Sunday 24 August 2014

24th August 1814: British armed forces capture Washington, burn down the White House & Capitol

Tom Freeman 'Burning of the White House by British Soldiers' (2004)

On the evening of Wednesday 24th August 1814, and after defeating the Americans at the battle of Bladensburg, British forces mounted a raid upon the American capital, Washington. After occupying the city, the British set about destroying as many government buildings as possible.

The Times of Wednesday 28th September 1814, printed a dispatch sent by Major-General Ross, the commanding officer in the field, describing the mission:
Tennant, in the Patuxent, August 30, 1814.

My Lord.—I have the honour to communicate your Lordship, that on the night of the 24th instant, after defeating an army of the United States on that day, the troops under my command entered and took possession of the city of Washington.

It was determined between Sir A. Cochrane and myself, to disembark the army at the village of Benedict, on the right bank of the Patuxent, with the intention of co-operating with Rear-Admiral Cockburn, in an attack upon a flotilla of enemy’s gun-boats, under the command of Commodore Barney. On the 20th instant, the army commenced its march, having landed the previous day without opposition: on the 21st it reached Nottingham, and on the 22d move up to Upper Marlborough, a few miles distant from Pig Point, on the Patuxent, were Admiral Cockburn fell in with and defeated the flotilla, taking and destroying the whole. Having advanced to within sixteen miles of Washington, and ascertaining the force of the enemy to be such as might authorise an attempt at carrying his capital, I determined to make it, and accordingly put the troops in movement on the evening of the 23d. A corps of about 1200 men appeared to oppose us, but retired after firing a few shops. On the 24th, the troops resumed their march, and reached Bladensburg, a village situated on the left bank of eastern branch of the Potowmac, about five miles from Washington.

On the opposite side of the river the enemy was discovered strongly posted on very commanding heights, formed in two lines, his advance occupying a fortified house, which, with artillery, covered the bridge over the eastern branch, across which the British troops had to pass. A broad and straight road, leading from the bridge to Washington, run through the enemy’s position, which was carefully defended by artillery and rifleman.

The disposition for the attack being made, it was commenced so much impetuosity by the light brigade, consisting of the 25th light infantry and the light infantry companies of the army, under the command of Colonel Thornton, that the fortified house was shortly carried, the enemy retiring to the higher grounds.

In support of the light brigade I ordered up a brigade under the command of Colonel Brooke, who, with the 44th regiment, attacked the enemy’s left, the 4th regiment pressing his right with such effect as to cause him to abandon his guns. His first line giving way, was driven on the second, which, yielding to the irresistible attack of the bayonet, and the well directed discharge of rockets, got into confusion and fled, leaving the British masters of the field. The rapid fight of the enemy, and his knowledge of the country, precluded the possibility of many prisoners being taken, more particularly as the troops had, during the day, undergone considerable fatigue.

The enemy's army, amounting to 8 or 9000 men, with 3 or 400 cavalry, was under the command of General Winder, being formed of troops drawn from Baltimore and Pensylvania. His artillery, ten piece of which fell into our hands, was commanded by Commodore Barney, who was wounded and taken prisoner. The artillery I directed to be destroyed.

Having halted the army for a short time, I determined to march upon Washington, and reached that city at eight o'clock that night. Judging it of consequence to complete the destruction of the public buildings with the least possible delay, so that the army might retire without loss of time, the following buildings were set fire to and consumed—the Capitol, including the Senate-house and House of Representation, the arsenal, the dock-yard, treasury, war-office, President’s palace, rope-walk, and the great bridge across the Potowmac: in the dock-yard a frigate nearly ready to be launched, and a sloop of war, were consumed. The two bridges leading to Washington over the eastern branch had been destroyed by the enemy, who apprehended an attack from that quarter. The object of the expedition being accomplished, I determined, before any greater force of the enemy could be assembled, to withdraw the troops, and accordingly commenced retiring on the night of the 25th. On the evening of the 29th we reached Benedict, and re-embarked the following day. In the performance of the operation I have detailed, it is with the utmost satisfaction I observe to your Lordship, that cheerfulness in undergoing fatigue, and anxiety for the accomplishment of the object, were conspicuous in all ranks.

To Sir Alexander Cochrane my thanks are due, for his ready compliance with every wish connected with the welfare of the troops, and the success of the expedition.

To Rear-Admiral Cockburn, who suggested the attack upon Washington, and who accompanied the army, I confess the greatest obligation for his cordial co-operation and advice.

Colonel Thornton, who led the attack, is entitled to every praise for the noble example he set, which was so well followed by Lieutenant-Colonel Wood and the 85th Light Infantry, and by Major Jones, of the 4th Foot, with the light companies attached to the light brigade. I have to express my approbation of the spirited conduct of Colonel Brooke, and of his brigade, the 44th regiment, which he led, distinguished itself, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mulleus; the gallantry of the Foot, under the command of Major Faunce, being equally conspicuous.

