Bringing Down the House: 
Burning of the White House in the War of 1812

Introduction

The taking of the city of Washington in AmericaWhen Ross was assured of complete victory, he halted his army a short time on the field of battle, and then, with the fresh Third Brigade, which had not been in the conflict, he crossed the Eastern Branch Bridge. Assured of the retreat of the Americans beyond Georgetown, Ross left the main body a mile and a half from the Capitol, and entered the town, then containing about nine hundred buildings. He came to destroy the public property there. It was an errand, it is said, not at all coincident with his taste or habits, and what was done by him appears to have been performed as humanely as the orders of his superiors would allow.  When, on his arrival in the Chesapeake, he had been informed by Admiral Cochrane that he (the admiral) had been urged by Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada (who was not satisfied with the terrible devastation of the Niagara frontier at the close of 1813),  to retaliate in kind upon the Americans for the destruction of the government buildings at York  and the village of Newark,  he demurred, saying that they had carried on the war on the Peninsula and in France with a very different spirit, and that he could not sanction the destruction of public or private property, with the exception of military structures and warlike stores.  "It was not," says one of Rossís surviving aids, Sir Duncan MĎDougall, in a letter to the author in 1861, "until he was warmly pressed that he consented to destroy the Capitol and Presidentís house, for the purpose of preventing a repetition of the uncivilized proceedings of the troops of the United States." Fortunately for Rossís sensibility there was a titled incendiary at hand in the person of Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who delighted in such inhuman work, and who literally became his torch-bearer.

The bulk of the invaders, having crossed the Eastern Branch, halted upon the plain between the Capitol and the site of the Congressional Burying-ground, when General Ross, accompanied by Cockburn and a guard of two hundred men, rode into the city at eight oíclock in the evening. They were fired upon from behind the house of Robert Sewall, near the Capitol, by a single musket, and the horse on which the general was riding was killed. Mr. Sewallís house was immediately destroyed. The same fate awaited the materials in the office of the National Intelligencer, the government organ, whose strictures on the brutality of Cockburn had filled that marauder with hot anger.  These, and some houses on Capitol Hill, a large rope-walk, and a tavern, comprised the bulk of private property destroyed, thanks to the restraining power of General Ross. Several houses and stores were also plundered.

The unfinished Capitol, in which was the library of Congress, the Presidentís house, a mile distant, the Treasury buildings, the Arsenal, and barracks for almost three thousand troops, were soon in flames, whose light was plainly seen in Baltimore, about forty miles northward.

In the course of a few hours nothing of the superb Capitol and the Presidential mansion was left but their smoke-blackened walls.  Of the public buildings only the Patent-office was saved.

All the glory that the British had won on the battle-field was lost in this barbarian conflagration. "Willingly," said the London Statesman newspaper, "would we throw a veil of oblivion over our transactions at Washington. The Cossacks spared Paris, but we spared not the capital of America." The British Annual Register for 1814 denounced the proceedings as "a return to the times of barbarism." "It can not be concealed," the writer continued, "that the extent of devastation practiced by the victors brought a heavy censure upon the British character, not only in America, but on the Continent of Europe." Continental writers and speakers condemned the act in unmeasured terms; and yet the government of England, which has seldom represented the sentiments of the people, caused the Tower guns to be fired in honor of Rossís victory; thanked the actors through Parliament; decreed a monument to that general in Westminster Abbey at his death; and, making additions to his armorial hearings, authorized his descendants forever to style themselves "Ross of Bladensburg!" 

From Benson Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812, 1869.

National History Standards

Materials compiled in this document can be used by educators to fulfill the following National History Standards for Grades K-4:

Topic 3: The History of the United States: Democratic Principles and Values and the Peoples from Many Cultures Who Contributed to Its Cultural, Economic and Political Heritage 

STANDARD 4: How democratic values came to be, and how they have been exemplified by people, events, and symbols.

Standard 4B: Demonstrate understanding of ordinary people who have exemplified values and principles of American democracy. 

K-4: Analyze in their historical context the accomplishments of ordinary people in the local community now and long ago who have done something beyond the ordinary that displays particular courage or a sense of responsibility in helping the common good. [Assess the importance of the individual in history]

Standard 4E: The student understands national symbols through which American values and principles are expressed. 

K-4: Explain why important buildings, statues, and monuments are associated with state and national history, such as the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, Angel Island, Mt. Rushmore, and veterans memorials. [Obtain historical data]

Primary Resources

  1. DESCRIPTION: [The White House ("President's House") Washington, D.C. Site plan and principal story plan]
    AUTHOR: Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1807
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    SOURCE: Forms part of: Benjamin Henry Latrobe Archive (Library of Congress).
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  2. DESCRIPTION[The White House ("President's House") Washington, D.C. Principal story, measured floor plan]
    AUTHOR: Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect 
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1803, 1807
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    SOURCE: Forms part of: Benjamin Henry Latrobe Archive (Library of Congress).
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  3. DESCRIPTION[The White House ("President's House") Washington, D.C. East front elevation]
    AUTHOR: Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect 
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1807
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    SOURCE: Forms part of: Architectural drawings for the White House... in the Benjamin Henry Latrobe Archive (Library of Congress).
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  4. DESCRIPTION: A view of the Capitol of Washington before it was burnt down by the British
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: [ca. 1800]
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  5. DESCRIPTION: James Madison. Observations on the capture of Washington DC by British troops
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 24, 1814
    SOURCE: The James Madison Papers, Series 1: General Correspondence
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  6. DESCRIPTION: Extract of a letter written by Dolley Madison to her sister
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 23, 1814
    NOTES: "Our kind friend, Mr. Carroll, has come to hasten my departure, and is in a very bad humor with me because I insist on waiting until the large picture of Gen. Washington is secured, and it requires to be unscrewed from the wall. This process was found too tedious for these perilous moments; I have ordered the frame to be broken, and the canvass taken out it is done, and the precious portrait placed in the hands of two gentlemen of New York, for safe keeping. And now, dear sister, I must leave this house, or the retreating army will make me a prisoner in it, by filling up the road I am directed to take. When I shall again write you, or where I shall be tomorrow, I cannot tell!!"
    SOURCE: Transcription available at The Dolly Madison Project

  7. DESCRIPTION: Letter, James Madison to Dolley Payne Madison
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 27, 1814
    NOTES: "I have just recd. a line from Col Monroe saying that the enemy were out of Washington & on the retreat to their ships, & advising our immediate return to Washington. We shall accordingly set out thither immediately, you will all of course take the same resolution. I know not where we are in the first instance, to hide our heads; but shall look for a place on my arrival." (View transcription in "The Writings of James Madison" Vol. 8, Gaillard Hunt.)
    SOURCE: Part of: The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

  8. DESCRIPTION: James Monroe. Notes regarding the burning of the Capitol
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: August 1814
    SOURCE: The James Madison Papers, Series 1: General Correspondence
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress

  9. DESCRIPTION: Mrs. James Madison, (Dolly Payne) / from an original picture by Gilbert Stuart, in possession of Richard Cutts, Esq. M.D. Washington.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: [between 1804 and 1855]
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  10. DESCRIPTION: Sir George Cockburn
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: n. d.
    NOTES: Shows the city of Washington in flames in the background
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington

  11. DESCRIPTION: The Taking of the City of Washington in America.
    ARTIST: G. Thompson
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: [London(?)] : Published by G. Thompson, 1814 Oct. 14.
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

  12. DESCRIPTION: Cockburn in the Chair
    ARTIST: Alfred Fredericks
    DEPICTED DATE: 1814
    REPRODUCTIONS: Contact the New York Public Library for details
    REPOSITORY: New York Public Library

  13. DESCRIPTION: Burning of White House, 1814
    ARTIST: Charles Stanley Reinhart
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1872
    REPRODUCTIONS: Contact the New York Public Library for details
    REPOSITORY: New York Public Library

  14. DESCRIPTION: The fall of Washington--or Maddy in full flight
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: [London] : pubd. by S.W. Fores, 1814.
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 

  15. DESCRIPTION: [U.S. Capitol after burning by the British]
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: [ca. 1814]
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division 

  16. DESCRIPTION: A view of the Presidents house in the city of Washington after the conflagration of the 24th August 1814 
    ARTIST: G. Munger del.; W. Strickland sculp.
    DATE CREATED/PUBLISHED: 1814
    REPRODUCTIONS: See item description for information
    REPOSITORY: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

See also: 

Additional Media Resources

Dolly Madison Project

Additional Instructional Resources

Saving History: Dolley Madison, the White House and the War of 1812

Monuments to Freedom: The Heart of the Nation. From A&E Classrooms.

TURNING POINT IN HISTORY: The War of 1812 Should it be called the Second War of American Independence?

War of 1812

From the White House of Yesterday to the White House of Today 

Secondary Resources

Pitch, Anthony. "The Burning of Washington" White House History Journal

Pitch, Anthony S. The Burning of Washington: The British Invasion of 1814. Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1998.

Associated Heritage and Preservation Organizations

Fort McHenry
End of East Fort Avenue
Baltimore, MD 21230-5393
(410) 962-4290
White House
Washington, DC

Copyright and Other Restrictions

Access to materials linked within these document packets is intended for educational and research purposes. The written permission of the copyright owners and/or holders of other rights (such as publicity and privacy rights) is required for distribution, reproduction, or other use beyond that allowed by fair use or other statutory exemptions. The responsibility for making an independent legal assessment and independently securing any necessary rights rests with persons desiring to use particular items in the context of the intended use.

Password Access to Materials

The use of any user name and password to access materials on this web site constitutes an agreement by the user to abide by any and all copyright restrictions and is an acknowledgement that these materials will be used for personal and educational use only. In most instances, the username aaco and password aaco# will work. Contact ref@mdsa.net if you have any questions or have difficulty accessing files.

Credits

Teaching American History in Maryland is a collaborative partnership of the Maryland State Archives and the Center for History Education (CHE), University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), and the following sponsoring school systems: Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Baltimore City Public School System, Baltimore County Public Schools, and Howard County Public Schools.

Other program partners include the Martha Ross Center for Oral History, Maryland Historical Society, State Library Resource Center/Enoch Pratt Free Library, with assistance from the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. The program is funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

This document packet was researched and developed by Nancy Bramucci.

 

Teaching American History | Document Packets Index

 
 
  An Archives of Maryland Online Publication • © Copyright 2001-2005 Maryland State Archives
Maryland State Archives • 350 Rowe Boulevard • Annapolis, MD 21401 • 410-260-6400 • msa.helpdesk@maryland.gov