Keith Hunt - The Burning of Washington - Page Twohundred- twentyeight   Restitution of All Things

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USA/Canadian History you may not know

The Burning of Washington D.C.


I've just about finished reading the two volume set of the USA
and Canadian war of 1812-14 by the late Pierre Berton. It has
been fascinating but horrible at the same time, as war is often
horrible - Keith Hunt


Heeding Sir George Prevost's request to create diversions along
the eastern seaboard of the United States in support of the
struggle in Canada and also as a reprisal against American raids
on Canadian private property - especially the vengeful burning of
Port Dover in the spring - British ships have for months been
harassing settlements on Chesapeake Bay. Now, with the war in
Europe ended and reinforcements available, the British plan to
attack the gunboats guarding Washington and, at the same time,
mount a land raid on the capital.


     Lieutenant George Gleig, an eighteen-year-old subaltern in
the British 85th, clambers off a landing launch, loaded down with
equipment, sweltering in his thick wool uniform, feeling the
effects of ten weeks on shipboard. Since leaving France at the
end of May he has been almost constantly cooped up in a tiny
stateroom with forty fellow officers, without exercise, subject
to seasickness, threatened with typhoid-not the best preparation
for a long march in the August heat with the prospect of a battle
at the end.
     The villagers have deserted Benedict, but now the empty
streets come alive as forty-five hundred British soldiers
-Wellington's Invincibles-pile out of the boats and sort
themselves into three brigades. Some begin to forage for extra
food. Gleig finds three ducks, and the following morning he and
his friend Lieutenant Codd manage to buy a pig, a goose, and a
couple of chickens from a solitary farm wife. But before they can
enjoy their feast, the bugle sounds assembly.
     As the three brigades march off toward Washington, their
commander, Major-General Robert Ross, a blue-eyed Irishman of
fortyseven, one of Wellington's best officers, rides past to the
cheers of his men. Ross has some doubts about this venture. His
troops, languishing aboard ship, are badly out of shape. He has
no cavalry and only three small field guns. The terrain ahead,
cut by streams and bordered by forests, can be easily defended.
He has been persuaded, however, by his naval colleague,
Rear-Admiral George Cockburn, that a two-pronged attack up
Chesapeake Bay is practical-with the fleet seizing the American
flotilla of gunboats and the army marching on the capital by a
parallel route.
     Ross is new to North America, but Cockburn has been
skirmishing off the coast for more than a year and knows every
inlet in the long, narrow bay. At forty-two he is a seasoned
commander, famous for his lightning thrusts at American seaboard
settlements. In an earlier decade he might have been a buccaneer.
The plan to seize and burn Washington is his.
     Ross's column manages only six miles. The march is a horror,
the men groaning under their heavy baggage, choking with dust,
half dead from heat and fatigue. Scores fall exhausted by the
wayside. George Gleig has never felt so tired, though he
remembers that during the Peninsular campaign he often marched
thrice this distance without difficulty.
     Surprisingly, the British advance is unimpeded. No one has
blocked the road or burned any bridges. Except for a few shots
fired from the woods there is no harassment on the flanks, no
attempt at ambush. The real enemy is the weather. In August,
Maryland is a furnace.
     Still, General Ross has misgivings. Admiral Cockburn, having
chased the Americans into a cul-de-sac and forced them to blow up
their gunboats, arrives on horseback to stiffen his colleague's
resolve. The high command is also nervous. At two in the morning
of August 24, both commanders are awakened by a courier from
their commanderin-chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, who
orders them to return at once.
     A whispered argument follows between Ross and Cockburn as
Ross's aides strain to listen. Clearly Cockburn wants to go on,
in spite of orders. They hear the phrase "stain upon our arms."
They hear him pledge success. They see Ross waver and finally, as
dawn breaks, see him strike his head and say: "Well, be it so, we
will proceed."
     George Gleig has spent a sleepless night on picket duty, two
miles ahead of the main British force, with only sixteen men,
fearing imminent capture. He has no time to rest, for when he
returns to camp at five, the army is ready to march. He can
hardly drag one foot ahead of the other, but he knows that
Washington is only a few miles ahead, across the Potomac. Just
past the community of Long Old Fields the road forks, one route
leading directly to the capital, the other circling around to the
right, a longer distance through the village of Bladensburg. Ross
leads his weary men onto the direct fork, then suddenly reverses
his column and opts for the Bladensburg road. His plan is to
throw the Americans off guard; they will not have been expecting
this. Nor have his men. By the time they reach the village in the
scorching sun, they have marched fourteen miles and some are
lying dead from exhaustion by the wayside.
     It is noon as the troops trudge into the village. They have
already seen huge clouds of dust in the distance and realize that
the Americans are marching to meet them. But Bladensburg is empty
of the enemy; the Americans have not fortified it, an error that
causes relief. Few have the stomach for street fighting.
     On the heights above the village, directly ahead and beyond
the single bridge that crosses the Potomac's shallow eastern
branch-surprisingly still intact-George Gleig in the light
brigade can see the enemy drawn up in line. Few are in uniform,
some in blue, some in black, many in hunting jackets or frock
coats. To Gleig they look like "country people," in stark
contrast to the disciplined British regulars.
     Gleig's brigade commander, Colonel William Thornton, thinks
so, too. He does not want to wait for the rest of the army: the
American militia, he insists, cannot stand a determined bayonet
charge, supported by rocket fire. When Harry Smith, the General's
aide, urges caution, Thornton becomes furious, and when Ross
supports him, Smith is flabbergasted.
     "General," he says, "neither of the other brigades will be
up in time to support this mad attack and if the enemy fight,
Thornton's brigade must be repulsed."
     But Ross has made up his mind.
     "If it rain militia," says the General, "we will go on."
     Off goes Thornton on his grey horse, sword flashing in the
sun, leading his brigade through the streets. As he reaches the
river, the American guns open up. A moment before, George Gleig
had felt he could not move another step; now, as the Battle of
Bladensburg begins, he finds himself sprinting toward the bridge
like a young colt.

