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Burning of Washington DC

James Madison

Burning of Washington DC: James Madison was the 4th American President who served in office from March 4, 1809 to March 4, 1817. One of the Important events during his presidency was the Burning of Washington DC by the British in 1814.

Definition and Summary of the Burning of Washington DC
Summary and definition:
The Burning of Washington DC was perpetrated by the British during the War of 1812 on August 24, 1814. British forces, under General Robert Ross, captured the nation's capital and ordered the burning of Washington in revenge of the crushing defeat for the British in the Battle of York in which Americans sacked the capital of Upper Canada, York (Toronto).

The British hoped that the retaliatory burning of Washington would embarrass and demoralize the American nation.

Facts about Burning of Washington DC
The following fact sheet contains interesting facts and information on Burning of Washington DC.

Burning of Washington for kids: Retaliation for the Sacking of York
During the Sacking of York, in the War of 1812, American troops set fire to the Parliament, Government House, and several other public buildings in the Upper Canadian capital. The Sacking of York was an embarrassment to the British and the burning of Washington DC was an act of retaliation.

Burning of Washington for kids: Sir George Prevost orders Retaliation
In the summer of 1814 the  British strengthened their forces in the Chesapeake in an attempt to divert the US forces from the frontiers of Upper and Lower Canada during the War of 1812. Sir George Prevost was Governor-in-Chief of British North America (the Governor of Canada) was in charge throughout the campaigns of the War of 1812. Frustrated and furious at the American sacking of York (Totonto) he ordered his three commanders, General Robert Ross, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, and Admiral George Cockburn to retaliate and "deter the enemy from repetition of similar outrages".

Burning of Washington for kids: Capital Unprotected
Despite the increasing military presence of the British in the Chesapeake, no special precautions or measures taken to protect the nation's new capital in Washington D.C. The American secretary of war, John Armstrong, was convinced that Baltimore was the prime target of the British and political leaders agreed. No barricades were built, the militia was not put on alert and President Madison appointed his political ally, General William Winder, to defend the region. General William Winder was a part time soldier and inexperienced in the field of battle. His troops were undisciplined who were later described as a "motley rabble".

The Burning of Washington for kids: The Battle at Bladensburg
On August 24, 1814 an uncoordinated force of 6000 US troops, led by General William Winder, faced 4000 British troops led by General Robert Ross. The fight took place at Bladensburg, Maryland, located less than 9 miles from Washington DC. The American troops, watched by President Madison and some of his cabinet, were easily defeated and beat a hasty retreat from the scene of the battle. A jubilant force of 4000 British soldiers headed for the undefended Washington DC, intent on its destruction.

The Burning of Washington for kids: The Evacuation of Washington
Learning of the imminent danger the inhabitants of Washington DC had no alternative but evacuate the city. The population of the city was quite small and there were only a few private residences. A messenger was dispatched to the White House (then referred to as the Executive Mansion) to warn the First Lady Dolley Madison of the impeding arrival of the British.

The Burning of Washington for kids: Dolley Madison
There was real fear for the safety of Dolley Madison. The British had once boasted that if she was captured, they would parade Dolley Madison through the streets of London as a prisoner of war. Dolley Madison was made of stern stuff and had the presence of mind to take a full length Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington with her and directed the servants to collect any other treasures. A Senior clerk called Stephen Pleasonton saved the Declaration of Independence. Dolley Madison fled Washington by carriage  and crossed the Potomac to safety. Dolley Madison and her servants then met up with President James Madison who had fled to safety in Virginia. (Washington DC was reconstructed from 1815 to 1819. Dolley Madison and President Madison resided in the Octagon House for the remainder of his term in office. Dolley Madison made significant contributions to the decoration of the White House as it was rebuilt.)

The Burning of Washington for kids
On the evening of August 24, 1814 British officers ate dinner at the White House (then referred to as the Executive Mansion). The orders were then given to set Washington ablaze. The British set fire to the White House, the Treasury Department building, the docks and all the public buildings in the capital including the Library of Congress. The few private houses were pretty much left alone. The thick sandstone walls of the White House and some other public buildings in the Capitol survived.

The Burning of Washington for kids: The Freak Storm
On August 25, 1814 a violent, freak storm hit Washington DC. The pounding rain and the high winds put out the fires started by the British minimizing some of the damage that had been caused. The storm developed into a tornado. Building were ripped from their foundations, trees wrenched from their roots and chimneys collapsed. The weather was so severe that many men were wounded and some lost their lives in its deadly path of collapsing buildings and flying debris. The battered British troops left Washington DC and re-grouped outside the city and then rejoined the fleet. The intended damage had been done and the British moved on to the Battle of Baltimore.

Significance of the Burning of Washington
Washington had little strategic value but the Burning of Washington was significant as the capitol the city held symbolic value for the young nation and its enemies. The occupation of Washington had lasted for just 26 hours but the burning of the capital had significant impact on events.

  • Americans were shocked at the burning of Washington, but they were not demoralized

  • The freak storm seemed like 'divine providence' and convinced Americans that God was on their side

  • A new wave of determination swept across the country

  • Renewed efforts were made to end the War of 1812 and the Treaty of Ghent was signed less just five months after the burning of Washington

  • The British were strongly criticized across Europe, and also in Britain, for the wanton act of the burning of Washington

  • The following battles fought with the British saw a surge of American Patriotism and the Star Spangled Banner was written by Francis Scott Lee following the US victory at the Battle of Baltimore and defence of Fort Henry

US American History
1801-1828: Evolution Era

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