The Burning of Washington, D.C.

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The White House burned on August 25, 1814, the result of an attack by British forces during the War of 1812. It is the only time that the American capital was occupied by enemy forces.

The summer of 1814 was a hot one, and the war, which began in 1812, was raging, in the north and in the east. Great Britain’s war with France was at a lull in 1814 after the exile of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte, freeing up British forces for the war with the United States. Great Britain accelerated its attack on the American Eastern Seaboard.

A British victory at the Battle of Bladensburg, on August 24, gave British troops fresh confidence of winning the war. The next strategic action was initially planned to have been at attack on Baltimore, a strategic port. (Baltimore was, in fact, the target of a British attack in September. The survival of the American force at Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner.) But British commanders chose to attack Washington, D.C., to strike a symbolic blow against the enemy. And after the victory at nearby Bladensburg, the occupation of the District of Columbia began.

British troops under the command of Rear Admiral George Cockburn swarmed around the city, causing a mass exodus. The troop set fire to many public buildings, the most recognizable of which was the White House, then known as the Presidential Mansion. President James Madison and other members of the Government had no choice to flee the city, along with the skeleton military crew left behind. Madison spent the night in nearby Brookeville, Md.

British troops also burned the U.S. Treasury and much of the Washington Navy Yard.

The stone-made Capitol, meanwhile, proved more difficult to burn, so British troops settled for looting it. They did, however, manage to gather together enough looted furniture and combine it with enough rocket powder to create a blast that set the Capitol ablaze as well. This fire gutted the Library of Congress as well, and it wasn’t until Thomas Jefferson gave his personal library to the Government that the Library of Congress resembled its former contents.

A heavy rainstorm on August 26 put out most of the fires and forced the British troops to return to their ships, many of which were badly damaged by the storm. The rains drove the British troops away but worsened the damage they left behind, dousing flames but turning burnt buildings to rubbish.

Public reaction to the burning of the Capitol was, unsurprisingly, harsh in the U.S. British opinion, however, thought that the attack was justified for previous American actions during the war, including an attack on the Port of Dover.

Madison and the rest of the Government soon returned, and the Government continued to function, although the places that Congress and the Cabinet met changed, while the Capitol was rebuilt. The war continued, ending officially in 1815, after the post-peace-treaty Battle of New Orleans.

The White House, meanwhile, was reconstructed as well, beginning in early 1815, and was finished by the time that the new President, James Monroe, was inaugurated, in March of 1817.

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David White