WASHINGTON, D.C., August 24, 1814

     Brigadier-General William Winder, the Baltimore lawyer
placed in charge of the defence of Washington, worries and frets.
For five days, without much sleep, he has been trying frantically
to raise a force of militia to oppose the British, whose
intentions he does not know and cannot guess. For most of the
night he has been stumbling about on foot, his horse played out,
his right arm and ankle in pain from a fall in a ditch. His own
subordinates cannot find him and, for a time, believe him a
captive of the British.
     Now, having inspected the forces guarding the bridge over
the east branch of the Potomac-the entrance to the city-he
snatches an hour's sleep on a camp cot. If the British do intend
to attack Washington, he reasons, they will probably come this
way by the direct route from Long Old Fields. On the other hand,
they may have another objective-Annapolis, perhaps, or Fort
Warburton. He cannot tell. It is also possible they may take a
more roundabout route to the capital, through Bladensburg. What
to do? If he goes to Bladensburg, he leaves the other route wide

     Few believe the British intend to attack Washington. The
Secretary of War is one doubter. "They certainly will not come
here," John Armstrong has declared. "What the devil will they do
here? No! No! Baltimore is the place... that is of so much more
consequence." This incredulity helps explain why so few have
answered the call to arms.
     Winder's military career has not been glorious. Captured by
the British as he blundered about in the dark at Stoney Creek and
exchanged a year later, he holds his present post partly because
he is available and partly because he is a nephew of Maryland's
governor, whose state has not been the most enthusiastic
supporter of the war. That blood relationship, however, has not
paid off. Of six thousand Marylanders called out by federal draft
on July 4, only 250 were under Winder's command the day the
British landed. The Pennsylvania record is even worse. That state
was supposed to supply five thousand men but has sent none
because its militia law has expired, and no one has yet got
around to renewing it.
     Winder should have fifteen thousand men -the number called
for by the government. Two days before he could count only three
thousand. Now, with the redcoats only eight miles away, more
troops are trickling in. None are trained because the government
would not call on them until the danger was "imminent." And some
will not see action because of a maddening bureaucracy. As Winder
fidgets and waits for word of the British line of march, seven
hundred frustrated arrivals from Virginia are vainly attempting
to get arms from the War Department. The clerk in charge arrives
at last and begins doling out flints, one at a time, counting
each carefully. When an officer tries to speed things up, he
starts the count over again. These men will not see action today.
Because he cannot be sure of the British intentions, Winder has
had to divide his forces. Two thousand Marylanders under
BrigadierGeneral Tobias Stansbury occupy Bladensburg. Some
arrived only the previous night and have hardly had time to
settle in. Another six hundred are on their way from Annapolis;
Winder does not know where they are. At the Potomac bridge on the
eastern outskirts of Washington, ready to march in either of two
directions, he has fifteen hundred District of Columbia militia
under Brigadier-General Walter Smith. In addition, there are a
handful of regulars, a couple of hundred dragoons, and four
hundred naval men, anxious to get into action now that the
flotilla has been destroyed.

