Washington, Burning of

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During the War of 1812 (1812–1815), the British raid against Washington in 1814 represented the second act of a two-part drama. The first began on 27 April 1813, when U.S. forces captured the Upper Canadian capital of York (now Toronto), torched the parliament buildings and governor's residence, stole private property, and abused civilians and wounded prisoners. York's citizens demanded revenge, and to their voices were added those of other Canadians who experienced war's traumas at the hands of often-undisciplined Americans. Some retribution ensued locally when British forces burned New York settlements along the Niagara River in December 1813 after Americans had torched nearby Canadian villages. Nevertheless, the governor-in-chief of British North America, Sir George Prevost, asked that retaliation be taken to the Atlantic coast of the United States to deter further outrages.

In 1814, once the British had defeated Napoleon and reinforced North America, they expanded operations along the Atlantic seaboard to avenge the Canadians, draw U.S. forces away from the Great Lakes front, and encourage an early end to hostilities. On 19–20 August 1814, forty-five hundred men landed at Benedict, Maryland, forty-five miles from the capital. At the same time, the Royal Navy campaigned on the Patuxent River in Maryland, causing the loss of U.S. gunboats and civilian vessels, which were either seized by the invaders or destroyed by retreating defenders. At Bladensburg, Maryland, on 24 August, twenty-six hundred British regulars and sailors led by Major General Robert Ross quickly defeated a seven thousand–man American force composed mainly of militia under Brigadier General William Winder. As the victors marched on the capital later that day, the government and most civilians fled while American authorities burned the Washington Navy Yard, with its stores and vessels, and blew up a fort at Greenleaf's Point. Some people tried to save the nation's records and treasures but abandoned much because they had waited too long to obtain the necessary vehicles. Dolley Madison emerged as something of a hero in the popular imagination by demanding that the famous portrait of George Washington in the president's mansion be destroyed or saved rather than captured before she fled the capital. A cart was found to carry it away and so the painting continues to grace today's White House.

Aside from a few shots fired against an advanced party, the British entered Washington unopposed. They set fire to government buildings, including the Treasury, the Capitol, and the President's Mansion, and took large quantities of military supplies before starting back to their ships on 25 August. The redcoats maintained comparatively good order in respect to civilians and their property, although they burned the strategically important ropewalks and sacked the office of the semiofficial newspaper, the National Intelligencer (as U.S. forces had destroyed the Upper Canada Gazette in York). As the British withdrew, lawless Americans exploited the confusion to loot their own federal capital. Meanwhile, another part of the British expedition sailed against Fort Warburton on the Potomac, but its garrison blew it up and retreated on 27 August rather than face the Royal Navy. Consequently the British seized Alexandria, Virginia, on 29 August, took vessels and goods along the river for several days, and then sailed back to sea despite dangerous waters and fire from American batteries along the way.

The raid on Washington gave satisfaction to Canadians and added humiliation to the woes of the administration of James Madison. However, his government (like that of Upper Canada) was sufficiently resilient to return to a burned capital and maintain authority through to the end of hostilities. As in York, public buildings in Washington were rebuilt shortly after the war while Anglo-American relations entered an era of cordiality, in contrast to the tensions of 1807 to 1815.

See alsoFirst Ladies; Presidency, The: James Madison; "Star-Spangled Banner"; War of 1812 .


Benn, Carl. Historic Fort York. Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1993.

Lord, Walter. The Dawn's Early Light. New York: Norton, 1972.

Carl Benn

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