Day a Cockburn Set the White House Aflame
As a correspondent
in Washington 20 years ago, I received occasional calls from local
television stations on the anniversary of the burning of the White
House by a British force in August 1814. The reason they wanted
a comment was because the raid was jointly led by my distant ancestor,
Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who took a fleet into Chesapeake Bay
in the last months of the war that had started in 1812.
was for Sir George and his fleet to seize horses in Virginia and
Maryland for the cavalry. Instead, the sailors found it far more
profitable to plunder tobacco warehouses on the creeks running down
to the Chesapeake.
They also freed
300 slaves who, according to a British account, "were uniformly
volunteers for the station where they might expect to meet their
former masters". Reaching the northern end of the Chesapeake,
the British landed and advanced on Washington. British troops fought
a brief victorious action against the American militia at Bladensburg
in Maryland, where President James Madison had disastrously decided
to exercise his powers as commander-in-chief. The dispersal of the
militiamen was so humiliatingly swift that the battle became known
as "the Bladensburg Races". Occupation of the US capital,
at this time inhabited by only about 8,000 people, followed immediately
against no resistance.
In the captured
city, Sir George showed a spirit of jocular derision towards the
institutions of the young American republic whose public buildings
he intended to burn down. The justification for the arson was that
it was in retaliation for the burning by American troops of the
Canadian parliament building a year earlier when they captured York,
later known as Toronto.
Some 50 British
soldiers advanced down Pennsylvania Avenue to the presidential mansion.
Here they found an inviting dinner waiting for them, thanks to the
President's wife, Dolly Madison, who had been expecting to feed
the victorious American defenders of Bladensburg. Forced to abandon
the banquet at the last moment, she fled the presidential home.
After dinner, the victorious British set the mansion ablaze. When
the flames died down, only the exterior walls still stood and these
were so weakened by the heat they mostly had to be demolished.
of Washington was the high point of the campaign and the best-remembered
incident in the War of 1812, as it came to be known. The British
fleet moved north and bombarded Baltimore, an attack notable for
inspiring "The Star-Spangled Banner", whose allusion to
"hireling and slave" may refer to the freed slaves in
the British force.
The War of
1812 is not one Americans know much about (it has greater prominence
in Canadian history). But the 32-month conflict vies with any other
war fought by the US over the following two centuries, including
Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, for being poorly conceived and disastrously
executed. Justified in the US as a reaction to the Royal Navy illegally
impressing American sailors, the true motive was that Madison and
his supporters thought it an excellent moment to invade and conquer
Canada. In early 1812, Napoleon was at the height of his power,
and Wellington in Spain was dependent on American grain.
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