On September 3, 1783, the Revolutionary War between the United States and Great Britain was officially ended, but that did not end the tensions and hostilities between the two nations.
Great Britain may have officially ended its war and granted independence to America, but they were still in a conflict in Europe that would directly impact the United States. Napoleonic Wars raged in Europe with Napoleon Bonaparte ordering a blockade of all British shipping in and out of the ports that he controlled in 1806. In response, the British placed their own restrictions on shipping to Europe even to the point of requiring ships from neutral nations, including the United States, to obtain special permits to allow them to trade with European nations.
The British restrictions led to British ships forcibly boarding all neutral ships they encountered, including American ships. The British searched the ships for anything they deemed as contraband and would often confiscate those items or all of the cargo. Additionally, they searched among the American crews for any British deserters. The most egregious offense committed by the British ship captains was stealing American crewmen and impressing them into service in the British navy against their wills.
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At the same time, there were a number of border conflicts between the US and Canada, which was still a British colony. The border between the two nations had not been formerly established and both countries often laid claim to the same areas.
Also occurring at the same time was the westward expansion of America. To help stop the expansion and efforts to claim much of the western frontier for themselves, the British began befriending numerous Indian tribes and then arming them with muskets, powder and ammunition and urged them to fight against the American expansion.
All of these measures combined to war between the United State and Great Britain. The war started in 1812, hence the name. Although somewhat a misnomer, the war of 1812 actually was fought in 1812, 1813, 1814 and ended in February 1815.
In 1790, Congress approved the Residence Act which created a capital district for the young American nation. It was built at a location on the border between Virginia and Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay. Much of the land around new capital was swamp land.
In the summer of 1814, it was described as one of the hottest summers in the new capital. The swamps were breeding grounds for mosquitoes which carried a variety of diseases. It was also a very humid summer, making the condition unbearable for the approximately 8,000 residents.
On this day, August 24, 1814, around 4,000 British troops made their way up the Chesapeake Bay towards Washington DC. News of the approaching British invasion reached the city and a large majority of the residents fled before the British arrived.
American General William Winder and the 24th American Defenders, with President James Madison in attendance, tried to stop the advancing British at Bladensburg, a few up the bay from the capital, but the effort failed. At the defeat of the American forces, a dispatch was sent to the White House to warn First Lady Dolley Madison to flee. She and her staff fled the White House in carriages, but not before ripping the painting of George Washington off the wall and taking it with her as she and her staff made their way across the Potomac River to safety.
As British General Robert Ross led the troops to the edge of the city, he stopped and sent conditions of terms for surrender into the city under a white flag. According to one member of the British army, George Gleig:
“Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent in with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard, for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, than they were fired upon from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied them, killed. You will easily believe that conduct so unjustifiable, so direct a breach of the law of nations, roused the indignation of every individual, from the General himself down to the private soldier.”
“All thoughts of accommodation were instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town, and having first put to the sword all who were found in the house from which the shots were fired, and reduced it to ashes, they proceeded, without ‘a moment’s delay, to burn and destroy everything in the most distant degree connected with government. In this general devastation were included the Senate House, the President’s palace, an extensive dockyard and arsenal, barracks for two or three thousand men, several large storehouses filled with naval and military stores, some hundreds of cannon of different descriptions, and nearly twenty thousand stand of small arms. There were also two or three public rope works which shared the same fate, a fine frigate pierced for sixty guns and just ready to be launched, several gun brigs and armed schooners, with a variety of gunboats and small craft. The powder magazines were, of course, set on fire, and exploded with a tremendous crash, throwing down many houses in their vicinity, partly by pieces of the wall striking them, and partly by the concussion of the air whilst quantities of shot, shell, and hand grenades, which could not otherwise be rendered useless, were thrown into the river.”
In letter written by First Lady Dolley Madison to her sister Anna, she stated:
Wednesday Morning, twelve o’clock. — Since sunrise I have been turning my spy-glass in every direction, and watching with unwearied anxiety, hoping to discover the approach of my dear husband and his friends; but, alas! I can descry only groups of military, wandering in all directions, as if there was a lack of arms, or of spirit to fight for their own fireside.
Three o’clock. — Will you believe it, my sister? we have had a battle, or skirmish, near Bladensburg, and here I am still, within sound of the cannon! Mr. Madison comes not. May God protect us! Two messengers, covered with dust, come to bid me fly; but here I mean to wait for him… At this late hour a wagon has been procured, and I have had it filled with plate and the most valuable portable articles, belonging to the house. Whether it will reach its destination, the “Bank of Maryland,” or fall into the hands of British soldiery, events must determine. Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and in a very bad humor with me, because I insist on waiting until the large picture of General Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvas taken out. It is done! and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write to you, or where I shall be to-morrow, I cannot tell!
In retaliation for American forces burning some Canadian government buildings earlier in the war and in exuberation for capturing the American capital, the British troops began ransacking, looting and then burning a number of buildings in Washington DC. After General Ross and his officers dined at the White House, it was set ablaze, along with the Capitol Building, Library of Congress, numerous others federal buildings, some of which had not been completed and a number of homes. Reportedly, a torrential rain began late in the evening and helped put out some of the fires, saving parts of the House of Representatives, Senate and Library of Congress, but until they had been pretty much gutted by the British troops and fires.
One of the main reasons Washington DC fell to the British so easily is that it was built in a location that made it very difficult to defend. Realizing this, Ross ordered the British troops to withdraw on August 26, 1814.
On August 27, 1814, President Madison returned to find the level of devastation to be extensive, yet he promised to have the city rebuilt. The task of rebuilding the White House fell to its original architect, James Hoban, who succeeded in rebuilding the White House in 1817.
Sources for the above includes: The British Burn Washington, DC, 1814; The Burning of Washington; British capture and burn Washington; D.C.’s Darkest Day, A War That No One Remembers; Washington is Burning; The Burning of Washington by Dolley Madison; The 1814 burning of Washington, D.C.; What Caused the War of 1812?; War of 1812 Overview