Burnin’ down the (White) House

For an upcoming story, I’ve been busy looking for remnants of the War of 1812, which was a war fought between the United States and Britain, approximately in 1812. Not many people know very much about that war, including when it happened (again, not to be a bore about it, but roughly in 1812) and who won. [SPOILER ALERT: It was a draw, or, to use the technical military-history term, a tie.]

I just got back from the White House, where you can still see scorch marks from the day, Aug. 24, 1814 (which is why we say “approximately” 1812), when the British sauntered into town and started burning things. It was not a banner day for the USA. Make a list of the damage: Capitol burned, White House burned, Treasury burned, War Department burned, Long Bridge burned, Navy Yard burned (first by the Americans, actually, in a defensive move, and then re-burned by the British).

But somehow it became more like a stunt than a real “sacking” of a city in the old-fashioned, Visigothian sense of the word. The British were in town only about 24 hours, then returned to their ships on the Patuxent. President Madison, after his brief exile and dispiriting wanderings in the woods of Virginia and Maryland, returned to the federal town three days after the disaster and began to repair the physical and psychic damage. Madison and Co. did a fine job of spinning the news. Collectively we put the moment out of our minds. If we wanted to fixate on something, we’d applaud the nifty actions of Mrs. Madison, who, before fleeing the President’s House, had ensured the safety of Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington (still there in the East Room — the oldest object in the White House). And then came the battle of Baltimore, and Fort McHenry, and the rockets red glare and the bombs bursting in air, an event witnessed by a Washington lawyer (detained on a British vessel) who decided to put some new lyrics to a favorite tune.

I’m a staunch believer that the distant past isn’t so very far away at all. But the War of 1812 is strangely elusive. One struggles to find a palimpsest of the war anywhere in this city.

Maybe we did win that war after all. The U.S. prospered after the Treaty of Ghent, even if it was a status quo document. And it is not a trivial fact that the capital (here I am referring to the seat of government, though the sentence applies equally to the Capitol) stayed put. The White House was rebuilt on the same footprint. Yes, you can still see the scorch marks, but they’re hard to find, hidden beneath the North Portico, at an old entrance now below grade, and if you didn’t know what you were looking at you might think the painters simply missed a spot.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach · August 11