The Burning of Washington (and excellent spin afterward)

Here’s my yarn on the burning of Washington 200 years ago Sunday. Great photos by Matt McClain, one of our extremely creative shooters, given an almost impossible assignment. My job was easy, I just wrote what Steve Vogel told me to write.



7 a.m. Aug. 24, 1814

The day began like so many days in Washington, with a painfully long meeting marked by confusion, misinformation and indecision.

The British were coming. They were on the march in the general direction of Washington. The precise target of the invaders remained unclear, but their intentions were surely malign.

James Madison, the fourth president of these young United States, had raced to a private home near the Navy Yard for an emergency war council with top generals and members of his Cabinet. The secretary of war, John Armstrong — conspicuously late for the meeting — had argued in recent days that the British would not possibly attack Washington, because it was too unimportant, with just 8,000 inhabitants and a few grandiose government buildings scattered at a great distance from one another.

“They certainly will not come here. What the devil will they do here? No! No! Baltimore is the place, sir. That is of so much more consequence,” Armstrong had declared.

The British had landed five days earlier near the head of navigable waters on the Patuxent River, southeast of Washington. There were about 4,500 of them — hardened fighters fresh from the Napoleonic wars.

The American forces called out to meet the invaders and defend the capital numbered about 5,500, but most were local militia — farmers and tradesmen with minimal training.

The war council proceeded in a desultory fashion until finally a bulletin arrived reporting that the Enemy was most definitely headed straight for Bladensburg, a town just six miles northeast of the Capitol. This provoked a convulsion of activity. Generals prepared to dash to the field of battle. Madison decided he should go, too. Someone handed him two pistols that he strapped around his waist.

The gunslinging 5-foot-4-inch president galloped on the pike toward Bladensburg.

It had been a brutally hot, dry August, and the sun was beating down again. This day was shaping up as a real scorcher.


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