Image: By George Munger (The White House Historical Association)
The War of 1812 (June 18, 1812, to February 18, 1815) was again fought between the United States and the British, who were joined by their North American colonies, and their native American Indian allies. During the war, the British burned parts of Washington, D.C., including the White House (called the Presidential Mansion).
Early in 1814, President James Madison created a military district for Washington, D. C., and wanted more than 2,000 U. S. Army troops, and more than 10,000 militiamen. The plan was only partially implemented because some officials believed the British would never attack Washington, D. C., and delayed taking action on Madson’s plan for the protection of Washington. Even pleas from Washington, D. C.’s mayor, calling his city “defenseless,” fell on deaf ears.
On August 24, 1814, the British decisively defeated the untested American militia at the Battle of Bladensburg (Maryland), six miles from Washington, D. C., creating an opening for the British to march on Washington, D.C. The American militia outnumbered the British by more than 1,000 troops, but the militia were quickly dispersed by rockets fired by the British. President Madison, who rode out to view the battle, with members of his cabinet, commented, “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.”
President Madison was briefly under attack from those same British rockets, thus becoming the first sitting president to be on a battlefield. Can you imagine any modern-day president doing something similar?
Although Washington, D.C. was burned, only government buildings, including the Capitol building and White House, were targeted. One reason for the attack was retaliation for the destruction of Port Dover, Canada, at the hands of the Americans, which the British viewed as “wanton destruction of private property along the north shores of Lake Erie.” The British commander was ordered to “destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find assailable. You will spare merely the lives of the unarmed inhabitants of the United States.”
Government officials, including President Madison and military officials, fled Washington and spent the night in Brookeville, Maryland.
The U. S. Capitol building was viewed as “worthy to be noticed” and thereby a major target for destruction. After the British took what valuables they could find, they had trouble setting the stone building on fire. They were successful when they piled furnture in a heap and used rocket powder to ignite it. In addition to the Capitol building destruction, the entire 3,000 book Library of Congress was destroyed. The Library of Congress was reinstituted after the war when Thomas Jefferson sold his personal library to the government.
The next target was the White House. President Madison had advised his wife Dolley to be prepared to leave Washington as quickly as possible. She gathered as many valuables as she could with the help of her staff and slaves. One of the slaves years later wrote in his memoir:
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 (now in one of the parlors there), 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.
According to the slave, the door-keeper and gardener were the ones that removed the large portrait and placed it in a wagon with other valuables. Mrs. Madison had some official documents and the White House silver stored in the Bank of Baltimore.
Sometime during the day of the attack on Washington, a severe thunderstorm suddenly hit Washington and doused the fires. The storm, perhaps a hurricane, produced a tornado that landed on Constitution Avenue that lifted two cannons and killed British troops and American civilians when the cannons were dropped a few yards away. After the storm was over, the British went back to their ships to discover many were severely damaged.
The British occupation of Washington, D.C., lasted approximately 26 hours, but it was the only time a foreign military has occupied Washington, D.C. Following the “storm that saved Washington,” control of Washington, D.C., belonged to the Americans. Although some people said the storm actually caused additional damage that would not have happened otherwise, it did extinguish the fires.
Several government officials believed the British would attack Baltimore, not Washington, D.C. After the British left Washington, D.C., they did head for Baltimore, but not for several weeks. The British plan was to attack Baltimore by land and sea simultaneously. Waiting a month before attacking Baltimore allowed the Americans to prepare and amass the U. S. Army. The result was that the British military were forced to retreat from Baltimore, and were picked up by the British navy that had been stopped at Ft. McHenry and was also retreating.
On September 1, 1814, President Madison returned to Washington. A proclamation was issued requesting that the defense of the District of Columbia be provided by citizens. Congress returned on September 19, 1814.
Local businessmen paid for the construction of a temporary Congressional meeting place, the Old Brick Capitol, that was used from 1815 to 1819. President Madison used The Octagon House for the rest of his presidency. White House reconstruction was completed in time for the March 4, 1817, inauguration of President James Monroe.