Did you know the White House was burned down in a war? And not just the White House… Here is what you should know.
On June 18, 1812, not thirty years after we won our independence from Britain, we found ourselves at war with them again. Why? Britain was at war with Napoleanic France and, to prevent neutral trade with France, Britain imposed an illegal blockade of the United States’ coast and began impressing American merchant marines into military service to man their ships. President James Madison declared war and hostilities lasted until February 8, 1815, although it was mostly defensive on the part of the Brits because they had their hands full fighting Napoleon back home.
However, in 1814, the Brits saw and took a unique opportunity to make their mark. Rear Admiral George Cockburn was instructed by Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane (Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s North American and West Indies Station) to attack either Baltimore, Washington or Philadelphia and “destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you may find assailable”. The order was in retaliation for the what Britain called “wanton destruction of private property along the north shores of Lake Erie” by American forces under Col. John Campbell in May 1814, most significantly the sacking of Port Dover in Upper Canada. Admiral Cockburn chose the capital city for maximum political and psychological impact, and ordered Major-General Robert Ross to attack with his 4,500 man army composed of the 4th (King’s Own) Light, 21st Royal North British Fusiliers, 44th (East Essex) Regiment of Foot, and 85th Regiment of Foot.
On August 24, 1814, after defeating the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg, a British force led by General Ross occupied Washington and began torching public buildings. The Capitol building was set ablaze, unfortunately destroying the 3000 volume Library of Congress, then the White House, known at the time as the President’s House. The Treasury and other public government building met the same fate. No civilians or civilian structures were targeted.
By this time, President Madison and his government had already fled the city and relocated to Brookville, a small town in Montgomery County, Maryland that today claims the honor of “United States Capital for a Day.” President Madison was hosted by Caleb Bentley, a local Quaker. Bentley’s house, now known as the Madison House, still stands today.
As if by divine providence, less than a day after the attack began a sudden, heavy thunderstorm of near hurricane proportions struck Washington and extinguished the fires. Following the storm, the British returned to their ships, many of which were damaged by the storm. The occupation of Washington lasted only about 26 hours. After the “Storm that saved Washington”, as it soon came to be called, the Americans were able to regain control of the city.
Rebuilding of the White House started immediately and President Monroe moved back home in 1817.