Saturday, August 24, 2013


August 24, 2013


Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) British forces launched a surprise attack on the Capital 199 years ago today, August 24, 1814, as President James Madison, First Lady Dolley Madison and the United States Congress fled into Virginia.

It was in the third year of the WAR OF 1812* when a British army of 4000 under General Robert Ross* overwhelmed an inexperienced American militia at Bladensburg, Maryland opening the way into the capital city.

A message from the retreating militia arrived at the President's House where the First Lady was preparing for a dinner party.

She and her staff packed up valuable items, including the copy of the portrait of George Washington hanging in the East Room, and made a hasty escape across the Potomac.

The British force was not large enough to occupy the Capital but intended to do as much damage as possible during their stay.

According to George Gleigh, who was with the British army, there was an attempt to negotiate a truce before going into the city, but they were fired upon from a window of one of the houses resulting in the death of a general's horse.

The British killed the inhabitants of the house and then set it afire.  They then proceeded to burn "everything...connected with the (American) government."^

^Historians also argue that the burning of the Capital was in retaliation for earlier destructive American raids into Canada.

A detachment of soldiers entered the vacated President's House to find a beautiful dinner "spread and laid for 40 guests."

They "sat down to the most orderly manner (and) satisfied their appetites."

Afterwards, the British set the house on fire and marched to the Capitol Building where they did the same.

George Gleigh wrote...

"The blazing of houses, ships and stores...brilliantly illuminated the sky."

The sky may have been bright, but August 24, 1814 was not one of the brightest days in the history of our Republic.

The British withdrew from Washington on August 26 and President Madison returned to a scorched city.  

The President's House was rebuilt in 1817 and the exterior was painted a bright white color.

The home of the President of the United States and the First Family would later be known as "The White House."

Capture and Burning of Washington 
          Library of Congress Image

*The War of 1812 (1812-1815) was fought between Great Britain and the United States over maritime rights and territorial expansion.  Early in the war, American attempts to invade Canada were unsuccessful. The attack on Washington was part of a British offensive which included the attempt to defeat the American army under General Andrew Jackson at New Orleans.

Two weeks before the Battle of New Orleans, a treaty of peace was signed at Ghent, Belgium by representatives of the two nations reestablishing the prewar boundaries of the U.S.

"Rejoicing in their military achievements, Americans felt greater pride in their country.  The War of 1812, therefore, is often called the '2nd War for American Independence.'"

**General Robert Ross (1766-1814) was born in Ireland at educated at Dublin's Trinity College.  He joined the 25th Regiment of Foot in 1789 and rose to the rank of Colonel by 1810.  After his troops attacked Washington, he was shot and killed by American snipers in Baltimore.  His remains were buried in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

                  General Robert Ross


"American History, Second Edition," by Irving L. Gordon, Amsco School Publications, New York, 1996.

"The British Burn Washington, D.C. 1814,"