On August 19, 1814, during the War of 1812, over 4,500 British soldiers landed at Benedict, Maryland, on the shores of the Patuxent River and marched towards Washington. Their mission was to capture Washington and take revenge for the burning of their British Capitol in Canada a year earlier by American forces.
It what remains one of the worst pieces of advice ever given to a President, Secretary of War John Armstrong said that Washington was safe and didn’t need military protection because the British were focused on Baltimore. After the destruction of Washington, Madison forced him to resign in September 1814.
Arriving in the city, the British sent a party of men under a white flag of truce to Capitol Hill to come to terms, but they were attacked by snipers hiding in a house at the corners of Maryland, Constitution, and Second Street NE. It was the only resistance the soldiers met within the city. The English responded by setting the house afire, tossing the white flag and marching into the city proper under the British flag.
Arriving to the top of Capitol Hill, the troops set fire to the partially completed the Senate and House of Representatives building there, and set fire to what was the miniscule Library of Congress inside the Senate building. However the library was replaced through Thomas Jefferson who, in 1815, sold his personal library of more than 6,487 volumes to the government to restock the Library of Congress for $23,950, a staggering amount of money for the time. (Prior to the fire the library held about 3,000 volumes).
But the collection was incredible. It had taken Jefferson 50 years to accumulate the wide variety of books that included volumes in foreign languages, philosophy, science, literature and cookbooks.
"I do not know” Said Jefferson “that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a Member of Congress may not have occasion to refer." Oddly enough, a second fire on Christmas Eve of 1851 destroyed nearly two thirds of the 6,487 volumes Congress had purchased from Jefferson.
The English intended to capture the supplies stored at the vast Washington Navy Yard but the Americans had already set it afire rather than have the English capture it. The English sent two hundred men to secure a fort on Greenleaf's Point. (Now Fort McNair) but the fort had already been destroyed by the Americans, however, for some reason, they had left behind 150 barrels of gunpowder. The British arrived, found the powder and tried to destroy it by dropping the barrels into a well, the powder ignited killing about thirty men and maiming many others in the explosion that followed.
The US Patent Office was saved from destruction by the Superintendent of Patents, Dr. William Thornton who convinced the British of the importance of its preservation.
Then the troops marched down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House where a gallant First Lady, Dolley Madison remained behind, alone. President James Madison had left the White House on August 22 to meet with his generals on the battlefield and his cabinet had already fled the city, and saved the nation’s valuables from the British. (Silverware, books, clocks, curtains) However it is not true that she removed Gilbert Stuart's full-length portrait of George Washington. (The portrait was actually a copy of Gilbert Stuart's original)
James Madison's personal servant, the slave Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness (He was 15 years old at the time) to the event and wrote later’ “It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington, and carried it off. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected any moment.”
The heroes of the White House burning were John Susé, Frenchman and doorkeeper, and a man named Magraw [McGraw], the President's gardener. They saved Washington’s portrait (The portrait was screwed to the wall) along with large silver urns, packed it aboard a wagon and sent if off to Virginia. Senior clerk Stephen Pleasonton saved the Declaration of Independence by hiding it in a gristmill near Georgetown.
Secretary of State James Monroe directed Senior clerk Stephen Pleasonton with preserving the books and papers of the State Department during the burning of Washington. He filled several coarse linen bags, and filled them with all the Department's records, including the still-unpublished secret journals of Congress, the commission and correspondence of George Washington, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and all the treaties, laws, and correspondence of the Department made since 1789. Before he left, he noticed the Declaration of Independence had been forgotten and was still hanging in its frame on the wall, and took it all to Leesburg, Virginia, where they were stored in an empty stone house.
Jennings concluded, “When the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, &c., that I had prepared for the President's party”
Admiral Cockburn made his way to the White House after his officers arrived and began taking souvenirs. Dolly Madison had abandoned the couple's personal belongings and the admiral was able to take one of President Madison's hats, and a cushion from Dolley Madison's chair. He then issued an order for his troops to drink Madison's wine and helped themselves to food.
British soldier George Gleig wrote “[H]aving satisfied their appetites … and partaken pretty freely of the wines, they finished by setting fire to the house which had so liberally entertained them. … Of the Senate house, the President's palace, the barracks, the dockyard, etc., nothing could be seen except heaps of smoking ruins.”
They set fire to the White House (Then called the Presidents House) by tossing torches through the windows and adding fuel to the fire to ensure that it would keep burning and reports had it that the thick black smoke could be seen as far away as Baltimore (Which is very doubtful) and the Patuxent River (Which is likely). They also set fire to the adjacent Treasury Department building.
Washington lay in ruins. American soldiers, government officials, and residents fled the city. The White House, the Capitol, and many other public buildings and residences were burning and the next day, August 25, Washington was still burning. Suddenly, in the early afternoon, the sky darkened, lightening flashed, loud thunder could be heard and the winds swept up into what one resident called “a frightening roar.”
The White House in ruins. After the 1812 burning, the White House was whitewashed to cover the smoke stains. Originally light gray in color, the building’s exterior was painted white during the restoration to cover the smoke stain.
It was a tornado. On the one hand, the city, which was made mostly of wood, was saved from a rapidly expanding fire by the storm but on the other hand, the tornado probably did more damage to the city than it stopped. Buildings were lifted into the air and tossed a block away. Flying debris killed several English soldiers and one gust made off with several cannons. Hundreds of English soldiers laid face down in the streets as the storm passed over them and one account describes how a British officer on horseback did not dismount and the winds slammed both horse and rider violently to the ground.
It ended after two hours and the heavy rain that followed put out most of the flames and prevented Washington from burning to the ground. The British regrouped on Capitol Hill and marched out of the city that night.
As the English left the city, Admiral Cockburn asked a local woman, “Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?” The lady answered, “No, Sir, this is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.”
“Not so Madam.” The Admiral answered, “It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.”
Hours later, the British forces left Washington and returned to their ships on the Patuxent River but the journey back to their ships was a difficult one. Downed trees on the roadway slowed their return and the war ships they arrived on had been badly damaged in the storm. Still, the English stopped their ships in Old Town Alexandria long enough to loot it. (A separate British force had already captured Alexandria, The mayor of Alexandria made a deal and the British refrained from burning the town.)
President Madison and Dolly returned to Washington three days later, but the White House was made unlivable by the fire. President Madison served the rest of his term residing at the Octagon House. It was not until 1817 that newly elected president James Monroe moved back into the reconstructed building.
After the attack, Congress was determined to relocate the nation's capital north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Fearful that the capitol would be moved to Philadelphia, local Washington businessmen financed the construction of the Old Brick Capitol, (Mayor Thomas Corcoran offered Georgetown College as a temporary home for Congress.) where Congress met while the Capitol was reconstructed from 1815 to 1819.
For many decades the White House has had reports that the ghost of a British soldier dressed in a uniform from the War of 1812 and carrying a torch haunts the executive mansion. (He has also been seen on the front lawn) Some think the soldier is one of those who burned the White House, or accidently killed while burning down the White House or who lost his life the following tornado. He is the only malicious spirit who haunts the White House. In 1953, one couple staying in a second-floor bedroom said the ghost tried to set fire to their bed with a flaming torch.