     The sun is scarcely up before Winder receives mortifying
news from General Stansbury at Bladensburg. Fearing the British
may take another route and cut him off, he has moved his
exhausted Marylanders out of the village and back toward
Washington. Winder orders him forward again. Stansbury's troops,
who have been up most of the night, return as far as the heights
above Bladensburg, commanding the bridge across the river, but do
not occupy the village.
     At ten, Winder's scouts gallop in and the General finally
learns the British intentions: they have taken the longer route
through Bladensburg. That is where he must oppose them. He moves
to combine his forces, orders General Smith to march his brigade
off immediately to join Stansbury. An hour later he follows as
does most of the Cabinet, including the President. James Monroe,
the Secretary of State, a onetime colonel in the Revolutionary
army, dashes on ahead. It has always been his ambition to be
commander-in-chief of the American forces in this war; now he has
a chance to display his military acumen.
     On the heights above the village, John Pendleton Kennedy of
the crack United Company of the 5th Baltimore Light Dragoons -
the "Baltimore 5th," as they are known-can hardly keep himself
awake. He has actually had the novel experience of sleeping while
on the march. What began as a glittering adventure-banners
flying, bands playing, the populace huzzahing at every corner-has
taken a darker turn. His comrades belong to the elite of
Baltimore-barristers, professionals, wealthy merchants; he and
his five friends have even brought along a black servant, Lige,
to wait on them. But now the picnic is over. Routed out in the
dark only hours after arriving, their kits in disarray, marched
and countermarched in the night, they are used up. Kennedy has
lost his boots in the midnight scramble to retire and is wearing
dancing pumps on his swollen feet.
     The British are only three miles away, but now another
mix-up bedevils the Baltimore 5th. Having taken their position on
the left of the forward line, supporting the riflemen and
artillery, they are suddenly ordered back a quarter of a mile to
an exposed position which leaves the forward guns and rifles
without support. This is the work of Monroe, the Secretary of
State, who has butted in, uninvited and without the knowledge of
General Stansbury. By the time Winder arrives to inspect the
lines, it is too late to make any change.
     Stansbury's force is deployed in two ragged lines: the
sharpshooters (most of whom have only muskets, not rifles) and
cannons well forward, the three Maryland regiments some distance
behind with the crack 5th on the left, its field of fire impeded
by an orchard. These will bear the brunt of the British attack. A
mile to the rear, another line is hastily forming as the troops
arrive-Smith's brigade from Washington and several hundred
footsore militia from Annapolis, who have already marched sixteen
miles. None, save a few regulars and the naval detachment, have
had any recent training because, as the Secretary of War has told
Winder, the best way to use the militia is on the spur of the
occasion-to bring them to fight as soon as called out.
     The Secretary of War is the last of the Cabinet to arrive on
the heights above Bladensburg. The President is already here, a
small, frail figure in black, two borrowed duelling pistols at
his waist. He stands behind Stansbury's lines with the Attorney
General and the Secretaries of State, War, and Treasury. This is
a motley crew, their personal relations fraught with jealousies,
hatreds, ambitions. Armstrong has no use for Winder, who was not
his choice for commanderin-chief; he has pointedly ignored the
General's letters pleading for reinforcements. Monroe and Madison
have little liking for Armstrong, whom they see as a possible
political rival. Armstrong for once has nothing to say; having
