Burning of the White House in 1814

Some people, particularly young Americans who have been through some of the earlier stages of American history classes, are at the very least vaguely aware that the White House was burned down in 1814. At the time, however, America was not properly prepared for this attack. This is largely because John Armstrong, the Secretary of War at the time, told Washington that they should not expect their city, much less the White House, to be hit by the approaching British.

His reasoning appeared to make some sense. Washington was a young city at the time, and not many people lived there. They had some relatively important buildings, but they were not very close together. According to Armstrong, the British were much more likely to attack Baltimore. By 3PM that same day, August 24, the British would approach the White House to burn it down. Armstrong had guessed wrong. Although he had known that the British were in the area, having landed to the south of Washington slightly under a week prior, he had completely misinterpreted their intentions.

It was eventually discovered that the British were headed for Washington, and immediately American officers began to mobilize. They did not know for certain that the British were aiming to burn down the White House or the Capitol, and they had only sent out slightly more men that the British had among their ranks. Unfortunately, many of these men were not formally trained. Many of the British soldiers, however, had experience fighting Napoleon. This put the American defenders at a disadvantage.

Dolley Madison, wife of then U.S. President James Madison, had been waiting to host a dinner at the time. Luckily, she was warned of the impending danger when a man told her that Armstrong was evacuating Washington. Dolley was out of the White House before it burned. Before she left, she ensured that a painting of George Washington would survive. While she managed to safeguard the painting, many other goods and valuables were pilfered by looters in the midst of the destruction, The Washington Post reports.

The War of 1812 took its toll on the White House, the Capitol, and Washington in general. While in many ways it was a devastating assault on the United States and their government, in many ways it actually helped to bolster morale. Many Americans were grossly offended by the attack on their government buildings. They therefore began to see increased value in the White House and those who inhabited it. By trying to hurt America’s capital, the British actually strengthened the city’s symbolism for many years to come.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE