Everything You Know About The Burning Of Washington Could Be Wrong

Waterfront fire, probably burning of the Washington Navy Yard, 1814, Anacostia River, Washington, D.C., via Library of Congress
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Exactly two hundred years ago this weekend, on the afternoon of August 24, 1814, a British army of some 4,000 redcoats routed an American army of mostly 6,000 militia at Bladensburg in an affair often laughingly referred to as “The Bladensburg Races” because of the precipitous retreat of the largely poorly trained and panicked militia. That evening, the redcoats marched into and then proceeded to burn the public buildings of Washington, D.C. British Army commander Major General Robert Ross even had the temerity of enjoying wine and a meal laid out for the hoped-for American victors at the Executive Mansion, that we now refer to as “The White House” — allegedly painted white to hide the burn marks left by the British. Those are the facts that many people know, and, to this day, the scorch marks at the White House and at the U.S. Capitol are still there for the public to see as graphic proof of what happened. A definite low point in the life of Washington and of this nation.

The usual story is that the British set out deliberately to burn Washington in retaliation for the American forces burning the government buildings of York, the capital of Upper Canada (present-day Toronto) on April 27, 1813. The American capture of York was a rare success for the hard pressed Americans in the early part of this short war that was mostly fought on the frontier between present-day Canada and the United States, the easiest way for the Americans to “get at” the British given that the U.S. Navy was small beside the giant Royal Navy. The war, mostly fought because of maritime difficulties between Britain and the young United States that was mostly an outgrowth of the British war with Napoleonic France. The Royal Navy would impress American sailors to man their big ships of the line (ships rated, say, 74 guns and up) and also made neutral countries such as the United States call into Britain to pay duty rather being able to trade directly with continental Europe, which was under the control of Napoleon.

Certainly the burning of York was a disaster for British-held Canada but it also proved a tragedy for the Americans because a promising young American general and sometime explorer, Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, after whom Pike’s Peak and the slogan “Pike’s Peak or Bust!” derive, was killed when a powder magazine exploded. At the Naval Academy in Annapolis, one of the prize possessions is a Royal Ensign captured at York that was allegedly used as a pillow for the dying General Pike.

But is that the way the burning of Washington really occurred, as Britain’s payback for what happened at York, or is it instead the story that has been handed down and that seems true but is not quite the way it happened? A close study of the events of the time as well as British and American documents by this historian suggests that the commonly held belief is not exactly true, and that to an extent it is a myth and misreading of the way the history unfolded exactly two hundred years ago.

First, there is nothing in British documents of the time to show that they deliberately set out either to capture and burn Washington, D.C., and that they did it specifically to “get their own back” for the Americans’ nasty attack and burning of York sixteen months earlier. Rather, a letter sent by British commander in chief Sir Alexander Cochrane dated a week after the capture and burning of Washington names a number of abuses by Americans on the frontier, including the burning of Newark (present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario) but does not say a thing about what had been done at York. So that suggests that in attacking Washington, the American actions at York was not in the minds of the British commanders let alone their prime reason for burning the public buildings of Washington. Rather the two separate events, in 1813 and 1814, appear logically to be linked but in reality they were not.

This modest drawing by an unknown hand depicts the west front of an incomplete U. S. Capitol as it appeared between 1811 and its burning by the British in August 1814. A low temporary structure is shown connecting the north (Senate) and south (House) wings. It was known as the “furnace” because of the high temperatures in reached in the summer months. For many years the drawing was incorrectly attributed to B. Henry Latrobe, the architect of the Capitol between 1806 and 1817. (Library of Congress)

Another point to bear in mind is that the rather bombastic but bumbling Admiral Cochrane had a tendency to talk large but to be uncertain and indecisive when it came to making decisions. Earlier in the summer, as memorably noted by the late popular historian Walter Lord, he had declared in a dispatch to his superiors in London that he would not only capture Washington but “hurl Jemmy Madison from his throne.” But that was when the command in London was talking about sending to the Chesapeake a grand army of some 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers, possibly under the command of General Sir Rowland Hill, one of Wellington’s top commanders. In the end, the expeditionary force was scaled back after a number of commanders including Hill backed away from the responsibility. The force that left southern France at the end of May 1814 would eventually number 4,000 troops in four regiments, under the command of an Irish-born commander, General Ross, one of Wellington’s capable brigade commanders but certainly not one of the top elite of British officers. The fact was most of the officer corps were tired after fighting Napoleon for years and wanted time at home while the deposed French emperor was sent to his first exile on the island of Elba off the coast of Italy.

Cochrane’s subordinate, Rear Admiral George Cockburn, had been operating around the Chesapeake since the spring of 1813, and had gained a piratical reputation. Cockburn (pronounced Co-burn by the British) had raided and pillaged small towns, including burning two-thirds of Havre de Grace at the head of the Bay on May 3, 1813, and doing the same to the twin towns of Fredericktown and Georgetown on the upper Eastern Shore of Maryland in the next several days. Thus the precedent that British raiding parties caused mayhem and destruction was well known and larger communities round the Bay, such as Washington, Baltimore, Annapolis, Alexandria, and Norfolk, were put on notice what could happen if the British attacked.

One reason for the British raids so close to the American seat of government was to persuade Secretary of War John Armstrong to move U.S. troops from up north and thus ease the burden on the British of defending their remaining major colony in North America, Canada.

With the arrival of the highly professional 48-year-old General Ross, policies of retaliation and burning for the sake of it changed. Ross, who had only recently recovered from a bad wound to his jaw and right neck suffered in February at the Battle of Orthez in southern France, was determined to spare private property and only burn military or government buildings and even then only if the Americans did not negotiate to spare them. One of the first things that Ross’s aide, deputy quartermaster general Lt. George de Lacy Evans did, was to devise a policy to be used in dealing with the Americans. On August 18, following Ross’s orders, Evans drew up a proclamation to reassure local inhabitants about the safety of their private property if they acted with neutrality. In other words, Ross ignored Cochrane’s recommendation to “visit retaliation” on the American civilian population for U.S. actions in Canada. There was to be no wonton burning of American homes.

This was the policy that later led to the arrest of Dr. William Beanes of Upper Marlboro for detaining some British stragglers during the retreat from Washington. General Ross felt insulted by Beanes who earlier allowed his house to be used as British headquarters and had seemed to act in a friendly manner. Beanes, along with other town elders in Upper Marlboro had agreed not to act in a hostile manner to the British. And yet in arresting those British stragglers he appeared to breach the agreement. Ross’s order of Beanes’ arrest in turn would lead to the writing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Georgetown lawyer Francis Scott Key, sent on a mission of mercy to help free Beanes. The freed elderly physician, Key and Col. John S. Skinner, were forced to watch the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbor on September 13–14, and realize in the words of the future U.S. National Anthem, that “our flag was still there” despite the relentless 25-hour British bombardment.

Print shows fire damage to the White House after burning by the British during the war of 1812. (Library of Congress)

In landing at Benedict on the Patuxent on August 19, the initial objective of the British army was to support a squadron of small Royal Navy vessels that went chasing up the Patuxent River after Commodore Joshua Barney’s Chesapeake Bay Flotilla, of some twenty row barges and gunboats, which had been causing Cockburn headaches since it had set sail from Baltimore at the end of May with the intent of attacking a British fort on Tangier Island, Virginia in the lower Bay. Although Barney failed in that mission he held Cockburn and his forces at bay in two naval battles fought in June and July in St. Leonard’s Creek on the Patuxent (near present-day Jefferson Patterson Park, Calvert County) before, with the help of militia, U.S. Army regulars, and U.S. Marines, being able to escape further up the Patuxent toward Benedict. In the end, Barney himself, on the orders of Secretary of the Navy William Jones, instructed his men to blow up the Flotilla rather than allow it to be captured by the British at a place on the Patuxent near Mount Pleasant Landing northeast of Upper Marlboro.

Ross used Dr. Beanes’s house on Academy Hill in Upper Marlboro as his headquarters on the night of August 22. The next day, he and his men marched two miles west, further toward Washington, and camped at the Melwood estate. It was here in the outbuildings at Melwood on the night of August 23 where Ross was persuaded by Cockburn and his own aide Evans that they had come this far they might as well carry on and attack the American capital. The general did not have orders to do so. In fact his instructions from Cochrane told him to stay near the shipping. The persuaders though did their work well and the general sharply aware, as he later wrote to his wife, of “the consequences of failure” decided to make the bold move against Washington. Indeed, the ever shilly-shallying Cochrane, who had given Ross no orders to do what he did, would later sneakingly take credit for what was seen as a triumph of British arms. Back in London in coming weeks, Ross was recommended for a knighthood and perhaps he could even have been created the “Earl of Washington.” In the end, the insignia of knighthood sent to him had to be returned because he was killed in the attack on Baltimore three weeks later. The Prince Regent bestowed the title of “Ross of Bladensburg” on the male heirs of the General in 1815 to honor his achievement of capturing the capital of another sovereign nation.