made no effort to defend the capital, he must realize that his
days in office are numbered.
     Up rides William Simmons, another Armstrong-hater, recently
fired from his job with the War Department. Now, however, he has
buried his bitterness in the common cause. Spotting Monroe, he
offers to ride into the village and scout out the enemy. He gets
to Lownde's Hill, on the far side of town, and sees, in the near
distance, a great cloud of dust. Back he gallops to discover that
the presidential party is in front of its own lines, moving down
toward the Bladensburg bridge. Simmons warns the President that
the British advance has already reached the village.
     "The enemy in Bladensburg!" Madison exclaims in surprise.
His party wheels about as Simmons vainly calls after them:
"Mr. Madison, if you stop, I will show them to you...."
     Only Richard Rush, the Attorney General, checks his horse.
Simmons points out the redcoats entering the town, whereupon Rush
too wheels about and gallops off, with Simmons riding after him,
shouting that he has left his hat behind.
     By 12:30, the battle is joined. Henry Fulford in the
Baltimore 5th watches in amazement as the American cannons and
sharpshooters pour a hail of fire onto the bridge. The British
redcoats, dashing across, seem to take no notice; they move like
clockwork: the instant a platoon is cut down it is filled up by
men from the rear without the least confusion. George Gleig, on
the bridge, has a different view: an entire company ahead of him
is cut to pieces, and he has the grisly experience of trampling
on his dead and dying comrades.
     Without pausing for the rest of the British to come up,
Colonel Thornton leads his men against the forward American
skirmishers. Flinging aside their heavy packs, Gleig and the
others drive the riflemen back into the woods, only to be faced
with the main body of Marylanders. The Baltimore 5th surges
forward, forcing the redcoats back to the river's edge. The
carnage is dreadful. Almost every British officer is hit. Gleig's
friend, Lieutenant Codd, falls dead beside him -the pair will
never again forage for chickens. Not far away, crouching in the
willows, Captain John Knox realizes he had never seen such fire.
So many officers are down that he can expect promotion-if he
lives. "By the time the action's over, the devil is in it if I am
not a walking Major or a dead Captain," he tells himself. Harry
Smith has been right; Thornton was too impetuous; he should have
waited for the rest of the army.
     Now, however, Major-General Ross has his Congreve rockets in
position. Long tubes filled with powder, they operate on the same
principle as a Fourth of July firework. They are hopelessly
inaccurate but make a terrifying scream as they whoosh over the
heads of the raw American troops, who have never before
encountered anything like them. The Baltimore 5th, on the left of
the line, stands fast, but the two regiments on the right break
in panic. With its flanks exposed, the 5th also falls back.
Officers dash about, vainly attempting to rally their fleeing
men, but the retreat has become a rout.
     John Kennedy, still in his dancing pumps, flings away his
musket and joins the mob, carrying a wounded comrade to safety.
Henry Fulford has only one idea in mind: to head for the woods,
lie down, and sleep; instead, the musket balls and grape shot
drive him into a swamp from which he later makes his way to a
friendly farmhouse.
     The rear line of Americans has only just formed when the
fleeing Marylanders come dashing through. (Madison and his
Cabinet have long since galloped off.) It stands briefly, then
breaks. Only the naval veterans under Commodore Joshua Barney
hold fast at their guns until out of ammunition. Barney, badly
wounded in the thigh, cannot understand the rout.
     "Damn them," he growls to his British captors, "there were
enough of them to have eaten every one of you!"