The exertions of Captain Mitchell, of the royal artillery, in bringing the guns into action, were unremitting; to him, and the detachment under his command, including Captain Deacon's rocket brigade, and the marine rocket corps, I feel every obligation. Captain Lampriere, of the royal artillery, mounted a small detachment of the artillery drivers, which proved of great utility.

The assistance afforded by Captain Blanchard, of the royal engineers, in the duties of his department was of great advantage. To the zealous exertions of Capts. Wainwright, Palmer, and Money, of the Royal Navy, and to those of the officers and seamen who landed with them, the service is highly indebted; the latter, Captain Money, had charge of the seamen attached to the marine artillery. To Captain McDougall, of the 85th foot, who acted as my Aide-de-Camp, in consequence of the indisposition of my Aide-de-Camp, Captain Falls, and to the officers of my staff, I feel much indebted.

I must beg leave to call your Lordship’s attention to the zeal and indefatigable exertions of Lieutenant Evans, Acting-Deputy-Quarter-Master General. The intelligence displayed by that officer in circumstances of considerable difficulty, induces me to hope he will meet with some distinguished mark of approbation. I have reason to be satisfied with the arrangements of Assistant-Commissary-General Lawrence.

An attack upon an enemy so strongly posted could not be effected without loss. I have to lament that the wounds received by Colonel Thornton, and the other officers and soldiers left at Bladensburg, were such as prevented their removal. As many of the wounded as could be brought off were removed, the others being left with medical care and attendants. The arrangements made by Staff Surgeon Baxter for their accommodation have been as satisfactory as circumstances would admit of. The agent for British prisoners of war very fortunately residing at Bladensburg, I have recommended the wounded officers and men to this particular attention, and trust his being able to effect their exchange when sufficiently recovered.

Captain Smith, Assistant Adjutant-General to the troops, who will have the honour to deliver this dispatch, I beg leave to recommend to your Lordship’s protection, as an officer of much merit and great promise, and capable of affording any further information that may be requisite.

Sanguine in hoping for the approbation of his Royal Highness the Prince Regent, and of his Majesty's Government, as to the conduct of the troops under my command, I have, &c.

(Signed) ROB. ROSS, Major-Gen.
I beg you to inclose herewith a return of the killed, wounded, and missing in action of the 24th instant, together with a statement of the ordnance, ammunition, and ordnance stores taken from the enemy between the 19th and 25th August, and likewise sketches of the scene of action and of the line of march.
George Munger 'The President's House' (c.1814-1815)
 The editorial in the Times of the same day was predictably triumphant:
The Bulletin which appeared exclusively and our paper of yesterday, and which has since supplied matter for an Extraordinary Gazette, reached us at too late an hour to admit of our making any remarks on the great events which it recorded; and, indeed, as those events spoke for themselves, and superseded all necessity of comment. Washington,—the proud seat of that nest of traitors, whose accursed arts involved us in war with our brethren beyond the Atlantic,—Washington captured, it’s dock, it’s arsenal, and all it’s public buildings destroyed,—the heads of the faction beaten, disgraced, and flying for their lives;—these are indeed impressive lessons, which we fervently hope and trust will produce their proper effect on the people of the United States. It was only by a train of the grossest impostures that America was deluded into a war with her most natural friend and ally, Great Britain; united and acting in concert with whom, she might at this hour have been rich, happy, and respected. But the ignorance and incapacity of the leaders to whom she unfortunately trusted, which equal to their perfidy and malice. They imagined that they should see themselves masters of Quebec and Halifax, whilst their confederate dictated a peace at St. Petersburgh. Their impious hopes, however, like his, have been blasted by unerring justice, and the loss of the American Capital has been attended by circumstances which cover them with disgrace. A body of fifteen hundred British soldiers,—no more,—sufficed to put to flight the whole army which was drawn together to protect the seat of government, under the eye of MADISON himself, and his most notorious accomplices. The fancied Princes of the transatlantic empire (for such, no doubt, they once hoped to be) fled first from the field of battle, and with their own hands set fire to the navy-yard of Washington. Thence, fear giving them wings, they fled across the Potomack, and sought shelter in Virginia. We learn that even this miserable termination of their exploits would probably not have been attained, but the services of a large body of Irish rebels, who were among the most zealous defenders of the district of Washington. The American papers which we have received are of course not so late in date as the dispatches in the Gazette. They are, however, curious, as indicating the miserable state of confusion which prevailed throughout all the neighbouring country from the moment that Commodore BARNEY, with his vaunted flotilla, began to retreat up the Patuxent. The National Intelligencer of August the 23d, affords the most admirable specimen of gratuitous lying, hopeless of obtaining belief, and betraying its fears by the very methods it uses to inspire confidence. It described an enemy advancing against the seat of the American government, "destitute of field artillery and land transportation." To oppose so destitute and desperate an attack, it enumerates many various corps of artillery, infantry, rifleman and militia, "all in fine spirits;" it asserts that this single object occupies all hands and all hearts; and yet it concludes in a rueful tone with an apology for, "the meanness of to-day's paper." We have often before had occasion to mention to Mr. D. PORTER, of flogging memory, and we are glad to notice him again, acting quite in character. His generous conqueror sent him home on his parole. The first thing he did on his arrival was to publish an infamous libel on the man who had behaved to him with such liberality. Next, the virtuous Mr. MADISON officially declared him to be released from his parole; and now we find him marching to fight against those to whom he was bound by the most sacred ties that can restrain a man of honour. It is a great pity that this scoundrel did not leave New York until the 23d of August. Had he been but a day or two earlier, he might have fallen into the hands of General Ross, who, of course, would have hanged him without ceremony. These American papers also contain an amusing account of the Battle of the 25th of July, at Chippewa, by the American General BROWN. According to him, he gained a notable victory on that occasion, only he had the misfortune to see two of his regiments successively run away, and to find that General RIPLEY, his successor in command, neglected to obey his positive orders to meet and beat the enemy next morning. Loans, the last reliance of the Madisonian Cabinet, begin to fail. They talk of negotiating them in Europe. If they cannot raise money at home, what people in this quarter of the world will be so foolish as to trust to their solidity? The dissolution of the ill compacted union may perhaps be daily expected; but even if the present Government should stand, it has been guilty of too much downright swindling to obtain the last degree of credit in foreign countries. To add to its difficulties in this respect, there is a report, by no means improbable, that the Spaniards are determined to re-possess themselves of Louisiana. It is certain that the underhand tricks which were played between those three knaves JEFFERSON, BONAPARTE, and GODOY, would be found on investigation to have effected no legal transfer of the sovereignty of that country; but it is not necessary to seek any special-pleading niceties in such a question. The American Government has given Spain just cause for war; and if she once draws the sword, she will be wise not to sheath it till she has recovered her ancient possessions. It is on occasions such as this that the Spaniards would feel the value of a manly and energetic government.
George Munger 'The U.S. Capitol after burning by the British' (c.1814)