Print shows British soldiers marching into Washington, D.C. and burning buildings during the War of 1812. (Library of Congress)

The major reason for the burning of the public buildings of Washington had to do with what Ross regarded as a similar American breach of honor and military etiquette not unlike what happened with Dr. Beanes. The British advance party including General Ross came into the city from the direction of Maryland Avenue, NE, under a white flag and with drums sounding the message that a parlay was requested. In other words, Ross expected that the Americans would negotiate a surrender of the capital, a presumption he would have been used to in terms of warfare as it was carried out in Europe. But there was no one left in the District of Columbia to surrender the city to him. Namely, the city government under Mayor Blake had vacated the city after Blake declared he had no intention of surrendering his city to the British, and the whole of the Federal government, including President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison, had vacated the town as well by the time the British arrived.

When shots rang out near the U.S. Capitol and the mansion belonging to American diplomat Albert Gallatin—now the Sewall-Belmont House at 144 Constitution Avenue, NE—the whole situation changed. This was not to be the “civilized” surrender of an enemy capital that Ross had anticipated. General Ross’s horse was shot out from under him, the second mount of the day that he lost, and several soldiers of the British 4th Regiment of Foot were killed as well. This incident was viewed as an act of treachery by the British. The untoward incident led to a search for whomever had fired the shots, presumed to have come from the Gallatin house or nearby, and the burning of that mansion. It is not known who fired the shots. An Irish barber named Dixon has been mentioned as a possibility or perhaps it was some of Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotillamen who had acted so courageously in battles with the British on the Patuxent and at Bladensburg. There was also a suspicion that shots might have been fired from the U.S. Capitol, and this is what led to the burning of that public building. The President’s mansion, the War and State Departments and other public buildings would be b urned later that night and in the morning. A late summer storm helped douse some of the flames which probably aided the later rebuilding of the White House and Capitol as well as the Gallatin mansion. General Ross was careful about not burning or destroying private property and except for some private buildings that caught fire from sparks from buildings already on fire, this policy was followed carefully by Ross’s soldiers. The major exception was the physical wrecking (although not burning by fire) of the Pennsylvania Avenue printing offices of the rampantly anti-British newspaper The National Intelligencer by Cockburn. A private building, for sure, although it could be argued that as a propaganda machine for the Madison administration the newspaper was hardly neutral in the matter of the war and from the British perspective perhaps deserved to be wrecked. The Rear Admiral took special relish in instructing his men to make sure to destroy the C’s among the lead type “so that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name.”

Yet another reason to think the burning of Washington was not inevitable is that three days after the British army vacated Washington on the night of August 25 later a British naval squadron coming up the Potomac under Captain James Alexander Gordon forced the capitulation of Alexandria after Fort Washington (also known as Fort Warburton) was blown up by the frightened commander, U.S. Army Capt. Samuel T. Dyson, an act for which he was later court martialed. The squadron on August 28 under Gordon, originally meant to support the British Army, successfully negotiated the surrender of Alexandria after the city’s mayor and a delegation rowed out to meet the British squadron, and nary a building in the city was burned, damaged, or interfered with. Mind you, the British exacted a stiff tribute, including taking some prize vessels and hauling away tobacco, flour, and other goods, but the point was the city was spared. This historian would suggest that the same could have happened with Washington, if the Americans had acted in the courtly and accepted manner of military etiquette that had been anticipated by the victorious British two hundred years ago.

Christopher T. George is the author of Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay published by White Mane in 2001 and a 20-year student of America’s forgotten conflict. Chris has written a biography of British Major General Robert Ross in cooperation with Dr. John McCavitt of Rostrevor, Northern Ireland. It is anticipated that the book will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press in their “Campaigns and Commanders” series next year.

Lead image via the Library of Congress: Waterfront fire, probably burning of the Washington Navy Yard, 1814, Anacostia River, Washington, D.C.

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