On Independence Day 199 years ago, there was little cause for revelry in Washington. With America on the brink of defeat in the War of 1812, some feared it would be the nation’s last July Fourth celebration. The British forces threatening to dismember the union would bring their own fireworks — setting the White House, the Capitol and other public buildings ablaze in August 1814. The burning of Washington has become the subject of much myth.
1. The British burned Washington to avenge the American burning of York (modern-day Toronto).
The British were already torching towns in the Chesapeake region when news arrived that American troops had burned the capital of Upper Canada, a British colony, in April 1813. Rear Adm. George Cockburn, commanding a Royal Navy squadron in the Chesapeake, pressed to attack Washington not in response to York, which was barely noted at the time, but as the logical continuance of his campaign of terror, hoping to force the U.S. government to make peace on British terms.
The British general who captured Washington, Robert Ross, did not mention retaliation in his reports to England but instead described it as an American humiliation that would soon end the war. “They feel strongly the disgrace of having had their capital taken by a handful of men and blame very generally a government which went to war without the means or abilities to carry it on,” Ross wrote to his wife.
Immediately after Washington’s capture, President James Madison’s government received a note from the British citing “wanton destruction” by American forces on the Niagara frontierand at Lake Erie. The earlier arson of parliament buildings in York was not raised as a justification until months later, after the British faced criticism at home and abroad for burning buildings in Washington.
2. First lady Dolley Madison bravely carried the portrait of George Washington from the White House while her husband fled in terror.
Dolley Madison deserves credit for ordering that the Gilbert Stuart portrait be saved, recognizing its symbolic importance. But her role has been embellished.
After receiving word of the American defeat at Bladensburg outside Washington on Aug. 24, the first lady directed servants, including Paul Jennings, the Madisons’ 15-year-old house slave, to take down the portrait — no easy task because the frame was screwed to the dining room wall. Madison later claimed that she stayed “until it was done.” But others present agree that she left before the portrait was down.
“It has often been stated in print, that when Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington . . . and carried it off,” Jennings wrote in his memoir. “This is totally false. She had no time for doing it. . . . All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected every moment.”
James Madison’s performance as commander in chief, particularly his indecisiveness in the weeks before Washington’s capture, left much to be desired. But he showed courage during the attack, and his determined actions in the ensuing days were among the finest moments of his presidency.
As the British approached, Madison rushed to Bladensburg, straying past American lines and later coming under British rocket fire. Not only was Madison the first sitting president to arrive on a battlefield — and the only one, save Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War — he nearly was the first to be captured or killed.