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.visitthecapitol.gov) 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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