On August 24, 1814, British troops recently arrived from the Napoleonic Wars in Europe easily overran the inexperienced U.S. militiamen tasked with defending Washington, D.C. They then set much of the city ablaze, thereby humiliating the administration of President James Madison. The British only occupied Washington for 24 hours, however, and soon after suffered major defeats of their own that helped bring the War of 1812 to a close.
When the War of 1812 first broke out, the fighting centered on the border between the United States and Canada, then a British colony. Before long, however, other fronts had opened up, including the Chesapeake Bay, where a British squadron led by Rear Admiral George Cockburn spent much of 1813 terrorizing coastal communities. After spending the winter in Bermuda with his troops, the brash-talking Cockburn returned in February 1814 with his eyes set on Washington, D.C., telling a superior that the city “might be possessed without difficulty or opposition of any kind.”
In order to further along his scheme, Cockburn built a base on Tangier Island in the middle of the Chesapeake and distributed a proclamation inviting all slaves to join with the British. Meanwhile, in April 1814, Napoleon abdicated the French throne, freeing up boatloads of battle-hardened British troops to cross the Atlantic Ocean. About 4,000 arrived in the Chesapeake in mid-August, along with numerous frigates, schooners, sloops and other warships, whereas an even bigger force went to Canada.
By that time, President Madison had established a new military district for the D.C. area for which he wanted at least 2,000 U.S. Army regulars, plus 10,000 to 12,000 militiamen ready in reserve. Yet only a fraction of this force was ever rounded up, in part because Secretary of War John Armstrong insisted until the last possible moment that the British would not attack the capital. Not even an anonymous letter detailing Cockburn’s invasion plans spurred the administration to action, nor did a plea from Washington’s mayor, who called the city “defenseless.”
While the Americans dawdled, the British got moving, with their main fleet setting sail for the Patuxent River on August 17. At the same time, diversionary forces headed for the Potomac River, a more direct route to Washington, and for the northern Chesapeake above Baltimore. Although the British initially struggled with adversarial tides and winds in the Patuxent, they soon began making reasonable progress. A few of the bigger warships dropped out as the river became narrower and shallower, but the majority made it to Benedict, Maryland, where approximately 4,500 troops disembarked.
The following day, August 20, a makeshift scouting party led by Secretary of State James Monroe reached the outskirts of Benedict but, having forgotten a spyglass, couldn’t gauge the size of the invading force. The British then marched north on a road running parallel to the Patuxent, with a fleet of small ships keeping pace. Over the next couple of days, the British briefly exchanged fire with a few Americans, including Monroe’s party, but overall faced virtually no resistance. They also managed to corner a flotilla commanded by Commodore Joshua Barney, forcing the Americans to blow up their own gunboats rather than hand them over to the enemy.
As the British drew closer, the panicked residents of Washington began to depart in mass, and clerks began whisking important papers out of town, such as the Declaration of Independence. Finally, on August 24, after a series of disorganized maneuvers, American forces hastily dug in outside of Bladensburg, Maryland, a crossroads town six miles northeast of the Capitol. Borrowing a pair of pistols from his treasury secretary, Madison rode out to witness the battle, as did most of his cabinet. In fact, the president nearly galloped right into the British lines until a scout stopped him and directed him to safety.
With about 6,000 troops, the Americans at Bladensburg outnumbered the British, and they also had a distinct advantage in terms of cavalry and artillery. Moreover, the British had just marched 15 miles through heat so stifling that several men fell victim to sunstroke. Yet when they charged over a bridge at the Americans, militiamen started fleeing almost immediately. Additional militiamen were sent up to restore the breach, but they too were scared off, due largely to the intimidating but notoriously inaccurate Congreve rockets being fired their way. “I could never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day,” Madison purportedly said.
The lone bright spot for the Americans came courtesy of Commodore Barney. Originally assigned elsewhere, he had rushed to the scene of the battle after personally pleading with Madison to let him go. But although he and his 520 seamen briefly put a halt to the British advance with artillery fire and a downhill charge, it proved too little too late. As the American militia retreated around them, Barney took a bullet to the thigh and was captured by the British, who, impressed by his bravery, paroled him right then and there. “They have given us the only fighting we have had,” Cockburn declared of the seamen. Madison, meanwhile, sent ahead a messenger to his wife, Dolley, who consented to leave the White House only after arranging for the safety of a full-length George Washington portrait.
On the heights overlooking D.C., the commander in charge of the city’s defense considered making a second stand. But with his troops scattered in all directions, he ultimately decided to leave Washington at the mercy of the British. They arrived around sunset, prompting a U.S. captain to order the Washington Navy Yard set ablaze, including two warships, much timber and a sawmill. Around the same time, the British burned down a private residence from which some Americans had just fired at them. For the most part, though, the British left private property alone, focusing their attention instead on the city’s government buildings.
Seeking revenge for the sacking of York (present-day Toronto), the British first stopped at the still-uncompleted Capitol, where they piled up furniture in both the House and Senate wings, mixed in rocket powder and applied the torch. Within minutes, flames were shooting out through the windows and roof, damaging not only the congressional chambers, but also the Library of Congress and the Supreme Court, which were located inside. Next, about 150 men marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, then better known as the President’s House. Upon consuming food and wine that had been set out for 40 people, they stole some souvenirs, like Madison’s medicine chest, and started a new inferno that left the structure a charred mess. The adjacent Treasury building was also burned, although much to their disappointment, the British found no money inside. As they camped that night on Capitol Hill, the glow from the fires could be seen as far away as Baltimore.
More destruction occurred the following day, when the British torched what remained of the Washington Navy Yard and the Treasury building, along with the brick home of the State, War and Navy departments. They also smashed the presses of a newspaper Cockburn disliked and desecrated a monument dedicated to veterans of the First Barbary War. Lastly, they headed to an arsenal two miles south of the Capitol. But as they were destroying the gunpowder there, an accidental explosion killed at least a dozen British soldiers and injured many more. That evening, right after a violent thunderstorm, the British withdrew from the city rather than face a potential counterattack, retracing their steps to the fleet at Benedict.
A few days later, the British diversionary force on the Potomac forced the surrender of Alexandria, Virginia (then part of Washington), and seized a large quantity of provisions there. Within a couple of weeks, however, the British had squandered their momentum, losing important battles at Lake Champlain and Baltimore. Their negotiators dropped a demand for a Native American buffer state between the United States and Canada, and on December 24, 1814, the two sides signed a peace treaty in which they agreed to return all conquered land to each other. With the British no longer a threat, reconstruction then began on the Capitol and White House.