Washington, D.C. (JFK+50) A century and one year ago today, August 24, 1814, British forces launched a surprise attack on the Nation's Capital as President James Madison and the United States Congress fled into Virginia.
The British army under General Robert Ross overwhelmed an inexperienced militia at Bladensburg, Maryland opening the way into the capital city. The militiamen were primarily civilian farmers who trained one day a year, and, according to University of Virginia historian Alan Taylor, spent that day "mostly drinking...rather than drilling."
At an emergency meeting near the Navy Yard, Secretary of War John Armstrong argued that the British would not "come to Washington" but would go to Baltimore because it was "of so much more consequence." Mr. Madison would not be the last POTUS to be given the wrong counsel.
As the British prepared to attack, most of the city's 8000 residents fled. In an account of the events of the day, George Robert Gleig, part of the British force, recalled that the British army...
"proceeded...to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with government...the Senate House, the President's palace, an extensive dockyard and arsenal (and)...hundreds of cannon..."
The Treasury building as well as the State and War Department structures were also burned. Meanwhile, Mr. Madison was hiding out in the Virginia countryside looking for someone to board him for the night. Joel Achenbach describes this scene "as a remarkably low point in the history of the Presidency."
The British withdrew from Washington on August 26 and President Madison returned to a scorched city the following day. Achenbach writes that because Americans "spun" the events of late August 1814 in a positive way for their side and because of the wave of patriotism which followed the end of the War of 1812, the attack on Washington turned out to be "one of the best things that ever happened to the city."
The President's House was reconstructed in 1817 and painted a bright white color. It soon became known as The White House.
"D.C.'s darkest day, a war that no one remembers," by Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post, August 23, 2014, www.washingtonpost.com/
"The British Burn Washington DC, 1814," Eyewitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/