And the White House Burned, Burned, Burned….

Update: As it turns out, the British definitely remember.

Update: Video fixed, hopefully it works.


Admiral George Cockburn stands with Washington D.C. burning in the background.
Admiral George Cockburn stands with Washington D.C. burning in the background.

Two hundred years ago today, after soundly defeating American forces at the Battle of Bladensburg, British soldiers under command of Major General Robert Ross occupied Washington D.C., and set fire to many of the buildings. Numerous arguments imply that this action was a retaliation for the Raid on Port Dover earlier that year, and the burning of York in 1813. It was likely a combination of both. Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy in North America, planned to carry out attacks into Virginia and New Orleans as a part of a new strategy that made use of troops previously engaged in the Napoleonic Wars. Rear Admiral George Cockburn, in command of the squadron in the Chesapeake Bay, recommended an attack on Washington for political measure. In July, Cochrane gave Cockburn permission to deter American forces from such future acts of a “total” nature. He game Cockburn permission to “destroy and lay waste such towns and districts as you [Cockburn] my find assailable.”

President Madison fled the city with the government, and of course there is the famous story of Dolly Madison saving the portrait of General Washington. That story may not be as accurate as previously thought. The British moved in and set the Capital, the Library of Congress (including its 3,000 volume collection), the President’s home on fire. When the smoke cleared, the only government building still standing was the U.S. Patent Office. The President returned on September 1st, with Congress following him a couple of weeks later. 

Every year when I teach this small tidbit of history, I find it interesting that less than half of my class knew the British burned the White House , or that the White House had been burned at all. The memory of the War itself is quite interesting to me. Late war victories at Fort William McHenry and New Orleans captivated Americans at that time. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, arrived only days after news of Gen. Jackson’s victory at New Orleans reached the American press, this created a myth that America had won the war. This is a mindset that continues to this day, despite the fact that the reasons for going to war were not achieved. Americans might have a general idea of some of the general events. And of course there is the 1959 Johnny Horton hit, “The Battle of New Orleans.” Of course, Canadians remember the war as a time when they turned back American aggression. The English can get away with ignoring the war all together due to their victories in the Napoleonic Wars. In my opinion, no one really won the War of 1812 but Native Americans certainly lost it. That’s a post for another time however.

For the past several years, many Americans have been enthralled by the Sesquicentennial Civil War celebration. Few Americans however, have stopped to appreciate the fact that we are currently going through the bicentennial celebration of the War of 1812. I find that ironic, because the War of 1812 gave us so much in terms of nationalism, military reform, and American symbols (Star Spangled Banner, Uncle Sam, U.S.S. Constitution, ‘Dont Give Up the Ship,’ ‘Old Hickory’ #Murica). Of course the reasons for why we ignore it are plentiful. It is a confusing which came at a time when American was incredibly unsure of itself in terms of government power and policy. Competing political parties recently emerged and had radically different ideas as to how the country should function. Then of course, the war exists in a period between the two wars Americans find more impressive, the American Revolution and the Civil War.

The U.S. Congress rejected forming a bicentennial commission for the War of 1812, most commemoration has been done on the local level. However, Canada committed $28 million to commemorate the event. This is despite poll numbers that suggested only 17% of Canadians felt the war was important in forming national identity. That’s still better than 3% of Americans though. I will give the Canadians this much, they definitely wrote a better tune of the conflict.


  1. Several of the United States’ signal successes in that war were in single-ship actions against the Royal Navy, which had become somewhat complacent after years of going mostly-unchallenged in the Napoleonic Wars. The naval side of things was a mixed bag, too — the British did establish an effective blockade that we couldn’t break — but the unexpected victories the U.S. Navy did score pretty much stunned everyone.

    • You should read the Perilous Flight. America did not have the largest Naval fleet, but we did have an unbelievably large merchant fleet. The U.S. militarized those ships as privateers and used them to attack British commerce. That caused the British blockade to constantly move further into the Atlantic. Ship to ship the U.S. had a lot of success like you said.

      • I’ll put it on the list.

        It’s generally understood, I think, that one reason that the U.S. didn’t sign on to the 1856 treaty outlawing privateering is that we recognized that in the event of a war with one or more European powers, we might need it again.

  2. When I was in grad school in Calgary, I used to tease my Canadian colleagues about the burning of the White House. They always liked to claim that “the Canadians” did it, but, as you note, those were Brits through and through.

  3. Actually, I don’t teach the British aspect of the war as I do the Tecumseh/Red Sticks side. That’s the truly crucial aspect of the War of 1812, I think: the destruction of Indian militancy in the Trans-Ap region.

    I loved Alan Taylor’s _The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia: 1772-1832_, which shows pretty clearly that Tidewater slavery made that the Chesapeake vulnerable to raids like the one that burned Washington

  4. I have a pal at my job whose family is English, and they have provided the Brits with soldiers and sailors since 1680. He likes to joke about his relatives who fought in the War of 1812 were involved in the attack on Washington, DC.

    He said they had trouble finding the US capital, because it was a few major buildings surrounded by woods and swamps, when they were expecting something like Paris. Then they torched the White House. He says the family joke was that it took two hours and 15 minutes to burn the White House — “two hours to find it and 15 minutes to burn it down.”

    As far as he’s concerned, the British and Canadians won that war — American invasion of Canada was defeated.

    • My personal interp. there is that if there is a victor, it might be Canada. Emphasis on the word “might.” Brit. certainly didn’t win it given the failure of their reasons for going to war. The U.S. captured a lot of pride and prestige out of the event. It’s always arguable as to who actually one that affair. However, there is definitely a lose in the War of 1812; Native Americans.

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