The Burning Of Washington: When The British Attacked The White House

The War of 1812 began after a series of trade disputes, thanks to Napoleon's nonstop military campaign in Central Europe, which ultimately left British sailors desperate enough to effectively kidnap and enlist them in his army. Meanwhile, Great Britain had always been helping Native Americans in an effort to stop the invading Western settlers. Obviously, this did not please the United States, so for the first time the young nation declared war on a foreign country.

However, by 1814, following Napoleon's defeat, the British finally conquered the U.S. You'd think the Americans would have some sort of ironclad plan to protect Washington, D.C. from invasion, but since the U.S. military hadn't actually fought a major conflict since the country gained independence, they were sloppy. They proved to be little more than an annoyance to the British, who moved into the city as if they still owned the place. Seriously, at one point, 63-year-old President James Madison went into battle armed with two pistols, but was abandoned by his militia men when the British began shooting rockets.

White House ruins after the August 24, 1814 eruption. Watercolors by George Munger displayed at the White House

Meanwhile, Dolly Madison was setting up an extravagant dinner, which she wrongly assumed would be a celebration when she received the news that the British were arriving and people were leaving town. The officials were in a panic, many people grabbed whatever important document they could, namely the Declaration of Independence. Dolly left much of her belongings behind in favor of saving the Landsdowne Portrait, an iconic life-size painting of George Washington, which had to be ripped off its massive frame as it screwed tightly to the wall.

The First Lady lamented the fact that she was forced to flee the Holy House because of the military's choice to leave the city, "I confess that I was so feminine as to be free from fear and live in the palace." Be ready! If I could take a cannon out of every window, but alas! Those who should have kept there fled before me, and my whole heart mourned for my country!"

When the British arrived at the White House, they were overjoyed to find the dinner Dolly had set for Madison, and she ate it herself. They stole small decorations and clothing as souvenirs before stacking furniture in piles and dumping huge amounts of gunpowder. They set fire to the mansion along with the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court, the Capitol Building, and the Treasury. They were kind enough to leave the Patent Office untouched because, you know, inventions are good, but they stole every "C" from the local newspaper printing house so that they would be unable to write adversarial stories about the invading British General Cockburn.

Portrait of James Madison.

In an effort to find a safe haven for the president, Madison is taken to a Quaker village, but he is turned away from home at first (and he says the Third Amendment never works). The second house took them in, and it was there that the President learned the full extent of the havoc the British had inflicted on the capital city.

Soon, however, a strange storm hit Washington, D.C., accompanied by rain and the exceptionally rare occurrence of a tornado. While the few remaining residents quickly took refuge, the British, unaware of how severe the storm could become, Cockburn said to an American woman, "Great Lord, ma'am!?" The woman answered him back, "No, sir, it is a special distinction of Providence to drive our enemies out of our city."

Indeed, the British were unable to put out their fire as their guns were flying and were sent tossing the city's rocky ruins into the air, crushing and killing many soldiers. After only 26 hours, the British forces abandoned their capture and went back to their ships. The unusual weather phenomenon became known as the "Storm that Saved Washington", although it did a number on the already beleaguered city. Washington DC. Slowly rebuilt, the capitol building took 12 years to complete, and has not been attacked by foreign adversaries since then.

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