Washington Occupied – White House Set Ablaze!

Samuel M. McCall
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It was over 200 years ago, on August 24, 1814, that British forces entered Washington, D.C. – then known as Washington City, captured the “White House,” and set it ablaze. It is the only time in America’s history that a foreign power has captured and occupied the capitol of the United States.

White House Set Ablaze – Watercolor by George Munger depicting the burned out shell of the White House.

The Occupation of America

British General Robert Ross had defeated American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg earlier in the day before marching on Washington. Later that night, General Ross would set fire to the White House, the Capitol building, and several other government and military buildings.

American President James Madison, along with members of government, and the military fled the city and took up refuge in Brookeville, a small town located in Montgomery County, Maryland located about 20 miles north of Washington. Brookeville had only been incorporated 6 years earlier in 1808. As of the 2010 census, Brookeville had a population of 134.

President Madison arrived in Brookeville by horseback behind members of the federal government and federal troops late on August 26, 1814. It has been reported that President Madison carried with him a strongbox which contained the entire U.S. treasury.

The first house he stopped turned him away since they were already at capacity. President Madison then proceeded to the house of Caleb Bentley, a Quaker who worked as a silversmith in Brookeville. The house still stands in Brookeville.

White House Salvage Operation

Not much was saved from the White House before the British took control. President Madison had earlier instructed First Lady Dolley Madison to be prepared to leave Washington at a moments notice. The First Lady organized the staff to save what valuables they could, and she is often credited with personally saving a large portrait of George Washington.

However, Paul Jennings, a 15-year-old enslaved personal attendant of President Madison who later wrote a published memoir, states that the persons responsible for saving the painting (the painting was in fact a reproduction of the original) were actually John Suse (Jean Pierre Sioussat), the French doorkeeper, and the President’s gardener named Magraw (McGraw).

Copy of original painting by Gilbert Stuart that still hangs in the White House today.

While this is a copy of the original painting by Gilbert Stuart, the painting still hangs in the White House, on display in the East Room.

Jennings’ also states in his memoir that “when the British did arrive, they ate up the very dinner, and drank the wines, etc., that I had prepared for the President’s party.”

Did Providence Intervene

After British soldiers set fire to the capitol buildings, a very intense thunderstorm, or possibly a hurricane, blew through Washington putting out the fires. The storm spawned a tornado that is reported to have injured British troops.

By all accounts, the storm was intense and became known as “The Storm That Saved Washington.”

Following the storm, British troops returned to their ships. Many of the ships had suffered significant damage from the storm.

There is much debate about British intentions to occupy and hold the capitol of the United States and whether the storm helped encourage their retreat. However, from examination of the record and the British orders to “destroy and lay waste” the capitol, it would appear that their intentions weren’t to occupy the city for an extended period of time, but simply to cause as much destruction as possible. The occupation lasted only 26 hours.

President Madison and his military contingent didn’t return to Washington City until September 1, 1814. Congress did not return until September 19, 1814, meeting in the only building left standing large enough to house them, the Blodget Hotel which also housed the governments Post and Patent Office.

The Blodget Hotel

Thus ended the occupation of Washington.

The War of 1812 would end six months later, shortly after future President Andrew Jackson defeated the British in their attempt to invade New Orleans.

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