The most famous firestorm to strike Washington, D.C., took place 200 years ago, when an uninvited, uniformed guest plopped into the speaker’s chair in the U.S. Capitol’s House of Representatives chamber on Aug. 24, 1814.
“Shall this harbor of Yankee democracy be burned?” British Admiral George Cockburn called out, while a symbolic 12-foot-wide gilded eagle sculpture hung above him.
“Aye” shouted his men, who slouched in chairs belonging to congressmen.
Then these piratelike foes piled the furniture into mounds. After sprinkling gunpowder, they fled.
Soon, the Capitol was ablaze, its yellow flames licking the black sky. Gone forever was the giant eagle sculpture. By the night’s end, the White House and most government buildings met the same fate.
Such was the cinematic scene, a true reality show. What should we remember about the burning of Washington on this bicentennial? We should remember why the enemy attacked.
The British military burned our capital because they could, and could do so easily.
The United States went to war in 1812 because British trade policies were prohibiting our ships from freely and fairly trading in Europe. To survive as a country, we needed to thrive economically and protect our sailors from being kidnapped by British captains, who forced many to serve in the British Navy against Napoleon’s French army. Between 5,000 and 9,000 men were impressed.
President James Madison’s strategy was to place regular U.S. troops on the Canadian border and seize land to push Britain to the peace table. Many mistakes kept both sides from full success.
In early 1813, the British admiralty sent Cockburn with a few hundred men to pillage and burn hamlets in Virginia and Maryland. They hoped to force the U.S. government to relocate trained U.S. troops from Canada to defend America’s East Coast.
“I therefore most firmly believe that within forty-eight hours the city of Washington might be possessed without difficulty or opposition of any kind.”
He was correct. John Armstrong, the U.S. war secretary, had ignored Cockburn’s terrorism. When worried Washingtonians asked Armstrong to build batteries and place militias on a 24/7 rotation, he refused.
The problem was that Armstrong wasn’t loyal to Madison or Washington, D.C. He’d been secretly plotting with Madison’s enemies to make sure the next president wasn’t a Southerner. Born in Pennsylvania, Armstrong cared little about Washington as the capital city.