Did A Tornado Spare Washington, DC During the War of 1812?

The White House Burned Down (Photo Credit: George Munger - The White House Historical Association / Public Domain)
The White House Burned Down (Photo Credit: George Munger - The White House Historical Association / Public Domain)

Usually the British are used to unexpected changes in the weather, but during the War of 1812, the British were caught out by a sudden tornado, which drove them away. At the time some locals believed they had been saved by divine intervention, but depending on your perspective, the tornado may have actually helped the British by doing their work for them.

The action took place in Washington D.C. in August 1814. The War of 1812 was ongoing, and the British had just defeated the Americans at the Battle of Bladensburg on August 24 and reached Washington. When they arrived they started torching the city. As they went, they set landmarks and government buildings on fire, including the White House and the US Capitol. Most public buildings were destroyed.

The main Capitol building luckily survived, but the Senate wing was in ruins. It was the oldest part of the building and was outfitted with wooden floors and the books and manuscripts of the Library of Congress.

Fortunately, Lewis Machen, a Senate clerk, managed to save bills, reports, documents, receipts, and journals from the United States’ founding days. He loaded them onto a wagon and left the city.

Similarly, Dolley Madison, President James Madison’s wife, saved the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington and a copy of the Declaration of Independence before fleeing.

When the British invaded the city on August 24 the area had been baked by 100-degree summer heat. This helped the fire spread and by the next day, huge areas of the city were on fire or had been destroyed. They continued torching the city, but, unfamiliar with the local climate, the British troops failed to realize the weather was about to turn nasty.

A tornado saves the day

Burning of Washington war of 1812
Book: Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras – This illustration is from the 1816 book, The History of England, from the Earliest Periods, Volume 1 by Paul M. Rapin de Thoyras. (Photo Credit: US Library of Congress / Public Domain)

Local Washington residents immediately understood what the darkening skies were telling them and started taking shelter. The British, likely thinking they were in for a few short showers, carried on.

Eventually, the sky started to swirl around and winds in the area started to increase in speed. A tornado soon formed and made its way through the center of the city. It pulled trees from their roots, blew buildings down, and even picked up a pair of British cannons. A few British soldiers and American civilians were killed by the storm, which left the already battered city covered in rubble and debris.

The rains accompanying the storm put out the fires and the British left the city at around the same time. A few of their ships were damaged and a member of the Corps of Colonial Marines was killed.

The British occupation of the capital lasted just 26 hours.

Did the tornado help or not?

Due to thoughts at the time and a lack of understanding of the British motives and plans, there has been plenty of debate about whether the city was spared by the tornado, or if it actually made Washington’s situation worse.

Admiral Cockburn
Rear-Admiral George Cockburn (1772-1853) (Photo Credit: John James Halls – Royal Museums Greenwich / Wikipedia / Public Domain

Some insist that the storm forced the British to retreat, therefore saving the city from further destruction. However, it seems likely that the British never intended on occupying the city, but merely causing havoc and destruction.

Additionally, Major General Robert Ross, the one leading the British troops in the destruction of the city, wanted to limit the damage to public and governmental buildings only. As a result, the storm probably caused extra damage to public and government buildings, as well as damaging private buildings the British were never planning on destroying.

US Capitol after the burning of Washington
The United States Capitol after the burning of Washington, D.C. in the War of 1812. Watercolor and ink depiction from 1814, restored. (Photo Credit: George Munger / Wikipedia / Public Domain

Whatever theory you subscribe to, the incident is important, not only for being perhaps the only time a tornado was a good thing but also because it is the only occasion since the American Revolutionary War where a foreign military occupied the US capital.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE