- Historic Sites
The Day They Burned The Capitol
Only a lucky rainfall put an end to our humiliation
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
The story that the While House table was set for a formal banquet for forty persons, with wine cooling for a victory feast, is almost certainly not true. Mrs. Madison had canceled a dinner the night before, and had spent the day packing. Couriers and retreating American militiamen had been tramping through the house all day, and it is most unlikely that a formal banquet setup had been preserved intact. Food and wine were found, however, and consumed by the victors, and that was enough to lay a foundation for the banquet story.
The British detachment now fired the small Treasury building, and began to slog wearily back down Pennsylvania Avenue toward their encampment. All of what is now downtown Washington was lit by the flaring and flickering glow of fires—Capitol and White House burning at either end of the Avenue, the Navy Yard glowing, with showers of sparks shot upward by occasional explosions.
Gently at first, a summer shower began to fall, while flashes of lightning sent grotesque shivers across the glowing sky. The fire-glow sank to angry red. It rained for about an hour, not enough to quench the larger fires but enough to prevent them from spreading.
Hiding in the woods and cornfields about the town, clustered on the heights of Georgetown, straining anxious eyes across the dark Potomac, Washingtonians watched the glare in the sky flare and die away, rise and fall, while the rain drenched the shelterless.
The two British heavy brigades, dog-tired, remained in their camp the next morning, August 25. But the Light Brigade moved down again into the city to complete the work of destruction.
“Of the Senate-House, the President’s Palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins, and even the bridge, a noble structure upwards of a mile in length, was almost entirely demolished.” So wrote Gleig, the British sub-altern. To keep the British from crossing, the Americans had fired the Virginia end of the bridge, while the British burned the Washington end to secure themselves against American reänforcements entering the town.
A party of 200 marched to Greenleaf’s Point to destroy the arsenal that stood almost exactly where the War College stands today. There someone dropped a lighted portfire into a well, probably thinking to extinguish it. But the well was not only dry; the American; had packed it with powder kegs, hoping to conceal them. The terrific explosion thundered and echoed across the entire District. Twelve British soldiers lay dead and fifty wounded.
This disaster added to the strain on the British command. They were not 5,000 strong, practically without artillery or cavalry, and a long way from their supporting fleet. Before noon they thought they saw American cavalry hovering in Georgetown. It is unlikely, for confusion still reigned through Tenleytown all the way to Montgomery Court House. But clearly American reconcentration was only a matter of time.
One of the first Americans to venture back into the stricken city was Dr. Thornton, head of the Patent Office. He had heard that the building was to be burned, and rode in from Georgetown early in the morning of the 25th. He found a Major Waters in charge of a guard at Blodgett’s Hotel, the building housing the patent models, and asked not only for permission to remove his personal property, but also made a plea for preservation of the entire building. Waters agreed to take the plea to his superior, a Colonel Jones, whom they found engaged in wrecking the Gales and Seaton printing office on Pennsylvania Avenue, under the personal supervision of Admiral Cockburn. The Admiral had been roundly abused by the National Intelligencer for his exploits in the Chesapeake, and the story goes that Cockburn specifically adjured his men to destroy all the “c’s” in the cases, that there should be no more abuse of the name Cockburn.
Shortly after noon the sky suddenly grew dark, and a windstorm of close to hurricane fierceness swept across the city. Roofs of houses were torn off and “whisked into the air like sheets of paper,” as Gleig saw it. Vivid lightning and crashing thunder tore through the darkness and rain came down in sheets.
The storm added to Ross’ anxiety to be gone, and as it abated and evening drew near, the British recalled their units to the encampment cast of the Capitol. They need not have hurried; no attempt whatever was made to pursue them. Four days were occupied by the march to the ships at Benedict, all without a musket being fired.
Poor Madison, a refugee in the hills, was drenched by the downpour, and at midnight Thursday was awakened by a report that the British had sent a party to capture him. He dragged his weary and miserable body from his bed at an inn and resumed his flight, even at the moment when the British force was beyond Bladensburg in its retreat and there was not an armed enemy within 25 miles.