     The road to Washington and the city beyond is filled with
fleeing militia. Winder, who has made no plans to gather his
troops at a rallying point in case of retreat, decides to abandon
the capital, an order that causes anguish among General Smith's
brigade of Washington militia. Many vanish to their homes to look
after their families. Those who can be collected are marched
eighteen miles beyond the city to Montgomery Court House.
For the moment, the British are too exhausted to follow. George
Gleig pursues the fleeing troops for a mile before he collapses
and slakes his thirst in a muddy pool. He is lucky to be alive: a
musket ball has torn the arm of his jacket, another has seared
his thigh. He gathers what men he can and returns to join his
battered regiment. It is dark before the scattered remains of his
company can be collected. Then, tired or not, the light brigade
marches triumphantly off toward the abandoned capital, the sky
ahead bright with the glow of leaping flames.

     DOLLEY MADISON waits in the President's house, listening to
the rumble of cannon and seeing, in the distant sky, the flash of
rockets. She has no intention of leaving until she hears from her
husband. Two pencilled messages have arrived, warning her to be
ready to depart at a moment's notice. In the driveway stands her
carriage loaded with trunks containing all the Cabinet papers. A
wagon, recently procured, contains some silver plate and personal
     Four artillerymen, posted at two cannons guarding the
mansion, have deserted their posts. French John Siousa, her
personal servant, offers to spike the guns and lay a trail of
powder to the door, to destroy the house if necessary. Mrs.
Madison will have none of it. At three, two messengers, grimy
with dust, gallop up with orders from the President to leave
immediately. She will not do so until she can rescue Gilbert
Stuart's full-length portrait of George Washington. She and
French John attack the frame with carving knife and axe. With the
canvas rolled and placed in friendly hands, the First Lady of the
United States climbs into her carriage and rolls through the
streets of the capital, crowded with soldiers, senators, women
and children, with carriages, horses, wagons and carts loaded
with household furniture, all fleeing toward the wooden bridge on
the west side of town. Half an hour later, the President arrives
with his party, exhausted and humiliated. All his theoretical
ideas about the value of democratic volunteers have been
     "I could never have believed that so great a difference
existed between regular troops and a militia force if I had not
witnessed the scenes of this day," he remarks. At dusk, he too
leaves the city.
     From his handsome four-storey house at the corner of First
and A streets, Washington's leading physician, Dr. James Ewell,
has been gloomily watching the retreat. He sees the Secretary of
War in full flight, followed by crowds of riders, some of whom
bawl out: "Fly, fly! The ruffians are at hand! ... send off your
wives and children!" In the distance a cloud of dust envelops the
retreating army. Shaken with horror, the doctor turns to find his
wife in convulsions, crying repeatedly, "Oh, what shall we do?
What shall we do?" while his two daughters scream at her side. He
decides to quit his own home and move his family to a
neighbouring house. The owner, a Mrs.Orr, is so sick that Ewell
is sure nobody will harm her or those she shelters.
     General Ross and Rear-Admiral Cockburn enter the city at the
head of the 3rd Brigade, which has escaped most of the fighting.
From a large brick house on their right comes the crackle of
musket fire, killing the General's horse and hitting four
soldiers, one mortally. At once the Admiral's aide, James Scott,
leads a party to the building and smashes down the door. The
house, only recently occupied by Albert Gallatin, now treating
for peace at Ghent, is empty. Up come the light companies of the
21st and demolish the building with Congreve rockets. At almost
the same time, the retreating Americans blow up the navy yard.
For the next forty-eight hours, Washington will be aglow.
The victors push into Capitol Square. Ahead lies the seat of
government, a Greek temple, inviting destruction. It is not easy
to fire the Capitol. In the lower storey only the frames, sashes,
shutters, and doors will burn. The troops chop away with axes,
tear open some rockets as tinder, and spread a trail of fire from
room to room. In the House of Representatives there is better
fodder for the incendiaries - galleries and stages of yellow
pine, mahogany desks, tables, chairs. Piled in the centre of the
great domed chamber, they make a gargantuan bonfire, the heat so
intense that glass melts, stone cracks, columns are peeled of
their skin, marble is burned to lime. So bright is this pyre that
George Gleig, bivouacked outside the city, can see the faces of
his men reflected in the glow. He recalls the burning of San
Sebastian; except for that, he realizes, he has never in his life
witnessed a scene more strikingly sublime. But to the people of
Washington, so certain of victory that thousands made no
preparation to flee, the spectacle is pure horror.
     The Treasury building is next, then the President's Mansion.
Here an advance party finds a table set for forty, apparently in
anticipation of a victory dinner. Instead, the real victors toast
the Prince Regent while Cockburn sardonically raises his glass to
"Jemmy," as he calls the President. Looting precedes the flames.
Everyone takes a souvenir. The Admiral urges a local bookseller
to help himself-but not to anything expensive; the most luxurious
items, he says, must feed the blaze. Ross helps pile furniture in
the Oval Room while some of the seamen procure fire from a nearby
beer house.
     That done, the Admiral and the General enjoy dinner at
Barbara Suter's boarding house. Cockburn blows out the candles,
preferring, he says, the light cast by the burning buildings. An
officer enters to ask if the War Department should be fired.
Tomorrow, says the General; the men are exhausted.
     Ross prepares to bed down in Dr.Ewell's empty house, then
apologizes when its owner arrives, offers to go elsewhere. When
Ewell insists, the General reassures him that his family is quite
     "I am myself a married man, have several sweet children and
venerate the sanctities of conjugal and domestic relations," Ross
declares-at least, that is the way the much-relieved physician
remembers it.
     Later Ross tells Ewell he regrets burning the Capitol
library and says he would not have fired the President's Mansion
had the First Lady remained. "I make war neither against letters
nor ladies," he explains.
     But the burning goes on the following day-private homes as
well as public buildings to a value of more than a million
dollars go up in smoke. Cockburn, riding a white mare with a
black foal following, makes his way to the office of the
violently anti-British newspaper, the National Intelligencer.
Bowing to the entreaties of several women who fear the flames
will spread to their homes, he spares the building but orders his
men to destroy the contents. Out into the street go books,
papers, type as the axes do their work.
     "Be sure that all the C's are destroyed," says Cockburn, "so
that the rascals can have no further means of abusing my name...
." Dolley Madison, meanwhile, arriving at a small tavern sixteen
miles from town, finds herself excoriated by a group of women
fugitives who blame the administration for all their troubles.
Her escort forces open the door against their protests just as a
violent storm breaks. It is the worst in living memory.

