washington-city-taking

The Capitol Has Fallen! When the British Burned the Capitol Building

By Scott Vierick, Historian

Robert Ross, a respected veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, commanded the British troops during the attack on Washington, DC. Source: Smithsonian Institution

By 1814, the War of 1812 between the United States, Great Britain, and their American Indian allies had been raging for over two years. While most of the fighting had occurred along the border with Canada, the British Royal Navy had also established a blockade along the Atlantic Coast. Around the Chesapeake Bay, British vessels raided plantations and towns, burned supplies, and liberated enslaved African Americans from bondage, some of whom joined the fight against their former enslavers. For the first two years of the war, however, the British were preoccupied with fighting the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. By the summer of 1814, with Napoleon exiled to the island of Elba and seemingly defeated, the British could concentrate their forces against the United States. Emboldened and bolstered by reinforcements fresh from the battlefields of Europe, Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Admiral George Cockburn, and General Robert Ross decided to strike at the heart of the young republic by capturing the District of Columbia.

As the British made their way toward the American capital, the federal government’s response was confused and inadequate. Secretary of War John Armstrong refused to believe the British would advance on Washington, instead positing that the invading force was headed for Baltimore and hindering preparation efforts. General William Winder, assigned to command the American defenses, had only minimal military experience. His troops consisted mostly of local militia, many of whose training involved as much drinking as drilling. Many lacked appropriate clothing for the hot summer weather, and others came to battle without usable weapons. As the American battle lines formed near Bladensburg, Maryland on August 24, 1814, Secretary of State James Monroe—a veteran of the American Revolution—further complicated matters by attempting to rearrange some units. When the British soldiers attacked, the American line, with the exception of some sailors under Commodore Joshua Barney, quickly broke and ran. The city, and the US Capitol building, was now totally defenseless. British forces would arrive in a few hours.

Charles Ball, who fought in the battle with Commodore Barney, later recalled that the militia “ran like sheep chased by dogs.” Source: NPS

The attack on DC took place during a congressional recess, which meant that most representatives and senators were not in the area during the attack. House Clerk Patrick Magruder was also out of the city, leaving the task of protecting the legislative bodies’ documents to two deputies, Samuel Burch and J.T. Frost. The two men attempted to save as much as they could but had difficulty procuring transportation, as private residents had already commandeered many of the available wagons and teams in the city. Their counterparts in the Senate were similarly ill-situated. The previous Senate secretary had just died, and no replacement had been appointed. Two clerks, John McDonald and Lewis Machen, saved as much as possible but were also frustrated by a lack of available transportation. While the actions of these clerks helped preserve many important documents, a lack of proper support and planning doomed many other records.

As the easternmost government building in the city at the time, the Capitol was the first target of the British when they arrived in Washington, DC. By this point, the militia and Capitol staff had fled, so there was no one to defend the seat of government. In 1814, the Capitol building held not just the House and Senate chambers, but the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress as well. The British entered through two doors that still exist today, and set about gathering furnishings, documents, and anything else that could be used to set the building aflame—including the Library of Congress’s books. Using gunpowder paste and rockets, the British lit the fire and soon the entire structure was engulfed in flames.

One of the many murals in the Capitol building depicts its destruction by the British. Source: Architect of the Capitol

From the Capitol, the British moved on to other government buildings, including the White House, but spared the Patent Office and private homes. A freak storm doused most of the flames, and the British soon departed. They had always intended the attack on the city to be a raid and not an occupation. After their triumph in DC, British forces attempted to take Baltimore, but detailed planning, determined resistance, and competent leadership saved that city from a similar fate.

While the damage to the Capitol was extensive, it could have been worse. The building’s architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe had used a variety of fireproof materials, which prevented its total destruction. The Capitol would be repaired and rebuilt, although scars from the fire can still be glimpsed today. Although the Capitol would be the scene of further attacks, attempted assassinations, and bombings, no hostile force would occupy it again until pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the building on January 6, 2021, in an attempt to prevent the certification of votes in the 2020 presidential election. The damage they wrought could still be seen two weeks later, when Joseph R. Biden took the oath of office at the Capitol two weeks later.

The charred remains of the Capitol after the flames were extinguished. Source: Library of Congress

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