200 Years Ago Today Washington Was On Fire

Invading British soldiers torched most government buildings, including the Capitol, in August 1814.

National Journal
Brian McGill
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Brian McGill
Aug. 25, 2014, 9:44 a.m.

Wash­ing­to­ni­ans’ Au­gust tra­di­tion of abandon­ing their city for more pleas­ant sur­round­ings is noth­ing new; it’s nearly as old as the Cap­it­ol it­self. But 200 years ago, it wasn’t be­cause of the weath­er that nearly every res­id­ent fled, in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Madis­on. It was be­cause of an in­vad­ing Brit­ish army. 

Ross’s March to Wash­ing­ton

Dur­ing the week of Aug. 20, 1814, Brit­ish troops moved quickly up the East­ern Shore of Mary­land, where they met little res­ist­ance. An Amer­ic­an mi­li­tia led by Bri­gadier Gen. Wil­li­am Winder, who little more than a year earli­er was a Bal­timore law­yer, gathered for a battle near the town of Bladens­burg against a Brit­ish force that in­cluded seasoned vet­er­ans of the Na­po­leon­ic wars. They quickly dis­patched the poorly trained and ill-equipped Amer­ic­an troops. By 8 p.m. on Aug. 24, the Brit­ish had marched the five miles in­to Wash­ing­ton and were at the door­step of the Cap­it­ol. Most cit­izens had deser­ted the city by this time, in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Madis­on.

Burn­ing of the Cap­it­ol Build­ing

Once at the Cap­it­ol, the Brit­ish split in­to two groups and entered from the east en­trances. The build­ing was still un­fin­ished at the time; the icon­ic dome and ro­tunda had not yet been built. Ac­cord­ing to the ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol, Brit­ish sol­diers fo­cused on main rooms in the build­ing, and spared the lob­bies, hall­ways, and stairs they would need to es­cape.

In the South Wing, sol­diers barged in­to the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives cham­ber on the second floor. They gathered wooden fur­niture, placed it in a pile, slathered it with gun­powder paste, and lit the pile on fire. The fire was so hot that, with the ex­cep­tion of the clerk’s of­fice, most of the oth­er of­fices in the South Wing were left without be­ing lit ablaze by en­emy sol­diers.

The North Wing at the time was home to the Sen­ate cham­bers, the un­fin­ished Lib­rary of Con­gress, and the Su­preme Court on the first floor. All of the rooms were des­troyed us­ing ma­ter­i­als from with­in, in­clud­ing the 3,000 books stored in the Lib­rary of Con­gress. Fi­nally, the tem­por­ary wooden walk­way between the Cap­it­ol’s two wings was set ablaze and the sol­diers moved on, march­ing north­w­est up Pennsylvania Av­en­ue to des­troy oth­er gov­ern­ment build­ings, in­clud­ing the pres­id­ent’s res­id­ence, now called the White House.

Dam­age was severe with­in the ma­jor rooms but the struc­ture of both wings re­mained in­tact, thanks to fire­proof ma­ter­i­als such as marble, sand­stone, zinc, cop­per, and iron used by ar­chi­tect Ben­jamin Henry Latrobe. Two cen­tur­ies later, ar­chi­tec­ture that sur­vived the fire, such as the “wa­ter leaves columns” in the Small House Ro­tunda and “corn cob” columns near the ori­gin­al en­trance of the North Wing, are still vis­ible.

Ross's March to Washington

Dur­ing the week of Aug. 20, 1814, Brit­ish troops moved quickly up the East­ern Shore of Mary­land, where they met little res­ist­ance. An Amer­ic­an mi­li­tia led by Bri­gadier Gen. Wil­li­am Winder, who little more than a year earli­er was a Bal­timore law­yer, gathered for a battle near the town of Bladens­burg against a Brit­ish force that in­cluded seasoned vet­er­ans of the Na­po­leon­ic wars. They quickly dis­patched the poorly trained and ill-equipped Amer­ic­an troops. By 8 p.m. on Aug. 24, the Brit­ish had marched the five miles in­to Wash­ing­ton and were at the door­step of the Cap­it­ol. Most cit­izens had deser­ted the city by this time, in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Madis­on.

Burning of the Capitol Building

Once at the Cap­it­ol, the Brit­ish split in­to two groups and entered from the east en­trances. The build­ing was still un­fin­ished at the time; the icon­ic dome and ro­tunda had not yet been built. Ac­cord­ing to the ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol, Brit­ish sol­diers fo­cused on main rooms in the build­ing, and spared the lob­bies, hall­ways, and stairs they would need to es­cape.

In the South Wing, sol­diers barged in­to the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives cham­ber on the second floor. They gathered wooden fur­niture, placed it in a pile, slathered it with gun­powder paste, and lit the pile on fire. The fire was so hot that, with the ex­cep­tion of the clerk’s of­fice, most of the oth­er of­fices in the South Wing were left without be­ing lit ablaze by en­emy sol­diers.

The North Wing at the time was home to the Sen­ate cham­bers, the un­fin­ished Lib­rary of Con­gress, and the Su­preme Court on the first floor. All of the rooms were des­troyed us­ing ma­ter­i­als from with­in, in­clud­ing the 3,000 books stored in the Lib­rary of Con­gress. Fi­nally, the tem­por­ary wooden walk­way between the Cap­it­ol’s two wings was set ablaze and the sol­diers moved on, march­ing north­w­est up Pennsylvania Av­en­ue to des­troy oth­er gov­ern­ment build­ings, in­clud­ing the pres­id­ent’s res­id­ence, now called the White House.

Dam­age was severe with­in the ma­jor rooms but the struc­ture of both wings re­mained in­tact, thanks to fire­proof ma­ter­i­als such as marble, sand­stone, zinc, cop­per, and iron used by ar­chi­tect Ben­jamin Henry Latrobe. Two cen­tur­ies later, ar­chi­tec­ture that sur­vived the fire, such as the “wa­ter leaves columns” in the Small House Ro­tunda and “corn cob” columns near the ori­gin­al en­trance of the North Wing, are still vis­ible.

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