- - Thursday, August 21, 2014

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.

Cockburn, however, discovered, something else — a lack of American spirit to fight. Defeating local militias had been so easy, he concluded that seizing Washington would be effortless.

“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.

Likewise in July 1814, Madison ordered him to call up 10,000 men to protect Washington. Armstrong disobeyed by delaying the president’s orders.

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.

When Cockburn and thousands of reinforcements landed in Maryland in August 1814, Armstrong denied that the British were coming to Washington. “No, no! Baltimore is the place, Sir; That is of so much more consequence.”

Armstrong and Madison, along with 3,500 hastily gathered Americans, soon saw the redcoats with their own eyes and lost a battle at nearby Bladensburg, Md. The president fled Washington. His wife, Dolley, also evacuated and made sure that the White House’s finest art treasure — Gilbert Stuart’s painting of George Washington — was safely removed before the British arrived.

Two hundred years later, while remembering how easily the British came, we should also remember the act of God that sent them packing.

With debris still smoldering, a hurricane drove out the enemy. While fleeing, Cockburn called out to a lady.

“Great God, Madam! Is this the kind of storm to which you are accustomed in this infernal country?”

“No, Sir. This is a special interposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city,” she replied.

Two hundred years later, we should never forget the patriotism that saved our country.

“The immediate and enthusiastic effect of the fall of Washington was electrical revival of national spirit,” Rep. Charles Ingersoll concluded. He drew upon ancient mythology and recalled the phoenix, the eaglelike bird that soared from life’s ashes to greater heights.

“The smoldering fires of the Capitol were spices of the phoenix bed, from which arose offspring more vigorous, beautiful and long-lived.”

This renewed patriotism took flight three weeks later. Fifteen-thousand Americans defeated the British in Baltimore on Sept. 14, 1814. Lawyer Francis Scott Key was so inspired that he wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which later became our national anthem. After losing in Baltimore, the British fled the East Coast.

With Washington destroyed, many people petitioned that the capital be relocated to Philadelphia, the nation’s second-largest city. Washingtonians fought back.

“The character of the nation is implicated in maintaining this as its capital, and it would be dastardly to abandon it,” a Washington-area editorialist wrote.

By a nine-vote margin, Congress voted to rebuild the Capitol and White House in Washington. Pennsylvania’s representatives split their vote, putting national unity above regional politics.

Madison declared that the burning “interrupted for a moment only the ordinary public business at the seat of government.”

Thus, Washington’s most famous firestorm led to the phoenixlike determination to permanently keep Washington as the nation’s capital, making the rise of patriotism the best thing to remember 200 years later on this bicentennial.

Jane Hampton Cook is the author of “America’s Star-Spangled Story” (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, 2014) and “American Phoenix” (Thomas Nelson, 2013).

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