Deep Dive into History: The Burning of Washington, DC

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Thursday, Aug 25 2022 by

The Revolution wasn’t the last time the US and Britain fought against each other in a war. The War of 1812 took place on US soil, over territorial expansion on the North American continent. Let’s take a deep dive into the last time a foreign power invaded our capital city, when the British invaded Washington, DC on August 24-25, 1814.

USS Constitution, Boston, Massachusetts

The war broke out in 1812 as the US expanded its territory into areas formerly claimed by the United Kingdom. While the battle was fought on territory from Canada in the north to New Orleans in the south, it was also fought on water, between warring sea vessels.

The USS Constitution, built in the late 1700s, was one of the most effective American ships during the War of 1812. She defeated five British ships in battle and captured countless other ships.

The ship was so popular that she was preserved and earned the nickname Old Ironsides because she regularly avoided destruction in battle.

These days, visitors can see the oldest ship still afloat, in the Boston Harbor, close to where she was built more than 300 years ago.

USS Constitution (Birds Eye)
USS Constitution

Fort McNair, Washington, D.C.

On the southern tip of the capitol city, Fort McNair, was designed to protect the city from an invading force. In August 1814, the British were advancing through Maryland, defeating untrained and poorly organized militias along the way.

Soldiers at Fort McNair abandoned their post, and British troops were able to take Washington, D.C. on August 24. According to reports, before the American soldiers left, they hid much of the gunpowder in a well. An unsuspecting British soldier tossed a match into the well, causing a horrific explosion and killing at least 30 soldiers. This incident was the greatest loss of life for the British in the city.

The fort was later used as an ammunition factory in the Civil War, and another explosion of gunpowder killed at least 21 female workers. These days, the fort is home to the National Defense University, the headquarters of the local military, and the residence for several high-ranking service members. Needless to say, they don’t store gunpowder there anymore.

Fort McNair Main Gate (StreetView)
Fort McNair Main Gate

US Capitol Building, Washington, DC.

British troops were given permission to sack Washington, D.C., and loot the city. They were also given permission to burn public and important buildings as retaliation for previous actions taken by American soldiers.

At the time, the building was home to Congress, as well as the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court. The building was looted and damaged, and then soldiers set it ablaze. Burning from both the southern and northern wings, the damage to the structure was significant. The library was incinerated, and beautiful decor was ruined.

The fire didn’t destroy the building, and it was redesigned to be bigger and more impressive after the war ended. Today, the Capitol building is one of the most beautiful buildings in the city.

US Capitol Building (Google Maps)
US Capitol Building

White House, Washington, D.C.

The British soldiers even had permission to burn the White House, which was considered a serious act of war. Knowing opposing forces were coming, President Madison and his family evacuated the city right before troops arrived. His wife, Dolly, and several enslaved people who worked in the White House, rushed to save valuable and sentimental items from the White House.

The evacuation was so rapid that the invading troops actually sat down and ate dinner prepared for the President and his guests. After sacking the building and taking what items they wanted, soldiers set the executive mansion on fire, with added wood to ensure it would burn entirely.

The White House (StreetView)
The White House

Portrait of George Washington

One of the items preserved from the fire was the famous portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart. The original, ironically, was gifted to a former Prime Minister of England, but three impressive copies remained in the US. One, rescued that fateful day, is still displayed in the White House.

In 2009, then-president Obama held a ceremony honoring the people who saved an iconic piece of American history, as well as other valuable items that day. It was a meaningful event for the descendants of enslaved people to attend the White House under such different circumstances.

Portait of George Washington in The White House (StreetView)
Portait of George Washington in The White House

Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.

While American soldiers had burned much of the shipyard and the vessels in it, the invading British soldiers made sure to destroy the Navy Yard even further, rendering it useless in the war. Several important ships and many structures were ruined, negatively impacting the military’s ability to plan and prepare for future battles.

However, the site has been restored and upgraded, and still serves as a headquarters for military functions in the nation’s capital.

Washington Navy Yard's Latrobe Gate (StreetView)
Washington Navy Yard's Latrobe Gate

Just hours after the devastation began, a massive storm hit the city, with intense winds, rain, and even a tornado. The storm, which many now suspect was a hurricane, was so intense it put out fires at many of the burning structures around the city. It was so bad, it caused the British leaders to retreat to their ships, many of which had been damaged in the storm.

An act of nature did what American soldiers could not do that day–defeated the British and forced them from America’s capital city.

These events were certainly the low point of diplomatic relations between the two countries, but time has healed any wounds left by the war, and the United States and United Kingdom are now the closest of allies.