- Historic Sites
The Day They Burned The Capitol
Only a lucky rainfall put an end to our humiliation
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
Washington in 1814 was a capital city with no past to speak of, nothing much in the way of a present, and a future greater than any man then alive could imagine. It was a straggling country town, its dirt roads alternately ankle-deep in powdery dust and hub-deep in mud, with a general air of unfinished emptiness about it, and it was to become a great center of world power, imposing to look at, a place of destiny, majestic and secure. But before it could develop this high destiny it was to suffer the ultimate humiliation that can come upon any capital city: it was to be occupied by enemy troops, its government driven in wild flight, its public buildings burned, with every indication that neither the city nor the nation which it governed would ever again amount to very much.
For the Washington of 1814, with its 900 buildings and 8,000 inhabitants, was the capital of a country at war with one of the world’s great powers—England. There had been something slightly unreal about this war, as far as Washington was concerned. By choice and by lack of communications, the Capital exercised little central control. Armies were formed and sent off to the frontiers under generals who then were largely on their own. Washington only belatedly learned what they were doing. The war seemed, and was, remote.
Yet there had been ominous warnings. A full year before, in 1813, sea-based enemy raiders had been marauding in the Chesapeake Bay region, not sixty miles from the Capital. The Maryland Eastern Shore had been raided, and Havre de Grace on the Western Shore and Hampton in Virginia had been pillaged and burned.
But the scare soon passed; the volunteers were discharged, and a House committee was satisfied that “preparations are, in every respect, adequate to the emergency….”
But as Washington began to broil in another summer, the enemy still hung in the Chesapeake, master of its waters and shores. In May, news of British victory over Napoleon reached Washington, and in late June, specific warnings came from Gallatin and Bayard, peace commissioners in Europe, that a great British force of veterans was on its way to America. The Cabinet met immediately and did nothing in particular.
The newspapers, and specially the National Intelligencer , were undisturbed. They exulted in the drubbing that would promptly be given any invader by an aroused citizenry. War Secretary Armstrong actually discharged all the militia operating along the Patuxent, and some 300 of them came home to the District.
There was nothing to worry about. Had not Secretary of War Amstrong issued a proclamation calling up 93,500 militia? And had not General William H. Winder of Maryland been appointed to command them? True, Winder’s principal claim to military fame had been to get himself captured in the Canadian border campaign of 1813. But he had returned and, after all, his uncle was Levin Winder. Federalist governor of Maryland, which must necessarily furnish a good share of the militia.
Winder was no Napoleon, but he was not such a fool as to think his command actually existed. In an agonized letter he proposed that 4,000 militia be called up without delay, so they might get at least some field training and be on hand to harass any landings that might be made. His letter was not answered.
Winder was in the saddle day and night, riding ceaselessly over the territory he was to protect, a rough triangle between the Potomac and the Patuxent, with Washington at its base. What he chiefly found was a cumulative lack of everything needed to make war, notably the basic essentials—soldiers.
On August 1, Winder set up headquarters in Washington and reviewed what militia could be scraped up. He exchanged public letters with General John P. Van Ness, commander of the District militia, and neither seemed greatly dissatisfied with the display. By August 13, small detachments were passing through the city toward Bladensburg. And high time, too, for on the 18th, a dusty rider clopped down Pennsylvania Avenue with word that the British fleet had entered the Patuxent the day before.
Beyond this bare but ominous warning, the Capital knew nothing of what was happening less than sixty miles away. So keenly was this complete lack of intelligence felt that Secretary of State Monroe saw fit to ride out on August 19, with a handful of dragoons as escort, to see for himself. On the morning of the 20th, he stood on a little hill near Benedict and watched the British landing 4,500 troops without an opposing shot. (He thought there were 6,000; others guessed as high as 12,000.) Nobody had the faintest idea what they were going to do.
The confusion was quite justified, for General Robert Ross and Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn do not seem to have made their final decision to march on Washington until they were camped at Upper Marlboro on the night of August 22.
It being already too late, Washington began to be genuinely alarmed. Though August 21 was a Sabbath, 400 or 500 volunteers trekked to Bladensburg to throw up some kind of earthworks. They might have saved their sweat, for the principal work thrown up was not even occupied during the later battle.