Steve Vogel, a Washington Post reporter, is the author of “Through the Perilous Fight: Six Weeks That Saved the Nation.”
On Independence Day 199 years ago, there was little cause for revelry in Washington. With America on the brink of defeat in the War of 1812, some feared it would be the nation’s last July Fourth celebration. The British forces threatening to dismember the union would bring their own fireworks — setting the White House, the Capitol and other public buildings ablaze later that summer. The burning of Washington has become the subject of much myth.
1. The British burned Washington to avenge the American burning of York (modern-day Toronto).
The British were already torching towns in the Chesapeake region when news arrived that American troops had burned the capital of Upper Canada, a British colony, in April 1813. Rear Adm. George Cockburn, commanding a Royal Navy squadron on the Chesapeake, pressed to attack Washington not in response to York, which was barely noted at the time, but as the logical continuance of his campaign of terror, hoping to force the U.S. government to make peace on British terms.
The British general who captured Washington, Robert Ross, did not mention retaliation in his reports to England but instead described it as an American humiliation that would soon end the war. “They feel strongly the disgrace of having had their capital taken by a handful of men and blame very generally a government which went to war without the means or abilities to carry it on,” Ross wrote to his wife.
Immediately after Washington’s capture, President James Madison’s government received a note from the British citing “wanton destruction” by American forces on the Niagara frontierand at Lake Erie. The earlier arson of parliament buildings in York was not raised as a justification until months later, after the British faced criticism at home and abroad for burning buildings in Washington.
2. First lady Dolley Madison bravely carried the portrait of George Washington from the White House while her husband fled in terror.
Dolley Madison deserves credit for ordering that the Gilbert Stuart portrait be saved, recognizing its symbolic importance. But her role has been embellished.
After receiving word of the American defeat at Bladensburg outside Washington on Aug. 24, the first lady directed servants, including Paul Jennings, the Madisons’ 15-year-old house slave, to take down the portrait — no easy task because the frame was screwed to the dining room wall. Madison later claimed that she stayed “until it was done.” But others present agree that she left before the portrait was down.
“It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington . . . and carried it off,” Jennings wrote in his memoir. “This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. . . . All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment.”
James Madison’s performance as commander in chief, particularly his indecisiveness in the weeks before Washington’s capture, left much to be desired. But he showed courage during the attack, and his determined actions in the ensuing days were among the finest moments of his presidency.
As the British approached, Madison rushed to Bladensburg, straying past American lines and later coming under British rocket fire. Not only was Madison the first sitting president to arrive on a battlefield — and the only one, save Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War — he nearly was the first to be captured or killed.
3. A storm saved Washington.
On the afternoon of Aug. 25, the day after the British began torching the capital, Washington was hit from the northwest by a line of severe thunderstorms that may have spawned one or more destructive tornadoes. But this didn’t save the District — it actually further damaged the city.
While the British had largely spared private property in Washington, the storms did not. In some parts of town, every house was damaged. Trees were uprooted, chimneys collapsed, roofs were ripped off and homes were flattened. The patent office, the only government building untouched by the British, lost part of its roof.The hot walls of the Capitol and the White House cracked when doused by the cold rain.
“This is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city,” a woman allegedly called out to Cockburn.
“Not so, Madam,” Cockburn retorted. “It is rather to aid your enemies in the destruction of your city.”
The British, no less dazed than the Americans by the force of the storms, took advantage of the resulting chaos to withdraw from Washington that night, “the general devastation being completed,” Cockburn reported.
4. The White House got its name after it was painted white to cover scorch marks.
When the mansion reopened to the public on New Year’s Day 1818, white lead paint hid the black burns and cracked stone. Generations of visitors to Washington have been told that this is why the building is white.
But the tan-colored sandstone exterior had been whitewashed even before the mansion became home to the presidents in 1800, making it stand out from most Washington houses, which were brick or wood frame. Some residents were calling it the “White House” at least as early as 1810.
5. The repulse of the British at Baltimore three weeks later proves that Baltimoreans are tougher than Washingtonians.
“If our city had waited for advice on self-defense from Washington in the War of 1812, all of us would be singing ‘God Save the Queen,’ ” Martin O’Malley (D), then mayor of Baltimore and now governor of Maryland, told Congress in 2002.
But the idea that Charm City has more moxie ignores the fact that the commander of Washington’s defenses was a Baltimore lawyer, the incompetent Brig. Gen. William Winder. Moreover, most members of the militia manning the first lines of defense at Bladensburg were from Baltimore and Baltimore County, and they were the first to flee in the face of the British advance.
The District militia rushed from Washington and joined a third line anchored by Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotillamen and U.S. Marines. Largely not engaged, it did not retreat until ordered to by the panicking Winder over the objections of its officers.
The militia unit that fought best at Bladensburg was the Georgetown Field Artillery, which peppered the advancing British with fire and then expertly covered the American retreat. The Baltimore militia redeemed itself three weeks later at North Point. Among the key differences: This time, it was fighting for Baltimore, not Washington.