Saturday, April 10, 2010



The Burning of Washington took place on August 24, 1814, during the War of 1812 between the British Empire and the United States of America. The British occupied Washington, D.C. and set fire to many public buildings following the American defeat at the Battle of Bladensburg. The facilities of the U.S. government, including the White House, were largely destroyed, though strict discipline and the British commander's orders to burn only public buildings are credited with preserving the city's private buildings. This is the only time since 1783 in United States history that a foreign power has captured and occupied the United States capital (Philadelphia  was captured by British forces in 1777 during the American Revolutionary War).

Historians assert that the attack was in retaliation for the American looting of York, Upper Canada (now Toronto) after the Battle of York in 1813, and the burning down of the Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada. The British Army commanders said they chose to attack Washington "on account of the greater political effect likely to result,".
Governor-General Sir George Prevost of Canada wrote to the Admirals in Bermuda calling for a retaliation for the American sacking of York and requested their permission and support in the form of provision of naval resources. At the time, it was considered against the civilized laws of war to burn a non-military facility and the Americans had not only burned the Parliament but also looted and burned the Governor's mansion, private homes and warehouses.

The buildings housing the Senate and House of Representatives—construction on the central rotunda of the Capitol had not yet begun—were set ablaze not long after. The interiors of both buildings, including the Library of Congress, were destroyed, although the thick walls and a torrential rainfall preserved their exteriors. (Thomas Jefferson later sold his library to the government to restock the Library of Congress.) The next day Admiral Cockburn entered the building of the D.C. newspaper, National Intelligencer, intending to burn it down; however, a group of neighborhood women persuaded him not to because they were afraid the fire would spread to their neighboring houses. Cockburn wanted to destroy the newspaper because they had written so many negative items about him, branding him as "The Ruffian." Instead he ordered his troops to tear the building down brick by brick making sure that they destroyed all the "C" type so that no more pieces mentioning his name could be printed.

The troops then turned north down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. After many of the government officials — and her own bodyguard — had already fled, First Lady Dolley Madison remained, gathering valuables, documents and other items of importance. She, or perhaps members of the house staff, rescued the Lansdowne Portrait, a full-length painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. Imagine if you will, Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama, staying in harms way to preserve historically important art work.

Mrs. Madison was finally persuaded to leave moments before invading soldiers entered the building. Once inside, the soldiers found the dining hall set for a dinner for 40 people. After eating all the food, they took souvenirs (e.g., one of the president's hats) and then set the building on fire.

As the fires razed the US Capitol, the torrential rains became a full blown hurricane, with gale force winds pummeling the invaders into seeking shelter from the storm. Eye-witness accounts suggest there may have been a tornado. The result is that the English Army left post haste, and moved in the direction of Baltimore, Maryland. A city that was label by the London Press as "A Nest Of Pirates."

The attack on Baltimore was to be a two pronged assault. A ground assault by the British army led by The Brits best tactical leader, Major General Robert Ross. In the early morning hours of 12 September 1814, an unknown American sniper shot and killed General Ross. The army suffered a power vacuum and the land attack was a lost cause. The 9,000 Maryland Militia Men withstood the venerable English professionals and the only coarse of military action left to the British was the Naval assault. But, guarding the seaward access to Baltimore Harbor was the Legendary FORT McHENRY.

Fort McHenry, Designed by Frenchman Jean Foncin in 1798 and named after James McHenry, a Scots-Irish immigrant and surgeon-soldier who became Secretary of War under President Washington, Fort McHenry was built after America won its independence to defend the important Port of Baltimore from future enemy attacks. It was positioned on the Locust Point peninsula which juts into the opening of Baltimore Harbor, and was constructed in the form of a five-pointed star surrounded by a dry moat — a deep, broad trench. The moat would serve as a shelter from which musketmen might defend the fort from a land attack. In case of such an attack on this first line of defense, each point, or bastion, was fortified, so that the invading army would be caught in a crossfire of cannon and musket fire.

Beginning at 6:00 A.M. on September 13, 1814, British Admiral Cockburn, ordered his warships to begin a bombardment of the fort that lasted for 25 hours. An estimated 2,000 explosive shells and 1700 rockets along with other ordinance pummeled the battle works of the fort. At one point a British cannon made a direct hit on the forts powder magazine. But it failed to detonate and the defenders continued the fight.

The American defenders were under the command of Brevet Lt. Col. George Armistead. They did suffer casualties, amounting to four killed and twenty-four wounded, including one African American soldier and a woman who was cut in half by a bomb as she carried supplies to the troops. In anticipation of the British attack on the fort, Armistead had commission the purchase of an over sized American Flag, to ensure the enemy would know who the were fighting against. The flag measured 30X42 feet, and was hand sewn by Mary Pickersgill for exactly $405.90.

A marine assault was launched by the English. However the sharpshooters and mortar teams inside the fort repulsed the assault landing, and the English marines returned to the ships. At 7:00 AM Admiral Cockburn, ordered his ships to weigh anchor and return to sea. The outcome and fate of the fort was unknown to the Americans outside the fort. A Washington lawyer who had come to Baltimore to negotiate the release of Dr. William Beanes, a civilian prisoner of war, witnessed the bombardment from a nearby truce ship. The lawyer had been against the war from the beginning. And he was confused by the British ships leaving the area.

When the lawyer caught sight of the giant flag still hanging over the fort, he was filled with so much emotion and patriotic fervor, he was compelled to write a poem. He titled his poem "The Defense Of Fort McHenry." A year later the poem was set to the tune of a popular British drinking song, written by John Stafford Smith  "The Anacreontic Song"
Set to the poem's lyrics and renamed, it would soon become a well-known American patriotic song. The song was recognized for official use by the US Navy in 1889 and the President in 1916, and was made the national anthem by a congressional resolution on March 3, 1931. Only the first stanza is commonly sung today. But now you know the history behind our National Anthem.
God bless America. And grant wisdom and courage to our elected representatives.


Heart2Heart said...


As a lover of history I hadn't heard of this but found myself mesmerized by all the details.

I could hardly see Hilary or Michelle trying to save historical artifacts but rather clothing and shoes and perhaps some jewelry.

Great story none the less!

Love and Hugs ~ Kat

Anonymous said...

Amazing, that this wasn't so very long ago. Great story I had not read before, thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

K-Dub - I love forts, I guess every boy built one growing up. I lived in Pensacola where we had Fort Pickens. Geronimo was temoprarily held prisioner there. Great story. No, I doubt the Democratic first ladies would stand in harms way but then again, back then if there is such a thing, men were gentlemen even in wartime, or at least appeared to try to follow those rules.

Anonymous said...

Ofcourse you can copy and repost any time, I did just that because I loved what it had to say.

Marnie said...

I loved reading this. Educational AND interesting!

Hope you are doing well.


sanjeet said...

Great story
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