On the 29th September, the Times reprinted a passage from an American newspaper, which described the burning of Washington in more detail:
(From Poulson’s Philadelphia Paper, on Aug. 29.)

Mr Poulson.—The following are facts which took place at Washington, on the night of the 24th inst. and the day following, to which I was an eye-witness. After the battle, a small part of the British entered the city about 9 o'clock at night: on passing the first house which been occupied by Mr. Gallatin, a volley was fired from the windows, which killed General Ross's horse under him, one soldier, and wounded three others; the house was immediately surrounded, and some prisoners taken, (part of whom were blacks), and the house set on fire. About half-past 9, a tremendous explosion was heard at the Navy Yard, and it was soon enveloped in flames, (this was done by our own people); about 10, another explosion was heard at the capitol, and soon after a fire was seen in the wooden part, between the two houses, the north part of which burnt with great fury.

From this time, little was seen or heard until about 11 o'clock, when we discovered a body of about 150 troops, marching up Pennsylvania Avenue, towards the President’s house―on their arrival opposite Mr. Mackowen’s Hotel, (where I put up), Colonel Isaacs addressed the commanding officer, who we learnt was General Ross, who gave every assurance that private property and persons should be respected—and Admiral Cockburn, who arrived at the head of a second detachment, renewed this assurance; they then advanced, being about 150 men, and on their arrival at the President’s house, they entered and took some porter, and collected some papers, and soon an explosion was heard, and have seen on fire―the Treasury Office was also soon on fire.

The troops then returned, and on arriving near the hotel, Admiral Cockburn halted a part of the troops, and observed that he must destroy Mr. Gale's office (of the National Intelligencer,) and ordered an officer to go into it, and see what it contained; on his return, he replied it was full of types and printing materials. Admiral C. observed it must be destroyed, but on being informed that by setting fire to that office, many other adjoining buildings would take fire, he consented it should remain until he had sent a file of men to destroy the types: this is not done until the next morning. Afterwards Admiral C. bid good night and renewed his assurance that all persons might consider themselves as safe as they were the night previous; he departed next morning about half-past five. Admiral C. rode through the avenue to the President’s house, or near it, accompanied by three soldiers only, and soon returned alone, except a man on a fine horse, who appeared to be from the country.

The Admiral again stopped near the hotel, and conversed some time with a few gentlemen in the street. About eight o'clock, about 900 men were marched in three detachments, followed by about thirty negroes, carrying powder, rockets, &c. up to the Secretary of State's office, and that office was soon on fire; after which, during the day, the three ropewalks of Mr. Ringgold, Mr. Parrott, and Mr. Heath, were burnt, together with the Potomac Bridge. The only building belonging to the public that escaped, was the house occupied for the general post and patent offices.

August 29, 1814.

After the news of the British adventure in Washington reached Britain in late September and early October 1814, one particular reaction to it would become notorious and have far-reaching consequences for the owner of a well-known Midlands newspaper.

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