Skip to main content

The Day They Burned The Capitol

May 2024
13min read

Only a lucky rainfall put an end to our humiliation

dc during the war of 1812
Two years into the War of 1812, British troops burned Washington, D.C., including the White House and Capitol building.

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.

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.

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.

Beyond this bare but ominous warning, the Capital knew nothing of what was happening less than sixty miles away.

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.

There was nervous bustle in the city itself. People were packing possessions, anxiously looking for wagons and carriages. The government offices were doing as much for the public records—the State Department archives (including the Declaration of Independence) were scooped into linen bags, carried to Leesburg, Virginia, and piled in a vacant house.

On Monday, “a gentleman at Washington,” otherwise unidentified, wrote a letter to New York describing the panic.

“The distress here and in Georgetown is beyond any description,” he wrote. “Women and children running in every direction … Expresses are continually coming in from our troops … If the force of the enemy is as large as stated, this city will fall … All is confusion as you may easily imagine … Stages, hacks, carts or waggons cannot be procured for love or money. They are all pressed for the military. I have just returned from taking a load of children eight miles out of town, and the whole distance the road was Riled with women and children. Indeed I never saw so much distress in my life as today … I am fearful by twelve o’clock tomorrow this city will not be ours.”

Nobody in the city knew what was happening twenty miles away. Winder had brought his militia together at Battalion Old Fields, eighteen miles from the Capital. Ross and Cockburn had marched as far as Upper Marlboro without any serious opposition at all. Winder sat at the Old Fields, driven almost to distraction by “infinite applications, consultations, and calls,” for the handling of which he had no staff. no organization. no facilities whatever.

Early in the morning of Tuesday, August 23, President Madison reviewed the 3,000 troops that had been scraped together at the Old Fields, and after waiting all day for an attack by an army assumed to be twice their number, they received an order about 5 P.M. to fall back to Washington. This was accomplished with such precipitation as to be almost a rout, and the exhausted troops were bivouacked in and around the Navy Yard in the eerie glare of the Eastern Branch bridge, which they had burned behind them. The Cabinet officers and most of the prominent citizens who had been riding With Madison returned to the city.

Poor Winder had worn out two horses with his aimless riding about, and had to borrow another to ride from his Navy Yard bivouac to confer at their homes with the President and the Secretary of War (whom he found asleep). The borrowed horse also gave out, and Winder had to foot it back to camp, during which hike he fell into a ditch and bruised himself lamentably.

That same evening Colonel George Minor arrived with a regiment of Virginia militia, some 700 or 800 men, largely lacking both arms and ammunition. Colonel Minor, seeking to remedy these deficiencies, first called on the President, then on the Secretary of War, who referred him to a Colonel Carberry, who could not be found at all. So Colonel Minor marched his men up Capitol Hill and bivouacked them in the House of Representatives.

The sun rose blazing hot on Wednesday, August 24, 1814. Before noon the thermometer had passed 95 degrees; a breathless and enervating day.

Madison, the Cabinet and a throng of prominent citizens were in eager conference with Winder. Still no one knew British intentions. And while they hesitated, debated, speculated, a messenger galloped up with word that the British were approaching Bladensburg. Winder set about getting his main body to that village.

The sun rose blazing hot on Wednesday, August 24, 1814. Before noon the thermometer had passed 95 degrees; a breathless and enervating day.

Little groups of militia began to appear on Capitol Hill. They could be seen from the White House, and an overwhelming premonition of disaster swept across the town. Minor’s Virginians stood there, ready at last for action, now that it was all over. They had the flints and muskets, too, though they had only just finished getting them, for a petty official at the armory had insisted on counting them out one by one, and then re-counting them all over again.

There was agonized quick debate on whether a stand might be made on the Hill, using the Capitol as a fortress. It was useless—the order went out to continue the retreat right on to the heights of Georgetown; to try to rally there; if that proved impossible, then on to Montgomery Court House.

The militia streamed clown into the town in dejected disorganization, largely in little groups of twos, fours, and sixes. As they trudged down the Avenue between the dust-covered poplar rows, General Van Ness of the District militia had an inspiration. He bought a barrel of whiskey from a storekeeper and set it out on the street for the vanquished warriors’ refreshment. It is pleasant to record that a grateful Government later reimbursed him.

In spite of even so heroic a measure, most of the men drifted hack to their homes to look to the safety of their families or simply to get something to cat. Hundreds just disappeared or straggled vaguely on out the Avenue, past the White House and on into Georgetown. It was no longer anything remotely resembling an army.

At about 3 P.M. , Dolley Madison was still sturdily waiting at the White House for specific instructions from her husband. At last a wagon was procured, and Dolley superintended the packing into it of plate and other valuables, consigned to the Hank of Maryland. Charles Carroll came up to urge haste, and was annoyed when Dolley insisted on removing the Stuart portrait of Washington. The heavy gilt frame had to be smashed, but the picture was at last removed and entrusted to “two gentlemen from New York,” who were successful in preserving it.

