Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Burning of Washington

This summer marks the bicentenary of the burning of the White House by British troops on August 24, 1814.  I must say I never learned about this episode in history lessons at my British school, but when I moved to the Washington area people often teased me about it when they heard my accent.  While the reasons for the War of 1812 seem obscure today, the humiliation of the successful attack on the nation’s capital apparently still stings.  

The war of 1812 began with a series of naval battles before moving inland.  After defeating American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg the British surged into Washington unopposed.  President Madison and his wife Dolley fled the capital with just a couple of hours to spare.  Dolley carried with her the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, saving it from the flames.  Their departure was so hasty that they left the table in the White House dining room set for dinner.  The British officers made themselves at home and enjoyed the meal intended for the President’s family before setting fire to the building.  But President Madison was able to return to Washington just a few days later as the British returned to their ships and sailed to Baltimore. 

Americans much prefer to remember the successful defense of Baltimore at Fort McHenry in September, a victory that inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner.  By the close of 1814 the war concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve.  The British were glad to be rid of the American distraction so they could focus on their main enemy, Napoleon.  Our British history lessons may have neglected the burning of Washington, but we certainly learnt about the great victory over Napoleon!  The decisive Battle of Waterloo was fought six months later on June 18, 1815, just 50 miles from Ghent.

Learn more about the War of 1812 and the burning of Washington with these resources:
A number of local communities plan commemorative events:
There is an interesting Montgomery County connection to the events of 1814.  The tiny town of Brookeville became capital city for a day when President Madison sought shelter there.  Read an account of Brookeville’s brief brush with history at The Dabbler and check out the town’s planned celebrations.

Rita T.

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