) over August 24th and 25th. This British success, at first, devastated American morale by destroying the very symbols of American democracy and spirit, and the British sought to swiftly end an increasingly unpopular war.

As the American militia left Washington City without protection, the British entered the city with little resistance. However, they found that the American President James Madison and his wife, along with key members of government had fled to safety in Maryland. The British supposed ate the meal meant for those who lived and worked in the Presidential Mansion (now called the “White House”). The British ransacked the mansion and set it on fire.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_Washington#/media/File:BurningofWashington1814.jpg

From History.com, we learn, “According to the White House Historical Society and Dolley [Madison]’s personal letters, President James Madison had left the White House on August 22 to meet with his generals on the battlefield, just as British troops threatened to enter the capitol. Before leaving, he asked his wife Dolley if she had the ‘courage or firmness’ to wait for his intended return the next day. He asked her to gather important state papers and be prepared to abandon the White House at any moment.

“The next day, Dolley and a few servants scanned the horizon with spyglasses waiting for either Madison or the British army to show up. As British troops gathered in the distance, Dolley decided to abandon the couple’s personal belongings and instead saved a full-length portrait of former President George Washington from desecration. Dolley wrote to her sister on the night of August 23 of the difficulty involved in saving the painting. Since the portrait was screwed to the wall, she ordered the frame to be broken and the canvas pulled out and rolled up. Two unidentified ‘gentlemen from New York’ hustled it away for safe-keeping. (Unbeknownst to Dolley the portrait was actually a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s original). The task complete, Dolley wrote ‘and now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. Dolley left the White House and found her husband at their predetermined meeting place in the middle of a thunderstorm.”

They eventually found refuge for the night in Brookeville, a small town in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is known today as the ”United States’ Capital for a Day.” President Madison spent the night in the house of Caleb Bentley, a Quaker, who lived and worked in Brookeville. Bentley’s house, known today as the Madison House, still stands in Brookeville. [“Brookeville 1814”. Maryland State Archives.]

The sappers and miners of the Corps of Royal Engineers, under Captain Blanshard, were employed in burning the principal buildings. The soldiers burned the president’s house, and fuel was added to the fires that night to ensure they would continue burning into the next day.

The Blodget Hotel which housed the US Patent Office; spared during the burning of Washington in 1814. The Patent Office later burned in 1836. ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_Washington#/media/File:Blodget’s_Hotel,_built_1793.tif

The following day, Rear Admiral Cockburn had the building housing the National Intelligencer, a newspaper that regularly criticized Cockburn, destroyed brick-by-brick. He also ordered all “C” type buildings burnt to the ground. The British had hoped to find money in the U.S. Treasury Building, but all they found was old records. The Treasury Building, the Blodget Hotel, which housed the U.S. Patent Office, the U.S. Department of War building, etc. were ordered burned, although some records and buildings were saved.

Rear-Admiral George Cockburn (1772-1853) *oil on canvas *239 x 148.5 cm *ca. 1817 ~
Portrait of Admiral Cockburn at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, with Washington burning in the background. The U.S. Capitol and Treasury Building are at far right. ~ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Burning_of_Washington#/media/File:Rear-Admiral_George_Cockburn_(1772-1853),_by_John_James_Halls.jpg

In order to prevent capture of stores and ammunition, itheir retreat, the Americans had already burned the Washington Navy Yard, which had been founded by Thomas Jefferson. They also burned the 44-gun frigate, USS Columbia, and the 22-gun USS Argus, which were being built at the time.

On August 25, General Ross sent 200 hundred men to secure a fort a Greenleaf Point (later known as Fort McNair), only to discover the fort had been destroyed by the Americans. The British discovered 150 barrels of gunpowder, however. Unfortunately, they tried to destroy the ammunition by dropping the barrels into a well. The powder ignited and 30 British soldiers were killed. Many more were maimed and injured.

Four days after the attack on Washington City began, a sudden, but providential storm (possibly a hurricane) arrived in the area, putting out the fires. It spun off a tornado that made its way down what is now Constitution Avenue, supposably lifting two cannons into the air and dropping them down again several yards away. It also killed several dozen British soldiers and American civilians alike.

The storm drove the British from the city and back to their waiting ships, which had suffered a good deal of damage. “There is some debate regarding the effect of this storm on the occupation. While some assert that the storm forced their retreat, [The War of 1812, Scene 5 “An Act of Nature”, History Channel, 2005] it seems likely from their destructive and arsonous actions before the storm, and their written orders from Cochrane to “destroy and lay waste”, [Cruikshank, Ernest (2006) [1814]. The Documentary History of the campaign upon the Niagara frontier. (Part 1-2). University of Calgary. Archived from the original on May 27, 2011.] that their intention was merely to raze the city, rather than occupy it for an extended period. Whatever the case, the British occupation of Washington lasted only about 26 hours. Despite this, the ‘Storm that saved Washington,’ as it became known, did the opposite according to some. The rains sizzled and cracked the already charred walls of the White House and ripped away at structures the British had no plans to destroy (such as the Patent Office).

“An encounter was noted between Sir George Cockburn and a female resident of Washington.

“Dear God! Is this the weather to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” enquired the Admiral.

“This is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city”, the woman allegedly called out to Cockburn.

“Not so, Madam”, Cockburn retorted. “It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city”, before riding off on horseback. 

“Yet, the British left right after the storm completely unopposed by any American military forces. What makes this event even more serendipitous for the Americans is that, as the Smithsonian reports, there have only been seven other tornadoes recorded in Washington, D.C. in the 204 years since with probably a similar rare occurrence in the years prior to this event.” [Peter Snow. “When Britain Burned the White House” 2012]

Although President Madison and his wife were able to return to Washington only three days later when British troops had moved on, they never again lived in the White House. Madison served the rest of his term residing at the city’s Octagon House. It was not until 1817 that newly elected president James Monroe moved back into the reconstructed building.

Other Sources:

Allen, William C. (2001). “Destruction and Restoration, 1814–1817”. History of the United States Capitol: A Chronicle of Design, Construction, and Politics. Washington, DC: United States Government Publishing Office. p. 99.

History.com

History of Washington, D. C.

Pitch, Anthony S. (1998). The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press. pp. 49-50.

Smithsonian Magazine

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Captain Stanwick’s Bride: A Tragic Characters in Classic Lit Series Novel

[Arriving February 19, 2021]

“Happiness consists more in conveniences of pleasure that occur everyday than in great pieces of good fortune that happen but seldom.” – Benjamin Franklin

Captain Whittaker Stanwick has a successful military career and a respectable home farm in Lancashire. What he does not have in his life is felicity. Therefore, when the opportunity arrives, following his wife’s death, Stanwick sets out to know a bit of happiness, at last—finally to claim a woman who stirs his soul. Yet, he foolishly commits himself to one woman only weeks before he has found a woman, though shunned by her people and his, who touches his heart. Will he deny the strictures placed upon him by society in order learn the secret of happiness is freedom: Freedom to love and freedom to know courage?

Loosely based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Courtship of Miles Standish” and set against the final battles of the War of 1812, this tale shows the length a man will go to in order to claim a remarkable woman as his.

Kindle      https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08W9GW1M8

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Amazon https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08W7JV2RR

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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