Dolley waited staunchly, though long before four o’clock everything was over at Bladensburg, and it was felt that at any moment British advance guards might appear. Mayor Blake twice came to urge her to fly, and at last she climbed into a carriage. The coachman whipped up his horses and headed for the crowded bridge that led to Virginia and safety.

Very soon alter, the weary Madison, slight and scholarly and 63 years old, who had been in the saddle since dawn, appeared in the White House grounds with Monroe and Attorney General Richard Rush. Colonel Laval, with a detachment of regular dragoons, and groups of volunteers, swarmed about and into the house, seizing on what refreshment could be found, especially wine. But they dared not tarry. Madison, with Monroe and Rush, set their horses to follow Mrs. Madison. John Sioussat, known to all Washington as “French John,” and steward at the White House, was true to his trust. He carried Dolley Madison’s parrot to the French minister’s cook at the Octagon.

Ann Thornton, wife of the head of the Patent Office, tarried still later, setting a dinner that she could not take heart to eat, and at last driving out of town in the midst of groups of disconsolate volunteers. She drove to Dr. Peter’s home, Tudor Place, and met her husband there. The two stood in the windows of the mansion Dr. Thornton had built, and watched a mounting glow from the burning Capitol—the Capitol which Dr. Thornton had designed.

The British had entered the Capitol grounds at about 6 P.M. , the advance guard firing a derisive volley through the windows of the undefended building. The city was almost deserted.

As General Ross, with an advance party, passed a house just east of the Capitol, someone in the house fired a solitary musket. The shot killed Ross’ bay mare, and the assumption is not unfair that it was aimed at Ross. The house was immediately burned.

By eight o’clock the Capitol was in flames. It consisted, then, of two wings, House and Senate, connected only by a temporary wooden gallery—neither center section nor dome had yet been built. The surrounding grounds were a mere uncultivated open space.

One of the stories told later when Congress reconvened was that Admiral Cockburn had climbed to the rostrum in the House, called his troops mockingly to order, and put the derisive motion: “Shall this harbor of Yankee Democracy be burned? All for it will say, Aye!” The inevitable affirmative shout arose. From the wooden center structure flames immediately leaped skyward, and the glow mounted to the heavens as both wings began to blaze. The grim beacon was visible even to President Madison, clinging wearily to his horse somewhere in the Virginia hills.

A British subaltern, G. R. Gleig, later to be Chaplain-General of the British army, recorded the fiery spectacle thus:

“The blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs, informed them (the British) as they proceeded, of what was going forward. It would be difficult to conceive a finer spectacle than that which presented itself as they approached the town. The sky was brilliantly illumined by the different conflagrations; and a dark red light was thrown upon the road, sufficient to permit each man to view distinctly his comrade’s face …”

At 8:30 P.M., Commodore Tingey had set matches to prepared powder-trains at the Navy Yard. These new flares were added to the glare in the sky as naval stores, equipment, buildings, and a new and nearly complete ship began to crackle. Tingey and his rear guard pushed off in a cutter for Alexandria.

“The blazing of houses, ships, and stores, the report of exploding magazines, and the crash of falling roofs, informed them (the British) as they proceeded, of what was going forward."

It was close to nine o’clock when a detachment of British sailors and marines trudged down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. The glow of the burning Capitol and Navy Yard flickered weirdly on their dusty uniforms. The town was silent and deserted. The column moved on to the White House, leaving the road and trudging across the ill-kept, small oval park in front of it. Some bore torches, as yet unlit, on long poles.

Admiral Cockburn was obviously enjoying himself. He even picked up a few trifling souvenirs to remember the occasion—an old hat of the President, a cushion from Dolley Madison’s chair. Then he gave the word. The sailors and marines smashed in the windows with their torches, and the darkness no longer enveloped that quarter of the city.

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.

But by break of dawn on Friday word had reached the fugitives that the British had gone, and people began to return to the stricken city. Dolley Madison reached the Virginia side of the burned bridge late in the day and was ferried across. Finding the White House an uninhabitable, fire-swept shell, she took shelter at the home of her sister, Mrs. Cutts, directly across F-Street from what is now the National Press Club. There the President joined her. Commodore Tingey had brought up a few marines from Alexandria and repossessed the Navy Yard, and Mayor Blake also returned.

Congress was about to convene, and the only building left in the city which would come close to accommodating it was Blodgett’s Hotel, the Patent Office which Thornton’s intervention had saved, and from which the patent models were now cleared to make room for the legislators. The Madison's moved into the Octagon as a temporary White House, and subscriptions began to be taken for the building of the temporary or “Brick Capitol.” Strong efforts to have the national Capital transferred elsewhere were offset by these quick temporary measures. While the war took a happier turn at Baltimore and New Orleans, the people of Washington turned to the task of picking up the charred pieces of the capital city.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.