     In Washington, the sky goes black, a torrent of rain sweeps
through the blazing buildings, damping the flames, while a
hurricane tears the roofs off houses, whirling them into the air
like sheets of paper. George Gleig, camping on Capitol Hill with
his company and used to the soft rains of the English
countryside, has never experienced anything so terrifying. Only
the jagged flashes of lightning relieve the darkness. His company
is dispersed, the men fleeing for shelter or throwing themselves
flat to the ground to prevent the tempest carrying them off.
Several houses topple, burying thirty soldiers in the debris. The
wind is so strong that two cannon are lifted from their mounts
and hurled several yards.
     For two hours the storm rages. When it is over, Ross decides
it is time to move out. The withdrawal takes place at night and
in secret, the populace ordered to remain indoors under pain of
death. Fuel is added to the burning buildings and a handful of
men detailed to leap about in the light of the flames to fool the
enemy. The army moves out in silence. Four days later,
unmolested, it is back at Benedict, embarking on the ships.

     For the first time, the war has been carried to the heart of
the United States. When Madison commenced hostilities two summers
before, expecting an easy victory and, possibly, a new state in
the Union, he could hardly have foreseen that he would one day be
cowering in a hovel outside the capital, fearing imminent
capture. Now, as the people of Washington return to their gutted
city and Ross and Cockburn plan a new attack on Baltimore,
another army of British regulars - the largest yet assembled - is
preparing to cross the border and march on New York. What began
as the invasion of Canada has now become the invasion of America,
and in spite of the peace talks in Ghent, it is not yet over.


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