War of 1812 – When British Forces Captured Washington D.C.

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war of 1812

Nearly 206 years ago, on 24th August 1814, 4000 British soldiers lay siege to the Washington DC and set fire to the US Capitol and the White House. As the war of 1812 neared its end, British forces torched the White House, the Capitol and every other public building in Washington which marked one of the devastating days ever in U.S history.

Insights of this blog are:-

  • The Background of the Story
  • The War Of 1812: Reasons, Approach of the Two and the Happenings
  • The Invasion of the United States: The Preparedness, Beginning and the D-Day
  • The Storm That Saved Washington 
  • The Aftermath

The Background Of The Story

The story of the U.S in 1812 was much similar to a nation who was in conflict with itself. In the early 19th century, America was a Louis association of scattered states, bordered by a vast wilderness to the West and miles of ocean to its East. At that time, the Americans were intertwined with only one threat and that was shipping.

The British at this point were already fighting an important war with Napoleon in France and in order to fight the war they needed manpower for the royal navy. This was the reason why they were stopping American ships on the high seas and forcing Americans to serve in the Navy.

The War Of 1812: Reasons, Approach Of The Two And The Happenings

In the month of June 1812, the then President of the U.S James Madison declared a war against the United Kingdom Of Great Britain and Ireland and it’s own allies.

Reasons For The War

  • The relationship between the United States and Britain was already hostile.
  • While the Chesapeake–Leopard affair in 1807 infuriated the Americans and made them aggressive towards Britain, the Little Belt Affair in 1811 outraged the British.
  • Also, Britain supplied arms to the native Americans who raided the European – American settlements on the American frontier. This hindered the expansion of the United States and also caused resentment.

The Approach of the United States and Britain

While both of them were not ready for the war, they looked at it from different angles. For the Americans, it was strategic which gave them a chance to invade some or the whole of Canada. On the other hand, this war was a secondary priority for Britain as they were already busy fighting Napoleon for 9 years and thus they adopted a defensive approach limiting offensive operations initially to the border and the Western frontier with some help from their native American allies.

The Happenings of The War (1812-1814)

  • The defeat of Americans at the Siege of Detroit and the Battle of Queenston Heights not only ruined their efforts to invade upper Canada but also boosted the morale of the British.
  • America also failed in its attempt to invade Lower Canada and capture Montreal.
  • However, in 1813 the United States won the Battle of Lake Erie which helped them gain control over the lake and defeat Britain’s Largest Native American Ally at the Battle of Thames.
  • After this, the United States made a final attempt to invade Canada but the Battle of Lundy’s Lane during the summer of 1814 ended up in a draw between the two.

The Invasion Of The United States

 The Preparedness

  • Rear Admiral George Cockburn had commanded the squadron in the Chesapeake Bay since 1813.
  • The British fleet in North America has also been tightening the US blockade in the Atlantic coast.
  • With the defeat of Napoleon, the British could use all its power to attack the United States.
  • Thus, the British had every reason to expect victory.

The Beginning

In early 1814, Britain finally defeated the French emperor Napoleon. In the month of July, thousands of tested Britain soldiers set sail for the Chesapeake Bay to launch the first invasion of the United States. American troops who fought with little training and poor equipment for almost two years were about to face a force unlike they have ever seen.

The British were wreaking havoc on the American countryside. There was virtually no opposition. American troops in the Chesapeake Bay had not been the way it should be and with most important and regular assets up along the Canadian borders, it was merely up to the general militia on the extensive borders which they could not keep up.

The Black Day

August 24, 1814, is considered as one of the blackest days in American history. It began with a humiliating defeat in Bladensburg and ended with the destruction of the nation’s Capitol.

After the British forces outrun the American troops, they head to Washington. This was decided as a part of retaliation to the recent American destruction of Port Dober in Upper Canada. As the troops get close to Washington, the officials evacuate the city. President James Madison left earlier and after taking off the picture of General Washington, Dolly Madison along with the helpers was amongst the last to leave the White House.

By 8 p.m., British forces led by General Ross entered Washington. In retaliation to the burning of British parliament last year, the troops decided to burn the government buildings. The troops under the command of Admiral Cockburn broke into the Capitol. They walked unanimously to torch the government buildings. The residents who stayed back witnessed the burning up of cities as the flames soared up into the night sky.

At about 10:30 p.m., the British forces move towards another key government target the White House. On breaking into the White House, they found the dinner table to be set and Cockburn ordered the troops to enjoy it after which the soldiers rampaged up to the rooms taking away the souvenirs. Outside the mansion, the troops pitched their torches through the windows and set the White House in flames. As the flames soared high into the night sky, it broke the heart of the people and filled it with shame. Confused with where he would find Dolly, where would the rest of the government be and how he could get the government back into functioning President Maddison broke on seeing the flames from Virginia. Moving forward, on the morning of 24th August, the British set the Congress library and the navy yard to fire.

The Storm That Saved Washington

While the British forces were setting the Congress Library and the navy yard to fire, dark heavy clouds started covering the sky. By 2 p.m. in the afternoon, Washington witnessed a strange event that transformed the city and ruined all the efforts made by British troops to destroy the city.

  • With little warning, one of the deadliest hurricanes hit Washington and out of nowhere, came the uncanny storm which not only brought heavy downpour but also raged against the British forces.  As a result, lightning broke through the dark clouds and gale storm winds torn through the city. The fury of the storm forced the troops to disperse. While some of them began searching for buildings to hold on, others laid flat on the ground. The storm was so powerful that it lifted two canons off the ground and dropped them several yards away killing hundreds of British and Americans alike.
  • As the hurricane reached destruction through the burning city, a tornado suddenly appeared through the sky and moves through the centre of the Capitol.
  • For 2 hours the immense storm continued and it put off the flames that set Washington on fire.
  • As the storm cleared up next day, the invaders returned to their ships (most of which were damaged) and moved back to Benedict as an undefeated unit.

The Aftermath

Finally, President Maddison and Dolly reunited. They returned to Washington on August 27, after the British were gone and viewed the devastation. Although the British invasion on the United States did not last for more than 26 hours, they never lived in the White House again. President Madison served rest of his term at city’s Octagon house.

Nearly 206 years ago, on 24th August 1814, 4000 British soldiers lay siege to the Washington DC and set fire to the US Capitol and the White House. As the war of 1812 neared its end, British forces torched the White House, the Capitol and every other public building in Washington which marked one of the devastating days ever in U.S history.

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