The burning of the White House: When British forces invaded Washington

The storming of the US Capitol by pro-Trump supporters on 6 January 2021 was a shocking and surreal spectacle. But it was not the first time the heart of American democracy had been subjected to a violent assault. The Capitol, and even the White House, had come under attack well over 200 years ago, during a war between the United States and the United Kingdom.

This wasn’t the American War of Independence, which had concluded in 1783, but the far more obscure War of 1812, a conflict which has since been pretty much forgotten among non-historians in the UK. The War of 1812 broke out after years of simmering tension between the former colonies and their former overlords, and the reasons were messily complex. One major motivation for the conflict was the crackdown on international commerce by the British, who wanted to block the US from trading with their great enemy, the French. There was also the British Navy’s habit of boarding US ships looking for British 'deserters', who they would then force to become crewmen on British ships – a practice known as impressment which Americans regarded as a violation of their sovereignty. Another source of tension in the lead up to the War of 1812 was Britain’s support for Native American tribes, who were stubbornly resisting American expansion to the west.

The War of 1812 would go on for more than two and a half years and include some pivotal moments in US history. One was the Battle of Baltimore, where a bombardment by the British would inspire onlooker Francis Scott Key to write what would become The Star-Spangled Banner, the US national anthem. And then there was the 'Burning of Washington', which took place on 24 August 1814, and saw the capital ravaged by British forces.

US Attorney General Richard Rush had witheringly dismissed it as a 'meagre village with a few bad houses and extensive swamps'

The Brits were led by Major-General Robert Ross, a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. Attacking Washington was regarded as a sound strategic move for symbolic reasons, even though the young capital itself was regarded as something as a backwater. (US Attorney General Richard Rush had witheringly dismissed it as a 'meagre village with a few bad houses and extensive swamps', while a British diplomat had once lamented being dispatched to 'an absolute sepulchre, this hole'.)

The burning of Washington was immediately preceded by the Battle of Bladensburg, which took place just outside the capital and was a crushing victory for the British. One of those present at Bladensburg was none other than US President James Madison, who had two pistols strapped to his waist and became the first sitting US president to come under fire by a foreign enemy. Following the immense defeat at Bladensburg, he was forced on the run and would eventually seek refuge in a nearby town called Brookeville, which would later become known as 'United States’ Capital for a Day;.

Meanwhile, victorious British troops invaded Washington and made a beeline for the Capitol, which at the time hadn’t been completed but whose splendour took many of the troops by surprise. It’s been said that many soldiers were actually hesitant when given the order to destroy such a beautiful building, but the order was indeed carried out. Furniture was stacked up to create massive bonfires, while the presence of thousands of books in the Library of Congress collection fuelled the blaze further. Watching the hellish conflagration, French minister Louis Sérurier said 'I have never beheld a spectacle more terrible and at the same time more magnificent.'

Some soldiers even wandering into private quarters to snatch souvenirs and try on the President’s clothes

The British then set their sights on an even more politically resonant target: the White House. On hearing of the enemy’s advance, First Lady Dolley Madison famously ordered that an iconic painting of George Washington be taken down and smuggled to safety, saying 'Save that picture if possible! If not possible, destroy it. Under no circumstances allow it to fall into the hands of the British!'

When the British forces finally arrived at the deserted White House, they helped themselves to food and drink that had been laid out for the President’s family and officials, with some soldiers even wandering into private quarters to snatch souvenirs and try on the President’s clothes. The building was then set on fire – the one and only time in its long history it would be harmed by enemy forces. It was a devastating inferno, and char marks from the 1814 fire are still visible on parts of the structure today.

Curiously, though, the burning of Washington is generally regarded as the event which really cemented the city’s place in the American consciousness. Many had previously wanted the capital moved elsewhere, but such a proposal was voted down after the burning. As historian Kenneth Bowling says, 'Because the buildings were burned and it was such a national insult, Americans rose to the defence of Washington DC.' Since then, the capital has only come under attack two more times: during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and during the pro-Trump riot of January 2021.