How and Why the U.S. Capitol Burned

Events are planned to mark the 200th anniversary of the British attack.

View of the Dome from the East Side on July 16, 2012.
National Journal
Billy House
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Billy House
Aug. 7, 2014, 12:56 p.m.

The burn­ing of the U.S. Cap­it­ol by a for­eign in­vader might be something the coun­try would prefer to for­get. And for the most part, it has.

However, this month marks the 200th an­niversary of when Brit­ish troops swept in­to Wash­ing­ton on Aug. 24, 1814, set­ting fire to much of the city, in­clud­ing both the White House and the Cap­it­ol build­ing.

And so, over sev­er­al up­com­ing weeks, of­fi­cials of the Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter, along with the help of the Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol and his­tor­i­ans, are put­ting to­geth­er a num­ber of spe­cial events and activ­it­ies to help pro­mote a bit more aware­ness of the Cap­it­ol’s burn­ing and the little-re­membered War of 1812.

“The thing is, any con­flict has teach­able mo­ments,” ex­plains Shar­on Gang, who handles com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing for the vis­it­or cen­ter. With re­gard to the War of 1812, she said, there are just a lot of ba­sic things people don’t know, in­clud­ing that it was largely fought on U.S. soil, and what ex­actly happened to the Cap­it­ol build­ing, and why.

To get a head start, the Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol already has provided on its web­site a dis­cus­sion of what led up to the burn­ing of the Cap­it­ol. A fas­cin­at­ing bo­nus is an on­line guide to the few areas of the build­ing today that were around and sur­vived the fire.

Hint: Get to the Small House Ro­tunda on the second floor of the Cap­it­ol and look at the Cor­inthi­an columns ad­orned with wa­ter leaves, de­signed by ar­chi­tect Ben­jamin Henry Latrobe and in­stalled in 1807. Then, head across the Ro­tunda and down the stairs to the east ves­ti­bule on the first floor of the north wing, where the ar­chi­tect’s “corncob” columns still stand 203 years after be­ing in­stalled.

Es­sen­tially, ac­cord­ing to the Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol’s de­scrip­tion, the Brit­ish troops took out their ven­geance on the Cap­it­ol, the White House, and the Dis­trict of Columbia in re­tali­ation for the earli­er burn­ing by Amer­ic­ans of the Ca­na­dian cap­it­al at York, which is present-day Toronto. Word of the ap­proach­ing Brit­ish forces sent most of the Dis­trict’s pop­u­la­tion—in­clud­ing then-Pres­id­ent Madis­on—flee­ing the un­defen­ded city, but many cit­izens who stayed saw the dev­ast­a­tion.

The Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol’s site ex­plains what be­fell the Cap­it­ol build­ing. At the time of the at­tack, the Cap­it­ol was still un­der con­struc­tion, its north and south wings con­nec­ted only by a wooden walk­way. Dam­age to those wings was severe, but be­cause of fire­proof ma­ter­i­als put in­to place by Latrobe, the ex­ter­i­or of the struc­ture sur­vives and some of the in­teri­or spaces re­main in­tact today.

The Brit­ish sol­diers who set fire to the struc­ture did most of their de­struct­ive work on the prin­cip­al rooms, fore­go­ing the lob­bies, halls, and stair­cases. That strategy, says the site, was de­signed to in­flict the most de­mor­al­iz­ing wound on the Amer­ic­ans while also pre­serving their own es­cape route from the burn­ing build­ing.

Here’s what else is known, ac­cord­ing to the Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol’s ac­count:

In the south wing, sol­diers ig­nited a gi­ant bon­fire of fur­niture slathered with gun­powder paste in the Hall of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives (now Na­tion­al Statu­ary Hall). The heat from the fire grew so in­tense that it melted the glass sky­lights and des­troyed many of the stone carvings in the room, in­clud­ing a co­lossal marble seated fig­ure of Liberty by Gi­useppe Fran­zoni loc­ated above the Speak­er’s rostrum.

Down­stairs, the Clerk’s of­fice was trans­formed in­to an in­ferno of burn­ing doc­u­ments and fur­niture; this fire pro­duced a heat so great it forced the Brit­ish to re­treat from the south wing, leav­ing half of the rooms on the first floor un­scathed.

In the Su­preme Court Cham­ber, on the first floor of the north wing, troops piled fur­niture from nearby rooms to cre­ate an­oth­er great bon­fire, severely dam­aging the Dor­ic stone columns. Up­stairs—in a grand room that then housed the Lib­rary of Con­gress’ col­lec­tion of over 3,000 doc­u­ments—served as a ready stock­pile of fuel. The space burned so fiercely it en­dangered a por­tion of the ex­ter­i­or stone wall. From the lib­rary, winds spread the flames to the Sen­ate Cham­ber, where the dam­age to the art and ar­chi­tec­ture was also severe.

In a let­ter to Thomas Jef­fer­son after the fire, Latrobe de­scribed the Cap­it­ol as a “most mag­ni­fi­cent ru­in.”

There are no vis­ible signs of that dam­age to the Cap­it­ol today, 200 years later. But Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter and Ar­chi­tect of the Cap­it­ol are find­ing ways to com­mem­or­ate what happened.

For in­stance, dur­ing the week of Aug. 18 and Aug. 25 (Monday through Fri­day at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.) Cap­it­ol vis­it­or guides will provide twice-a-day tours that will in­clude three unique stor­ies about the War of 1812, and in­clude a tour of where the Brit­ish entered the Cap­it­ol and des­troyed “the most beau­ti­ful room in Amer­ica.” The same tour will con­tin­ue bey­ond that week, but only once a day.

Start­ing the week of Aug. 18 there will be a spe­cial scav­enger hunt for chil­dren in Ex­hib­i­tion Hall on the lower level of the Vis­it­or Cen­ter. (The self-dir­ec­ted hunt can also be taken by adults.) Clues will be provided to help loc­ate cer­tain items—such as Madis­on’s sig­na­ture con­tained in an ex­hib­it dis­play.

Not dir­ectly re­lated to the Cap­it­ol burn­ing, but be­gin­ning on Sept. 8, the vis­it­or cen­ter will present a new dis­play of doc­u­ments and ar­ti­facts re­lated to Con­gress and the War of 1812, in­clud­ing the ini­tial de­clar­a­tion of war that ori­gin­ated in the House, and the Treaty of Ghent, signed Dec. 24, 1814, by del­eg­ates from Great Bri­tain and the United States to end the War of 1812.

Both doc­u­ments are on loan to the Cap­it­ol Vis­it­or Cen­ter from the Na­tion­al Archives.

Also, soon to be avail­able on the vis­it­or cen­ter’s web­site (www.vis­it­thecap­it­ is a spe­cial video put to­geth­er with the help of a former Cap­it­ol his­tor­i­an on what happened to the build­ing. De­tails of all the planned events can be found on that same site.

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